Sunday, March 27, 2005

Athletes snowshoe up a ski run at Mt. Hood Meadows on Mt. Hood, Ore.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Mt. Hood Adventure Racers Face Wet Storm

As a photographer at a March 26, 2005, adventure race on Mt. Hood, Ore., I was stationed on an exposed ski run during the wettest storm in months. A hike from the lodge several hundred feet up the run left me drenched in sweat, making a joke of my supposedly waterproof and breathable rain jacket. Its brilliant blue fabric was soaked through from the inside by be, and from the outside by snow that wasn’t cold enough to stay frozen.

Fierce wind howled through tall stands of pine on either side of the ski run. I was watching for racers to appear from the blizzard so I could get some shots and leave this exposed spot. Suddenly, there they were! They’d picked a route on the right side of the run, I’d gambled left, and now had little-to-no time to close the gap. The athletes made great time, even though the incline was punishing, and they all wore cumbersome snowshoes to stay afloat. I struggled to contour around to the athletes’ side. When I was finally close enough to fill the frame with racers, there were only half-a-dozen left. I’d nearly missed the whole thing! I was mad at myself for missing two-thirds of the racers. I tried to be calm about it, to just let it go. There would be other chances for photos on other parts of the course today. I vowed not to miss any more photo ops today.

I hobbled down the hill in near white-out conditions. Losing my balance on snowshoes in deep, wet snow, I fell half a dozen times. When I got back to the lodge after 30 minutes of hiking, I was soaked-through and exhausted. I was also really mad at myself. I’d fought nature for two hours, and I knew very well that I maybe had one good shot to show for it. Time to regroup. I needed a new strategy. The clock was running, and I had to figure out how to salvage the so-far dismal photographic day.

Shane Gibson, a friend from Portland, Ore., was the race organizer. I voiced my frustration and he could feel my pain. He wasn’t in love with the weather, either. The lack of snow the week prior had prompted him to cancel the cross-country ski portion of the course, and add a 20-mile mountain bike leg. Today’s six-to-12-inches of snow wasn’t consistent enough to bring the skiing back, but it clearly nixed the bikes. And I thought my day was going badly!

Gibson suggested I head to a checkpoint at the top of a waterfall. It was pretty easy to access by road, followed by a short, level hike on a closed road, then a quick scramble along a creek to the top of the falls. Sounded good to me! I tried to dry out my gear, soon gave up, and just headed for my car and what I hoped would be great pictures at the waterfall.

It was easy to find the “closed road” location where Gibson told me to park. But the main road into the resort had been plowed, leaving a good two foot barrier of snow between the cleared road and the small section of closed road where I was to park. I put the car in four wheel drive and punched through the snow and ice. Once in the deep stuff, I parked. I strapped on the snowshoes, grabbed the photo backpack, opened my golf umbrella and headed out. Soon I came to one of those old, moss-covered concrete bridges common in the Cascades. This was the place! The waterfall was partially frozen. I could see no teams at the top, where the checkpoint would be found. I decided to head up top and see if there were any tracks of racers who had already been there.

Hiking in snowshoes is probably most effective in snow. What I encountered on the way to the top of the falls was not just snow, but downed trees, big rocks, and random shrubbery. My giant golf umbrella, which was keeping my camera gear from getting soaked, got stuck repeatedly as I ducked under thickets to make my way up the hill. Eventually, I learned to close the umbrella whenever I had to squeeze through a tight spot. At the top, the checkpoint was easy to find, out on a bit of a ledge overlooking the falls. It was not staffed, so an orange-and-white orienteering course marker hung in a tree. A special hole punch, which created a mark unique to this checkpoint, dangled from the marker. The snow around the checkpoint showed no footprints. I had beaten all the teams!

I staked out a location where I could not miss any athletes approaching the checkpoint from any direction. And I waited. And waited. And waited.

Two hours later, the first racers arrived. What looked like a two-man team was actually a pair of soloists who were, for the moment, traveling together. They asked how many people had been through already. They seemed surprised to hear they were the first I’d seen. They punched their passports and were immediately on their way. I shot a few pictures and they were gone.

More teams were right behind them. I shot more pictures. Still more teams, still more pictures. I was ecstatic! This more than made up for what I’d felt was a failure at the beginning of the race. Now I knew I had at least a dozen great shots!

I worked the angle of the trail outside the checkpoint, and then went in to the checkpoint and shot some wide angle image in there. With that in the camera, I decided to head back to the lodge and shoot finishers. The rain pounded as I slowly made my way down the hill. I got back to the closed road. What was snow a few hours earlier was now four inches of slush. Not good for walking! I was really proud of my Gore-Tex boots. They never soaked through, not in the constant rain, and not in the final mile of sticky slush.

Back at the lodge, the walk from the car to the lodge soaked me right through all over again. I went in to dry off before trying to shoot finishers, and caught a chill. Out of dry clothing, I decided my day was done. I pulled up a chair and started to chat with the teams, volunteers and sponsors.

It was decided unanimously that we were all crazy for being out in the wettest storm the mountain had seen in months. Yet we all relished the experience. Taking on a challenge and finding a measure of success is truly rewarding. That we all suffered a little more than we expected made the day even more memorable.