Scenic traditionally gets its first snowfall around the middle of October each year. I suspect that this year will be no different and, in fact, forecasts are predicting a wetter and colder winter season this year. Already, the nighttime lows for Stevens Pass are dipping into the below freezing range. Stevens Pass is at 4,000 ft . . . the hot springs are only 500 ft lower (at 3,500 ft). It will not take much of a fluctuation in weather patterns to suddenly drop cold, wet, freezing weather onto unprepared visitors to Scenic Hot Springs.
Six or seven years ago the owner and myself witnessed a man and his young son from Oregon heading up to the hot springs in late afternoon. They appeared to be in good shape and wore bulky clothing that we assumed was adequate. After stopping on the upper BPA Road and talking to them, Mike gave his permission to get in a quick soak before nightfall descended. He had their assurances that they would be off the mountain before it got dark. That was October 15th and it had been drizzling cold slushy rain all afternoon with traces of white snow beginning to stick to the ground. Mike and myself were dead-tired, thoroughly soaked and cold beneath our rain-slickers, and starving for some chow. We left them, thinking little to the potential of a sudden weather change. After all, we had their assurances.
The next day Mike went back up to Scenic with another of our volunteers . . . it might have been Matt but I’m not sure. The drive up to the trail-head was a treacherously slippery powering up with one to two inches of snow. Halfway up they came across the young boy from the day before, exhausted and near collapsed . . . tugging and pulling on his father’s arms . . . attempting to drag him down the BPA Road and the safety of their car still parked at the gate.
Mike and the volunteer got the two into the cab of the truck, turned around and got them to safety. At the car . . . heater going full and father just coming around . . . they got the story out of the pair. They’d made it up to the springs alright . . . soaked and dallied and lost track of time as the snowflakes fell faster and fatter. The sky became a whiteout and snow quickly piled up . . . and just as quickly, suddenly it was getting dark. Father and son decided it was time to head back. Problem was . . . where was the trail? Their footprints up had been eradicated by four to five inches of fresh snow.
The pair made it halfway to the switchback and then did the only sensible thing. They backtracked to known safety . . . the hot springs. They risked a miserable night in the hot springs versus getting hopelessly lost like a lone hiker did in 1995. I will recount that story some other time . . . as I witnessed some of the events leading up to a massive search and rescue effort and miraculous rescue after four days. Our father and son team decided to stick it out in the one warm place within reach . . . the hot spring pools.
They spent the night there . . . miserable, without any lights and continuing snowfall. By morning the snow had stopped and they decided to try and find their way out in daylight. Unfortunately, all their clothing had become soaked through and through. Try they did in wet clothing and near-freezing temperatures. At some point on the way down, the boy’s father simply couldn’t go any further. He was falling into hypothermic shock . . . given up and lay down in the snow. The boy persevered and dragged his father down those slopes to the point where Mike encountered them. Fortunately, everything turned out all right and both recovered quickly once back in their car with a change into dry clothes and the heater going full. It could have turned tragic.
Weather in the Cascades can turn fickle very quickly. As I sit here typing these words it is pouring outside. Up in the mountains the snow level is quickly dropping. Thunderheads are piling up over the Cascade ridges. Will it snow tonight? Probably not but are you willing to risk your life on going up there unprepared for our fickle Cascade weather? Scenic gets some of the worst conditions as winds channel through the passes and dump moisture at record rates before climbing over the pass to the other side. Don’t underestimate Mother Nature. Be prepared!
- Cotton Kills: When cotton clothes get wet they soak heat very quickly away from your body. Wear wicking, synthetic underclothes and an insulating, water-repellent outer shell. Layer your clothes to add or remove as the temperatures require.
- Wear sturdy hiking boots: This is not the time for sneakers, flip-flops, fancy dress boots with big heels. Keeping your feet warm is half the battle . . . those feet have to carry you back out at the end of the day.
- Wear gloves . . . insulating and water-proof. The extremities feel the cold early and quickly become useless if cold forces cramping of fingers.
- Wear a warm hat: We lose sixty percent of all our body heat through our heads.
- As snow deepens on the slopes of Scenic (and it can get to twenty feet deep at the height of winter), consider taking along your snowshoes and crampons to deal with soft snowfalls and icy slopes.
- Carry a couple of large plastic bags in your backpack . . . they serve to protect your clothes while you soak, give you someplace dry to sit down upon, and in a pinch could provide a DIY poncho or shelter if worse comes to worse.
- Carry your cell phone . . . fully-charged and kept warm to prolong battery life. Cell phones often do work at the hot springs site in an emergency.
- Have two to three different ways to light a fire in an emergency. Invest in a $3 tube of fire paste that will sustain a fire even with wet, green wood. Make your own water-proof matches by dipping wooden kitchen matches in paraffin and storing in a water-tight film canister along with a striking surface (such as a piece of emery cloth or sandpaper).
- Have a couple days worth of high-energy snacking foods and water to sustain you in the event things turn really ugly and you have to sit it out. Don’t eat snow for water . . . you drive your core body temperature way down. Don’t drink hot springs waters . . . the mineral load will probably give you distress.
Above all . . . don’t panic. and you did let someone know where you were going and the expected time back, didn’t you?
Winter can be the best time to visit Scenic but please visit it safely.