Major rain storms are peppering the slopes of the Cascades. We are in transition . . . soon to be buried in a wintry snowfall. What can we expect?

Rain This Week

We have had our fair share of rain in the Cascades the past few weeks . . . and it seems that trend will continue for at least until late Sunday. Snow levels are projected to stay around the 6,000 feet range. The hot springs lie at 3,500 ft so whatever falls is going to fall as rain.


Stevens Pass has flirted a couple of times with significant snowfall, only to revert back to the rain pattern. Stevens is at 4,000 feet, only another 500 feet higher than Scenic. Snow is close to dusting the slopes of Scenic.

Snow, Snow, Snow

2015-2016 is an El Nino year. Some NOAA models suggest that the Pacific Northwest will experience a warmer and drier that normal winter. Anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise and many of us believe the west slopes of the Central Cascades (where Scenic is) will experience a heavier than normal winter. If (and when) that happens is anybodys’ guess but snow is coming and we need to be prepared for it.

Just before the trail head a few years past  . . . got your snowshoes?  It got much deeper.

The record is marked on a tree near the springs. That marker (from 1996) is easily 20 feet off the ground. We used to carve out snow tunnels on our way up to Scenic.

How the Hot Spring Sources are affected

There are two pools at the main spring site. These two pools are fed from two separate sources about twenty feet apart but routed entirely different. Lobster Pot is the hotter of the sources, running 110 to 118 degs F. The other pool is fed from the Bear Den sources, with a little less flow and temperatures five degrees cooler.

Lobster Pot is a shallow running spring fissure. It is extremely sensitive to ground water resulting from heavy rains (in autumn) and snow melt (in springtime). Once air temperatures start to drop below freezing, ground water locks up and does not affect the Lobster Pot feeds through the winter. Of course, spring brings snow melt and returning ground water flows mixing and cooling Lobster Pot to unacceptable soaking temperatures. But during the height of winter Lobster Pot is glorious hot and wonderful.

Bear Den spring sources emit from a fissure beneath a massive jut of bedrock and are thus insulated from incidental mixing with ground water. The result is that the Bear Den temperatures and flows are stable throughout the year. Lobster Pot may be five degrees hotter but Bear Den will hold its temperature year round while Lobster goes cold through much of the spring snow melt.

Be prepared for Backwoods Winter Weather

That same year the Cascades set snowfall records a drunk and wired visitor went up to the hot springs in the middle of the night (2am’ish) with a couple of his friends. He wore little more than a teeshirt and threadbare sneakers. A fairly moderate snow storm was happening and tracks were quickly filled in. This visitor fell behind his friends (who made it to the springs and partied hard) and then became confused as the heavy snowfall obliterated the track and their footsteps. He missed the switchback and wasn’t found until days later . . . fortunately alive. The Seattle PI hailed him as a hero . . . I consider him an idiot. He was totally unprepared for the weather and in no condition to be out there anyway. He caused a massive Search and Rescue response and probably one of the first nails in the coffin of Scenic Hot Springs of old.

Snow Shoes: Heavy snow can start falling on Scenic with little notice because of the nature of the wind and cloud patterns funneling through Steven Pass nearby. At the height of winter, snowshoes are almost always needed for deep snow. Higher on the trail snowshoes give some added stability on the steepening slope that is often capped with six to eight feet of packed snow. If you buy . . . or rent snow shoes, consider alpine mountain snow shoes that allow easier stepping on inclines.

Added Traction: The slopes on the trail to Scenic get icy . . . especially in the early winter before heavy snows set in . . . and later on in the season when warming temperatures partial melt and then refreeze a surface layer. There is one short section of trail averaging 50 degs of slope. This section can become a literal ice chute in late winter/spring. Consider carry some form of added traction. Crampons are probably overkill . . . a cheap (and easy to don) pair of YakTrax are a surefire way to feel a little more secure on these steeper sections.

What to Wear and Pack

Needless to say, sneakers are not best choice in the cooling temperatures of autumn through winter. Get a good pair of hiking boots with deep, winter-style tread. Clothing should likewise reflect what weather expectations are going to be. Avoid cotton because cotton, when wet, saps body heat at a high rate.  Wool, by contrast, insulates even if wet.

Always keep in mind that weather can turn on a dime in the mountains. Dress in layers . . . you can always add or remove a sweater or windbreaker as necessary when the exertion levels of hiking or temperatures change. Wear a hat! 50% of our body heat is lost through the scalp.

The traditional Ten Essentials are:

1. Navigation: Map and compass.

2. Sun protection: Sunscreen, SPF lip balm and sunglasses.

3. Insulation: Enough clothes to keep you warm if you have to stay the night.

4. Illumination: Flashlight or headlamp, plus spare batteries and bulbs or a backup device.

5. First-aid supplies.

6. Fire: Two butane lighters or waterproof matches.

7. Repair kit and tools: Knife or multitool.

8. Nutrition: Food and emergency food in case you have to stay the night or longer.

9. Hydration: Two quarts of water for a day hike and a water purifier for long trips.

10. Emergency shelter: Tent, tarp, emergency blanket or even a trash bag.

The Winter Ten Essentials: These go beyond the traditional Ten Essentials recommended by the Forest Service. They do not take up that much more weight in your pack but if you are stranded overnight you will be glad you carried them.

1. Rain gear: Waterproof rain gear, including pants, really should be in your pack all year long, but especially in winter, not just to keep out moisture, but to block brutal winter winds, which can be shockingly cold in exposed conditions.

2. Dark sunglasses: Shades are important in summer, but they’re actually more important in winter if you’re traveling on snow or ice. Bring your darkest shades in winter when sunlight reflected off snow can be blinding, even on cloudy days.

3. Extra light: With so few hours of daylight available this time of year, you’re far more likely to end up staying outside after dark. It can be surprisingly hard to see, especially at dusk, in the shadows of the mountains. Everyone in your party should have a flashlight or headlamp and backup devices, too, in case a battery or bulb dies in the cold. Illumination is part of the traditional 10 essentials, but it often gets left behind.

4. Snow shovel: You never know what lies beneath those serene mounds of snow. Streams, logs and other obstacles can easily hide and make what seems like flat ground quite unstable. One wrong step and you can posthole through the surface, even if you’re wearing snowshoes. If you find yourself waist deep in water or snow a shovel is a far better tool than your bare hands for digging out.

Outfitters make a variety of small but effective backcountry shovels that are light and compact enough to fit inside a medium-sized backpack, such as a SnowClaw. In an emergency, you could use the shovel to make a shelter.

5. Sit pad: Sitting on a cold rock or icy snow can sap your warmth in minutes. Bring a lightweight foam sit pad, such as a ThermaRest Z seat so you have a soft, warm spot to sit during breaks . . . or as you pull on your shoes after soaking.

6. Hand warmers: You’ve heard stories of winter travelers losing fingers and toes to frost bite. Give yourself and edge with disposable hand warmers. If you get cold feet, opt for toe warmers that last six or more hours and stay put in your boots thanks to adhesive backing.

7. Extra socks: If you accidentally step into a creek and fill your boot with water, you can minimize the discomfort with a dry pair of wool socks. Wool, even when wet, can keep you warm, unlike cotton.

8. Extra hat and gloves: Both these items can become easily soaked in rain and sodden snow. Bring extras in zip-close bags just in case. Avoid cotton.

9. Thermos: Warm up from the inside out with an insulated container of hot cocoa, coffee or even soup for comfort and extra body heat. Carrie Strandell with the Everett Mountaineers recommends bringing a backpacking stove so you can make extra hot drinks or instant soup.

10. Good judgment: Sometimes the best winter essential you can have is the ability to turn back or not set out at all when conditions are not safe, said Everett Mountaineer Mike Mashock. Knowing the mountain weather is important when venturing out, he said.

Adapted from The Mountaineers

Hypothermia:  What Is It?

Okay . . . some boring stuff but stuff that really is important. 

Acclimatization to cold weather is a ‘learned’ response over time. The Inuit of the arctic have a markedly lower core body temperature to what we consider normal (95F to our 98.6F) and have tuned their basal metabolism and circulation to be as efficient as ours at this lower temperature. They can withstand cold temperature far more efficiently than us ‘southerners’ can.
The metabolic response to temperature changes is a complicated one. Simply stated, we, as warm-blooded beings, can only burn fuel (food) for cell energy within a narrow range of temperatures . . . the core body temperature. Our body will go to great biologic and physiological extremes to maintain that core body temperature. Understanding this metabolic response is important to knowing your limitations and the dangers hypothermia represent . . . especially to a hot spring soaker exposed to the elements. Acclimatization increases your metabolic efficiency and allows you to stay warm for longer periods of time. Remember, clothing does not warm your body . . . clothing simply reduces the loss of body heat. Any and all heat you experience (short of warming yourself by a fire or slipping into a hot spring pool) is generated by your metabolic processes burning the fuel (the food your eat) into energy. Know the signs of hypothermia and your limits: 

  • Your skin tightens upon exposure to cold; body hairs stand on end to more effectively trap an insulating layer of air next to the skin, 
  • Blood vessels initially dilate under the exposed skin surfaces, warming the skin and giving the rosy-cheeks syndrome. As more heat is lost, this process shuts down; 
  • Goosebumps form and tiny, consciously-controllable shivering may commence; 
  • The skin becomes a pasty white . . . chalky in later stages; blood supply to shell skin areas and extremities is reduced. Shivering becomes more intense as the body fights to maintain the inner core temperature of the internal organs and the brain. You are entering Stage 1 Hypothermia; 
  • Arterial shunting reduces blood flow to the extremities, leading to cramping and uncoordinated use of leg and arm muscles. Shivering becomes continuous, tiring and intense. You are in Stage 2 Hypothermia and need to preserve the remaining body warmth before you lose the ability to act; 
  • Violent, uncontrollable shivering ceases as the body preserves even this expenditure of scarce energy to keep the heart, lungs and brain warm and functional. You are disoriented to the point of not even being aware of the cold, tired and wanting to sit down and sleep. You are in Stage 3 Hypothermia and in a medical emergency. Your body is losing it’s ability to produce heat and will slip rapidly into a fatal coma. 

Know the signs and progression of impending hypothermia. Shivering when cold is normal . . . violent shivering that is impairing and beyond your control is a serious warning sign that you’ve passed your limits.

We mention hypothermia because it does happen.  A potentially serious situation occurred a few years back just after the current owner took over Scenic. Mike and Matt were on their way up to the springs to evaluate options when they came across a young boy dragging his incapacitated father back down the mountainside. They got them into the owners’ truck and down to safety.

After warming up, the story of these intrepid trespassers came out. They had gone up the night before and set about a long soak in the pools. While there nightfall arrived.  It started snowing again . . . and soon, the return path back was completely hidden. They went back to the springs and got back in to stay warm. In the morning they made an attempt to hike out. Unfortunately, their clothes (cotton, by the way) were frozen solid with snow and ice. Partway down the mountainside the father collapsed. Mike and Matt found them and they survived. But it could have been bad.