Friday, June 13, 2014

Alta Lake backpack

"Hey, take off your cap, there's something on your forehead"

Because Ray was so concerned as a trustworthy and loyal friend, I obliged and he peered closely at my forehead. Smack! The sound of his hand slapping my head carried through the trees, totally at odds with the profound hush that only a snow-covered forest has. "WHY DID YOU MAKE ME COME HERE WITH YOU?" he roared. I could only reply in that whiny high-pitched voice of a child desperately trying to convince a disbelieving parent of  his innocence " was in the 90's all week in Roseburg!"

Smack! It was not a winning arugment.

Snow delerium

Two things led us to this head-smacking point: It had indeed been summery warm in Roseburg all week and snow was not part of last hike on Abbott Butte. The butte topped out at around 6,100 feet and logic would dictate there'd be no snow at similar elevations in the nearby Sky Lakes Wilderness. So the plan was to backpack in on the Pacific Crest Trail to the Snow Lakes followed by some day hiking and mountain climbing because after all, it had been hot in Roseburg all week.

On the climb to Alta Lake in the rain
Of course, by Friday morning the weather had turned and the forecast called for a 20% chance of showers with temperatures a little on the chilly side, especially at night. However, the reality was more dire than the forecast as the showers had morphed into out and out rain. And as Ray and I hoisted our packs, wet snow was falling along with the rain in that mix we affectionately call snain. So, naturally, we did what Ray and I do: we started hiking anyway and fie on the weather!

Airing my wet laundry
At least the trail was uphill. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. The trail charged straight up through a forested slope, gaining over 1,000 feet in the first two miles. At least we had heavy packs on. At least it was snowing and/or raining. And at least it was cold. And that is enough syrupy sarcasm to give my readers literary tooth decay, assuming I have any readers other than my mom.

Frog Lake
Because it was chilly, we wore several layers of so-called waterproof gear. Because of the exertion of hiking uphill, we were soon perspiring under the waterproofs which meant it was like raining under our jackets and we were soon soaked anyway. However, despite the wetness of our clothing, both of us were warm from the physical toil of hiking.

The vegetation, unlike hikers, liked the rain
We did get a temporary respite from all the uphill hiking at Frog Lake and while we were resting at the small body of water, the sun came out and lulled us into thinking things would get better. Smack! No sooner had we made the decision to continue on, the rain, sleet, and snow became a constant and the sun pretty much took the rest of the day off.

Um...I can't find the trail 
About a mile of more climbing past Frog Lake, snow drifts began to cover the trail. The drifts then increased in frequency, size, and depth, in direct proportion to our elevation gain. At a pass atop Violet Hill, the trail disappeared for good under a chilly white blanket of unbroken snow. Ah, the irony of not being able to reach to the Snow Lakes because of snow.

Let's camp at Alta Lake!
Because both of us had been to Alta Lake before, we were able to get to the lake without benefit of trail, navigating by dead reckoning and hopefully not with misplaced faith in our tracking abilities. The basic plan was to reach Alta Lake, assess the situation, and then decide if the weekend could be salvaged by camping at the lake. Of course, we could have right then and there retreated back to Frog Lake in shame and ignominy. But I'm glad to report we did the right thing and continued on, slogging in the snow to Alta Lake.

Camp Cold
Alta Lake is a long and narrow finger of a lake that fills up a fault-line crack on top of Violet Hill. The waters of the lake were black and colorless as tendrils of cloud cover wove misty strands through the skein of surrounding trees. We set up camp above the lake as the rain continued to fall and it was frigid cold. Both Ray and I crawled into our separate (pay no heed to all those vicious rumors) sleeping bags at 3:30 in the afternoon to dry off and warm up.

Part of Devil's Peak
At about 6:00 in the early evening, the pitter patter of raindrops on my rain fly ceased and the fog rolled in, as thick as a proverbial London pea soup fog in a horror movie right before the first innocent victim gets slashed. Emerging from our tents, we enjoyed occasional views to Grass, Cliff, and Middle Lakes in the basin below Violet Hill. Above Cliff Lake, the dramatic wall of Devil's Peak loomed, the top of the peak hidden in the cloud cover.

C'mon in, the water's freezing!
I slept wearing three pairs of socks, three layers of pants, four shirts, one down jacket, woolen mittens, and a ski cap in a semi-successful attempt at warding off the cold. Neither one of us had a thermometer but we both agree the temperature on this fine June evening dipped into the mid-20's, earning me the aforementioned head smack from Ray. All things considered, things were relatively comfy and I actually got a good night's sleep in.

Dawn comes to Alta Lake
I woke up with my tent walls glowing orange. Sun! In the middle of the night, the nasty clouds had departed and morning at Alta Lake was simply glorious. It was still cold, though. The lakes below Violet Hill reflected the blue sky as they reposed beneath Devil's Peak and we could see all of the impressive mountain this time. Such a perfect morning invited a post-breakfast hike so Ray and I followed the lakeside trail as best we could.

View above the Middle Fork 
We lost the path under snow at end of the lake so we bushwhacked to a view point above the Rogue River's Middle Fork canyon. I seem to recall reading somewhere the prominent defile is Oregon's deepest glacier-carved canyon. Perched above the headwaters as we were, the view predictably impressed. Above the canyon rose a series of volcanic cones with the higher snow-covered peaks of Crater Lake topping off the scene. I asked Ray if he would take that head-smack back and he said no.

Heading the wrong way
We didn't want to chance another cold night at Alta Lake, so mid-day we packed up our gear and retreated to lower and warmer Frog Lake. As we were climbing out of the Seven Lakes Basin, we went astray a bit as navigation was difficult due to the snow cover. We wound up on the ridgecrest a bit south of where we needed to be but were able to find the Devil's Peak Trail which led us back to our snowy pass.

Large amphibian at Frog Lake
There's a lot to be said for a real trail with no snow on it and it was nice to properly hike on a proper trail with proper dirt again. The rest of the day was spent lazing around Frog Lake. In the late afternoon a backpacking couple walked by and I asked them how their routefinding skills were as they were headed to Alta Lake. To hammer the point home, I showed them some of my photos and they decided Frog Lake was a nice place to camp after all. I don't know who they are but they are probably still married, thanks to me. Their dog enjoyed mindlessly swimming laps in Frog Lake, he might not have enjoyed an Alta Lake dip as much.

Steamy Frog Lake in the morning
So, our three-day backpack trip wound up covering a paltry 10 miles, we certainly didn't get very far. After a robust breakfast on Father's Day in Butte Falls, we headed back to Roseburg and its 90 degree weather. The warm weather has got me planning our next trip already. Smack!

Yes, it was cold.
For more pictures of this Richard and Ray venture, please visit the Flickr album.

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