33 miles over 3 days, on skis - we were expecting a pretty relaxed trip in our winter circumnavigation of Crater Lake.
From November to July each year, Crater Lake National Park’s rim road closes for snow and becomes a haven for cross country skiiers and snowshoers. When a window of sunny days popped up in the forecast after a seemingly never-ending snow season - which buried the rim road under drifts of up to 18 feet of snow! - friends and I jumped on the chance to complete the ultimate tour around the park.
The original, relaxed plan deteriorated faster than any of us could have foreseen, however. The friends I was meeting were driving up all the way from San Francisco, and due to work and life had to push back their arrival all the way to 2pm on Day 1. By the time Josh, Sarah, Tim, and I had swapped gear, completed a backcountry permit, and hitched a ride up the 3 miles and 700 vertical feet from the Visitor Center to the rim, it was after 4pm.
We started out clockwise around the lake at an easy pace, enjoying the late afternoon views. Despite the late hour, we were making good time - until we reached The Watchman, an imposing peak that stands right on the crater’s rim. Due to avalanche danger on the road, we had been advised to go over the peak rather than around it. The climb was exhausting, but the descent on the far side of the mountain was even worse - cross-country skis aren’t designed for steep descents, and they’re even harder to control with heavy packs on. Both Sarah and I, with rental equipment and limited experience on skinny skis, spent a frustrating amount of time falling into the snow and struggling to get up.
We finally reached the road and the rim again after dark, and picked a spot to set up camp almost immediately. Of course, the wind picked that moment to start howling - and it didn’t stop all night. Setting up the tent was a difficult affair in the high winds and once we had it secured we huddled around the stove to keep the tiny flame from going out. Finally, bloated with warm, salty food, we crashed into bed for the night with plans for an early start.
“Early start” turned into 10am after the previous late night, and within a mile we were debating whether our plan to tour around the lake was still possible. Ultimately, Sarah and Josh decided to turn back, while Tim and I decided to go for it - knowingly committing ourselves to cover at least 20 miles that day.
It was grueling. The snow was melting fast, making for slow-going and drenched feet. Snowdrifts along the road created small hills to constantly climb and descend, each sucking physical and mental energy. To top it all off, by late afternoon, already 12 miles into the day, we began the long climb up to Cloudcap - the highest point of the rim road.
Despite the difficulty, we agreed: the stunning beauty of the eastern rim, an area that can only be accessed by a long ski tour, was well worth it. In all, we covered over 20 miles in 8 hours, with almost no time spent for breaks.
We finally made camp below the rim just after sunset. In a stark contrast to our first night, the wind was nearly absent so we spent several hours melting snow for water to rehydrate and to prepare for an early start the next morning. The final 10 miles flew by on our final morning. On the frosty morning snow, we glided downhill for several miles without any effort. Of course, we had to climb back towards the rim, but even this seemed relatively benign with the knowledge that we had only a few miles left on the day. We ran into Josh just before reaching the Visitor Center, him travelling east along the road to find us and guide us home.