Hotel, motel, whatcha ya gonna do today? (Say what!)

Original Publication DATE: 12/25/2011

Why, climb Mount Hilton in the Trinity Alps of course.

As I approached the trailhead the car’s outdoor thermometer read 28oF and, with the windows down, the iPod shuffled Rapper’s Delight for my auditory indulgence. I pulled into the large parking lot at Canyon Creek as the lone (semi-domesticated) representative of the human race. Donning hat and gloves, I hoisted my pack and climbed toward what I hoped would be a world-class penthouse suite. With Sugar Hill Gang resonating in my head–as other drift-less tunes have on previous trips–the lyrics seemed preposterously apropos as I progressed toward the named summit (hotel, motel, Mount Hilton…). What five-star resort could possibly compare to a perch on glacially polished granite–surrounded by sky, stars, and wilderness–with a forecast of continued high pressure and a hard freeze? None in my mind.

A five-star morning sunrise high in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

Upon leaving the house at 5 a.m. it was 46F at 750′. Fifteen minutes later I passed through Arcata and the thermometer read 28F at sea level–a -18F swing while DROPPING in elevation. For the length of the ride to Junction City along the Trinity River Canyon the thermometer hovered around 30F. As I walked up the Canyon Creek toward Mount Hilton the air remained cool until the first falls where, rounding the corner into the big-shouldered glacially-carved granitic canyon, snow became prevalent and the air dipped below freezing again. But after that, things began to change. The more I climbed, eventually out of the canyon and into the high country, the warmer it became. Until ultimately, when I arrived at Boulder Creek Lakes basin, I was clad in a t-shirt and shorts while resting in the low winter sun absorbing the warmth of the slick granite like a cold-blooded tetrapod. High country heaven!

Camped on the glacially polished granite in the Boulder Creek Lake basin.
Camped on the glacially polished granite in the Boulder Creek Lake basin.

As sun gave way to stars via fuchsia-cast-granitic-parapets I was not yet adorning all my luggaged clothing. Where were the frigid temperatures I had thoughtfully prepared for? As it turned out it never again dropped below freezing–even while camped at 7,500′. Winter high pressure systems (at least this one we are experiencing) apparently have the power enact counter-intuitive climatic gradients where the coldest and densest air falls into the low elevation canyons pushing the humid (and warmer) air upward forming a barometrical blanket, insulating the high country. The normal rule of thumb while climbing into the mountains is with 1,000′ gain in elevation one can expect -3F change in temperature. If this were true on this trip the night temperature difference from trailhead to lakes (+3,500′) would be -10.5F, it should have been around 20oF at my camp assuming the trailhead was again near freezing at night. It was nearly the exact opposite–at least +10F warmer at 7,500′, where I estimated night temperatures hovered around 38F.

Brewer spruce and cones.
Brewer spruce and cones.

As much as we try to predict and explain our world, elements of surprise inevitably provide refreshing novelty. There should always be another question to answer–challenging deeper understandings and more authentic experiences. Especially if we challenge ourselves to step outside, look within, and nurture an impassioned sense of place.

Sunrise alpinglow on Mount Hilton.
View from Mount Hilton
Climbing into the snow covered mountain hemlock-Shasta fir forest.
Sawtooth Mountain.
Sawtooth Mountain.
An impressive granite-spire wall on the flanks of Mount Hilton.
The snow-covered boulders hid desolate pit-traps with the potential for ice-man-like entombment. But, alas, this was not my time for cryogenic experimentation–though the snowy boulders did halt my northward passage.
As I continued upward, prudence prevailed as slick ice-covered snow stopped me ~400 ft from the 8964 ft summit--not bad  for late December without an ice-ax and crampons.
As I continued upward, prudence prevailed as slick ice-covered snow stopped me ~400 ft from the 8964 ft summit–not bad  for late December without an ice-ax and crampons.

More to Explore?
Check out the write up for Canyon Creek from Conifer Country

Need another cone fix? Here an article I was consulted for in the Redding Record Searchlight (12.24.2011) about conifers and cones in northern California

Redding Record Searchlight

AUTHOR: Gambolin’ Man
DATE: 12/25/2011 6:28:13 PM
Really engaging write-up, fantastic photos & most special adventure!
AUTHOR: Lauren
DATE: 12/25/2011 11:43:26 PM
I’m jealous. I wanted to go today- Xmas but weather turned. Glad you went
AUTHOR: Miguel Vieira
DATE: 12/26/2011 8:09:16 PM
Nice one Michael. Great photos. Mount Hilton, along with Thompson Peak, are on my Trinity Alps wishlist.

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