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Fall is my favorite season to spend in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. Comfortable midday temperatures give way to cool evenings, and enough precipitation has fallen to put out the fires and darken the green of the trees, but not enough has fallen to fill the mountains with snow. Once again, it was time for Mike and me to spend a weekend in the woods.
Our first thought was to explore some rocks, and right until the week before the trip we looked at doing Young’s Rock and Moon Point. But Mike ended up selling me on a trip up Diamond Peak via the Rockpile Trailhead, with an option to tackle our previous plan on Sunday, or just explore Pine Creek Falls. He’d come down Friday night, then we’d leave as early as possible on Saturday, with a goal of reaching the trailhead at dawn around seven, summiting by one, and getting in to camp by five, to give us about an hour and a half before it got too dark to do anything.
Trip Prep and Planning
Taking the bus down would severely limit how much Mike could bring with him. While that isn’t really a problem—I have everything I’d need for two people to go camping—it did mean I’d need to take on the vast majority of gear and supply assembly.
Further complicating things, this year’s trip would be similar to last year’s in terms of season. On that trip, I had felt cold all night long, though I’d also come to the realization that I was camping, rather than backpacking, and I might as well embrace the added flexibility that allowed me.
The first way added space would have an impact was food. On previous trips, dinner might consist of a freeze dried meal, followed by instant coffee in the morning, possibly with some trail mix. I’d invested a lot of time in improving my cooking skills in my kitchen, and it felt like I ought to use some of that skill to improve our meals in the woods. After much internet research, I thought we’d try jambalaya for dinner, with mulled wine after, followed by French toast for breakfast, along with some cowboy coffee.
Opting for more serious food led me down a cast iron pot rabbit hole, reading about cooking acidic things, Lodge’s Cook-it-all versus regular Dutch ovens, and cooking over an open fire rather than on coals, plus many more. I ended up purchasing a 4-quart cast iron camp Dutch oven, plus a camp tool, and a pack of scrapers.
While Lodge ships their pots and pans pre-seasoned, I thought I’d give seasoning a try at home, just to understand how. But I put far too much vegetable oil on it, and cooked at too low a temperature, leaving me with a sticky residue covering my entire pot. One Cooking StackExchange post and several hours later and I had my pot back to about the condition it arrived in. But at least the house was warm all day.
While on previous trips Mike and I had used my tent, this time we’d try hammock camping. His setup was centered around an Eno Singlenest, with Atlas Straps to wrap around tree trunks, a ProFly rain tarp to keep dry, and an Ember underquilt to keep warm (plus his regular sleeping bag in the hammock). My setup would be similar to my first hammock trip, but with the addition of a three season Potomac underquilt.
But because neither of us had any idea how cold we’d be, we brought a redundant sleep setup, and the tent, foam pads, and an extra sleeping bag went onto the gear pile.
The day before Mike arrived, I made a trip to the grocery store to pick up what we needed, and realized we’d completely failed to communicate a meal plan, resulting in me trying to think about what we’d both need, and ultimately buying much more food than necessary. Of course, I also bought groceries for the house for the week, thinking I would combine shopping trips. But it actually complicated matters, since once I got home, I had to remember to separate out trip items from the items for the family.
On Friday, after picking Mike up, and making a couple of stops to run some last minute errands (like getting a Forest Pass, and grabbing some extra tortillas from my sister), Mike mentioned that he had a set of microspikes, just in case there was a little snow or ice on the mountain. In the week before we left, there had been a few days of rainfall in Eugene. Diamond Peak tops out at 8,748 feet, and while we were confident snow had fallen there, sixty degree temperatures during the rest of the week, coupled with freezing temperatures at night made us unsure what we’d encounter. We stopped at REI and picked up a pair of microspikes and gloves for me, and some jerky for Mike (bacon jerky, of course). Then it was back home to load up the car.
After the car was loaded, I ran around the house doing last minute things (like watching an instructional video for my underquilt, which I hadn’t yet tried). Around 10, it felt like everything was finally ready. And I went to bed.
I couldn’t sleep. Here’s the night in question:
Garmin is usually pretty generous with deciding things are sleep. I don’t actually think I slept between those two pink spikes (where Garmin detected that I was up and moving).
I couldn’t stop planning. Several times during the night I found myself adding notes to my alarm on my phone about little things I had to do. For instance, here’s my alarm for that morning:
The absurdity of those notes, probably made around 2am, is striking now. I didn’t need a sponge, really. It certainly wasn’t going to make or break the trip. The rag I had in the kitchen container was good enough. The titanium bowl was for use mulling wine (using a pot in pot method). I’d apparently forgotten that we would have other bowls with us. Mushrooms had to do with reminding Jillian that I haven’t had a chance to mow down the mushrooms growing in the backyard, and she should watch out to make sure the dog and our child don’t eat them. Never mind that she already knew that and both our dog and child have never shown interest in eating them, and that they’ve been there for over a week, and remain there a week after.
Since I was up anyway, I had coffee going by four, and Mike made some eggs. We were on the road by 4:30am, for a two hour drive to the Rockpile trailhead. Along the way, we saw a surprising number of other vehicles out. It wasn’t until after the trip I realized we’d picked the opening weekend for deer season. We were also momentarily surprised when we came around a turn on NF-2149 to find a slash pile burning. With the pre-dawn dark making it hard to see, and with smoke floating around the forest, seeing the piles smolder was an otherworldly experience.
Just before arriving at the trailhead (Sullivan’s directions are perfect), we spotted our first real snow. By the time we hiked past the wilderness permit station, a hundred yards from the trailhead, snow completely covered the trail. Though neither of us was equipped for a snow hike, it didn’t seem terribly deep, and the weather looked great, so we moved on toward Rockpile and Marie lakes.
A little over a mile in, there’s a great overlook above the lakes (though it’s actually Summit lake that’s visible in the distance in this photo). It’s just about the right distance for a good day hike for a toddler.
Our path took us along the Pacific Crest Trail, and it was here we started seeing a lot of tracks.
We also spotted elk, bobcat, and rabbit tracks. But it was the bear tracks that wouldn’t leave us, the bear having wandered back and forth across the trail all morning. The cairn for the summit trail turn off was easy to spot.
But it was the only one that was easy to spot. For the rest of the hike, most cairns were only two or three stones high. While it was easy to know which way to go (up!), it was hard to know which way had the best terrain, and our path up the mountain was sinuous.
Snow at the lower elevations varied from about three to four inches, with larger rocks exposed. Trekking poles were incredibly helpful.
Once we broke out of the trees, it became very hard to see where to step as the snow deepened. While most steps were only into four or five inches of snow, every tenth or fifteen step might find me up to my knee.
At about where the trees and rocks stop in that picture, near the ridge of the right, we stopped to reevaluate. The snow was melting, becoming wet and slick, and soaking my boots all the way through. The rocks and trees, which had provided some stability, were disappearing, meaning we’d probably be climbing on loose scree. And we were running out of daylight. Though it was only one, that’d been our original turn around time, and now we were looking at a longer descent than planned due to the bad terrain. Some quick math made it clear that if we wanted to make it to camp before dark, we needed to turn around. We took a picture about a thousand vertical feet from the summit and started following our own steps back down.
The extent of the melting snow quickly became clear, as places we’d previously considered trail became very obviously streams. My boots, Vivobarefoot Trackers, soon held standing water. We were hungry, but kept skipping rocks that we’d talked about as places to stop for lunch just to keep my feet warm. I also discovered they’d lost a lacing rivet, leading to uneven lacing and hot spots. Hurting when I moved, but rapidly getting cold when I stopped was a bad combination.
Enough snow had cleared from the trees that we could finally see the mountain.
Near Rockpile lake, we ran into the only other person we saw all day on the trail. He was on his way in to camp near the lake, and try to summit the next morning. That was probably a better plan than ours, since the mountain looked visibly less snow covered.
We returned to the car right at four, and I promptly got it started to blow heat across my bare feet. Once we were loaded back up, it was time to find a place to camp. While I hadn’t seen many wild camping options, I did know there were two campgrounds still open: Indigo Springs and Sacandaga.
Indigo Springs was my first pick, since it’s a much smaller campground and free (though there’s a proposal to add a fee). But when we pulled in, we found the best site already occupied with some folks who stared at us and didn’t return a wave. Since neither of the the other sites was well situated for hammock camping, we drove on.
Sacandaga was busy, but the first site we came to was perfect for hammocking. And despite deer season and a ridiculous looking endurance run, it was delightfully quiet.
It took a few tries to get the fire going, since the wood nearby was wet, but once it had burned long enough to build some coals, I chopped the vegetables and started dinner. While trip planning, I think I’d been picturing the fire pit from last year’s campfire, which was a perfect setup for a camp Dutch oven like mine. But in official campgrounds, there’s sometimes a steel grate over the fire pit which makes it easy to use a flat bottom pan. Luckily the legs on my oven fit perfectly into the grate, keeping the pan centered over a log (there weren’t enough coals to avoid a direct flame). The heat was a uneven (I needed to rotate the pot more), and things burned to the pan pretty quickly. But we finished the jambalaya—all four quarts— between us.
Since the fire and dinner had taken so long, by the time we were done it was already nine. We sat (me in a broken camp chair) and stared at the fire for a little while, sipping at that bottle of wine I was going to mull, before deciding we were crazy to keep fighting sleep. We were both in our hammocks before ten.
I wore a lot of clothing to bed: wool sock liners, wool socks, polypropylene bottoms, fleece pants, polypropylene long-sleeve, a wool sweater, a wool long-sleeve, a puffy, a wool hat, and my gloves. Besides those, I also had my underquilt and down sleeping bag. Unlike last year, I was delightfully too warm. I had to remove my hat and gloves to fall asleep. For a little while, I was too thirsty from the long hike to get to a deep sleep, but too tired and warm to get up. Eventually my exhaustion won out.
Despite a brief wakeup at six, at which point I realized my feet were freezing, we both slept until after nine, some eleven hours after we first went to bed. Since none of my cowboy coffee attempts had ever worked out, I used the stove to quickly make some instant coffee and we explored the nearby trails to the river.
By chance, we took almost the same picture:
In previous trips, I’d depended on my cell phone for photographs. But due to a lens accident and a quirk of Amazon pricing, we recently had an extra DSLR body which I thought I’d try. Results were disappointing, due to my limited understanding of the settings and failure to check the quality of a picture after I took it.
While we’d planned to tackle Young’s Rock or Moon Point on Sunday, after our venture to the river it was already after ten, and we were running out of time. of course, my boots were still soaked through and missing a rivet. We loaded up the car and headed back toward town, with plans to stop at Pine Creek Falls.
But there doesn’t appear to be a sign marking Pine Flats on the way back toward town, so we missed it entirely. Instead, we stopped at a very low Hills Creek Reservoir to walk around.
The view from closer to the dam was a little better.
We made a stop at Stewart’s Highway 58 Drive-in for lunch, where for once I was actually able to finish all my food, and then returned to Eugene.
My new gloves, Pendleton shirt, and underquilt were all fantastic. But my boots essentially made it impossible for us to do any more hiking on Sunday. I’ve been progressively less impressed with VivoBarefoot, having encountered quality issues on all four pairs of their shoes I’ve owned. My quest for a boot continues. I was able to return the microspikes, and even got to keep the promotional gift card.
While I was very happy with the Dutch oven, I underestimated how much time cooking and cleaning would take. We ran out of time Saturday night, and I scrubbed and reseasoned when we got back to Eugene. I’m not sure the silicone scrapers were worth it, and wonder if a metal scrubber would have been a better choice.
I’m still torn on the camera. I’m confident that even my fifteen year old DSLR can take substantially better photos than even the nicest phones. And at the very least, it can do a better job of taking the photo I want to take, since there’s more control. But I don’t know if I want that control. I might be happier with cell phone shots that are pretty good, but don’t require thinking or an extra pound of weight. Since I’m going to need to replace my cell phone soon anyway, I’m leaning towards depending on my cell. But I’ll likely try using the camera some for work, and see if I am actually interested in proper photography.
Another highlight of the trip was CalTopo. While it doesn’t compare to sitting down with an actual paper map, it’s the best digital topographic experience I’ve seen.
The hardest thing thing to figure out for next time is how to get some more sleep the night before. I think there were a lot of contributing factors to my anxiety: I added a lot of new gear and techniques, we changed routes last minute, we were going somewhere I’d never been, I didn’t feel like my physical house was in order, and I didn’t have a system for gear or tasks. Some of those I can work on. For instance I’ll probably invest some time in trying to put together a dedicated camp kitchen in a box, which I can just grab and take as a single unit. And I’ll try putting together a checklist (though likely worry about if my checklist has everything on it). But I may also explore changing scheduling. Rather than an early, early morning Saturday departure, leaving in the evening on Friday might mean that I have all day long Friday to get my stuff together, letting me sleep the night before. I think once I’m in the woods, committed to the trip, I won’t have any issues.
This was the first trip where I really understood the appeal of a camp trailer. Having a place for every item you need on a trip is incredibly appealing, since it feels like then you’d be ready to go on a quick weekend trip any time.
There’s a few additional pictures in the very unordered album on Flickr.