Any person calling the west coast home knows the unrelenting season of snow and blistering cold we had this past winter. We also know it came down well beyond the time we were all ready for heavy doses of vitamin D. Outdoor enthusiast know this more than most. Even as the days began spiking into the 90s and herds of people headed for their most desired swim spots, many of us are still finding the remnants of winter not far away in the mountains.
The days may be filled with rays of hot sun, but the snowpack built up so thick it continues to coagulate, bonding together in a last ditch attempt to survive the long days and short cold nights. When I considered the hike into Cairn Basin, knowing on an average year this has been snow free for well over a month, I contemplated what we may find in our way on the route up. Determined to start crossing off those summer backpacking trips though, and wanting more to show the fairy tale land of high alpine meadows and lakes to Jen, we set out on the trail. Last report from three weeks past mentioned the trailhead finally being opened, but not much in ways of helpful present day reports about what we would find higher up. The first few miles were saturated with thick greens and late blossoming wild flowers, with only a handful of fallen trees as a sign of a rough winter. Once we reached tree line things began to change drastically. The well traveled Timberline trail was blanketed by thick crusted snow packs that broke free only at creek crossings and sunbaked south facing hills.
Following the worn in boot prints and the memories of trails followed in years past, crossing several snow fields as we rounded towards the north side of Mt. Hood, we found ourselves contemplating whether Cairn Basin would be accessible. As the numbers of trail runners and hikers heading in the opposite direction began to grow, mentioning impassable snow fields, the consideration of where we may be come night fall grew. After losing the trail briefly, and traversing a large snowfield, we came to a dangerous spot on the trail. The grade of the hard packed snow was well over what we would deem as comfortable and safe to pass; especially with a rocky canyon a few hundred feet at the bottom. With only a half mile left to our destination we made the right decision to turn back, knowing there were some more than adequate camping spots not too far away. And just as it is with backpacking, every trek is unique in experience. We followed the switchbacks down from the ridge to home for the night, waiting just beyond a meadow cleared out by slides from the rocky cliffs above.
Jen gathered firewood and filled water bottles, Piney bounced through the glacier in the meadow, and I set up camp. With time to spare we sat around the fire, pleased with our home for the night. Late in the evening the sun started to crest the western horizon. The sky began to saturate with oranges and reds, silhouetting the distant mountains in perfect form. We sat just to the edge of the trees that framed our site, watching as the days light dimmed.
Backpacking brings its own problems and dangers with every path you follow, but what you get in return is an experience unlike anything you have had before. Hiking alone will get you into some terrain inaccessible any other way, but backpacking puts you there at those very moments when the the lighting, the landscape, and the life around these beautiful areas open up to majestic images.