Crater Lake Cross-country Circumnavigation | Oregon, USA

I’d say I’m a real go getter. So much of a go getter in fact, that sometimes I try to go and get without fully understanding the consequences of what might happen if I go and DON’T get.

This particular adventure was of the snowy type. My boyfriend, Luke, and I had set our sights on doing a multi-day cross-country skiing excursion around the rim of Crater Lake. I had never been on cross country skis, but figured how hard could it be? Slide one foot, then the other… right? This might be the case when the terrain is entirely flat and you don’t have a 30 pound backpack attached to your back; this is not the case when you are required to ascend the side of a mountain, then precariously inch your way on your ski edges over highly volatile avalanche terrain. No freakin’ bueno, my friends.

We arrived at the Crater Lake ranger station with high hopes and eager spirits. These rose colored dreams were smashed into smithereens by Park Ranger, Sally. She told us we were the first skiers of the season and that there were no tracks for us to follow; she further explained that avalanches were very likely and our bodies would never be recovered from the icy waters below (her words, not mine). Her explicative’s grew louder and more grandiose when she found out I was a novice skier. Thanks for the encouragement, Sally… Nonetheless, she gave us our permit and waved us farewell.

The road up to the rim, which drops you off at the visitor center, was closed due to snow. Meaning, we’d be required to scale our way up a steep, narrow tree lined trail. This was our first mistake…

We had arrived at the ranger station at 5:00pm planning to make it to the first campsite that night, figuring it would take us an hour to reach the rim. Approximately 3 minutes into our journey upwards I crossed my ski tips in a narrow trench, took a quick and violent fall (how else do you fall when you have waxy french fries attached to your feet)  and wound up head deep in the frosty snow. First I giggled hysterically, then after realizing I was trapped in a frosty coffin of snow, I screamed for help. Help arrived, in the form of my valiant boyfriend, who quickly decided we were in over our heads (both literally and figuratively). We’d postpone our adventure until the next morning.

*This is a great time to mention an important lesson about the backcountry. It is vital to know the experience levels of everyone in your group. It’s really easy to assume that someone is experienced just because they say they want to come along; when in reality, they have no idea what they are getting themselves into. In some instances, this doesn’t really matter; it might just mean that your day hike takes a little longer or that you can’t rely on that person for navigation. In other cases, this can be deadly — rock climbing, for example. With all of that said, I think it is perfectly acceptable to bring people out of their comfort zones, just be prepared to make accommodations or call it quits if need be. (In our case, this meant waiting until daylight to teach me how to ski). 

Back to the story…

The following morning we strapped our packs to our backs once again and began the LONG trudge up the hill mountain. Of course, because this was an adventure and not a walk in the park, we took a wrong turn at some point and wound up scooting our asses up the wrong trail. Three hours of unnecessary climbing left us exhausted and cranky when we finally reached the rim—thank Buhdda for salami and snickers! After refueling and undergoing 20 minutes of couples therapy, we caught our second wind.

Now that we were actually on the right trail, the terrain became much more easy to navigate. The wretched memories of the morning vanished as we took in the views of the lake and the rugged mountain ranges that seemed to go on for eternity. We quickly made friends with a fellow skier, Brim, and had an enjoyable afternoon scooting along in the sun and snow. It took awhile, but I was finally beginning to feel comfortable on my skis— I even made a few turns on the downhill sections!

A few hundred yards away from our first avi danger zone (which Sally marked in big red x’s on our map), we ran in to a group of ski patrollers. Thank goodness, I thought, these fellas will totally make sure we don’t die a cold snowy death… NOPE. They wouldn’t be risking it by going any further and wished us good luck. This was the first moment of the trip that I legitimately feared for my life. The boys ran some super scientific avalanche tests— which to my novice eyes looked like they were just punching the snow, and promptly decided that the steep slope was in fact very avalanchy. So, we popped our skis off, turned our beacons on and hooved our way up into the tree line to reach the peak and reassess the situation. My legs trembled with fear as I carefully matched the footprints layed out in front of me by Brim. I made Luke follow behind me, so that if I got swept away I would crash into him and not die alone; and you can bet that every tree I passed received a thorough examination of it’s life saving abilities— meaning how tightly I could hold on to its trunk.

After reaching the peak in one piece, we became consumed by the copper sunset. It’s funny how beautiful sights can stop fear in its tracks. I love that about nature, there is a constant juxtaposition of imminent danger and utter beauty. With the setting sun, came dropping temperatures, so we decided to call it a day and set up camp. This is my favorite part of any adventure— getting cuddled up in my sleeping bag and eating an outrageously calorie-dense dehydrated mountain house meal. But first, we had to dig a pit for our tent. Then, we had to melt snow for drinking water. Then, we had to put 8 pairs of socks on so our toes didn’t fall off. Then, we had to make a wind barrier so our stove flame didn’t blow out. Then, we had to come up with a game plan in case Brim was an axe murderer… THEN, we finally ate our chicken and dumplings.

I’m not sure I’m sold on snow camping. I think it’s novel and sort of fun for one night, but it’s A LOT of damn work. What I am sold on is the rugged and stunning terrain it gives you access to. Nothing great comes from being comfortable. Words to live by right there…

The next morning we woke with the sun, ate some warm oatmeal and packed up our gear. Brim had already decided the night before that he would push onward, but Luke and I wanted to make our decision after a good nights sleep. We hiked up to the tip top of the peak to look at our options and decided, given our short time frame, that we would turn around and call it quits while we were still in high spirits. Day one had taken too long, and we simply didn’t know what surprises would be in store for us if we pushed on. So, we said goodbye and good luck to Brim, who was going to skirt his way down into the valley to avoid the sketchy avi zones, and worked our way back on the trail that we had broken the day before.

The weather was perfect and the snow conditions even better. Luke had a hay day with the untouched slopes and I wobbled gleefully behind him. These are the moments I can’t help but fall deeply in love with the backcountry. Oddly enough, you feel like your existence doesn’t matter— which is freeing. Nature will go on without you, so for now, you get to just be. It’s you and the snow and the trees and the wind. Nothing is better than that.

This was an unforgettable adventure, one that I hope to fully complete one day. If you find yourself in Oregon, do yourself a favor and spend some time at Crater Lake.

Want to give this adventure a shot? (logistical information)

Location: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Best Time to Go: Late winter, early spring. We went in early February, which I do not recommend unless you are highly experienced in backcountry skiing/avalanche safety.

Length of Trip: If all goes well you can complete this trip, which is 31 miles, in 2-3 days. However, you need to plan to have enough supplies to last you 4-5 days just in case conditions create a delay.

Where to sleep: You have to camp at least 1 mile from plowed road, which means that you need to at least make it to Discovery Point on your first day. After that, you just need to camp out of sight of the main trail— which is pretty easy to do. We stayed a top Watchman Overlook our first night and it was magical. More information on camping here.

Other notes:

  • Permits (free of charge) need to be obtained at Steel Visitor Center and can not be filled out in advance.
  • If leaving a car overnight, you can park at the Visitor Center and catch a ride to the rim in a shuttle.
  • It is essential that you have avi gear— beacon, shovel, probe.
  • Bring a map! A topo map is ideal and will help immensely with navigation.
  • Most people travel clockwise around the rim, which offers the best views and easiest terrain.

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