Saturday, January 5, 2013

Awe and Frustration in White River Canyon

Last year's debut backcountry ski season left me eager for more.  With the arrival of winter once again, I looked forward to more off-piste trips.  Continuous snowfall during Christmas week covered Mt. Hood in a thick white coat.  Then the sun came out.  Perfect time for a tour!  On Saturday, my friends John and Young invited me to join them for the first trip of the season.  

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

Ready for adventure! (Photo by Young)

John suggested an easy trip up the White River Canyon.  I was all for it.  A sunny winter day is the perfect time to explore this wonderful place.

Cold, blue dawn in White River Canyon

The White River Canyon is located on the southeastern flank of Mt. Hood.  In the summer it's a barren, rocky glacial plain where the White River, formed by melting glaciers high on the mountain, winds through.  But in the winter, snow turns it into a magical wonderland.

Mt. Hood wears her white coat

Amazing views and plentiful snow make this a popular place for winter recreation.  But, lucky for us, most visitors don't venture very far beyond the parking lot.  Travel a half mile, and the crowds thin considerably.

"Candy cane" tree

It was a frigid 17 degrees when my friends and I donned our skis and started up the trail.  Our hands and feet froze quickly, so we kept moving in an attempt to heat our bodies.  Although photo ops abounded, I was too cold to stop and capture any of them.

Friendly Gray Jay

We started out along a flat plain that paralleled the river, following a well-worn track in the snow.  The views were amazing - bright white Mt. Hood rose above the canyon, beckoning us on.  A brilliant blue sky framed it perfectly.  As the sun rose higher, the snow began to sparkle like diamonds.  It was magical!

After about a mile, the trail climbed a ridge and dived into the forest.  Taking a break in the trees, John noticed we had company.

John makes a friend

A group of friendly Gray Jays roosted close by, eying our snacks.  John tempted them with a couple of orange slices.  That got their attention.  Sure enough, one of the birds briefly landed in his hand.

Magnificent views!

Continuing on, the trees began to thin out, and we emerged from the woods onto the lip of the canyon.  The entire White River basin spread out before us, anchored by Mt. Hood.  The view was absolutely magnificent!

Young and I take a break

My friends and I skied very carefully down into the valley and used a snow bridge to cross the river.  Then, huffing and puffing up the opposite side, we paused for a quick breather and to scope out our route.

The snow sparkles in the sun

John suggested we ski up the middle ridge.  It appeared to lead straight into Mt. Hood.  Having no preference, Young and I followed John as he continued to climb.  About this time, the sun was high in the sky.  The combination of solar energy and our exertions enabled us to shed some layers.  Hands and feet were finally toasty!

Icky, wind-packed snow

Skiing along the top of the ridge, I stopped to gaze at the interesting patterns formed by wind scouring the snow's surface.  There were some cool ridges and ripples.  But this wind-packed snow had a very firm, crusty surface.  When it came time to travel back downhill, I realized this was not going to be fun to ski through.

John looks ahead to our destination

The track got steeper.  Gasping and sweating, my friends and I slowly pushed our skis up the snowy slope.  Clouds swirled around Mt. Hood's summit, making interesting patterns.  It provided a good distraction as I slogged along.

Swallowed up by the vast canyon

John pointed to a rocky outcrop far ahead at the ridge termination point.  There, he promised, we'd stop and have lunch.  Being the fittest of the bunch, John pushed on ahead.  I watched him slip away into the endless white void.

Time to take off the skis and have lunch!

Although it seemed to take forever to reach the outcrop, I finally arrived.   Happily removing my skis and dropping my backpack, I took a seat on one of the exposed rocks at ridge end.  I was famished.  Trail food never tasted so good!

Lunch spots don't come any better

Our lunch spot had the most amazing scenery.  The mountain rose above us - looking almost close enough to touch.  It was fun to watch wispy clouds encircle its summit.  All three ridges came together here, and appeared to terminate just below Mt. Hood.  A very dramatic scene.  Looking the opposite direction gave panoramic views back down White River Canyon.  The wow factor was off the charts.  Lunch spots don't get any better than this!

Victory pose

After refueling, and taking loads of photos, it was time to remove our climbing skins and ready ourselves for the trip back down.  I was more than a little apprehensive about skiing back through that crusty snow.  Breakable crust is one of the more difficult conditions to ski through.  One your skis punch through the crusty top layer, it's almost impossible to make turns.

Group photo

But of course backcountry skiing means you must be prepared for any type of snow conditions, good and bad.  There's no groomed runs here!  I gingerly pointed my skis down the slope and slowly allowed gravity to take hold.  At first, things seemed to go okay.  I even whipped out my camera and attempted to capture some action shots.

Time to ski back down

But it wasn't long before things started going south.  I garnered too much speed, attempted to turn, and went down, skis grabbed by a hole in the icy crust.  Below the firm top layer was 1-2 feet of fluffy snow, which acted like quicksand.  I floundered in the fluffy stuff, trying to upright myself.  My backpack acted like an anchor, preventing me from rising.  I had to take off my backpack and use my crossed ski poles as a firm surface to get back on my feet.

One of the rare times I remained upright!

Dusting off the snow, I started out again.  Not only was the snow crusty, it also varied between hard, wind-packed surface and pockets of fluffy powder.  I unexpectedly hit a powder pocket, which buried my ski tips, causing a grand face plant.

Arrghhhh......Once more I had to drop my backpack and pull myself back up.  I was covered in snow from head to toe.  Another dust-off and put myself back together.

Young is having fun

I continued down the slope, and as I descended, the falls increased.  Each time I uprighted, I became more tired.  With each fall, I got more overly cautious.  And "grumpy Linda" reared her ugly head.  It was a bad combination - fatigue, uncertainty, and frustration.

Finally after the umpteenth fall, I yelled some bad words, threw my pole, and sat steaming in my snowy wallow.  Poor Young and John - they had the unenviable task of dealing with this grouchy skier.  But being the good friends that they are, they helped me up, and provided encouragement.  It took awhile, but we finally got off that crusty ridge, and back into the well-tromped snowy trail.

The clouds begin to roll in

Drawing nearer to the parking lot, our sunny skies began to give way to clouds and light snow.  The closer to trail's end, the more people we encountered.  The area was swarming with visitors.  It seemed half of Portland had shown up to play in the snow.  Finally, tired of dodging kids in sleds, dogs, and people haphazardly wandering, I took off my skis and walked the last quarter mile.

Arriving back at the truck, John smiled and told me "Well, it was a beautiful day, no one got hurt, and you weren't at work."  Yes, today was a frustrating learning experience.  And even though the return trip wasn't fun, the wonderful scenery and being outdoors in it, trumped all the difficulties of the day.  Thanks John for putting things back into perspective.

I look forward to more trips to beautiful places this season.  And hopefully I won't fall as much next time!  :)

Stats for the day:  5.8 miles, 1600 feet elevation gain.

Linking to:  Sunny Simple Sunday.


  1. Wow, that sounded like a work out.

    Please explain your ski equipment to me. On the way up it looks like cross country skis, but then it looks like downhill skis for the way back. Do cross country skis work for downhill as well? I've never gone CC skiing, but always thought it was completely different skis than downhill skis.

  2. I continue to be impressed and am so glad we found each other's blogs. I'm learning much about skiing from you. And those pictures are awesome as always. Glad you finished well and were not hurt in any of the falls. Just curious if you were sore the next day. And wouldn't you love to know how many thousands of calories you burned??

  3. Wow! ~ Fantastic photography ~ Nature is so beautiful ~ Glad you had a fun time and got such beautiful shots.

    A Creative Harbor) aka ArtMuseDog and Carol ^_^

  4. What amazing views and photos - I want to take up back-country skiing or snowshoeing.

  5. Couldn't cope with the ski-ing but love the scenery. I could look at that all day.

  6. Beautiful scenery!...thank goodness for good/warm gear, right?!?

  7. Linda, what breathtaking pictures! Love the ones with the sun shining and the vistory pose. How awesome to have a Jay land right in your friends hand. You are such a die hard girl. We were going to go snow shoeing. It has been record breaking cold here so we decided to wait till next Saturday. The older I get the whimpier I am when it comes to cold.

  8. Beautiful pictures Linda. I have never skied and what great exercise! Also great opportunity to take great photos. Love the bird picture.

  9. Linda,
    Incredible scenery...I am totally in awe of the beauty you (and your friends) captured on your cameras! As always, I loved all your photos, but am especially fond of the bird photos (so incredibly cool)-- and the 'candy cane tree'.

  10. Linda,

    Thanks for coming by and thanks for your comment. These are some amazing shots of Hood and environs. I am envious of you for being able to see all this quiet beauty. We drove from Salem to Vancouver about a week ago and around Portland we were able to see that All the mountains were out from Hood to Rainier. Gorgeous.


  11. wow I know the ride down was frustrating (i never would have made call me a helicopter haha) but WOW the view you had that mountain all to yourself.

  12. I'm late in seeing this post, but it is amazing! My favorite is the clouds in the photos. So beautiful!

  13. Linda, that looks like an exciting trip! That is such beautiful country, and your photos really capture it. The jay was neat! I had a similar encounter at Mt. Rainier with a bird landing in my hand for a granola bar. I'll have to go back and look if it was the same kind of jay.


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