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Between Storms: Meditations on Winter from the Hager Mountain Lookout

Between Storms: Meditations on Winter from the Hager Mountain Lookout

My relationship with winter is complicated. I want to delight in it, I want to feel its sting, I want to fear its ruthlessness, and ultimately I want to wish it on its way.

Having played hard in New York’s frozen Adirondacks much of my early adult life, mild Bellingham winters leave me wanting. I discovered that renting lookout cabins in winter allows me a chance to wade hip-deep in snow and get my fill of the invigorating cold, intense storms, abundant stars, and brilliant sun.

In southeastern Oregon, the Hager Mountain Lookout looked perfect: a frozen shack with 13 windows, a woodstove, a shed stocked with wood (and snowdrifts), propane lights and stove, and a privy, all at 7200’ and available to rent for $40/night. I thought it a bargain.

Between Storms

Between Storms

One must reserve the Hager cabin six months in advance, leaving the traveler subject to whatever seasonal elements are present for the ascent. I was lucky on the hike in. Winter storms had been common and fierce in the weeks preceding my arrival, and indeed one was clearing as I reached the tiny town of Silver Lake, the jumping off point for the hike into the lookout. I retired early, determined to get an early start the following morning.

The day dawned clear and cold. Another winter storm warning was issued for the following two days. It was a nine-mile drive to the trailhead — three of them unplowed — but my 4WD vehicle handled the winter conditions admirably. After 11 hours of driving from Bellingham, the task was finally before me: haul 93 pounds of gear and supplies, sufficient to hold me for nine days, through snow-covered ponderosa and sage. I wore a pack and towed a home-made pulk to manage the exceptional load across the four-mile snowshoe route that climbed some 2000 feet.

It was beautiful. It was hard. It took almost five hours. The pulk worked really well except for the three blowdowns that I had to clamber over. Toward the end I could only go 20-30 feet at a time before having to stop and catch my breath. The load and the altitude were taking their toll.

Arrival was sweet. I unpacked for the long stay: clothing in drawers, food in cabinets, sleeping bag puffed up to regain its loft. Satisfied with my temporary home, I started a fire in the woodstove. A brief nap set things right in mind and body and then I was ready to take in my hard-won surroundings: insulated walls, a supply of dry wood, and the hallowed woodstove, already audibly ticking off the degrees of warmth as the light outside faded into the darkness of a winter night.

Our Star

Our Star

The storms over the next 36 hours made a big impression. From the comfort of my toasty 14 X 14 backcountry penthouse I beheld blasts of snow, cold, and winds that bowed the windows like they were made of gelatin.  Many comments in the logbook mirrored a frightful thought in my head “What if one of the windows blows out?”  Seeing that others had voiced this concern — but the windows were still there — was somewhat reassuring.  Meanwhile, the lookout shuddered like an Apollo capsule on re-entry. I limited my time outside to absolute necessity.

I had plenty of time to reflect on previous accounts in the logbook describing stormy hikes on Hager Mountain. They shared stories of obliterated trails, whiteouts, frozen fingers & faces, snow-stung eyes, and desperate thoughts of spending the night on the slopes below. One couple recounted terrific winds and snow that forced them to take temporary refuge in the privy to thaw out before blundering onward in search of the cabin itself.

The woodstove was a real joy — it filled the cabin with visible, audible, and tactile warmth.  It took very little wood to keep the place abundantly warm so I refined my ability to dampen the fire as low as it would go. Each evening I would revive it and tune in to the “Firebox Channel” for my evening entertainment. Wood chores provided welcome activity in the otherwise indolent lookout life. Hauling, stacking, fine splitting, and kindling work all kept me busy. Allowing the fire to die through the night allowed for a good sleeping temperature, usually not much lower than freezing.

My mornings started with first light, Venus beaming on the horizon, and a new fire in the stove. I stretched and meditated with daybreak as cowboy coffee brewed and an orange pecan or mountain blueberry muffin warmed in the oven.  After partaking of the coffee and muffin sacraments there was plenty to read, lots to write, and always a picture to take.

My small mountaintop world

My small mountaintop world

The rimed hut constantly drew my attention through the shifting light. It was architecture at its natural best; great roofline gargoyles of ice, frost filigreed railings, and baroque portals.

As the first storms cleared I began to appreciate the volcanic high desert landscape that surrounded my lofty perch. I looked out over lava flows, craters, and columned buttes; igneous toys in a messy geologic playroom.  I also had enough time to take in the last full moon of the year rising above the horizon before disappearing into the clouds.

The fifth day heralded clearing from the top down with the cloud deck eventually resting peacefully below summit level. Delighted, I took in the views of Mt. Shasta, Crater Lake, Steens Mountain, Mt Bachelor, Broken Top, The Three Sisters, and Mt. Jefferson.

On clear nights I did tours with the camera to take in the moon, stars, and distant lights of Silver Lake and Burns. It was a bright and beautiful landscape and I stayed out as long as my fingers and camera could take the icy whip of winter.

Sleep was deep; as lights were dimmed the reflections in the windows melted away, leaving a pearly snowscape and a sky filled with glittering stars. Dreams came easily.

Shoveling was a daily activity to keep things cleared out: woodshed, privy, deck, both sets of stairs. The snow and wind were restless around the cabin. The path that I had cleared to the privy the day before was all smoothed over by the next morning and the drifts were constantly being rearranged, making outside navigation a constant challenge.

Oregon high desert

Oregon high desert

Some days required laundry and a bandana-bath to freshen up. Evenings wound down with a mug of rum-fortified hot Glühwein and a ramble outside to take in whatever sunset was in evidence; in any case it was an antidote to the cold and stinging snow, and a great way to, as Shakespeare put it, “…go greet the night.”

The last night, New Year’s Eve, was perfectly contemplative and peaceful. Abundantly clear skies prevailed, with the lights of civilization below and a celestial display above. I had a long drive home the next day. Upon turning out the gas light at about 9 p.m., I spotted a yellow flashing light on road 4-12 below. It looked as though the Lake County grader was plowing the 3-mile section to the trailhead. I went to sleep with one less concern on my mind.

As a new year dawned, it was time to head down the mountain. The prospect of leaving was surprisingly difficult despite my hankering for indoor plumbing and cotton clothing.

It had been an indulgent experience made cozy by simple pleasures and the warmth of the fireside.  I was freed to marvel at the force of the frozen wind, delight in the fluttering of crystalline snowflakes, feel the weight of welcome silence, and savor the confluence of moon and stars, elegant snowdrifts and vivid sunlight. It was the kind of treasured encounter that sees me through the murky and damp nights of winter in the Pacific Northwest, and orients me back toward the bright side of the season.

Renting a Bit of Winter

Moonlight and starsThe Hager Mountain Lookout, located near Silver Lake, Or. is available to rent from November 15 – May 15. Access is via a strenuous four-mile trail on cross-country skis or snowshoes. The fire lookout is a 14′ x 14′ room that can accommodate up to four people. It is furnished with a bed with a mattress and three sleeping cots, a table and chairs, propane stove, heater and refrigerator. Some cooking gear is available. A picnic table is provided outside, should a mid-winter alfresco picnic be your style. A pit toilet is also located near the lookout.

There is no water on-site, so guests must either bring what they need for drinking, cooking and washing or plan on melting snow. Guests must also provide their own food, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a light source, towels, dish soap, matches, cooking gear, first aid kit, toilet paper and garbage bags. A camera, book and dark chocolate might also come in handy.

More info and reservations: Hager Mountain Lookout 

Morning paperDavid Inscho has long been socially awkward; as far back as he can remember, wild places have been a refuge. A move to the Pacific Northwest in 1995 from upstate New York has only deepened that sense while exalting in Washington’s Cascades. Though he resents cameras displacing his wine ration while backpacking, the luminous landscapes more than compensate for the hardship. Visit him at david-inscho.smugmug.com

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