Obsidian and Sleet

November 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

The weather forecast was ugly, but I was determined to get outside. Although I’ve gotten plenty of day hikes in, travel and races have kept me from knocking any new spots off my backcountry destination list since my trip to the Olympics in August.  And with more travel for the Philadelphia Marathon and the holidays coming up fast, I have the feeling that I need to capitalize on every opportunity to get back into the Cascades right now.


Unfortunately, an unusually wet October has been keeping conditions in the Cascades variable and unwelcoming. There’s already snow on the ground - a sign of a great ski season in the making! But it has also been warm enough that several rainstorms have passed through, creating wet and sticky conditions and making any snow travel difficult at best. Between that and a high probability of another storm rolling through, I decided to bag my plan to tackle the so-called “Knife Edge” ridge in Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness for a more modest expedition.


As I walked through the main arm of the obsidian flow, skies to the west were almost sunny.


Having given up on that plan only the day before I was supposed to leave, I was scrambling for ideas when I realized that the McKenzie Pass Highway was still open for another few days before closing for the winter. I knew that the road offers easy access to mid-elevation terrain on the west side of the Three Sisters, so it didn’t take long before I rearranged my plans to head out towards the obsidian flows in that area for a quick and rainy overnight.


As it turned out, the forecast was all wrong - at least, in the morning. As I reached the trailhead, the sun peeked intermittently through the heavy clouds and North Sister itself was visible to the east. The first few miles of the hike wound upward through moss-draped firs, creating a sense of walking underwater in the shadowy light.


Taking a snack break in the forest before emerging onto the obsidian flow.


After a few miles, I reached the obsidian flow that cuts across the trail. Glassy boulders were strewn in a river of rock that flowed downhill towards the now sunny western horizon.  From outcrops of solid ground between tongues of the flow, North Sister stood prominently over the landscape.


I was happy to get any views of North Sister, given the forecast for the day.


Things took a turn for the worse when I reached snow level, around the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail. The clouds that had been building and receding all day suddenly moved in decisively, turning the entire landscape a dark and dull grey. On the ground, the slush that I knew I would eventually find slowed me to a crawl - I was limited to either postholing or stopping to clean balled-up slush out of the crampons of my snowshoes every few steps.


It became easier to rock-hop up the creek than to continue fighting my way through the slushy snow.


Soon after, I reached the lake that was my destination for the night, only to find it half-frozen in the same unwieldy slush. North Sister had disappeared behind a cloud, and just as I dropped my pack it began sleeting. I stood there in the grey landscape for a few minutes, freezing rain pelting my jacket, before hoisting my pack and heading back down the trail following the postholes I had made.


The morning had been great, and I got to spend the day in the mountains - there was no need to ruin a perfectly good trip just to say I had sat out the rain in my tent all night before slogging back down-trail in the morning. I’ll save that for another trip.




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