Monday, November 21, 2011

Wyeth to green point ridge in the snow.

I've had the same cycle for the past few years: hike from late spring to early autumn - getting into increasingly better condition as the season progresses, and then as the falling leaves become falling rain, and the falling rain becomes falling snow, I shut myself in like a bear for the winter. Unlike the bear however, who spends the winter losing weight, I've always ended up just losing condition, and while the bear emerges in the spring looking svelt, I begin the new hiking season soft and weak, desperately trying to get back what I had.

Not this time around.

There were several reasons I used to stop when I did, but I think the biggest was that I just wasn't properly equipped to be in the elements comfortably. A few small upgrades to your gear list goes a long way, and after a quick stop to REI this weekend to make some last minute upgrades to my hiking arsenal, I was out in the woods making first tracks on the Wyeth Trail.

All the new gear got thoroughly tested on this 9.5 hour 4400 vertical foot climb in knee deep snow, and I was pleased with it all, but the best upgrade ended up being one of the cheapest. I'll never go in the snow without gaiters again. About three quarters of the hike was in deep snow and there were a few stream crossings, but when the voyage was complete, I kicked off my shoes to find bone-dry socks. Managing moisture is the key to being comfortable on any hike, but it's especially important when you're facing extended periods in subfreezing temps.

The day began before dawn. There's so little sunlight in the pacific northwest in the winter that a late start means a dark finish. With my gear packed, and a little food and coffee in my system, I found myself heading east on the 84 while the sun was still struggling to come up over the Cascades. The strong silhouette of Mt. Hood on the horizon, combined with the crisp white outline of Mt. Saint Helens to the north had me hopeful about clear skies and great views from the top of the ridge, but as I got closer to the trail head, so did the clouds. Those are the breaks. The Wyeth trail head is at the back of the Wyeth campgrounds, which have been closed for the year for quite some time. I made a call to the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area offices to inquire about day use, and was told that parking on the side of the road outside the gates was fine without a northwest forest pass, and that since I didn't have access to the trail head with my car, that the day use fees were waived. So, by 8:00 am, there was a little old Honda sitting outside the gates, and I was on the trail.

The Wyeth trail is one of three options that come together just beyond the trail head. It cuts to the left up a small hill, passes under high tension lines from the Bonneville Dam, crosses a stream, and then just goes up... and up - 4000 feet within the first 4 miles to the junction to Green Point Ridge. The first patches of snow appeared around 1000 feet, but it didn't become consistent until closer to 1500. The first patches revealed that no one else had been on the trail since the snow started. It was nice to know I was alone.

Shortly after, the trail presented plenty of evidence that I wasn't completely alone. Animals make good company though, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to see just how alive the Gorge is through the tracks left in the fresh snow. Most of the larger animals in the area do a good job staying out of sight, so it's easy to start thinking of it as a baron place during the warmer months, but the snow revealed a lot. First, there were tracks from deer. Big deer, small deer, walking deer, and running deer.

A little further up I found these. I assumed they were bear tracks because I'd seen plenty of bear scat in the area in autumn. There are a lot of berries in the area to fatten up on. The tracks showed the bear had come up the hill, paced back and forth a few times over some deer tracks, and then went back from where he had come. It turns out that bear tracks have five toes and leave claw prints. It's mountain lions with four toes and retractable claws. I should have retained more from 7 years in scouts...

As I continued the climb, there were many signs of a forest in transition: brightly colored lichens and leaves that had yet to fall with snow clinging to them, fungus supporting icicles, and the tips of long grasses just barely protruding from the white blanket - reminding me of a person struggling to keep his head above rising waters.

Climbing higher still, I entered a zone where winter had taken a firmer hold, and the reds, yellows, and oranges gave way to grayscale, highlighted only with cool blues when the sun made a brief appearance from behind the clouds. The snow was getting considerably deeper, and I strapped my gaiters on for the first time to help keep dry. In the higher elevations the trail became harder to follow. Occasionally it went into hiding, and without GPS, I was forced to guess at where it was going, only hoping to be rewarded by a cut log or some other sign of trail maintenance to confirm my suspicions.

As the snow got deeper, I began to wonder if I was going to be able to make it to the top. I know from past hikes that once the snow gets too high on your thighs, it's just not worth it to go on - and even if it is, it takes a lot of valuable time to negotiate, and with the short days, I risked getting stuck over night if I spent too long trudging through it. Eventually though, I came to a familiar feature: the top of Wyeth ridge.

On a previous hike, I had photographed myself on the ridge, so on this trip I decided to do the same. The trail on the top of the ridge is short. It heads west a bit before turning south and dropping down to North Lake. Just before the drop to the lake is the cut-off to continue climbing up to green point ridge. This was the beginning of the first section of trail I hadn't previous explored in any other season. The hill was steep, and the snow was deep, but at this point I was well into a rhythm, and kept a steady pace of one foot in front of the other in a meditative trance to the top. There was no longer any trail to be found, and I had given up looking, so my new strategy was just to keep pointed "up". Regardless of how far from my target I'd end up, there was only one set of tracks on the ridge, and I knew I could follow them all the way back to familiar territory when I was ready.

Progress in this section was slow. I had told myself that I had to turn around, no matter where I was, by 1:00 so I could get out of the woods before dark. I knew I was close to the summit of Green Point Mountain however, and my stubbornness not to quit a job before it was done kept me pushing on until 3:00. Technically I did summit the "mountain", but I still left feeling defeated - having not found the picturesque clearing I had seen photos of that, on a better day, would have offered a stunning view of Mt. Hood and the surrounding land, which had been my target for an end point. After backtracking a bit, I saw something maybe 20 yards away through the gaps in the trees that was clearly man made.

Just below the summit, is a little used and rarely maintained trail called Gorton Creek. Other than the trail marker, there was no evidence of any trail under the snow, but finding the sign was good, as it confirmed I had actually made it to what's called Green Point Mountain (but is actually a barely higher point of a long high ridge). From here I followed my tracks back down the way I had come. I took big strides in a controlled slide down the steep hill of high powder, knowing I was way behind schedule to reach my car before dark. Slowly but surely, I did make my way down the steep wall of the gorge. The sun was falling fast, and by dusk, I was still in the snow.

I knew the "bear" tracks where close to 1500 feet, and after that, the snow was thin enough not impede the speed of descent. Then, all of the sudden, there they were: the same tracks from before... but something was different. There weren't this many before - at least not that I had noticed. I paid extra attention to the tracks, and clapped my hands loudly a few times to announce my presence. On a previous hike on Mt. Hood, a group I was hiking with surprised a mother bear with a cub by approaching to quietly. I wanted to give this one some warning. Within a few feet I saw something that confirmed my suspicion: a set of these tracks that where formed on top of one of my tracks from the way up. The animal had been back, and it was last headed in the direction I was to go. I followed the tracks forward for too many yards, but finally they descended down the hill off the trail. At this point it was dark. I had a head lamp with me, so I put it on and continued the descent to my car over the next 45 minutes or so without too much difficulty.