Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gold Lake snow backpacking trip

This week my brother Lee and I went to the Cascades to do some cold-weather camping.  It had been a LOT of years since I'd pitched a tent on the snow and I wanted to remind myself what it felt like.

Lee and I met around 11:00 a.m. on Monday morning and loaded up both our packs and the dogs.  We made good time to Oakridge and had a quick bite to eat before heading into the woods.  The area where we went was very near Gold Lake, just west of Willamette Pass ski area.  The parking lot we parked in is an ODOT SnoPark, meaning that certain times of the year a permit is required to park.  Being that we were so early in the season (permits aren't required until Nov. 15th) we were happy to avoid the fee and assembled our gear for the hike.

 We didn't have any real agenda, save that I was interested in seeing Maiden Peak, about 8 miles away from the car.  I let Lee know the rough itinerary and we headed across the highway and onto a seasonally-closed Forest Service Road.  As we hiked the sun came out and let the blue sky provide a beautiful contrast to the snow-laden trees.  I was very impressed at the serenity that was afforded to us almost immediately into our journey, as there were no other tracks in the snow indicating that we were the first folks on the road for at least a day or two.  We watched the dogs run back and forth (and back and forth again), playing in the snow they love so much.

After about two miles on the road, we came to a trailhead that led to the PCT, then on to Maiden Peak to our East.  We opted to take this route knowing that there were no lakes on this segment of trail that we would pass.  A note about my dogs; despite all common sense, they absolutely LOVE playing in the water, even in November, even when it's snowing, even when they are sleeping in a tent with me.  Knowing this, it was silly for us to continue on to Gold Lake where the dogs would inevitably go swimming.

We huffed up the trail (it was moderately steep) for an hour or so and then took a break, shedding layers and snacking on granola bars.  Lee and I decided to make a camp sooner than later, as we knew by this time (nearly 3 p.m.) we wouldn't make Maiden Peak on this excursion.  We donned our packs once more and hiked a short half-hour to our campsite, a wonderfully level tree-free area just about 100' off of the trail.

We decided although the sun was still shining that putting up the tent first would be a good idea.  This was fortuitous for sure as soon after erecting the tent it began to spit ice pellets.  They were very small and not long in falling so we continued to stay out of the tent, hours of daylight left before we wanted to head inside.  Lee had a strong urge to build a fire (and I did not) so he began to scout for firewood among the snowy branches.  The amount of snow on the ground was minimal, maybe two to four inches, so there were many canopies that had protected their undergrowth from the wet weather.  Lee quickly found several dry twigs, but it was apparent that I would be a big jerk if I didn't help him find debris.  We spent about half an hour looking, looking, looking for firewood to burn and finally amassed a small cache to get us started.  Although I was initially against the fire in the first place, I long ago learned that a good fire is the centerpiece for a decent camp, and that things just seem nicer when a soft glowing flame is warming your fingers and toes.

We had the fire going after one match, be it a VERY large match, and we quickly smelled of smoke and began to warm up.  After stopping our body temperatures quickly dropped so it was nice to have another heat source to keep us warm.  Lee put a can of soup on the coals to warm up and I cooked some ground beef and combined it with a container of leftover rice from home.  Soon enough, we had dinner and a couple beers, as well, provided by yours truly as a special treat.

We ended up going to the tent around 7:30 or so due to the darkness and the timidity of the fire.  We were sharing a four-person tent with the dogs, but they both insisted on sleeping ON our sleeping bags instead of next to us.  This made for a headache as neither of us could roll over or move our legs due to 65 pounds of yellow lab laying on us.  I slept poorly, on account of both being smashed and the cold air that crept into the tent when the wind blew.


Morning came eventually and I was the first one up.  My toes had been cold all night, but even with my thick wool socks (thank you in-laws) putting my feet in my frozen boots when I woke proved to be too much for me to cope with.  I couldn't feel my toes after about half an hour so I decided to revive our fire to help warm me up.  I worked for an hour or so on gathering more wood, then finally warmed back up once the flames were going.  Lee awoke and joined me, his boots frozen so solid that he couldn't lace them up, nor fit his feet in until thawing them near the flames.  I guess that it was about 25 degrees when we awoke, and it wasn't getting any warming as the morning wore on.

Lee and I then decided it was time to head back to civilization so we packed the tent, gear, and extinguished the fire.  We made good time heading back to the FS road that we came in on, and the snow was nearly constant.  It was wonderful to see the car at the parking lot and warm up our bodies again.  All in all, I had a wonderful time with Lee and was really glad he was able to join me on this trip.  Having done snow camping before I knew we'd have a few challenges, but we managed them well and neither of us got frostbite.  Next time, more warm clothes will be a necessity.


  1. The snow camping looks really interesting, any other tips besides just bringing lots of warm socks?

  2. @Jennifer I have a few more recommendations for you:

    -As always, make sure someone who's reliable and who's not going on the trip with you knows your itinerary. Don't deviate from your plan that you give them, either! If you don't check in by the time you told your contact you would, they'll be calling search and rescue and you'll be found MUCH sooner if you're where you told your contact you'd be.

    -Bring layers and layers of synthetic or wool clothes. Cotton is your enemy in the outdoors. It's not something I usually wear on summer hikes, let alone on winter hikes. On this trip the only cotton I wore was my t-shirt, which I knew wouldn't be getting wet.

    -Snowshoes are worth their investment. I own a pair but Lee doesn't so this trip we did not bring any, but normally anytime I'm on the snow I bring mine. Using them to smash down your tent site so it's level is also a very handy tip.

    -Don't underestimate your caloric intake. I ate about every 30 minutes on this trip and it worked for me. Hiking with an overnight pack on requires more energy than just a normal hike, and maintaining your body temperature in a cold environment takes even more. Keep yourself energized with food and you'll have a more enjoyable time.

    Thanks for posting your comment!

  3. I love snow camping, from the warmth of my living room,,,hee,hee,,,good idea bringing the beer,,