A Lookout Mountain Night
With the potential for Aurora sightings south into Oregon due to the coronal mass ejection on the sun earlier in the week, I headed out to try and get some views of the northern sky. My plan was to head in the late afternoon to High Prairie trailhead east of Mt Hood on the northern edge of the Badger Creek Wilderness, and then proceed the short approximate mile to a campsite at 6400 feet, along the Divide Trail just west and down the ridge from the Lookout Mountain summit. Just behind the spot is a pumice slope with open views to north of Mt St. Helens, Mt Adams, and on to Mt Rainier. There’s less trees and obstruction than at the summit for that direction, and it’s also right next to an extraordinary viewpoint of the east side of Mt Hood, and it is more protected than the summit.
A little after 4 in the afternoon when I arrived at the trailhead, where the temperature was already below freezing, and along the trail, large swaths of ice needles were rising out of the trail. It really does appear as an uprising of incredibly thin needles of ice in a block, pushing soil out of the ground This type of frost happens when the ground temperature is above freezing, with moisture in the soil and a below freezing air temperature. I’d speculate that it concentrates on the trails because the compacted soils retain heat longer. I’ve never encountered such expansive coverings of it, and it offers a satisfying crunch to the trail without being slippery. Once at my camp I went about setting up camp. The spot was windy, but much less that right around the corner at the viewpoint towards Mt Hood.
Looking west to Mt Hood
North to Mt Adams and Mt Rainier
The sun crept down above the valley and warm rays cut through cloud lines that were shifting around the Mountain. A band of thick clouds floated up above Newton Clark Glacier, splashing onto the mountains shoulders while just breaking around some rocky outcroppings on the way to the summit. Wine colored accents bloomed along the trailing edges of cloud bands, bleeding out to deep greys once the sun disappeared below the mountains of the coast range.
The setting sun
colors draining out of the clouds
With the sun down, I set about donning more layers to preserve my warmth and regaining feeling in my fingers. The wind was absolutely ripping, and if it weren’t for the foam earplugs I’d brought, I’d probably have bailed then. Ice was already starting to form in my two liters of water. After warming up for a while, enjoying a beverage (beer foam freezing on the edges of the mug) and doing some reading in the tent I went back out for a look. The sky was clear and illuminated by a vastness of stars and the Milky Way. To the north the lights leaking from Hood River offered a glow, but no discernable Aurora. I didn’t linger for long; the intensity of the wind and chill quickly robbed my extremities of their feeling even with the double layer of warm gloves and three layers of socks. Regrettably, I didn’t set about any astrophotography, wanting to preserve the life of my camera batteries for long exposures later in the evening and preserve the functioning of my hands.
Shortly after when I popped out for a view I was surprised to see that where last had been a great blanket of illumination- now was nothing. A thick layer of clouds had moved above, and the moisture and fog in the air rushing about me in the unrelenting wind had gained a weight. Retreating back into my down bag I was grateful for the extraneous layers that I had brought, including my full body fleece dinosaur onesie that stayed on over my down jacket. My down bag will make me sweat wearing any layers in temperatures in the 50s and wasn’t feeling over warm in the slightest now. I wasn’t cold, but felt at fine level temperature wise. The air temp was at least in the low twenties and windchills into the teens. I set alarms for 2am, in the window when Aurora was forecast to be stronger, hoping I could catch some sleep and would return outside to a cloud dispersed.
Sleep wouldn’t come; the rushing wind outside was a constant white noise interjected at random by crashing gusts loud enough to cut through my earplugs, breaking through any drift out of consciousness. Around 1 AM I poked my head outside to discover the rapidly moving air outside seemed to be frozen, and was depositing small crystals of ice in piles where it hit my tent. The needles on trees, branches, rocks on the ground, all were covered in fine crystals of ice. I decided to break camp and try for some other vistas that may have views. After quick and windy packing up I descended. On the north side of the mountain and in the forest, barely more than 200 feet lower the wind was dramatically lower, the fog not frozen. At the trailhead the temperature felt so dramatically warmer and the air so comparably still that I, now too warm, stripped down out of my many layers. Felt balmy. The car thermometer said 27. I headed down the 4.8 miles really getting to enjoy heated seats.
I thought that Eightmile Point would be a good option with its northward views, and more than a 1200 feet lower than my camp may have some visibility so I headed there. At the Junction off of FS-2730 the sky was still cloudy and mild freezing rain had settled in, so I skipped on trying to hike to the Point and headed toward a view that offers great sunrises looking east and may let me see better sky conditions. After missing the pull off in the darkness, I turned around and headed back up to the view. I caught a red fingernail of the moon rising up above the eastern ridges covered with turbine beacons before it slipped behind cloud layers. Next I headed to a large gravel lot off FS17 heading north with expansive views of Hood. Saw Elk and plenty of deer along the way, and the sky was pretty cloudy and there was a collection of cars at the lot so I didn’t linger. At my next spot Mt Hood was still cloudy and the clouds still letting only a few stars through, so with my energy dwindling I closed my eyes for an hour. Awaking, now just after 5 AM I headed out to FS 1720 to drive through the grassy stretches of pine and oaks and the country opened up as I descended northeast. Warm oranges and purples began to filter into the cloudy sky as approached The Dalles and a very desired coffee.