Adventures in Cascadia
A Backcountry expedition:
Skiing Crater Lake
Essay by Pete Zimmerman
The snow crunches beneath my boots as I kick steps into its surface. Around me, jagged brown rock pokes through the blank white snow as I make my way up to the summit of Garfield Peak, thousands of feet above the surface of Crater Lake. My mission is to ski from the peak down toward the lake's shimmering blue waters, which are world renown for their depth and clarity. But disturbing thoughts about what the Trump administration and climate change might do to Oregon's only national park are clouding my mind.
The snow around me becomes thinner as I climb until it is completely gone, blown away by the seemingly constant wind. I continue upward, scrambling over bare, exposed rock until I stand on the summit, my gloved hands gripping tight to the stone. Below me, the lake fills an ancient caldera. The wind has stopped its ceaseless blowing, leaving nothing behind but the sound of silence. I pause for a moment on this broken mountaintop, looking down on the forested landscape around the lake. Blue water surrounded by white peaks plunges down into its depths, trees creeping up the slope towards the top of the rim. Standing on the summit, I feel as much a part of the land as the Doug firs below me, as the water filling the caldera, as the rocks I stand on.
Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago when Mt Mazama erupted. Its 2,000 feet of water fill the caldera, the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world. Once the home to The Chief of the Below World, or Llao to the Makalak Native Americans who lived in the region, it still is a sacred place among the Natives in the region. Massive jagged peaks surround the lake, some standing more than 8000 feet. Designated a National Park in 1902, the lake and the surrounding area make up the fifth oldest, and one of the most iconic National Parks in the country.
My mind games out the precarious politics that now threaten this sacred place as I shoulder my skis and walk past the Rim Village on the southern edge of the lake to begin my ascent. The Trump administration, specifically the Department of the Interior headed by Ryan Zinke, seems hellbent on partitioning National Parks, National Monuments, and other public lands. Zinke seems determined to sell them off to the highest bidder, making them inaccessible to the average person.
Public lands make up almost 40 percent of the entire land mass of the United States and are home to some of the most stunning natural wonders on the planet. Of the 23 World Heritage sites in the U.S., all but one are located on public lands. Lands that are now under threat.
One needs only to look at Zinke’s controversial decision to slash Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, most likely to sell the land for oil and gas drilling. Last year, he proposed increasing the National Park entry rate to $70 per vehicle (last month the Department of the Interior agreed to a more modest entry fee increase after public backlash.
When I reach the snow, I take my skins out of my pack and attach them to the bottom of my skis. Made from nylon and mohair, the skins keep the skis from sliding backwards. When paired with specialized AT bindings, they turn my skis into what are essentially long snowshoes.
I begin to make my way along the lake toward Garfield Peak, east of the Rim Village. The snow on the surrounding peaks gleams in the early morning light. Clouds roll off the ridge above the far northern shore, pushed back by the rising sun. To my left, Wizard Island rises out of the lake in front of me, its flat top ringed by evergreen trees dappled with snow, mirrored on the surrounding water.
The lake is filled primarily with precipitation falling directly on its surface. The only runoff comes from snow melting off the rim. With no silt or sediment being brought in from rivers or creeks, the water in the lake is some of the purest in the world, resulting in its legendary blue color.
This brings to mind another serious potential threat. Though the makeup of the water isn't expected to change, rising temperatures due to climate change could affect the clarity of the water. Temperature induced mixing of water from the depths of the lake with that on the surface is an important part of the health of the ecosystem. With temperatures in the region continuing to rise, that mixing is in jeopardy. A 2016 report by the US Geological Survey (https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sir20165046) predicts a severe decrease in frequency of the deepwater mixing. The upwelling caused by the mixing water plays an important role in preventing algae growth in the lake. If the frequency changes as it is expected to do so, one of the most likely outcomes is a decrease in water clarity.
With the still clear water in sight, I begin the slow ascent towards the top of Garfield Peak. Taking care to stay away from edge of the rim, and wary of the cornices that form over the steep walls, I’m ready to break and fall hundreds of feet at any moment. My skis slide across the ever-increasing slope until I reach the shoulder of the peak, the summit looming high above me. Across the snowfield in front of me, the debris of an old avalanche lays scattered across the snow.
I take off my skis, sticking them vertically into the snow. I pull a collapsible shovel out of my pack and begin to dig down into the snow. I dig a pit about a meter across and as deep as possible, looking for insight into the probability of another avalanche happening while I’m still here. I poke and prod the snow, feeling for inconsistencies. Despite the remnants of the old slide in my peripheral vision, I decide the snow is stable enough for me to continue. I push the snow back into the pit before putting my skis back on. I ski up as high as I can until it becomes too steep to continue with skis on. The snow above is littered with jagged rocks sticking out at odd angles. I remove my skis and leave them behind, continuing on foot toward the summit as the sun inches its way ever higher in the eastern sky.
Every step kicked into the snow brings me closer to the fulfillment of a dream long in the making. Ski mountaineering, the process of combining climbing a mountain in winter and skiing back down is a passion that has brought me to the tops of mountains across the United States and Canada, including Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory. But never had I summited a mountain in the Cascades and standing on top of one with the deep waters of the lake below had been an idea I had tossed around for years.
The original plan had been to make the attempt with a friend and fellow skier with whom I had grown up. But the week before, while skiing at Mt. Hood, he had broken his back when the snow he was standing on broke beneath him, sending him crashing into a tree. After talking it over with him after the injury, I had decided to go ahead without him, not knowing when I would again have the chance to ski above the lake.
I returned to my skis, down-climbing over the rocks back to the snow. I survey the slope beneath me. Hundreds of feet of untracked white lay between me and the forest below. I remove the skins from the bases of the skis and click my boots into the bindings. I point the skis down towards the trees and begin to make long, swooping turns through the snow, each one bringing me closer to the trees. I continue on through the forest, turning around the trunks of the trees until the ground becomes flat, stopping my descent. Large conifers, green boughs frosted with snow, block my view in every direction. I stand there, alone in the trees for a long time, listening to the silence only found in a forest in winter. I take off one of my gloves and rest my hand on the closest tree, feeling the rough bark beneath my palm. The sky above the tops of the trees above me is the brightest blue, thin wisps of clouds floating through it.
The future is uncertain for places like this. Climate change, anti-environmental practices like fracking drilling and logging, and a government in denial pose a threat to the sustainability of the natural wonders of our world. Who knows if we will be able to access such sacred and beautiful places in the coming years, and if we can, will we even want to? Standing there, amongst the trees, I let those thoughts drift away with the clouds and turn.