Skiing Steens Mountain

Steens Mountain is considered one 50 mile long mountain in Eastern Oregon.

One of the things I love about working on the Oregon Desert Trail is the opportunity to head out into the desert at different times of the year to explore what other seasons and methods of travel can happen along the route. In winter this year, one probably could have skied the entire route. January dumped 3-5 feet of snow many places in the high desert, an unusual event for the past 9 years I’ve lived in the area.

I knew the Steens Mountain would have some epic skiing, and last weekend Kirk and I headed out there with our touring set up and camping gear to see what we could get up to.

In the winter the Steens Loop Road, which takes folks to the 9,500 top of the mountain from the little town of Frenchglen, is closed, but the Burns BLM has a winter permit system whereby you can check out a key to the gate. I’ve been working with the BLM over the past year on issues relating to the ODT, and will in fact be leading 2 trail work trips on two different sections of trail there this summer. I also plan to head out there again in a month or so to packraft one of Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rivers (and a water alternate to the ODT!) the Donner und Blitzen River. There are just countless things to do in the desert.

We took Friday off of work and drove to Burns to stop by the BLM office, then made a stop at Safeway to buy lots of goodies for the weekend. By 11am we were in Frenchglen, and I noticed that the Frenchglen Hotel had reopened for the season. I stopped in to say hi to the caretaker John (it’s a Oregon State Heritage Site) and decided if we made it out on Sunday in time that we would stop by the hotel for a Steens burger (yum).

We unlocked the gate and were able to drive in about 9 miles until we reached snow. It looked as if a few people had tried to drive into the snow patch, and as we could see dirt about 100 yards away, considered trying it ourselves, but the churned up snow also gave the impression that one or two of those cars had gotten suck, so we decided to play it safe and park.

It was quite blizzardly out, and we put on all our gear and goretex before leaving the car. We both brought shoes as we thought we might have to hike a bit before finding enough snow to ski. All in all it ended up being about 2 miles of walking before enough solid snow appeared. We may have regretted stopping the car so short, but on Sunday on our hike out, we saw fresh evidence of another car getting stuck. Oh, maybe we made the right choice.

Kind of a junk show

Come on snow!

The weather was nasty, and the stinging snow stuck to our packs and battered what little bits of our faces weren’t covered up. By the time we arrived at a big grove of aspen near Fish Lake we decided to set up camp even though it was early. Neither of us had been on the road this time of year, and it had been long enough since Kirk had been up here we weren’t sure there would be much tree cover further up. Fish Lake is about 7,500′, and the wind was howling. We found a spot that seemed a bit more protected and set up our Hyperlite Mid (a great snow shelter, and light as it’s cuben fiber).

Time to find shelter!

Saturday the morning was clear and sun streamed into our mid, warming us up pretty quick. After some coffee we packed up our packs for the day, and set off to ski the road up about 2,000′ to the Kiger Gorge lookout.

Oh that blissful sun!

Lunch is going to be awesome

It was fantastic! After a few miles we started traversing near the Blitzen Gorge, and it looked like it would be some epic backcountry skiing. We decided to stick to the road, and while sections were wind blown and some sagebrush and rocks would appear from time to time, the snow coverage was pretty even.

Kirk looking into Blitzen Gorge

The good stuff

Finally about 2pm we made it up to Kiger Gorge, a glaciated canyon that looks like it belongs in Glacier National Park. Epic.

The ski out was even better as we were able to coast for long periods just enjoying the view around us. In retrospect we could have taken a short cut that would have given us more elevation loss in a shorter distance, but it was still pretty fun.

By the time we made it back to camp we were both ready for food, and snacked our way through the next few hours.

Sunday morning was overcast again, and by the time we packed up the sky was threatening to start dumping on us. We made it back to the dirt, luckily the cold night had iced up the new snow from Friday, so we were able to ice-ski farther than we could have on Saturday. On the last few miles of dirt it started to snow hard and sideways, and we didn’t even pause to switch to our shoes, instead hiking back in our tele boots. We were both ready to be warm inside the car, and it was a relief to take off those boots and get out of the wind.

Time to ski out…but first, coffee.

That’s some dark sky

And as luck would have it, we made it to the Frenchglen Hotel for those burgers. Oh yeah.

Screw it, I’m gonna ski Colorado if I have to

The major hurdle for northbound thru-hikers on the CDT pivots on snow levels in Southern Colorado. This is a major point of stress, and rightly so. Stories of thigh-deep post-holing for miles (a veritable swimming pool of spring snow) may sound sweet if you are a skier, but as a backpacker intent on making it to Canada before NEW snow falls on THOSE mountains, anything that slows your pace down to 1 mile an hour deserves the panic. Just ask anyone intent on heading out on the CDT what their snow plan is, and see the wild look that comes into their eyes. It’s a real fear.

My good friend Speedstick had EPIC snow in 2011, her stories made me think...

My good friend Speedstick had EPIC snow in 2011, her stories made me think…

Since moving to Bend, and taking up several new outdoor sports, backcountry touring has been one of the most enjoyable ways Kirk and I spend time outside. We’re not talking about skiing sick lines off of Broken Top or South Sister, but traveling long distances over snow. Really, it’s backpacking…in winter.

Here we are camping on LaConte Crater (think the volcanic cone on the PCT right at South Sister) in JULY 2011.

Here we are camping on LaConte Crater (…think the volcanic cone on the PCT right by South Sister) in JULY one year.

2010 was a low snow pack was much heaver as we hiked half way into Tilly Jane hut on the east side of Mt. Hood.

2010 was a low snow year…we hiked half way into Tilly Jane hut on the east side of Mt. Hood before the skis went on.

So Kirk and I got to thinking after hearing our friend’s horror stories (or lack there-of because they skipped around the heavy snow sections) about these “spring skiing” conditions on the CDT. Spring skiing is some of the best skiing out there! The snow pack is relatively stable, the air warm, the sky blue, and the snow slushy in the mornings, icy at night. I feel pretty comfortable in those conditions.

And then Kirk, ever the searcher of cool experiences and amazing adventures, commented that he had seen shoe bindings made for polar expeditions that would probably work if I wanted to ski some of Colorado. What!!?!


Needless to say I liked his idea, and we decided that some old Atomic Rainier metal-edge touring skis that he had were light, and would work well for the job.

So now to make the binding.

Now please don’t think I’m any sort of McGyver type here. This is all Kirk. I would still be in snowshoes if it wasn’t for this man. He can make anything, and I think we are a pretty damn good team.


He started with a cardboard template.


Now for the webbing and such…


Yep, yep, a little more this way…back an inch…


Now for the plastic.


Ok, yep, this is coming together.


Let add the shoe!


Damn, that Oboz Luna looks good in there, oh and hey, nice socks!

Things came together over the past 4 months. Some of that time was spent sitting on the couch talking about the idea of how great these would be if they worked, but for practicality, I was eager to try them, could this really work?

Cut to this weekend.

Kirk finished up the bindings  on Saturday and mounted them on the Atomics. We headed to Dutchman Sno Park for another amazingly clear “spring” day in Central Oregon.


First ski!

renee ski binding

I hiked in a ways before putting the skis on (you know…simulating real world conditions!!) Really, how will these skis carry on the back of my pack?? Verdict: very well indeed. The two skis together weigh just over 4 pounds.




I discover my limiting factor will be the strength of my ankles.

All in all a great first run. We started to ski into some more varied terrain, but after falling a few times it sunk in: I was not in my plastic touring boots, I was in low-top trail shoes (no ankle support).  I think these shoes will be perfect if I have a deep snowy section of less than a week. If it happens that there is a blizzard Armageddon in Colorado between now and June, and I think I’ll need the skis more than a week or two, I would get high-top hiking boots instead for the extra ankle support. That, however, is unlikely.


Kirk went for it though. Whenever we are out touring he’s always climbing to get in some short runs.


Oh! Maybe some air?

On the ski back we took off layers and again bemoaned the fact that this was the winter that winter didn’t happen, all the while pretty happy to soak up the warm sun on a beautiful day.


Ahhhh, life.

And here’s a short video I put together of the ski.

Finishing up the Ski Tour

January 2-3

The last two days of our New Year Ski tour we basked under blue skies.


I watched the sunrise from our tarp for a good hour.



Then chased the first traces sun…the snow was absolutely beautiful



We skied around a bit.



And enjoyed the stunning views.



Taking a break with the best show on earth.



How can I not kiss this man?



The view from camp isn’t bad on the other side either.



The hardest part of the whole trip was putting on cold ski boots.



But all good things must come to an end.



We skied out.



And headed back towards Bend.

Beneath Broken Top

January 1, 2015

I can officially say I’m hiking the Continental Divide Trail THIS year!

For those that have had to wait years between thru-hikes, and for friends and family that have heard me go on and on about the CDT in 2015 know what a milestone that is. Three more months of work baby!

Back to the trip…last night we skied about three miles before veering off the main trail to make camp in a small clearing near Todd Lake. We opened one of our beers to toast the New Year (and also lessen the burden in what had become a regrettably heavy pack). For some reason I had grabbed my new Western Mountaineering Ultralight sleeping bag (20 degree) instead of my -20 degree bag, and though the temps hovered around the 20s, my feet were still cold throughout the night. It’s hard to sleep with cold feet. But inspiration struck and I put on the down booties I had packed. Much better.

In the morning we lingered over coffee before hitting the snow.


The day was crystal clear.


And we were lucky to follow tracks most of the way up Todd Ridge.


Our lunch spot proved our first good glimpse of Broken Top.


We made sure to fuel our bodies with the proper nutrition.


And I had to rock the hikertrash hat!


Unfortunately temps rose just over freezing and the sunny patches of snow started to get sticky.


Madness! I stopped to scrape and wax about 10 times in the next hour or two.


And we finally called it good in a sunny meadow with a magnificent view of Broken Top.


And celebrated with another tasty brew.


The snow up here was more wind blown and between the stashes of pow were thick icy layers.


We set up our new Hyperlite mid and dug in a freaking awesome camp complete with snow sofa and table.


Peak to peak.


As the day came to a close we enjoyed a brilliant sunset.


And as the light faded we kept busy with a rousing game of UNO.


A New Year…Starting 2015 by Sleeping on the Ground

December 31, 2014

Kirk and I had been watching the weather forecast. I had two weeks off of work and in addition to hibernating from the overwhelming pace of life I’ve gotten myself into lately, I wanted to spend some of it outside. When a few days of sun were expected around the new year, we decided to ski into the Broken Top area in the Three Sisters Wilderness (AKA our backyard).


We both enjoy winter camping; I spent several winters working and camping outside when I first moved to Bend to work in wilderness therapy, so was no stranger to the extras needed to stay comfortable and warm when the temps are low. Kirk, well, Kirk is a hardy soul who doesn’t let things like cold keep him from the mountains. In other words, amazing!

Since he had to work a full day today, we planned on a night-time ski in. The moon is practically full so we probably won’t even need headlamps to ski. The fresh snow and cold temps from the most recent storm pretty much guaranteed great snow conditions for a tour, bring it!

My pile of stuff was growing. Shovel, probe, beacon, and skins, check. Extra layers, extra ground pad, cards, and the usual gear, check. Lots of goodies to bring in the new year: chocolate, beer, pumpkin cream cheese muffins, gummies, check.


We didn’t make it to Dutchman Flat snow park until about 8pm, but we scored: a cloudless, starry sky and a glowing moon. Hefting both of our packs on in the parking lot, we moaned under the weight. Those extra beers and pumpkin cream cheese muffins didn’t sound like such a good idea anymore, but the moment passed and we headed off into the night.