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home : columns : columns January 22, 2018

1/9/2018 1:13:00 PM
Low snowfall attracts winter hikers to Black Butte
Opal Reid (7), enjoys a winter climb of Black Butte, while her mother, Annie, looks on. Mt. Jefferson is visible in the by Ian Reid
+ click to enlarge
Opal Reid (7), enjoys a winter climb of Black Butte, while her mother, Annie, looks on.

Mt. Jefferson is visible

in the background.

photo by Ian Reid

By Craig Eisenbeis

I wasn't planning for our first hike of 2018 to be in January, and I certainly didn't expect it to be at higher elevations. At least, that was the case until the new Sisters District Ranger, Ian Reid, told me about his family's New Year's Eve climb of Black Butte.

"I will say one of the few benefits of this low-snow year is being to able to access some hikes we normally wouldn't get to this time of year," Reid said, as he told me about his family's Black Butte outing last week. He reported that there were "Some icy spots but definitely passable to the lookout." He said that, while the trailhead access was not plowed, it was accessible even by 2WD passenger cars without chains or studs. 

My wife and I had just returned from a five-week trip to Australia and New Zealand, and our house was filled with kids and grandkids for the holidays, so hiking really wasn't exactly in the forefront of my mind. At least it wasn't until New Year's Eve day, when my hiking buddy stopped by the house and announced that, with the lousy snowpack making cross-country skiing pretty much impossible, we needed to get back on the hiking trails.

So, we made a pact to hike the following Wednesday, destination to be determined later. My friend suggested something around Black Butte. As it happens, the upper trail wasn't even under consideration until Reid told me about his experience; and, so, the die was cast.

Reid reported encountering dozens of hikers and dogs having a good time on his holiday weekend jaunt up the local landmark. Most people assume that Black Butte is a cinder cone, but it's actually an extinct stratovolcano older than the more prominent mountains to the west.

We all know how the Cascade rainshadow effect makes our side of the mountains drier, and it has worked that way for thousands of years. Because Black Butte is a little lower and farther east, it never accrued enough snowfall to sustain glaciers. So, instead of looking like the ice-sculpted volcanoes to the west, Black Butte has retained its "youthful" look!

Even so, it is unusual for the iconic peak to have so little snow in January. Sure, mountaineer types do winter climbs of Black Butte. But just walking up the trail? As many times as we've been up there, we hadn't been up at this time of the year. So, with Ranger Reid's words that this "could be a good hiking option while the weather holds," ringing in my ears, off we went - just three days after his climb.

The first thing we noticed was that the road conditions were exactly as advertised, and there was no problem reaching the upper trailhead. In many a previous year, I've had Christmas tree hunts on Black Butte turned back at much lower elevations. The second thing we noticed was that, since it wasn't a holiday weekend, we saw only about a half-dozen winter trail enthusiasts, instead of the "dozens" attacking the mountain on New Year's Eve.

Another pleasant aspect of the outing was that, while the lower elevations in and around Sisters were all shrouded in freezing fog and gloom, the upper part of Black Butte was considerably warmer and completely sunny.

Because of the sun and warmer temperatures, what snow there was had thawed and refrozen multiple times; so Reid's warning about "some icy spots" was definitely spot on. The iciest spots were in the more open areas, where snow had accumulated without interference from overhanging trees.

If you are thinking about doing this, be sure to err on the side of safety. I would recommend trekking poles and Yaktrax or - like vehicle traffic in the pass - some other form of "traction devices." I think my crampons would have been overkill, but some of these icy spots are steep and could lead to an unpleasant fall. The Forest Service reminds hikers to stay on the trail to avoid damaging trailside habitat.

Hikers should always be properly equipped with appropriate emergency equipment and provisions. In the summer, an unexpected overnight stay might only be inconvenient or embarrassing; but, in winter, being properly prepared can easily be the difference between life and death. Also, remember that winter weather conditions can change rapidly; and it is always a good idea to let someone know where you are going and your expected return time.

Be advised that new rules require a forest or interagency pass at all times that a trailhead is accessible - even during the winter. So, a pass is always required at this trailhead, which is accessible off Forest Road 11 on the north side of the butte. Forest Road 11 takes off north from Highway 20, about six miles west of Sisters at Indian Ford Campground.

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