January 2, 2011
Coordinator: Fritz Capell
Excursion Time: About 10 hours car-to-car
Carpool Ratio (people/cars): 2.0
Eight of us set out on Sunday January 2, 2011, to ascend Mt Whetstone, in the Opal Creek Wilderness . In the summer, it's just a nice steep hike. In winter, it can be a bit more challenging.
The first challenge was getting to the trailhead, with the several feet of snow that were on the ground. We weren't sure what to expect, so we planned to meet wherever the road started getting sketchy. From there, we took two cars up, but soon the snow got too deep for Simon's Subaru, so we turned around and went back down to where the road was clear.
At that point we pondered other options, and decided on the Little North Santiam, which was right nearby and started a little lower. But some of us still wanted to take a crack at Whetstone, and my truck was equipped to get further up the mountain, so we split ways. Those less crazy ("I'm not looking for an epic," said Vincent) headed down to the Little North, and the rest of us piled into my truck. In the cab were myself, Jenny, and Simon; and Lisa, Josh, and his dog Tiva chose the fresh air of the back deck. We weren't sure how far we'd make it on the road, but we thought if we couldn't reach the Whetstone trailhead, we could do Henline, which was easier to reach.
Turns out, the snow didn't really get any deeper, and we easily made it to the Whetstone trailhead. The road adventures had put us a little behind schedule for our 9am departure time, but we got on the trail at about 9:40am.
The weather was perfect all day - clear, still, and in the 20's. For a brief time it crossed above freezing, sending sloppy snow down on us from the trees above, but we ascended out of it before too long. There was a good foot or so of snow on the trail, but the footing was good and the trail easy to follow. Another party had come up that way lately, so we had their tracks to follow as well. As usual, the trail was a little bit messy with downed trees and branches, the more so for the snow load, and navigating the obstructions slowed us down quite a bit.
Though it was a perfectly clear day, there isn't much to see on that trail except a lot of rabbit tracks. We reached the saddle at about 2:30pm, which offered a beautiful view of the south side of Mt. Hood and the snowy valley below.
Above the saddle, things got tricky. The trail got a lot more difficult to follow; sometimes we could find it, and sometimes we couldn't. The footprints we had been following had veered off and presumably turned back just before the saddle. Eventually we just tracked up the hill, figuring that we would either end up at the summit of Whetstone, or another peak that would be close. It turned out to be the latter.
By the time we reached the top of that hill, and realized we were on a peak just to the southwest of Whetstone, the going was getting really rough. When we weren't on the trail, postholing was a constant risk, and each of us took a plunge or two. We should have turned back at that point, but... blame summit fever. We pressed ahead for about 15 minutes down toward the saddle between the two mountains, and then decided it was best to give up. Dusk was only 40 minutes away, the postholing becoming dangerous, and the dog was getting obviously tired and sore of paw. We didn't want to go back up the smaller peak, which means we had to track around it where there was no trail. Descending the trail in the dark was inevitable, but we wanted to be back on our footprints at least.
All that went according to plan, we picked our way carefully around the hill, found our tracks, and walked out in the dark, arriving back at the trailhead around 8pm.
There were basically two factors that kept us from the summit; either a good GPS track or snowshoes would probably have got us there. A GPS track would have kept us on the trail, where the going was easy. Snowshoes could have done better in the deep and unpredictable snow. We had pondered snowshoes a lot, and only decided at the last minute to leave them behind. For nearly all the trail, I was very glad we didn't have them - with the trail narrow and often on a sidehill, and so many obstacles to step over and around, we would have been mostly carrying them. But then, when the going got rough, they could have saved the day. Except we didn't have any for Tiva, so she would have got the short end of that deal.
Anyway it was a nice day out, we all got some exercise, and a beautiful start to 2011!