Picked up by James G. at about 8:30 AM; the drive through Springfield, out McKenzie River highway, off the old McKenzie Pass road, 270° curves as the road winds up to 5000’. It’s cold, it’s in the high thirties as we get out of the car. I’m putting on almost all my extra clothes: a wool shirt, raincoat, wool muffler, gloves, wrap-around winter hat, everything except rain pants. Fortunately it’s a bright sunny day, the sun starting to warm the black rocks and my back.
The Dee Wright Observatory, a stone castle in the lava barrens, and the nearby Three Sisters gleaming snowy to the south, bare Mount Washington further to the north, but no Pacific Crest trailhead here, just the Lava River Trail, a half-mile paved loop east of the observatory through interesting lava features. Back west on the highway a half mile to the trailhead, brown forest floor of sand and dead conifer needles, a few trees. Soon we’re taking off our outer garments as the exercise of hauling a daypack full of lunch and water (and a thermos of tea in my case) uphill begins to warm us. Now I’m down to my teeshirt. Up the trail – not much greenery except the trees, the ferns also turning brown, along the ecotone next to the black lava barrens and then out into them, the trail dusty or stones larger than an egg, hard on the foot, a trough between piled sharp black rocks as far as you can see, edging upwards. No views, just upwards through a maze of small lava formations, little tables troughs piles jumbles until Belknap Crater tan and sandy looking with a few trees near the top, or nearer lower Little Belknap Crater red like new blood dripping on sinister black battlements hovering over the lava barrens.
There is no life here, a little lichen maybe on some rocks, but then there’s a fir tree down in a trough in the rocks, another trough has a willow-like shrub, narrow pointed green leaves. Couldn’t be a water-loving willow – it’s a mystery plant, here in the lava. An hour or more on the trail and we’re at the first junction, a trail off to the right heading over towards Little Belknap, to the left towards Belknap Crater now looming in the near west, a giant tan ridge with a few trees at the start of the summit ridge, three diagonal lines marking it. We’re waiting for the elderly gent with walking stick in each hand coming down the trail from Little Belknap, “Those are the trails up it,” he says, “see, a man and a woman have just broken out of the trees and are going up them.” We see them, and not three minutes later I notice that they’ve gotten about 10% of the way up. “We can do that,” I tell James, and talk him into going there rather than heading over to Little Belknap. “Climbing that’s an accomplishment,” says the old man, who got up there once in recent years. He advises us: “Just put one foot in front of the other and don’t look up the trail. On the way down, you can slide-step down the scree – it’s better for the path not to go down it.”
So passing up the spur trail to Little Belknap, we continue gently uphill on the Pacific Crest Trail through the lava a few hundred feet until we reach the edge of the sparse grove, again the tan soil, this time with an unsigned track, a climber’s trail, straight towards Belknap Crater. A lovely spot for a campsite if only there were water. We reach the well-demarcated beginning of the slope only ten minutes after leaving our loquacious temporary guide, and start up the trail. It is quite steep and very narrow, and I’m stepping into the more or less horizontal footprints ahead of me, because the ground is so soft, almost like climbing a dune, that I fear it will just crumble underneath if I walk on the otherwise doubly-tilted trail: sloping steeply up directly ahead and even more steeply off to my left where the exposure, a height of steep sandy soil, increases by the step.
As we rise out of the lava the nearby volcanoes are swimming into view: North and Middle Sister (parenthesized on maps as Faith and Hope), with slightly higher South Sister (Charity) obscured behind: all snowy with their first dusting of the late summer.
It’s becoming quite a ways down the bare slope to the grove of confers below (eventually 570’, from the summit). Violating received wisdom I look ahead up the narrow trail and immediately understand that it is so steep that I’m dizzy trying to walk and look craning my neck at the same time – I stop and recover myself, look up again, then down at the immediate footprints ahead of me as I continue to fill them. One step at a time indeed is best. We’re curious about our pulses, mine is 150/minute and strong – went right down at the top, a good sign.
We’re coming up below the ridgeline now, and a small long-dead tree trunk has fallen across the trail where a little improvised detour arcs around underneath it. The trail is even narrower here and a bit alarming, it’s only the width of the footprints, so I pause momentarily daunted before taking it on. Down a few feet, back up, and returning to our now luxurious-seeming width of climber’s trail. This is how it is on the mountain slopes, we’re lucky if the climber’s route is so beaten down that it’s a real trail but we’re going up no matter how bad it is. Up and up. A few more trees now, live with many long dead branches almost white, or completely dead, but all stunted in the wind, limited in both height and width by the severity of exposure. And finally breasting the ridge, a small but luxuriant growth of these little trees as the ridgetop grants a view not only to the jumble of lower hills in the west, with the more distant ones showing their clearcuts marked as patches of lighter blue, but Belknap’s crater directly below, a waste of vertical rock over tumbling rockfall down to the waste ground at bottom, all black and gray, red and dark brown. A startling view of geologically recent violence.
And now the trail turns up the ridge, the best part really, an easy solid trail on the ridgeline with views on both sides, steep but not difficult, the ridge wide enough to provide a sense of comfort, as we pick our way up and find the barren summit. Here we are! There’s a light breeze, the accumulated heat of the lava fields reflecting back into the air. It’s very pleasant. I immediately change my shirt, exchanging my sweat-soaked tee shirt for my dry wool shirt and putting my rain jacket over that as a windbreak. Nice to be warm, comfortable, sitting and enjoying my lunch with my companion on the otherwise empty summit, staring down into the frozen sea of black lava with the great peaks of the Three Sisters nearby, the top of South Sister in view between the other two and the summit of Broken Top east of South Sister peeking over a dip in the shoulder of North Sister, its arm spreading out visible to the east behind North Sister’s arm. To the north, bare and lower Mt Washington obscuring all but the snowy shoulder of Mt. Jefferson on its right, and only this fragment representing the highest peak in view, with yet lower Three Finger Jack, jagged Jack with its imposing gendarmes, entirely visible beyond Washington’s left side.
We’re drinking tea from my thermos. Then it’s after lunch and as all my friends and relations would know, I’m brushing my teeth… while James has gone to sleep, he’s actually snoring faintly for a moment, than awake again. We look around a little more, including a look at the slightly lower peak nearby with its wind shelter of hand-piled rock. On the barren summit I can’t quite figure out where to start the descent but eventually we figure it out. Where the bottom of the ridge meets the edge of the crater rim, a small flat area covered in vegetation, the combination of lush habitat and austere black volcanic panorama of crater gives a reminiscence of Hawaii, a picture of islands where I’ve never been. But it is only this one microhabitat, all else is pretty bare. We quickly abandon any notion of scree-sliding and stay on the trail, but it forks and we avoid the fork on which we’d ascended, thereby shortening the traverse and heading down sooner. Coming down the sandy slope, through a range of sparse dune grass, a single starveling half-green set of leaf blades every foot or so, the ground seems too hard for sliding, but by about halfway down we’re taking giant sinking fast steps, what fun! and then into the grove of conifers at Belknap’s base.
Then parallel to the base to find our climbers’ track so to work back to the Crest Trail, back in the lava. In the black rock, bright red leaves of – not willow, but what? Later I was told that this would be fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium, the genus with the common name Willow-herb, and also growing as it likes to with the low tiny-leafed huckleberry bushes, all along the ecotone at the boundary between the black lava barren and the sandy-soiled sparse conifer forest.
Hard walking on the rocky trail. Oversize gravel, from small as an egg to big as a baseball. A maze through the black rocks, the mountain views sinking under the encroaching walls with their multitude of formations, suggestive shapes, sharp corners. Finally back into the forest and to the car, down the twisty Pass highway to the straight River highway, listening to the music as it eases us on our way through all the little towns and groceries, McKenzie Bridge, Rainbow, Finn Rock, Blue River, Vida, Leaburg, Walterville, Cedar Flat and then into Springfield, Glenwood, finally Eugene. Bringing air from the mountain with us.