A Midwinter's Day at Smith Rock
Wednesday 23 January 2013 — Category: Outings
Sweet Home, and then continued on to my first Winter crossing of the Cascades. About halfway up to Tombstone Pass (what an encouraging name!) I was amazed and shocked to find snow and ice on the road (U.S. Route 20). Because there had not been any snowfall for a couple of weeks, I had imagined that this important highway had been completely plowed and cleared of such dangerous conditions.
There seemed to be plenty of gravel spread over these patches, but I still put my 2009 Toyota Tacoma into 4x4 mode. The higher I went, the more frequent these patches became; by the time I reached the Tombstone (about 13 miles west of Santiam Pass), the entire road was covered. But apparently the gravel was doing its job, because I never felt like the road was dangerously slippery. However, I was driving at a fairly modest speed. Fortunately I was pretty much alone up there, so I did not have to worry about frustrating other drivers with my cautions driving. In fact, the road was so empty that I was able to stand in the middle of it to get a sunrise photo of Three Fingered Jack.
I stopped in the Hoodoo area to take some photos, repeating a number of the same shots I had taken from the same places less than a year before in April 2012. Then I started heading down the east side of the Cascades to Sisters. By now the road was completely clear and normal. I continued 30 miles past Sisters, through Redmond, to my final destination: Smith Rock.
I had heard of this place before, but had simply pooh-poohed it ... “Well, it’s just a rock.” That’s about as accurate and intelligent as saying a cathedral is just a church! In many ways Smith Rock reminds me of a cathedral — a volcanic cathedral made of soaring stone, glowing many-hued in the illumination of the Winter sun. The sights were breathtaking, and often I stood gazing, transfixed, lost in awe and wonder. Everywhere I looked there was another beautiful scene to photograph, and every dozen paces revealed a new vista to marvel at.
I had arrived around 9:30 and started walking about half an hour later. It was quite cold out, and a bitter east wind created a piercing chill. Fortunately I had a good selection of clothing, including a couple of items I had purchased for my aborted February Yellowstone trip. After putting on a medium-weight cloth jacket, I slipped a Columbia windbreaker on over that to keep the wind out. To protect my neck and head, I wore a balaclava under my Tilley hiking hat. To keep my hands from turning into blocks of ice, I wore, for the first time, a pair of Yoko Gore Windstopper gloves. They are lightweight and flexible enough that I can operate my camera with them on, yet they do an excellent job of blocking the wind and keeping my hands warm.
OK ... so I’m not going to win any beauty contests, but I’ll take function over fashion anytime! Besides, black is always in style! My gear kept me toasty warm in the frigid conditions, without making me too hot. But later on in my walk, when I started up a steep path, I had stripped all this extra gear away, wearing only jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, and of course, my Tilley hat.
As I started my walk, I could not go very many feet before I had to stop and take pictures of the incredible scenery. By noon I had not made much progress in my hike, but I had made a lot of progress in my photography! Obviously I was going to have to pick up my pace if I was going to make it back to my truck in good time on a short Winter’s day. I followed the Crooked River generally south around the peninsula of Smith Rock, and then back north on the west side. As I advanced, I began to have some problems with patches of ice on the trail, but the incline was fairly moderate so I was able to manage without too much difficulty. But it started to worry me ... if the trail was icy at river level, what was it going to be like climbing 700 steep feet over Misery Ridge to get back to my truck? To my misery, I was about to find out.
It’s true that a 700-foot gain in elevation doesn’t sound like very much, but there are a couple of points to consider. First of all, the trail is quite steep, because you’re going up one side of a huge rock formation, and then down the other side. If that is not hard enough, the upper parts of the trail on both sides were covered with patches — and sometimes long stretches — of ice! So mix ice with a steep, narrow trail, and you’ve got yourself a dangerous, and potentially deadly, combination.
Even though there was more ice on the west-side ascent, I think the fact that I was going uphill helped to make it more manageable. If I had been going DOWN that side, I would have been much more afraid. As it turned out, there was only one tricky part, at the turn of a switchback, where I had to scramble a bit on my hands and knees.
After a whole hour I finally made it to the top. Part of my slow progress can be attributed to the steepness of the trail and having to catch my breath again and again. Part was because of the treacherous ice on the trail, while part was due to the 130 photos I took all the way up!
At this point I imagined that the worst was behind, but I soon discovered how wrong I was! The east side of the Misery Ridge Trail is even steeper than the west side. And although there was significantly less ice on the trail, there were still some alarming patches, and I was now going downhill, so gravity was working against me.
Soon I came to a stretch of ice which provided no adequate footholds on either side of the path in order to descend safely. Right at this point another hiker arrived from behind me, and then easily walked down the icy trail! He had shoe chains attached to his boots, but silly me, I left mine in the truck because I didn’t think I would need them! I stood there considering my options for what seemed like a long time, until I was convinced there was only one way to proceed. Therefore I sat down, and scooted / slid on my bottom for 20 or 30 feet! It was undignified and humiliating, but at least I got past that dangerous section safely!
After that escapade, things got better and in a while I was past the ice patches altogether. Arriving at my truck after six-and-a-quarter hours on the trail, I was grateful to be alive and uninjured, and to have experienced and photographed so much awesome beauty.
As is my habit when going on outings east of the Cascades, I stopped for dinner at Bronco Billy’s in Sisters on the way home. Afterwards, I had a difficult time crossing Santiam Pass due to the combination of packed snow covering the road, the nighttime darkness, and a multitude of cars heading east continually shining their headlights in my eyes. It was very hard to see where I was going, but somehow I made it through without mishap. By the time I had passed Route 22 going to Salem and Route 126 going to Eugene, the oncoming traffic had almost ceased, and I could see a lot better.
In the western foothills a thick fog began, which continued all the way home. Thus my 15-hour, 270-mile, 525-photo Winter excursion to Smith Rock was brought to a successful conclusion. I’m thinking that that ought to be enough adventure to last me quite a while, but then again, you never know when wanderlust will strike again!
Because I have such a huge backlog of photos I need to process and gather into albums, the best photos from this outing will most likely not be available on this Web site for another two or three months. That’s another good reason to stay home rather than going out and taking yet more pictures!
APRIL UPDATE: I finally finished processing the photos — see The Breath-Taking Beauty Of Smith Rock for all the details!