Crater Lake (Circumnavigation)

April 1-2, 1995

Last year, Jean Ridone and I skied around Crater Lake, and I was so taken by how much more beautiful the area is in winter (with snow/without vehicles) that I decided to lead the trip again this year. In fact, I planned on two separate Crater Lake trips — a two-day and a three-day. I hoped both would work out, but unfortunately iffy weather forced me to cancel the three-day version. However, those of us on the two-day version lucked out because both the weather and the snow were about as ideal as one could hope for. Leaving at the crack of dawn (about 5:30 am), John Cooper, Andy Dungan and I (Bill Montgomery) headed for Crater Lake. On the way, John fed us superb hot-X buns from the always terrific French Horn Bakery. We arrived at the Park HQ shortly after their 9 am opening to get our overnight permit. Then we drove up to the Rim where we did our last-minute shuffling of gear. Loaded with our packs we started around the Rim, clockwise, toward The Watchman, in full sun with crystal clear views of the Lake. I was happy to see that both John and Andy seemed to have no difficulty maintaining the somewhat aggressive pace we would need to keep if we were to do our 30-mile circumnavigation in two days. Unfortunately, several miles into the trip, Andy realized his ski boots were beginning to tear up his feet. Taping his feet helped but never really solved the problem. I was concerned that Andy would have a miserable time (or would have to turn back), but I should have known better from positive past experience. Andy is one of the most upbeat, optimistic and tough guys you’ll ever encounter. Even at the end of the trip, with two very raw feet, Andy was still in amazingly good spirits. We maintained a steady pace the whole day — stopping only for snacks and water. It was comfortably warm and sunny and the snow was slick and fast. On such a clear day it was easy to see the continual progress we were making. By afternoon we were looking across the lake at where we’d started. At about 6 pm, we stopped and set up camp at the halfway point — Skell Head — where we had a terrific view of the sun setting over the Lake, and an even more spectacular view of the emerging, infinitely starry sky. Crater Lake on a clear early spring night is breathtakingly beautiful. This is what the rare one-day circumnavigator misses.

After a cold night’s sleep, we quickly packed our gear and resumed skiing. Our first two miles were a moderate climb, which helped warm us up. The snow had an icy crust that would have been challenging had we started the day with a descent. Fortunately, the sun was already out — no morning fog on the lake, just a thin layer of ice. By the time of our first descent, the sun had already softened the icy crust and we zoomed down to Kerr Notch, the last viewpoint of the Lake. On the descent to Kerr Notch, I happened to notice a solitary skier across the valley, ascending the trail just a couple of miles ahead of us. I remembered from last year how that particular section of trail was somewhat treacherous with a sharp drop-off and a fair amount of rockfall. As I watched this solitary skier I began to notice that he or she seemed to be having some difficulty. I knew that there was a by-pass route below because that section of the trail was avalanche prone. However, the ranger had told us the avalanche danger was minimal. Anyway, while I was watching this skier he/she suddenly slipped and skied right off the edge of the road, flying off a 30- or 40-ft.-high stone wall and landing about 15 ft. below its base. In all, this skier had probably fallen 40 or 50 vertical feet. I could feel my body tremble as I realized that I had probably just seen someone fall to their death. I watched dumbfounded, looking for some sign of movement. The skier’s backpack tumbled down the hill but the skier remained motionless. For several more minutes I stood and watched, until suddenly I detected some faint body movement. I quickly skied down to the avalanche by-pass trail and followed it to right below where the skier had fallen. When I arrived the skier and his backpack were reunited on the avalanche trail. I told him I’d seen the fall and was amazed to see him standing. He said he wasn’t hurt — he’d merely cut his tongue He told me his wife told him not to ski around alone! Now he acknowledged that she’d been right! Andy and John and I took the by-pass route with him — which turned out to be an exhausting “long-cut” up a steep, well-forested hillside. Shortly after we reached the main trail again, we caught up with a volunteer ski patrol guy, who told me the main trail had been just fine. After seeing that skier fall, however, I would have had a hard time not getting psyched out by it. But after talking a little, the ski patrol guy offered to drive me up to my car when we got back to the headquarters and so everything worked out to our favor. When the three of us got in the car to return home, we all felt as if we had been gone much longer than a mere 36 hours!

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