Termination Dust

Alaskans refer to “termination dust” when speaking of the first fall snowfall. It’s that “dust coating of snow that appears on the mountain tops in fall, signaling the end of summer.”

Looking at Mount Hood looming before me, I can’t help but be reminded of that definition, and the late fall trip that Andy and I spent in Alaska, looking at termination dust on the peaks of the Alaska Range. I love, love, love fall. Truly, my favorite season.

Technically, it isn’t fall, yet. But the mountain doesn’t know that (and clearly doesn’t care). Last night, it snowed on me. 

Good morning, September (Skyscape tent by Six Moon Designs)

Mount Hood Wilderness, Oregon
~16 miles, ~2100’ elevation gain

With the new house purchase and projects (and it just being HOT), I’ve partaken in very little outdoor time this summer (negative note). Interestingly enough, almost all my forays out since June have been backpacking trips (positive note). Historically, September is a lovely month in the PNW and great backpacking weather; this year, though, summer came to a screeching and abrupt halt with the arrival of rains and dropping temps. So although I was eyeballing the forecast warily, I was determined to get out and see where it would take me.

I probably texted Andy three different itineraries before I left the house. A fourth itinerary change arrived in his inbox during a gas station stop when I saw Mount Hood was visible from I-84. Just couldn’t seem to make up my mind this morning but, upon seeing the mountain, I knew I needed the alpine. The question was, how tolerable was the mountain going to be of me? Timberline Lodge said 40°….

Part of the reason for this trip though was a gear test. I’m testing limits and learning my comfort zone still and nothing, nothing tests your gear and your backup plans like poor weather and a mountain. So, here goes nothing…

With my Brooks Range Tension 30 (<= LOVE that thing) still with the company for a repair, I rented a Six Moon Designs Skyscape tent to see how I liked it. I’ve been looking for a solo tent for a while in an effort to drop additional weight from my pack, and I’d heard good things about this company. I’ve been slowly shedding the weight from my pack (still working on the sleeping bag/filter weight issue), and the Skyscape could potentially drop another 15 oz off the weight.

It was 49° at the Top Spur trailhead as I began the 1300’, three mile steady climb up to the Timberline Trail. I wasn’t sure how far I would go this day- it all depended on weather and how I was feeling- and the plan remained loose. Two nights, maybe a base camp and some day hiking, maybe changing sites. Really, I just wanted to be out.

The last time I backpacked in this area, it was midsummer, full of bugs and wildflowers. The mountain wears a different face in the fall, no less beautiful, no less colorful, no less intriguing. There is an intimate sort of beauty to the slow wind down for the long, winter slumber. 

breaking out of the forest- Hood, Sandy glacier (snow dragon caves visible) and Yocum Ridge

At the turnoff to McNeil, I decided to press on, see how far my feet felt like carrying me. Up here, past the 5000’ mark, it was distinctly cooler, the sky threatening and grey, Hood playing a game of peek-a-boo with the clouds. I continued the up and down ramble along the Timberline Trail, leapfrogging with numerous groups hiking round the mountain.

(Someday I’ll do the whole thing. Somehow, I never get around to it. Perhaps it’s finally time to remedy that.)

fall colors on the Timberline Trail

Stream crossings though- they always make me nervous. And Hood has them aplenty. McGee and the Ladd proved uneventful (not always the case) but there are certainly bigger waters on Hood. 

crossing McGee creek

Just before Cairn Basin, I enter the Dollar Lake burn zone, absolutely eerie in the flat light. When I was last here two years ago, the undercover still hadn’t quite started to recover and many of the trees remained charred and black. Now, silvered snags greeted me and evidence of the summer’s wildflower explosion remained, testimony to the recovery of burn zones. Beautiful in a stark, surreal fashion. 

Dollar Lake fire transition zone

the burn is spotty in Cairn Basin

the Ladd crossing is always interesting

I still consider the north side of Hood, burns or not (Gnarl Ridge Fire 2009 and Dollar Lake Fire 2011), to be some of the most glorious wanderings on my backyard mountain playground. There is raw, spectacular, untamed feel to the wilderness here. Past Cairn Basin, I wandered into Wy’east Basin, one of my go-to places of the heart on Hood. I made the decision to stay here, maybe day hike up Barrett Spur the next morning. 

Hood peek-a-boo from Cairn Basin

True to mountain form, just as I found a suitable low-impact site in the trees, the mountain decided sleet was in order. Yippee.

I will say this about the Skyscape- it sets up fast and easy. I was concerned it wouldn’t feel too stable (some trekking pole designs feel downright flimsy), but it felt sturdy, was easy to stake out and was nicely roomy for a one person tent inside. And in Pepper and I went. She was done with the cold and immediately commandeered the sleeping bag.

I have no idea what the temperature was that evening, but whatever it was it dropped quickly and with a vengeance. The wind wasn’t the worst I’ve been in, but it was by far the coldest night in the backcountry I have experienced. 

(I feel cold just looking at this)

fall colors in Wy'east Basin

Oh, and upon trying to filter water for the evening meal, my water filter completely crapped out on me. And I had no backup plan. Yippee.  (<= poor planning, Amanda, poor planning). I still had about 1.5L with me, so not all was lost, but I forewent dinner that evening to spare water. I was also surprisingly not hungry, perhaps due to how cold I was.

Which is also something I continue trying to figure out.  I was wearing gear I use to snowshoe in- some bombproof Mammut softshells with a thermal underlayer, a Smartwool shirt over another underlayer, gloves, hat and a puffy. Still, it took some time completely buried in my 15° bag (while spooning a grumbling dog) to warm up.

I was pleased with the tent though. Also in contrast to my previous experience with a single wall tent, the Skyscape vents really well. I had nice airflow, which contributed to low condensation buildup (not none, just minimal). It had been raining all night, and the tent pitch remained taut, not bowing like I expected it to.

At about 3:30 am I woke up absolutely freezing and needing to pee. (Ah, backpacking). The tent felt slightly stuffy, and my initial impression was that the rain had finally gotten the better of the fly, finally succeeding in shellacking it to the netting.

Nope. Turns out, it was a nice half inch to inch layer of our infamous Cascade Concrete. Whoopsies. That will weigh any tent down.

I stepped out the tent to pitch blackness, completely clear skies, brilliant starlight, and a white world. Freezing and positively breathtaking. All regrets, all discomfort vanished. Ah, backpacking.

I spent some time beating the snow off the Skyscape and the pitch immediately rebounded. Truthfully, I was impressed that a trekking pole tent had remained that stable with that much weight on it. My old Nemo probably would have fallen on me. I watched the stars for awhile before I got too cold and the clouds came rolling back in, obliterating the sky. Back to the sleeping bag, snugged in and hunkered down for a few more hours.

In the morning, still too cold, I waited until the sun crested the horizon before finally getting out of the tent. The clouds were high with a dim, intermittent sun, but the mountain was out. I determined I *did* have enough water for coffee (those who know me know nothing happens without my morning coffee), but the lack of water, ability to filter combined with new snow kaboshed my plans for a hike up Barrett Spur. I just didn’t have the energy or ambition for it this morning. I had enough water to hike out, but in the interest of playing it smart, I just decided it was a head back home kind of day. 

Hood with new snow (Wy'east Basin)

Rainier & Adams from camp, Dollar Lake burn zone below


Going back the way I came, the trail was eerily silent and beautiful with its new coat of snow. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t tend to mind visiting the same trail twice or out-and-back hikes. I always find a new perspective. Oddly enough, although I had originally wanted two nights on the trail, I found myself content and relaxed in the way that wilderness only gives me. A sense of space in my head, a calming of the chatter. Funny how when the world narrows down to immediate realities, everything else seems small. 

snow pug

until next time, Hood

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