This was our second visit to Crater Lake National Park in so many days. The first day had been plagued by road closures due to snow, and trail closures due to construction and snow. There were two hikes that I'd planned on for the purpose of climbing 2 of the parks P1K's and a few other ranked peaks. These hikes turned out to be a 'bust' due to the above mentioned issues. Nevertheless, we were able to take a short, but scenic hike along the Rim Trail. When we returned to the truck, we found that the crowds had built up fast along the south rim with only limited places that were open for visitors. We found ourselves desperate to get out of there before the roads became grid-locked. We planned to return to the north rim the next day along the north entrance road.
But what to climb? Luckily, I had my Peakbagger phone app to which I had previously downloaded much local info for the peaks we had planned to climb before leaving home since I knew there would be no cell service within the park. I was happy to note that a large area north of the north rim was included into storage on my phone's SD card. Three peaks were visible: Llao Rock (a P1K), Grouse Hill, and Red Cone. Llao Rock seemed like an obvious first choice, but I had to rule that out since I'd heard access to the summit is permanently closed due to it being a protected natural area. My wife and son (and probably me) would never have gone past the closure signs. Of the remaining peaks, I would have preferred Red Cone because it had more prominence, but it was further from the nearest road and featured a steep 300 foot section of what would likely be loose volcanic rock. I knew that my family would not be happy about this.
I settled on Grouse Hill. It had a little less than 500 feet of prominence, and it looked like it would be easily accessible from the rim drive. My two companions agreed to give it a try so, after a beautiful drive from our Union Creek campsite to the north rim of Crater Lake via Diamond Lake, we found ourselves looking for the Grouse Hill picnic site. It was unmarked along the road, so we drove past it and found ourselves caught in the madhouse around the Cleetwood Cove parking area. What a zoo! There was construction going on in and around the main parking lot which was already full. The cars of those who were unlucky enough not to find parking in the main lot lined both sides of the road often partially onto the pavement creating only a single lane in some sections of the road for those of us trying to drive through. Once past that ordeal, we continued on to the end of the open portion of the road to where it was still closed due to snow (it was slated to open the following Saturday- 3 days after our visit).
The views of the lake and the mountains were awesome, so we stopped in several turnout viewpoints to take pictures and marvel at the immense power of Mother Nature. I pointed out the rounded tree covered form of Grouse Hill- our goal for the day. No one was very impressed. It didn't look like there would be much of a view due to all the trees on the summit. I wasn't very inspired either, but it beat driving back and forth along the rim drive all day. On the way back we once again ran the gauntlet of the Cleetwood Cove parking circus and found ourselves looking for the Grouse Hill picnic area or other parking for our hike. We finally found the unmarked picnic area, but the parking seemed to be very limited. I didn't like the other nearby parking possibilities either due to all the construction projects scattered along the road. Also, there wasn't a clear route through the forest to access our mountain which wasn't even visible from here. Another bust! I'd previously told Matt and Nora of my backup plan for Red Cone (which was secretly my first choice). They seemed up for it, so off we went back down the north entrance road. We found a large turnout to park in and proceeded to gear up for the hike.
Red Cone presented itself much differently than Grouse Hill, and Nora expressed some concern regarding the steepness of the exposed slope of loose rock which was visible from where we parked. I was concerned as well. This might be somewhat harder than anything else I'd ever dragged them up before and I was worried about the possible backlash. I told them that if they weren't up for this, we could 'scrap' the hike and go on to do something else. There were no takers. Matt seemed fairly enthusiastic while Nora remained skeptical, but willing to try. We would all be carrying walkie talkies, so if anyone wanted to give up at some point, the rest of the party could continue on and keep in touch.
The first part of the hike was an easy and enjoyable cross country walk across a large open area of soft pumis sand scattered with colorful wildflowers. We aimed for the treeline at the foot of the southeast ridge which was the route we chose for our climb. The grade steepened somewhat as we entered the treeline. The mosquitos also increased and we all found ourselves slapping at the little bastards for most of the rest of the climb. Did anyone remember to bring any repellant? Of course not!
Eventually, after an otherwise pleasant climb up through the beautiful open forest, we came to the part we were all kind of dreading: the steep loose red rock of the upper slopes of the mountain. There were several steep loose use trails, but the going was still slow. I found myself teaching a few mountaineering techniques I'd learned from 'back in the day': Stay together so not to knock rocks down on those below, yell "ROCK!" if you do dislodge something, and the mountaineer 'rest step'. As usual, Matt, who is obviously the strongest of us, went ahead. I steered Nora and I to a different part of the slope so not to be directly beneath him as we climbed. He didn't actually knock anything down, but it doesn't hurt to be cautious.
As we reached the upper slopes, we began to smell the smoke of a wood fire. Strong! Was the entire forest of the opposite side of the mountain on fire? Damn! We'd better hurry up and tag this beast before the fire gets closer! Nora and I reached the top of the southeast summit shortly after Matt and we found a couple of small duff fires smoldering at the foot of two snags just off the northwest side. It seemed likely that it was due to a lightning strike, but when was the last thunderstorm? Later, I couldn't find concrete evidence of a recent thunderstorm in Crater Lake NP, but there had been rain in the Medford area a little more than a month earlier. I suppose a carelessly tossed cigarette could also have been the cause... The fire was mostly burned out, but there were still a few hot spots here and there. The wind seemed to be blowing it toward a large snow bank and into some very damp ground so I wasn't too worried it spreading into the forest down below.
I pointed out to my
victims err, I mean my companions that we were not on top yet. The actual summit still lay a short distance to the northwest and involved a short drop as we progressed along the crater rim before a final 100 foot climb. Nora announced that she'd had enough and volunteered to stay with the duff fire and to carry snow to it with her water bottles. I told her how futile that would be, but she was worried about the fire and wanted to at least try to put it out. Okay, so it would be Matt and I to continue on and climb this summit. I pointed out that we could follow a large snow bank most of the way to the top and avoid the loose rocks and the sometimes dense pockets of trees along the rim of the crater. A short steep slope consisting of slippery dead pine needles gave access to the snow from where we were and I went down first aided by my trekking poles. I warned everyone that it was tricky and to use care.
I began hiking along the edge of the snow when suddenly, after some scratching noises, Matt was on the ground at my feet holding the side of his jaw. My son had taken his first mountaineering fall (so proud)! Apparently, he had been using a tree to help keep his balance as he inched his way down the steep tricky slope. He slipped and hit his face on the tree on the way down. The wound was superficial and I had it dressed in no time (Nora had to bring the Neosporin ointment that she'd been carrying down to us). He still wanted to continue with me (very proud!) so off we went leaving firefighter mom to work the duff fire.
The snow turned out to be difficult to travel on with our hiking boots and, not for the first time on this trip, I wished I'd worn my mountaineering boots. We found an easy slope to use to regain access to the crater rim from the snow and were soon at the summit only 20 minutes after Matt's accident. There was a benchmark but I couldn't find a register. The views were extensive to the north with wonderful views of Mount Bailey and Mount Thielsen. To the south some of the high peaks along the rim of Crater Lake rose up very impressively. Among them were Hillman Peak, Llao Rock, our original goal of Grouse Hill, and Mount Scott which we had hiked up two years earlier. We called mom on the radio and told her the good news. Then we took several pictures and cautiously made our way back to where we'd left her. No more accidents, please!
Not surprisingly, the duff fire was still smoldering in a couple of spots, but Nora claimed to have made a difference by carrying snow up from the snow bank and dumping it on the hot spots. Maybe she did, but I explained to her again that a water bottle full of snow was equivalent to only about a cup of liquid water. A lot of effort for not much of a result. I was about 99% certain it would be out on its own very soon since the wind was blowing it toward the snowbank where the ground was quite damp. "Let's head down. If we see a ranger, we'll report it." I was pretty sure that the park service would just end up letting it go until it burned itself out.
Going down the steep upper slopes was slow but not as bad as everyone thought it would be. No one slipped and fell on their rears and soon we were back in the mosquito infested forest. We exited the trees leaving a trail of some happy well fed mosquitos (and several not so happy dead ones). This was followed by a delightful hike back across the open flowery meadows to our truck. I used my GPS to ensure that we returned to the part of the highway where we were parked. The entire outing took us slow-pokes about 3.5 hours.
I intended to stop at the north entrance station and report the duff fire on our way out of the park. I pulled into a turnout next to the station and was about to cross the road to the kiosk when I saw a sign that prohibited approaching the kiosk on foot. I thought about making a 'U' turn, but decided to just keep going. Traffic was building up and we were all getting tired. I was still quite sure that the fire would soon burn itself out in the damp ground near the snow anyway. If I hear about a major fire northwest of Crater Lake within the next few days, I guess I'll feel a bit responsible.
While writing this report, I checked and found that no fires have been reported in the area. The next few days are forecast to have rain and thunderstorms over the region. Obla di, obla da, life goes on...
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