Chapter 10: Going to meet the devil
THIS WAS IT. Shortly after the 4:50 A.M. wake up beep from my Casio, I lay in the darkness and thought: By day’s end we will either be triumphantly past Devils Peak or heading back to the highway, our trip in shambles. In 8.6 miles, we would know our fate. I prayed, then slid on my headlight and reached for my still-damp clothes that hadn’t been washed in nearly a week. Show time.
Each year, particularly in California, snow spoiled hikers’ PCT dreams. Sometimes it only delayed those dreams. People with flexible time schedules might hop ahead to a lower-elevation section, then return at trip’s end, after significant snowmelt, to finish what they’d missed earlier. We had no such flexibility. This was it. By this afternoon, it would be either on to Crater Lake for a triumphant reunion Saturday with our families—and fresh supplies—or a marathon-distance trudge back to Highway 140, knowing we’d failed.
The uncertainty gnawed at me. The more I tried to ignore it the more it returned to pester me. I desperately wanted to complete this cross-state hike as we’d planned, border to border. On the other hand, Glenn and I weren’t seasoned adventurers willing to risk all for a notch in the belt. Nor were we willing to put our lives on the line just so we could say we “did it.”
The morning’s hike was a quiet one, the only revelry muted recognition that we had hit the hundred-mile mark of our journey. I took my mind off Devils Peak—and its prelude, a peak known as Lucifer—by thinking of Judge Waldo. In September 1888, he had come south near the present PCT, camping at Island Lake, a cutoff to which we had passed the previous day.
Waldo spent most of his summers in the 110-mile stretch between Mount Jefferson and Diamond Lake. But in 1888, at age forty-three, he and four others ventured this way on a trail far cruder than the well-maintained PCT we now followed.
Waldo was Oregon’s John Muir, the naturalist from California who founded the Sierra Club—and whose mountain journeys, too, once took him north through this area, to Crater Lake. For Waldo, the high-mountain experience was religion without church. “Here I am at Pamelia Lake, breathing the pine scented air and already feeling much stronger, both in body and spirit,” he wrote in 1907.
“Blessed be the mountains and the free and untenanted wilderness.”
When something threatened that experience, however, Waldo got angry; “at Crane Prairie once more,” he wrote on August 9, 1886.
“Quite well but my fine Summer Resort has been discovered and turned to base uses—nearly four thousand sheep have dispossessed us and the deer and bear from a great part of our possessions—driven us into the nooks and corners of its wide expanse, still undisturbed, but with such occupation of a part, the charm of the whole is gone.”
Given his love for the Oregon Cascades—and the efforts he would take to keep that wilderness wild—it struck a sour, if not intriguing, note with me to learn what Waldo and his pals had done at Island Lake: chiseled a foot-high marquee into a tree on the southeast corner of the lake and carved their names and the date they’d been there. “Sept. 13, 1888.” In our modern-day eco minds, in a time when some purists would have frowned on me for not packing out my human solid waste, the idea seemed reprehensible. But the tradition of arborglyphs—tree writing—dated back centuries. Wrote Robert H. Cox in The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader:
Trees have been used to express love, as message boards and boundary marks, as location maps, and as artist’s palette. Cherokee Indians tagged beech trees along portions of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s; Civil War soldiers would carve names and dates in trees as they passed; pioneers left their mark as they migrated west; and Basque sheepherders etched images on the high-country aspen of Nevada, Oregon, and California beginning in the late nineteenth century.
The idea that I could have touched Waldo’s name etched into a Shasta red fir the previous day had been inviting. And given another pass on that portion of trail, I would take the Red Lake Trail, a western spur of the PCT. I would bushwhack my way to “The Waldo Tree,” clearly marked, and surrounded by a split-log rail. But the side trip looked to be at least a two-hour proposition. On paper, before the trip, the idea had seemed practical. But with a depleted body and a concerned mind, I hadn’t even brought up the idea to Glenn. For now, Devils Peak had to be our priority. Waldo would have to wait.
ABOUT THREE miles from Devils Peak, patches of snow started dotting the trail, the first we had seen since the day we left the Oregon-California border. We had ascended about 500 feet since leaving Deer Lake about three hours before.
The snow patches gradually rose and fell like whale backs: perhaps two to five feet high, deeper in the well-shaded areas that precluded a faster melt. Each foray over snow widened my imagination to the challenges of what lay ahead—challenges iced with a certain foreboding. At one point, we stopped to look at our maps. The tightly spun brown-on-white contours etched a four-point challenge: Luther Mountain, Shale Butte, Lucifer and, finally, Devils Peak. Glenn was the one who’d studied the maps in detail; I had never imagined the trail chiseled this high into the ragged flanks of mountains.
When we reached the dicier spots, what I wanted was a clear sense that we were safe to proceed or foolhardy to do so. Cut and dried. Black or white. Head on or turn back.
As we rose higher, to the timberline, Mount McLoughlin rose majestically behind us, its north face far whiter than the south face we’d seen while crossing the diabolical lava fields below Brown Mountain. Devils Peak’s north face, I was reminded, would be similarly chalked in white.
We moved on. I took the lead. Wildflowers fronted jagged shale, a reminder of the Cascades’ beauty-and-the-beast nature. Glenn stopped to take some pictures on this cloud-free morning, particularly of feathery flowers that seemed to defy the rugged land and lofty elevation. (Waldo, by the way, mentioned taking pictures, too. In 1888, George Eastman had introduced the Kodak, a square box camera using roll film, and, overnight, photography had become a practical hobby for Americans.)
At 7,000 feet, on the west flank of Luther Mountain, we reached our highest point since the trip started. What impressed me, besides a sprinkling of red, purple and yellow wildflowers, was the sheer bigness of the land beyond: Massive mountains splashed with sheer walls of shale, craggy peaks here and there, rolling buttes of timber speckled with white-bleached snags that may have watched silently as the Waldo party jostled down the spine in 1888. Geographic features that we’d never heard of and were small potatoes compared to, say, Mount Jefferson or Mount Hood or the Three Sisters, and yet scattered 360 degrees around us in a display so large as to humble me, a mere ant amid God’s sprawling grandeur. About four percent of Oregon was designated “wilderness,” another eight percent publicly owned forests wild and unprotected. But from this perch it seemed the whole state were untamed wilds.
I mentally lurched. The guy seemed to have materialized as if beamed here from a Star Trek teleportation machine. He was up a slight hill to my right, amid a clump of trees, in front of two tents. Like me, he looked late fifty-ish. He had what appeared to be a cup of coffee in his right hand and seemed no less casual than if he’d been my neighbor standing on his porch and seen me going to fetch the morning paper.
“Hello,” I said.
“Acorn,” he said, extending a hand.
Huh? Oh, of course, his trail name. He was, I realized, a PCT hiker. We hadn’t seen many.
“Uh, I’m Bob,” I said. “That’s my brother-in-law, Glenn, back there. You thru-hiking?”
“Doing a section with my daughter, from Ashland to Crater Lake. Got turned back by Devils Peak. Too tough. Too much snow. So far, four have made it past. Four have turned around.”
Exactly what I didn’t want to hear. I wanted something definitive one way or the other, not the kind of information that necessitated a coin-flip call. When Glenn arrived, the three of us chatted some more. It was now nearing noon. A glance north suggested that this was where the trail wound out of the woods for good and lay buried, in many spots beneath deep snow shrouding ridges that arced into an “S” ending with Devils Peak.
“We didn’t have ice axes or crampons so decided to hang out here for a while,” he said. “See if it gets better. We didn’t even make it to the back side.”
Certainly he wasn’t waiting for snowmelt; some of this stuff wouldn’t be gone for a month. What he was actually waiting for, I assumed, was a fresh set of footprints from a couple of guinea pigs like us. We obliged. The Welch-Petersen unspoken plan was simply to go slowly, be cautious, and talk things through.
“You see a couple named Cisco and Roadrunner?” I asked.
“Yeah, they were by here a little earlier,” he said.
I turned to Glenn. “How did they get past us again?” I asked.
“Must have gone up ahead of us yesterday after we’d peeled off for Deer Lake,” he said.
“Yeah,” Acorn said, “I think they said they camped at the Snow Lakes Trail junction.”
That was six miles above where we’d stayed. If so, they’d done twenty-four miles to our fourteen the previous day.
“One step at a time, Bob,” said Glenn after we’d bid goodbye to Acorn and his back-at-camp daughter—a college student—and headed on.
I was happy to let him lead, even after Acorn said, “Uh, the trail goes that way,” pointing west instead of north.
“Hey, thanks,” said Glenn, laughing at himself. “We’re off to a great start, Bob, now that we’re actually going the right direction.”
Partially melted tracks creased the snow ever so faintly; probably Cisco and Roadrunner’s. But who else’s? Ben and Kate’s? Blood Bath’s? Trekking poles firmly anchored, Glenn planted each foot with caution, then moved forward. I followed suit, willing myself to look forward, to focus on each step, not on what would happen if I slipped. After a quick glance down, I’d already calculated the result wouldn’t be death—this wasn’t Mount Everest’s Khumbu Icefall—but some broken bones and scrapes on a shale outcropping a few hundred feet down the slope.
On August 19, 1905, while on the east side of Mount Jefferson, Waldo got into a danger zone. “Some very steep snow banks,” he wrote. “We crossed one laterally by making steps with the butt of Heideck’s rifle, where a slip would have been dangerous to life. Heideck persevered amazingly in finding his way among the crevasses of the glaciers, making five attempts before finally succeeding in finding a way across. He assisted me twice in dangerous places.” Almost two years later, to the day, Waldo wrote of his party trying to ascend Mount Jefferson but “being driven back by the snow and ice—too dangerous to proceed without mountain climbing appliances.”
Focus. Not on the danger, but on the process necessary to avoid that danger. It was the only thing that had carried me through a scarier experience when, for a two-part Register-Guard column in 2002, I’d climbed a 180-foot high crane that was doing work on the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium addition. I was neither afraid of heights nor totally comfortable with them; I was a tweener. The only way I’d survive the rung-to-rung climb to the cab—then, through a hatch in the roof, for the final twenty feet—was concentrating on where I was at, not where I’d been or where I was headed.
As we traversed the lip of Shale Butte, Glenn broke the cadence of boots punching into snow. “Great sled run,” he said, then nodded to exposed shale at the bottom. “Tough ending.”
I liked that. Humor was good. In a few minutes, we again hit a rocky trail. Pausing to rest, we could see Devils Peak a mile north-northeast: a craggy rock, lacking the aesthetics of so many other Cascade peaks. It was not the pile of sugar that, say, a wintry Mount Hood appears as; instead, it was more like something a child on the beach would make with a bucket of wet sand. Only a few splotches of snow remained on the sun-facing south side, which was comforting and, we would soon find, deceptive.
We swung around to 7,474-foot Lucifer, which presented a totally different challenge than Shale Butte. Because the PCT ran through a fat swath of the ridge, there was little danger of slipping down a snowy slope. On the other hand, at one point the dirt-and-rock trail disappeared into a mass of snow that appeared to have been dumped by a semi truck’s covered trailer. Huge.
Neither of us said anything. We just stared at a mass of snow a few feet taller than us. Glenn took his trekking poles in one hand and started chiseling steps straight up the block of snow. He looked like Spiderman on the side of the Empire State Building. While he began his slow ascent, I mentally shook my head and headed downslope and around the mass of white. Better to stay out of the stuff, I figured, even if it meant some cross-country trekking.
I was wrong. Within five minutes, I wasn’t even within shouting distance of Glenn. I scrambled up the hill, duly chastened by my stupidity for leaving the trail, and fell in behind Glenn. Still, if this were the new normal, it was going to be a difficult normal. But after trudging through a handful of such snow masses, we popped into the open. In fact, we traversed the south face of Devils Peak as if on a freeway.
“Not bad at all,” I said.
“No, we can deal with this,” said Glenn.
Of course, just as music is really about the pauses between the notes, so is communication about what isn’t said, not what is.
Neither one of us was mentioning the north face, though the more I tried not to think about Roadrunner’s words, the more I thought about them: “Those switchbacks will be buried in snow. Instead, you’ll have a sheer wall that falls into a glaciated bowl.”
DEVILS PEAK TOWERED above us, a remnant of some eons-old volcano. The trail snaked from the south side of the ridge to the north on the Devils Peak/Lee Peak Saddle. After two days of stewing about what lay beyond, it was time for us to peer over the edge and learn our fate.
The ridge fell dramatically off into a quarter-mile slope of white that ended with a peninsula of trees and a snow-fed lake: Roadrunner’s “glaciated bowl”—or half bowl. With an icy veneer to the dropoff, I realized how dangerous traversing down could be. But my spirits soared when I saw we didn’t have ice. The mid-afternoon snow was sun-washed and soft. The marks left by others suggested a few had post-holed their way down with deep steps into the snow; others had thrown caution to the wind and glissaded on their butts or backs. Some, it appeared, had skied on their boots.
“Wow,” said Glenn, a view suddenly opening up distant peaks to the north.
“This isn’t bad, is it?” I said, looking for some assurance. “I mean people clearly got down this thing.”
“Sure did,” he said. “Looks like good sledding.”
“The question is,” I said, “can we stop once we get going?”