Snow Storm

This website may be the death of me. After seven or eight days of thick fog, stormy winds and continuous snowfall, restlessness was starting to set in and I realized I hardly had any photos or tales of new adventures to post for this, my second to last Gray Knob update.

The environment around the cabin and on the upper slopes have changed dramatically. Did I say something about a substantial snow fall in my last update? How fast perspective and the scale of things change. Gray Knob now sits ensconced in sixteen inches of snow and a big storm forecasted for Saturday (28 October), the day I return, promises to bring another few layers to the party.

The weekends were good. I nearly had a full house at Gray Knob and Crag Camp was just three short of capacity and I had to send a group of five down to the Perch in the snow because they wouldn’t fit in either of the cabins. I like to hang out in the cabin on the weekends while folks are out hiking and such so they know where to find me if something comes up. I reserve the weekdays for my own hiking and exploring. Except when the weather is too inclement to make getting out reasonable. But come Wednesday, I didn’t really care what the weather was doing, in fact, I delighted in tromping off into the face of the storm.

I suited up and packed accordingly to the conditions. There was only about ten inches of snow accumulated at Gray Knob by then and there wasn’t much movement in the trees. Because it was so foggy and therefore dark as far as a camera is concerned I just attached my camera to my tripod and wrapped a plastic bag around the camera to protect it from the blowing snow and would uncover it briefly to shoot when I was ready.

At first I had considered the ambitious plan of summiting Mt. Adams then working my way towards Mt. Jefferson on the Gulfside Trail and cutting down Israel Ridge Path to start my rounds at the Perch. I stopped to take a picture of the big yellow sign warning not to proceed if the weather is bad. The weather was pretty bad, but I promised myself regular safety checks and to not push it too far.

Once I got above the tree line the wind started to pick up and it pushed me up the hill. The rime collected on everything, even on the subtle changes of slope right along the ground. The wide leading end of the developing shaft of ice tapered back into its origin on the surface of the snow. They looked like teeth on a dental x-ray. Stopping on occasion to take photos I would look back to be sure I could still see the line of cairns that would lead me back down home.

I then decided it would be an achievement to get as far as Adams 4. At times I was wallowing in snow drifts knee and crotch deep and the going was slow. I considered turning around a few times, not for fear of loosing my way, but because I would be fighting my way against the wind and the hard little pelts of snow would be peppering me in the face. But I was equipped with goggles and could rig up a good face mask if needed and I pressed on.

It was 1pm when I left Gray Knob and I set a turnaround time of 3pm for myself. I wasn’t sure if I could make it to Adams 4 in that time, but I knew I didn’t want to get stuck up here in the dark. I did pack my headlamp, but I didn’t want to have to use it.

Then, out of the blowing fog I reached the Steps. Not an official feature, but a landmark I recognized from previous trips up Lowe’s Path. First was the small step, a twenty foot gain up a rock band from one grassy plateau to another, then a much bigger step up another band of rocks gaining sixty feet. Footing was peculiar here as I punched through between the gaps of rock and found my whole leg buried in the snow or I would stand right on the surface because I found a point of rock to stand on.

Not far beyond the Steps the towering rocky outcropping that housed the cave below Adams 4 slowly appeared through the milky fog. The snow was heavily drifted as the cave opening is on the leeward side and I took a stab at where I figured the opening of the cave would be from memory. I stuck my tripod in the snow and started digging with my hands. A shovel – that would have been a good thing to bring. Eventually, I punched through and found the distinct characteristics of the cave opening. I stepped back, took a photo of the small opening and then dove in head first sliding on the mound of snow bulging up in the entrance.

I flopped myself over and took a deep breath as I started to undo my protective layers now that I was out of the reach of the wind and blowing snow. Pulling off my hood, there was a moment of silence as my ears adjusted from the battering sounds of wind against the nylon fabric to the soft whoosh of the wind left outside and muffled by the walls of rock and snow around me. Once settled in the cave, I did what any civilized explorer would do, I had a cup of tea. Just then I noticed the time: 3pm. Time to head back down.

Expecting to really have to fight my way down against the wind and slope I packed my camera away and collapsed my tripod. In the relatively short time that I was out in the wind and snow, half a centimeter of rime ice had already formed on the legs of my tripod! I had to break it all off before the legs would telescope back together.

Goggles on, hood cinched, gloves… check. I threw my backpack out of the small cave opening and wormed my self out right behind it. With my pack strapped on, I turned into the face of the wind and started down. Slowly I worked my way from cairn to cairn barely able to see the next one. I looked down to see if my tracks were still there from the way up, but they weren’t. Even the holes that took my whole leg had been blown over and disappeared. When I looked up I couldn’t see the next cairn so I kept the course hoping it would show up. It never appeared.

Foolishly, now that I look back at it, I continued down instead of returning to the last known cairn. Even the tracks I had just impressed on the snow moments ago were starting to wash away in the wind. Suddenly I was where I wasn’t supposed to be. I didn’t know if I had missed the trail to my left or to the right. My brain had one message for me: DOWN!

I kept going down, then a sudden drop. I suspected it was the large Step and I looked around trying to recognize any aspect of the landscape to tell me which way to turn. I started a zig-zag pattern in the hopes I’d cross the trail, but it just landed me in the thick snow covered scrub trees, the Krumholz.

I looked for a way out, but I managed to be funneled down with the only options being back up or down through the trees. Up was the wrong way and sounded more arduous, so I went thrashing through the snow covered trees. I caught myself apologizing profusely out loud as I broke branches and disrupted their cozy appearance tucked in under the heavy blanket of snow.

Before I even got into the trees, it had dawned on me that regardless of where Lowe’s Path was, the trail I came up, I knew Spur Trail and King Ravine were to my right. Finally I thought of pulling out the map to get an idea of how far it might be and it looked reasonably close. Also, because Spur Trail remained in the trees for much of its length, it would be easy to identify when I came across it. I suspected the trees I was thrashing through now were the trees that housed Spur Trail. Also, even if I missed Spur Trail, King Ravine would stop me and Crag Camp would be right along the precipice. Well, it wouldn’t really come to that, but it was a finite range I could go and it contained my wandering. But I didn’t know how fast I was moving and my thought went to inventory what I had in my pack with me combined with a strategy to stay alive if it got dark and I was forced to spend the night out there.

Now that I was in the trees, I was out of the wind and I was plenty warm even with all the snow falling from the boughs around me. In my pack I still had a thermos full of hot tea, two Cliff Bars, my down parka, heavy insulated pants and extra socks along with the usual assortment of first aid kit, knife, compass, map, headlamp, etc. My backpack had some foam in it I could sit on to get my bum off the snow, but even with all of that it would be a long cold night. I figured I could also break some boughs off and create an insulating layer between me and the snow.

By now the trees were getting a bit bigger and I was no longer staying on top of them but was down amongst the larger branches with more snow falling from the encrusted branches above. The going got tougher as I had to wrestle with the heavier branches. I had my radio with me, but didn’t call my situation in because there was nothing they could do for me at that point anyway. If I did get myself out of this there was no need to worry them. I would have to check in for my usual radio call at 8pm anyway and if I was still out there fighting my way through the thicket, I would swallow my pride and admit that the caretaker was lost in the woods looking to spend the night out in the storm. I would also have to tell them that if I didn’t live through the night, there was no way they’d find my body because I have no idea where I was and the woods were so thick amongst the evergreen trees, they probably wouldn’t see me from the air either. I would also have to apologize because they’d have to hire another caretaker and I had both of the hand held radios with me (spare battery/spare unit).

Every now and then I a glimmer of white would catch my eye and I’d think maybe that was the trail. I then had to stop doing that to my self and started to repeat “Let the trail come to you” to myself. There was a change in the trees, the canopy grew higher and now I was wandering among thin trunks under the thick bunches of needles and only breaking off an occasional dead branch no bigger than my thumb. I appreciated the easier going and continued to opt for routes to the right and down. More to the right so I didn’t just parallel the trail, if it was there.

Just then, I looked down and a relatively clear passage was before me. It was the trail, it had come to me. A wave of relaxing relief rippled through my body as I looked down the trail, then down at my snow covered body and I took another deep breath, reveling in my freedom from the untamed wilds of Mt. Adams. It was only half past four and I trotted leisurely down to Crag Camp to see if I had any campers there. Not surprisingly it was empty on a blustery Wednesday night like this.

Back at Gray Knob I hung all my sopping clothes up to dry, bundled up and counted my blessings that I was not bedding down out there somewhere. That snowy world was like being in the cage with a huge white tiger. At first it was calm and I thought I could play with it, then tooth and claw came out and charged towards me. Somehow I managed to fight back and escape. Now, in the safety of the cabin, I looked out my windows, through the bars back into the cage as that wild cat calmly paced back and forth once again concealing his full dangerous potential, but now I knew better. I knew better before I even left, but some of us still opt to learn the hard way.

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.

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