Skiing Crater Lake's Rim
Only a few snowshoers and Nordic skiers attempt the spectacular three-day ski tour around Crater Lake each year.Most of these diehard adventurers are confronting a midlife crisis.
Well, at least some. After talking with several other Eugene skiers who were facing ominous, round-numbered birthdays, we resolved as a group to stop griping about our age. Instead we would do something about it. We would ski around Crater Lake.
The trek cannot be taken lightly. Once you set out around the unplowed, 33-mile Rim Drive, there are no shelters and no shortcuts back. Dizzying thousand-foot cliffs block all access to the lake itself. Cell phones rarely work here. Three areas along the route are prone to avalanches.Of course you can also sample Crater Lake’s spectacular winter views with a day trip. This is a wise warm-up before tackling the entire rim loop.Rangers lead free one-mile snowshoe tours to the rim at 1pm every Saturday and Sunday from December through April. The park provides free snowhoes for the 90-minute walk. Participants have to be at least 8 years old, and pets aren’t allowed. The tours are limited to 30 people, so it’s a good idea to reserve a spot by calling ahead at 541-594-3100.For a day trip on your own, start by driving the plowed road up to Rim Village. Then ski or snowshoe clockwise along the lake’s rim a mile and a half to Discovery Point.This is the spot where John Hillman and a group of gold prospectors “discovered” the lake in 1853. To be sure, Indians had known about the lake for millennia, but they considered it such a dangerous and spiritual place that they hadn’t told pioneer settlers about it.
These days, Rim Village has a cafe and gift shop that are open all winter. Crater Lake Lodge, however, is closed until mid-May. Unless you’re prepared to snow camp, the only lodgings nearby are at the rustic Union Creek Resort, 20 miles west toward Medford on Highway 62. In snowy woods near the Rogue River, this old-timey hostelry offers a tiny general store, nine rooms, and 23 cabins.
If you’re serious about tackling the 33-mile ski trip around the rim, rangers suggest going in March or early April. By then the worst winter storms have passed and the days are longer.
Heeding that advice, our midlife crisis support team drove to Crater Lake in March. Two miles before Rim Village we stopped at the Steel Visitor Information Center for our free, mandatory backcountry overnight permit.
You’re required to pick up a backcountry permit in person. That gives the rangers a chance to read you a long and frightening list of winter warnings. Avalanches may be rare in Oregon’s Cascade Range, but Crater Lake gets a staggering 44 feet of snowfall, so the risk is real.
Before letting us go the ranger checked that we’d brought avalanche beacons, probe poles, and snow shovels. We’d be ready to dig out anyone who happened to get buried along the way.
Finally we drove up to Rim Village, where six-foot snowbanks surround the parking lot like walls. When we climbed up the wall the lake gaped before us, as astonishing as an ocean lost in the mountains. We set off, staggering under the weight of 50-pound backpacks. After nine miles, the tracks we had been following suddenly ended. The previous skiers must have turned back.We pressed on, breaking trail through deep snow. The farther we went, the more arduous this task seemed. We might as well have been wading uphill through wet cement.
Finally, as stars began to twinkle over the lake’s dark eye, we set up our tents on a bare patch of pavement in the middle of the road. Then we collapsed into our sleeping bags, exhausted.
The next morning we were feeling cocky about our progress—not bad for middle-aged guys—when a wiry, white-haired gentleman with a tiny day pack skied up the road. He looked to be at least 70 years old. We hailed him, assuming he must have camped behind us.
The man shook his head. “No, no. Not camping at all. I left the Rim Village at 5:30 this morning. At my pace I’ll make it around the lake by mid-afternoon.” He tipped his beret and glided breezily onward.
We were still staring after him when an elderly woman approached. “Did my husband come through here?” she asked.
All that day we followed this pair’s tracks, in awe. Long herringbone-shaped marks proved they had skated up hills using a high-speed skiing technique that demands Olympian stamina. Where the sun had melted gaps in downhill slopes they had skied across pumice rather than stop to walk.
Trudging behind these superhuman seniors, we felt very young indeed. And for a while I wished we too had left our heavy packs behind.
But I changed my mind the second night. A huge moon lit the snowy forests with an eerie, false dawn. We’d briefly left our camp for a quick midnight jaunt when a skier wearily approached on the trail. He was hardly twenty years old, with a thin jacket and a limp day pack. He wore downhill skis, rigged temporarily for Nordic travel.
He explained that he was a German exchange student at Oregon State University. Familiar with skiing from village to village in the Alps, he had decided to take a quick tour around Crater Lake.
Now he felt as if the wilderness had swallowed him whole. All day he had seen no other skiers and no trace of civilization. He was out of food. His feet were blistered. Each step in his stiff alpine boots had become an agony. Nothing he had seen in the Alps had prepared him for the scale of Oregon’s backcountry.
“How much farther is it to my car?” he asked.
“About six hours,” I told him. “You’d better stay with us.”
The young German student cut me short with a shake of his head. “No. I’m not stopping now.” And he skied grimly on, tracing the moonlit rim above the starry lake.
The next day we saw from his tracks that he had cut across avalanche-prone slopes in the dark. He’d been lucky his immaturity hadn’t cost him his life.
“Perhaps middle age is not so bad after all,” I mused, unlacing my ski boots when we reached the van.
One of the others asked, “Then you’re ready for the surprise party with black balloons and gag gifts of Depends?”
I sighed. “Let’s talk about where we’ll ski next year.”