Ball Butte

The Cascades of Central Oregon capture great quantities of snow over the course of an extended, alpine winter. Mt Bachelor, the shortest and southernmost of the group of five big peaks just west of Bend, averages nearly 40 feet of accumulation annually, but the winter of 2016–2017 was well above average. Over 50 feet of snow fell between October and May, extending winter and delaying summer. High country wilderness trails that are often easily passable are still buried, and alpine lakes remain fields of white. Limited time and accessibility coupled with a desire to roam the highlands once more made it an easy decision to head for the summit of Ball Butte.

The snows of winter still blanket the shady reaches of the Three Sisters Wilderness. Ridges are exposed, but the subapline forest floor remains locked in white. At least the snow is firm. Our boots don’t sink much at all, and the snowshoes we’ve brought can stay in our packs. Blue sky gleams overhead as runoff gurgles through hidden streambeds below the accumulation. Every now and then, a break in the surface reveals a torrent of ice-cold meltwater flashing in the sunlight before plunging under again in its quest for the lakes below.

I am contemplating names as we climb towards our first little summit. This relatively minor knob we are ascending has no official name. It’s unlabeled on USGS quads, it’s unlisted by the US Board of Geographic Names, and its shorter stature leaves it out of most conversations regarding the local peaks. “Moon Mountain” is the only appellation I’ve ever heard applied to it, but this name seems ill-fitting. Doesn't it seem more appropriate to add to the family of volcanic peaks that govern this landscape? We have the Three Sisters, Bachelor, The Husband, The Wife, and Little Brother. We have Tot Mountain and Kwolh Butte, named with the Chinook jargon words for uncle and aunt. Wanoga Butte is nearby, too, named with a Klamath term for son. Now at the summit, we arrive on a working title: Twice Removed. It’s part of the family, but it’s a bit peripheral.

(left to right) South Sister, Broken Top, Ball Butte

We’re near 8,000 feet now. Twice Removed is behind us as we climb Ball Butte to the north. The snow has melted here and exposed the colorful rocks that comprise this edifice. Reds, oranges, grays, and browns mingle underfoot, but the pattern is broken by a sudden movement. We are not the only vertebrates prowling these slopes today: a western toad (Anaxyrus boreas) is out in the sun, too. What is it doing all the way up here? There is ample cover among the jumbles of igneous rocks, but this amphibian needs open water for breeding and there is none to be found here on Ball Butte. It looks healthy as it hops along on its way, bound for some unknown destination. I trust it knows what it’s doing, because I certainly do not.

At the top, the toad slips out of my thoughts and is replaced by the Cascadian grandeur before us. The view this 8,091-foot summit offers is centered on Broken Top. We are staring towards a volcanic throne, the high peaks of the heavily eroded mountain framing the deep cirque cut by the Crook Glacier. Snow and ice mask sections of the towering cliffs before us, but there are spots where the stratigraphy of this stratovolcano is laid bare. Layers cycle through an igneous palette of colors in a vertical timeline that tells the story of Broken Top. Ice, not eruption, has decapitated this peak, and ice continues to wear the mountain away.

before the throne of Broken Top

It has been wonderful to be back in the high country. Alpine views, ridge scrambles, and the calls of a pika have left me refreshed and eager for more time among these peaks. Now, though, we are near the end of our day in the sun. The softening snow has carried us back near where we began, but we cannot leave yet. At the north end of Todd Lake, we are met with a riot of wildflowers and are easily compelled to pause. Shooting star, alpine laurel, and glacier lilies are blooming in meadows that have been amply hydrated by melting snows. Mosquitos are prevalent here, too, but they can’t deter our admiration of this vernal display.

Shooting star and Mt. Bachelor

A few weeks ago, the blooms were peaking along the shores of Hosmer Lake, a thousand feet lower than we are now. Today, they adorn this landscape at the foot of Mt. Bachelor. With more snow clinging to the mountains above, I smile knowing that there is still much more spring to behold. The colorful blossoms have been delayed by an overly-tenacious winter, but summer sunshine will clear a path for them upslope. Temperatures will rise, snow will melt, and the march of the wildflowers will move ever upward, closer and closer to the lofty peaks. As they climb, I’ll climb with them.