Friday, November 24, 2006

Winter trip to Table Rock

Warm air rises.
It sometimes reaches gale force and freezes high in the mountains.
I learned this once upon a time when I poked my head above the ridge at dusk , about a mile from Table Rock.
A fierce wind, up from the flat lands, peeled my lips away from my teeth and iced my gums. My eyelids peeled back, too. Tears streamed across my cheeks.
``Wow! Look at that view,'' said fellow trekker Chris Howard as he leaned into the gale.
Breathless, I squinted and rubbed my eyes. And shivered, and hurried back to camp.
We'd pitched the tent on a slab of flat ice in a bowl 20 feet below the curlicued cornice and behind a stand of ice-blasted trees. The wind roared like a locomotive.
Or, as Chris said, like a waterfall. He said the high, freezing-cold air sucked the warm air up from the valley.
Blinking, I believed him. Somehow, though, the ridge and the trees protected our camp. Seldom did a tent wall even flutter. We felt becalmed and snug in our many-layered, cold-weather clothes.
Chris set the Whisperlight white-gas stove to melting snow for coffee, tea or hot apple cider and for dinner (dehydrated Louisiana Red Beans and Rice, by Backpacker's Pantry).
We'd also fill all four water bottles, two each, and wrap them in stuff sacks to warm our sleeping bags. With no clouds, the temperature would drop to 20 degrees. Or lower.
So, at dusk the wind roared and the stove hummed. I shifted from foot to foot, and Chris sat on a pad on a bench he'd shoveled into the snowbank.
Then, we peered again over the ridge. The sun resembled a dip of orange sherbet suspended in a haze above Portland (250 miles to the west). Mount Hood resembled a haystack. Mount Adams had a chunk missing near the top.
As darkness fell, bright lights in Walla Walla, especially those at the Washington State Penitentiary, glittered. We located Milton-Freewater, Prescott, Tri-Cities and, perhaps, Hermiston. An incredible view, although we'd stopped short of Table Rock to set up camp before dark. If only we hadn't missed the turnoff at the road to Griffith Peak^...^
Sunday morning we'd filed a Backcountry Registration form at the Bluewood ski area office and listed our return time as 3:30 p.m. Monday. Otherwise, we had no restrictions.
We left Walla Walla Sunday before 7:30 a.m. in order to ride the lift as close to 9 a.m. as possible. A $5 ride meant not skiing about 1,000 feet up to Skyline Road. Chris had no trouble getting on and off the lift, but I dropped a pole getting on and dragged my pack several feet. At the top, my cross-country skis shot from under me, and I landed on my tailbone with my pack in my lap. Just another day on the lift.
Then we sailed down Country Road Run to the ski area's boundary, slipped under the rope and reached Skyline Road, or Forest Road 46, in five minutes. I promptly turned left instead of right, and Chris called me back. We wanted to go to Table Rock, he said, not to Godman Springs.
Chris had skied to Table Rock before. He's a veteran of many winter outings, including several week-long trips into the Eagle Cap Wilderness and several expeditions up Mount Ranier.
Besides, he had our map. And our only pair of glasses. I'd left mine in the car.
Ah, well.
So we skied a couple of miles to Forest Road 64, where it heads back toward Dayton, and turned left.
When we came to another fork, we followed the groomed route instead of the single snowmobile track to the left. This was a mistake. Maybe I argued we should stay on the groomed road, which taught us to always do the opposite of what I argue.
Anyway, we spent half an hour not checking our map and compass and going the wrong way. Finally, Chris left his pack in the road and climbed a high ridge. I followed, and we saw Walla Walla too far to the south for us to be in the right place.
Then, a man and a child on a snowmobile drove by. Yes, we'd missed the turn. We headed back.
Deep drifts covered stretches of Road 64 toward Table Rock, and the snowmobiles had barely marked the snow's crust. Chris hardly broke stride and often became a dot in the distance. I dug my skis' edges into the ice and inched along, shuffling one ski ahead a few inches, then the next.
I didn't want to work up a sweat and get my clothes all soggy. And I didn't want to plummet a couple of hundred yards down the mountain, either.
We stopped at about 4 p.m. We'd go on to Table Rock the next morning and get back to Ski Bluewood before the 3:30 deadline. With the tent up and the sleeping bags and Thermarest mattresses in place, we cooked.
Chris slurped smoked oysters (Yuk!) with his portion of the Louisiana red beans, and I expected brutal late-night winds inside the tent. We sipped steaming drinks, took in the view and melted water until about 7:30 p.m. Then for two hours Chris taught me to play Backgammon on his magnetized set. He won, of course (he had our glasses).
Time after time he rolled the numbers he needed with the tiny dice that I couldn't read without my glasses. Or with his. I
'd need a four or six. I'd roll and say, anxiously, ``What'd I get?''
``Tough,'' Chris would say, ``you got a three and a five.''
Backgammon can be really a lot of fun.
We packed by 9 the next morning and skied toward Table Rock. In less than half an hour we topped a ridge and saw the lookout tower. It appeared to be at least another hour away.
Reluctantly (for Chris), we returned to camp, shouldered our packs and headed out.
At 11:15 a.m. we paused for snacks and to ``ski around,'' as Chris put it. I'd already fallen twice and he had to pull me, red faced, to my feet once.
So skiing around, especially up a vertical ridge, sounded like fun, really. Once on top, after all, you had to get down again. And I almost stopped halfway up, but Chris had reached the top and motioned insistently for me to continue. I did and discovered another magnificent view: Seven Devils in Idaho, the Wallowas near Joseph, the Elkhorns near Baker City, Mount Hood and Mount Adams. And everything in between.
From there we sailed out in less than two hours. We came down New Grade to the road from Dayton to Ski Bluewood, and I hitched a ride to pick up the car. Overall, I fell four or five times on the trip from our camp back to the groomed snowmobile trail. Once, crimson faced, I suggested Chris should take the lead.
``I want you to go first,'' he said. His concern made me feel better. You appreciate it when someone looks out for you on the trail.
Then I got to thinking. It isn't every day you can see a grown man with a 45-pound pack repeatedly tip forward onto his face at 50 mph and plow furrows into the snow.
And you'd miss that if you go first.

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