Friday, August 8, 2014

Climb of the South Sister

South Sister, Oregon
It promised to be a perfect day for hiking, as we woke up early that morning the last week of July in Bend and drove west. Mt Bachelor beamed ahead of us in the sunrise alpenglow. But the popular skiing mountain was not our objective for the day. Shortly after we drove past the turnoff to Bachelor, our real goal for the day boomed out of the Cascade forest to the north. The South Sister, at 10,363’ the highest of the 3 Sisters volcanoes and 3rd highest peak in Oregon, was in our sights. This was going to be some fun!


I guess I didn’t read the instructions to the trailhead close enough, because I assumed the trailhead would be on my right, closest to the mountain. The trailhead (called the Devil’s Lake trailhead) is actually on the left side, where the lake is. You then have to hike up and cross over the highway. The trailhead parking lot was already packed almost full - I think I got the 2nd to last parking spot, and it was not yet 6:45am! Surely all these folks weren’t on the trail, were they? Soon, we would find out. We dropped our $5 for the permit in the box and headed up.


The trail starts out in deep forest. The grade was fairly steep, but the crisp Oregon morning helped mask any additional heat caused by the workload. Walking at a fairly leisurely pace, we reached the junction to Moraine Lake in about an hour. There were just a few other groups on the trail at this point. By the time we reached the upper junction (that goes back down towards the lake) we were soon joined on the trail by more, and then more, and the more (!) hikers mostly coming up from the lake. Hiking South Sister is definitely not a “out in the wilderness alone” type experience.
Moraine Lake - Mt Bachelor to the right
But it was a solid and good trail. From the first junction to the base of the peak goes quickly, as the trail is essentially flat, wide and the views are spectacular. After a short break we started gaining altitude more quickly and encountered a few snow drifts still left on the lower slopes here and there and covering the trail in a few sections. Then we hit a steep section of scree and loose rock that went directly up and appeared to be off the main, summer trail. That led up to another steep section of snow, but there was a good well worn bootstep stair to follow up.
The trail evens out after the junction to Moraine Lake (looking back)
First big snowy slopes, most of it could be ascended by rock, but the very top was following bootsteps in the snow.
Back on dirt again above the snow slope
Looking back at a beautiful Central Oregon day
The scree and rubble just kept on coming. Finally we reached the bottom of the Lewis glacier and out of nowhere - fantastic view of a little lake at the base of the glacier (but it is NOT Teradrop Pool). We marveled at the picturesque scene at took a snack break. By this time there were climbing groups passing us both from below and descending from above. Easily there were 50-75 hikers up on the trail above us or just below us. And every few minutes more on the way.


Climbing up before the final push to the bottom of the glacier
The scree-filled ascent up to Teardrop Pool
Lake at the base of Lewis glacier - I thought mistakenly this was Teardrop Pool, it is not
From our vantage point just above the lake, we got a good look at the remaining (we hoped - no false summits please) portion of the route. It was obvious there was a steep more red portion just up above where the glacier has a bergschrund that was bottlenecking up hikers. We carried on, atop the ridge of ancient glacial till and remains and at last were on that section.


Looking ahead from the lake (which is NOT Teardrop Pool)
The very nice aesthetic of the ridge west of the glacier
A closer look at the upper slopes
It was tough,  but we kept at it slow and steady. It seemed like it took a lot longer than it looked like it would from below. At last we rounded the corner and saw all the large groups of people sitting in the rock shelters along the summit crater rim. From there, we could see on the other side of the crater the obvious highest point. We crossed the snow-filled crater, happy to relax on a flat stretch after all that uphill. After a short, rocky scramble we were up on top.


Looking back after ascending the last tough section
The actual summit is very small, and we quickly snapped a couple of photos before letting the throngs of other hikers enjoy their moments too. I was a bit disappointed that the sheer size of the summit crater (it’s huge, like a mini-Mt Rainier) did not allow for a proper panoramic shot from my iphone, but I did what I could.


Summit panorama
Some folks crossing the large snow filled crater 
The actual summit (small and crowded on a Saturday)
View from the top. Middle and North Sisters, behind is Jefferson, faintly we could see Hood, and even fainter yet we could see Adams on this day.
After lunch we started our descent and the gangs of climbers just kept coming. It’s an odd mix on the South Sister - sometimes we would see climbers overly prepared with ice axes, boots and gaiters on, other times we would see folks with nothing but t-shirts and shorts. Personally, I was glad to be wearing a good pair of boots and had a couple of different jackets to choose from, as the hike seemed to go through quite a  few different micro-climates.

Just before we made it back to the parking lot our water ran out. 2 liters was just not quite enough for this day, and it was quite hot in the lower elevations. Luckily the last stretch is back through the forest, and soon we were back to our car. South Sister was a really fun hike, lots of pretty scenery, and a just great day out in the mountains.










Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bagging The Big Island






Looking back Mauna Loa from the slopes of Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea - highest point in Hawaii
“What? You’re going to Hawaii? But there ain’t no mountains there!”


Oh, but your well-meaning co-worker is wrong. There is peak-bagging to be had in Hawaii. All you need to do is make a conscious decision to avoid the crowds, traffic jams, and skyscrapers of the other islands and turn your attention to the Big Island of Hawaii. There you will find not one, but two 4000 meter peaks (I say that because it sounds better than 13,000’) for your climbing enjoyment. And you still get to go to Hawaii. Mai Tai’s, tropical waterfalls/sightseeing and luau’s and all the other Hawaiian staples can still be on your agenda for the cost of only a couple of days out of your relaxation schedule.  A pretty sweet deal for those who collect summits and may also want to do an actual vacation for once.


There is no question the Big Island of Hawaii has a lot to see. Kilauea and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an excellent starting point, with many hikes and sights to witness. The eastern side sees a lot of rain and therefore has an abundance of beautiful waterfalls, while the leeward side is more dry and has the usual tourist trap beaches and bars. But the Big Island also lacks the masses of people and their humanly excesses (cars, murders, etc) of the other islands, making it a paradise among paradises. We came to this place in June of 2014, to hike her volcanoes and to vacation.


We decided to start our volcano hikes with Mauna Loa, the second highest on the island at 4169 meters (13,679’). I was bit worried about the road we would take to the trailhead, both the Saddle Road and the observatory road. From the guidebooks we had, both recent editions, these roads sounded somewhat intimidating. Well, my worry was for nothing. The Saddle Road, Highway 200, is now the Daniel K Inouye Highway and was the best road we traveled on in the whole Big Island. The Observatory Road was also in better condition than advertised, but it is still 19 miles long and one lane. However, it was newly paved, and there remains only about one mile of dirt that lies well below where the observatory sits. (I was told by a tech I met on Mauna Kea that the reason for this was that the dust kicked up interfered with the delicate instruments of the observatories.) The only trouble we had was that our rental Jeep was surely not tuned for higher altitudes. As we gained up towards the 11,000’ starting point, our transportation lost more power and struggled mightily to make it up the next hills in front of us.


At the beginning of the Mauna Loa trail, right after leaving the dirt road beginning
Finally, we made it to the small parking lot just below the observatory and got ready. We were the only car in the lot, at 8:30am on a Sunday. The trail starts out following a road as it dips down to the west. Immediately, the scenery is bare and desolate - lava fields, some of it looking pretty recent too.


We had read that the trail was about 12.5 miles round-trip, one of the reasons we had chosen Mauna Loa as our first objective. Also, the fact that the elevation gain was not quite as severe as on Mauna Kea. (We would soon learn the caveat to that elevation fact) So it did not surprise us at all when we saw the turn-off sign that indicated we were six miles away. All was going well and we were making good time. Although the terrain is indistinctive, the trail is marked well by cairns, or as the Hawaiians call them, ahu’s. Some of these were several feet tall and could be seen from a very long distance.


Hiking up Mauna Loa
The slope of Mauna Loa is so slight, you really can’t tell what you’re hiking to - unlike most peaks where you have a definitive top of the mountain to point to and say “We’re going there.” If one were to get lost or disoriented, say in a fog or at night, on Mauna Loa, the lack of distinctive features of the hike seems like it could be overwhelming. Thankfully, we had a good clear day and it was still early, as we hiked up and over some increasingly jumbled new-looking lava flows. At 2.3 miles in, we came across two extra-large ahu’s that marked the location of a big lava tube. Pretty interesting stuff.


Lava tubes at 2.3 miles
Way out there in the middle of these lava flows, we finally spied something that looked so foreign and out of place - a wood sign. It pointed the way for the trail, as it joins up again with that 4-Wheel drive road. (I’m assuming the road is used by researchers and probably off-limits to the general public. This lead uphill (slowly) to another wood sign, and a trail that stretched through a sandy area. The sand was like a breath of fresh air after a couple of hours of hopping from lava rock to lava rock. Soon we saw another sign that announced our entrance into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. No Park Ranger stationed here? Go figure.


Hitting sandy slopes just after entering Hawaii Volcanoes Park
The sandy trail held up for quite some time and was a bit easier to follow and worn than the sometimes pick your own trail of the lower ahu portion (although this section still has ahu’s here and there, I’ll assume to help with navigation in the aforementioned times of diminished sight.) This lead almost up to the crater rim itself, although right near the end we were back to lava-hopping.


At the crater rim, but still a long ways off
We reached  the rim and the fork in the road. To the right, a sign marks the distance to the summit - 2.5 miles. The way to the east - the left - goes down to the Mauna Loa cabin, on the “long trail” to get to Mauna Loa’s summit. Apparently this trail starts down near the main part of the park (near where Kilauea and all the attractions are) and takes 3-4 days to hike. While this seems like a supercharged hike, we weren’t about to spend 50% of our Hawaiian vacation hiking one mountain. Seems like a pretty hardy route for those who choose it though.


Hiking up the barren landscape

So we looked to the right, and up to a distant point we assumed was the summit. The trail curls around this side of the massive crater before continuing up to that point. We even had to hop up over some “lava crevasses” which were about 3 feet wide and looked really, really deep. Peering into one we even got a glimpse of some tropical Hawaii snow! The wind up here was pretty constant and cold, and you wouldn’t even know you were in Hawaii.
Some of the cool sights on Mauna Loa

I did start to feel a bit of AMS, to be honest. Of course, we were staying right at the beach, and had just drove up here from literally sea level. And that elevation gain part? Well, round trip on Mauna Loa involves about 6 miles (round trip) of travel over 13,000’. Mauna Loa is not a steep mountain by any means, but it certainly is high. Although a bit annoying, it was not enough to turn me around so we pressed on, thinking that the summit must be the high indistinct point ahead of us.


Are we on Mars????
As we neared closer we could see all kinds of scientific looking equipment scattered around. Mauna Loa is an active volcano, and it’s last big eruption was just 30 years ago. We felt like we were on Mars, the place is just so void of any sign of life and then there are these science things placed around that look like they came from outer-space. But as we neared the “top point” we had been eyeing for the last hour or so, our hearts sank.


"I hope that's the summit!"
False summits….

Mauna Loa has got lots of them. I lost count, maybe from the slight headache I had, mostly from a growing feeling of just wanting to be on the top so it could be over. It was certainly getting to be a long slog, and well past the advertised mileage. The finally we spied a high point on the crater rim where there could possibly be no higher - I turned on the GPS just to confirm it anyway- and yes, we had finally reached the summit, itself marked by a large ahu with some offerings to the Gods tucked into it from hikers past. Our mileage marker - we use a Garmin Forerunner - logged in the distance to the summit at 6.8 miles - a 13.6 round trip, more than a mile longer than the advertised distance.


From the summit - The massive crater of Mauna Loa can only truly be captured by a panorama photo
We did our normal summit routines - taking photos, signing the summit register. We found no one had signed the register since June 4 - 11 days before. Apparently, Mauna Loa does not get a lot of hiker traffic, and since we hadn’t seen another human soul all day it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. We also did our usual postings to Facebook and Twitter. There was a fairly good 3G signal up there, good enough for slow internet even. Although if you waked ten feet in the other direction you might be reduced to No Service. Very spotty but quite good enough, especially since I would learn something I did not know about Spot.

I have a Spot 2, and my little hobby I like doing is using it at summits. It posts a little map to my FB or Twitter. So there on Mauna Loa I fired it up and made a post. But checking on my phone a few minutes later, nothing showed up. I let it run through its full cycle, something I hardly ever do just to see if it was maybe just a temporary glitch. Still no post. Later, on our descent it dawned on me what the problem was - and I had just enough signal to confirm it by doing an internet search on it. Spot Messengers Do Not Work in Hawaii. If you have one and you plan to do this hike, just leave it at home.

On the way down we did come across another couple heading up. It was quite a shock - we hadn’t seen anyone all day. We came across them about 45 minutes into our descent, which I would put them at least one hour from the summit. And the time was getting short. We had summit just around 1:00pm - but had spent at least 45 minutes on the summit. So these folks we figured to be at least 2 hours behind us assuming they spent any amount of time enjoying the top at all. Very dangerously close to returning in the darkness. I really wonder how they fared.

We arrived back at the parking lot just about 4:30 - a full day of hiking indeed. Sure enough, some yahoo was idling his car in the parking lot waiting to ask us questions about the hike. This is very frowned upon, apparently the fumes from idle vehicles can interfere with the delicate instruments of the observatory. Nevertheless, we told him of our adventures and luckily he moved on down the hill. We were glad we had stashed some Pepsi’s in the cheap cooler we had left in the Jeep, as we were far away from any convenience stores. One hill down, one left to go.


Telescopes near the Mauna Kea summit

It’s a bit easier to get up early in Hawaii. Time there is 3 hours different from our usual Pacific time, so waking up at say 5am was really no big deal. For Mauna Kea, we left the place we were staying at 6am and by 7:15 we were at the Visitors Center. By 7:30 we had left our registration slip (it’s free) and were on our way.

From the visitor center, we walked up the road about  500 feet or so to the trailhead. (We could park the car at the visitor’s center.) The trail is loose, sandy, ash and the first 2 miles are steep kitty litter. Very steep.  Some sections were around 35 degrees or so, and the fact that the surface of the trail is loose, cindery ash surely doesn’t help. It doesn’t switchback either, it just goes mostly straight up.


The sandy, loose beginning slope
Now Mauna Kea at least has something its neighbor to the south Mauna Loa, does not have - actual plant life! We even saw a few birds. The morning was cool as the clouds seem to be gathering somewhat below us, but we were focused on what was ahead of us up the mountain. No other hikers were on the trail this day, and glancing over at the road to our right there was not much sign of activity as well. Just a few trucks with official looking symbols on the sides, techs and engineers on their way up to the observatories that sit atop the mountain.





The upper part of the trail
The long trail to the summit

Eventually, the trail did relent a bit, and we settled into a good hiking rhythm. The scenery, however, took a bit of a turn to the ordinary for us, although truly out-of-place one would think in a tropical paradise. Although dominated by the typical volcanic debris we were so used to from our home mountain of Mt Shasta, we also noticed many rocks atypical of just an island volcano.
Rocks consistent with terminal moraines and  glacial till caught our eyes. Honestly, it did feel a little boring. It felt a bit like hiking up Misery Hill (without snow) only we could catch a glimpse of the summit cinder cone and knew it was still far away. The clouds were continuing to gather below us, obstructing any island views hikers on other days might enjoy.


Lake Waiau
Another oddity, Lake Waiau, was a short side-trip. There isn’t much amazing about this tiny lake, except for its existence in the first place. We rounded a corner and caught our first glimpses of some of the massive summit telescopes.  After resuming the trail for about a half a mile after this, we finally ran out of trail and hit the pavement of the road for the final summit push.




We quickly walked up the big single switchback and avoided a couple of gasoline climbers including a tour guide van - and endured their quizzical looks that seemed to say “Why are you folks hiking when there is a perfectly good road here to drive?” At last we spotted the true summit hill which was actually an aesthetically pleasing final walk-up. It took us five hours to reach this point. After some time on the summit taking photos, and our requisite social media postings (the cell/data signal was hit and miss the whole way. I literally could go from No Service to 5-bars of LTE in just a couple of steps.) The views of the giant star-gazers all lined up together is something to behold. The clouds that had been coalescing below us, now all but guaranteed our descent would be a foggy - and likely wet - one when we should choose to head that way. My wife had a blister that needed care, so we sat on the side of the road and took care of it as a few trucks passed slowly by.


The final hill to the summit (no road, thankfully)
A friendly Hawaiian walked over from his Chevy Tahoe and started conversation, asking us where our transportation was (I happily pointed down at our feet). A very talkative and informative guy who I would later learn worked as an engineer at many of the observatories here, he was taking a couple of friends on a quick tour that day, and as soon as they returned from their short hike from this parking lot to the summit, he let us know if we wanted he would be happy to give us a ride down. Without qualms, we accepted his offer. As this was our last big hike of  the vacation, we were ready to start enjoying Hawaii. It was a good thing we did too, as on the drive down the rain started and the fog moved in thick. I was more than a little impressed with his driving skills in these conditions, I’m not sure someone who wasn’t more familiar with the road could have navigated it as well. We made it down to the Visitors Center, got some souvenirs, and by 4:30 we were back in Kona sipping Mai Tai’s.


Mauna Kea Summit - Aloha!
Yes, there are mountains in Hawaii. Very enjoyable and hikable mountains too. Plus, when you finish with your hikes, you're still um... you're still in Hawaii!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cairn Boxes... Get Your Cairn Boxes!



With great anticipation, I awaited my first Cairn box. Cairn is a subscription service ($25/month) outdoor minded people can subscribe to for a package of new samplings of products. http://www.getcairn.com/ It’s honestly quite a bit like getting a Christmas present. Not the “5-speed with a bow on it” type present, but more that mystery present Santa brought you that wasn’t even on your list. I knew there had to be good stuff on the inside. Exactly what? I would soon find out….



The Cairn box arrived. My eyes immediately went to a similar product of one I had actually just purchased a week earlier - the Light My Fire Spork’n Case. The spork I had just purchased at REI was just that - a spork and nothing else. But this is an ingenious little idea - a case for the spork. This is a great idea. Sporks are a great product, but they get damaged loose in a pack sometimes. I know one climber who has gone through 3 of them in just a year. The case is a convenient, relatively lightweight protection for your Spork. I will use this product.



The next thing I settled on was the light. Ok, this product I’m a little ambivalent towards. It’s the LuminAID light that is completely water-proof and floats. I’m not sure what I would ever need a light that floats for. Although, from investigation, this is the most expensive sample included in the box (coming in at a whopping $20 value… almost the value of the entire box!) Perhaps other users would appreciate this product more… For me, it wasn’t worth this much,  but I am impressed by the fact it’s included in this box, making the value of the $25 subscription price instantly viable.




Now  I turned to the next biggest product, a cup of backpacker-type food Oatmeal. It looks good - peanut butter and strawberry oatmeal. The package seems light and convenient. I’ll take it with me on my next overnight adventure for sure and give it a go. But that’s kind of what Cairn is all about - give it a try. Maybe I will like it… maybe not. But I will never know until I try, and now I have a chance to experiment with it.


Same thing with the next thing I bring up…. the powdered peanut butter PB2. I haven’t done a lot of long haul overnight trips...but they are most definitely on the list. (Like you haven’t thought about doing the JMT sometime soon?) So this is definitely an intriguing product I also am looking forward to testing. The Cairn box gives you a lot for such a small price. We can always use these insights into possible delicious alternatives.


The last product included is a bottle of Kiss My Face Castile Soap. It is without a doubt that I will use this product. Camp soap is a never-ending battle to find what works best. Will it be my choice in the future? I don’t know. I do like that this soap is biodegradable and earth-friendly. I’m looking forward to trying it out.



And in the end, that’s the great thing about Cairn Boxes. The testing out aspect. We all feel ourselves a little bit of gear reviewers - if you’ve read this far you know you’re one of us. And to test different stuff makes us feel a little bit privileged - at least a bit more than whether that chocolate chip Cliff bar they gave you at REI was good or not. Cairn is a good value, whether you like all the products or not. Every month they send you something new - and it's like Christmas all over again! A good idea that any outdoor person should seriously consider signing up for.