On Saturday morning, we loaded up heavy packs and made our way up toward Helen Lake. It was slow going as we adjusted to the weight on our backs, but we got used to it and made good timing, reaching camp in just over three hours. The weather was sunny with storm clouds shifting through, dropping snow flurries, but it wasn’t too cold. The wind, however, was blustery and powerful gusts were increasing as we made camp and cooked soup, hot tea and hot cocoa. We watched snow getting launched over the ridge above us and occasionally making its way down to us. It felt like getting blasted in the face with sand, and with wind burned faces, we retreated into the tent and set an alarm for 3 am.
At 3 in the morning, the wind had not let up, and combined with the bitter cold, made for a restless night. Concerned about the risk of a wind slab avalanche on the exposed face we intended to climb, we decided not to attempt the summit on this trip. After 14 uncomfortable hours in the tent, we braved the wind, packed up and skied back down to milder conditions.
From there, we booked it back to Oregon and camped at the summit trailhead at Mt. McLoughlin. The weather was sunny and forecasted to continue improving through the week, so we were feeling optimistic and excited. On Sunday morning, we took our time drinking coffee before hitting the trail around 10:30 am. Compared to Mt. Shasta, we expected a mellow day, with about 4,000 feet of climbing to Mt. McLoughlin’s 9,495 foot summit. The hike was relatively mellow, although the wind reappeared during the final 1,000 feet to the summit, gusting strong enough at times to knock me sideways. The ascent was just steep and icy enough for the wind to stir up my fear, and as I kicked my crampons into the snow, I pleaded with the wind for a break. This time, it did give us a break and we successfully reached the summit, snapped some photos, and switched over to skis for a long ride down the northeast bowl and back to camp. The skiing was tough—a grabby, breakable crust—but the views were incredible. We could see the Crater Lake Rim, Mt. Bailey and Mt. Thielsen to the north, Mt. Shasta to the south, and Fourmile Lake and Klamath Lake down below.
Back at the trailhead, we opened celebratory beers (Deschutes Pine Drops IPA) and began cooking dinner. We noticed the temperature had dropped and clouds rolled in, but with the sun low in the sky and a sunny forecast for the week, we didn't think much of it. Then it began spitting rain and lightly hailing, but we laughed, thinking it was just a passing squall. By the time it was dumping snow, we were running back and forth from the picnic table to the car, throwing gear wherever it would fit. We devoured our dinner in the car and then headed out, intending to drive to Mt. Bailey via Medford and the Crater Lake Hwy. As we turned from the forest road to the highway, a full on white out had descended on us. Crawling through the snow at maximum speeds of 25 mph, I was still in denial, thinking that this storm would soon dissipate as quickly as it had appeared. But that didn’t happen. The snow stayed with us almost the entire way to Medford, and exhausted, we pulled onto the first quiet forest road we found and called it good for the night.
In the morning, we woke up to sunshine and blue skies, surrounded by forest of old growth blanketed in sparkly white snow. Feeling revived from the previous night’s ordeal, we made our way up Crater Lake Highway toward Diamond Lake, where we would spend the next two days climbing and skiing Mt. Bailey and Mt. Thielsen. To be continued...