Monday, August 25, 2008

Katmai Caldera

I got back yesterday from my solo ascent of Katmai Caldera. Katmai Caldera was formed as a result of the largest volcanic eruption on earth since 1884. During that 1912 eruption Mt. Katmai collapsed forming a 2 mile wide crater lake in a caldera where there had previously been a mountaintop. That eruption also formed the massive ash-covered Valley of 10,000 Smokes, where we offer daily tours via a 23-mile bus ride from Brooks Camp. Most people only go there for the day and see the view from our overlook cabin, but you can get dropped off and backpack out there and see the actual volcano, Novarupta, as well as a host of other volcanoes like Mt. Katmai and its crater lake. The above link (you should zoom in) shows the view from the overlook, the start of my hike. At the far end there is the dirty foot of a glacier leading up to a snowy concave horizon - that is my destination, 20 miles away. Well I hiked there on my 3 day weekend, and all I can say is that it was one of the most awesome things I have ever done in my life. I had the best weather I have ever seen in the Valley - sunny and not a cloud in sight. I made it out to the Baked Mountain huts on my friday (actually sunday) night. The Baked Mountain huts are some old dilapidated shacks in the middle of the Valley put there in the 50s by USGS, and is currently used as a convenient base camp due to its central location to explore the Valley. You might remember it from my blog last year. It is a 12 mile hike to the Baked Mountain huts, with 2 river crossings that I did in exactly 4 hours, with a 40 pound pack. That is fast. I wanted to do that so I would have 2 possible days to make the caldera, in case the weather was bad one day. A lot of times people have to turn back because the clouds are too low, but that wasn't a problem this weekend.

The next day (1st day of my 3 day weekend) I hiked to the Caldera and back - around 18 or 20 miles. The scenery is beyond description. A few miles from the shacks, what is left of Mt Katmai comes into view. There are 3 enormous glaciers that spill off of it and end in giant muddy feet, and across one of those feet and straight up the side of a snowwhite mountain you can see where the rim of the caldera would be. It is an incredible feeling to take a look at that landscape, see your destination 7 miles away and 3500 feet up, guarded from you by glaciers, snowfields, crevasses, and innumerable smaller hills and peaks, and then start walking that way alone. I had no idea when I started out if I would be able to do it but I decided to give it a shot. My buddy loaned me his cramp-ons and iceax, but I hardly needed them as the snowpack was still firm and good for walking. Coming over the last slope up to the rim, at 5500 feet above sea level, that first glimpse of the crater lake was breathtaking. A crystal bluegreen lake, massive, a few hundred feet below you. Like in a bowl with jagged mountain peaks for its rim. Thinking about it makes me regret, for the first time this summer, not having a camera. I tend to believe that my own memory offers a more true representations of the things I have done in my life than photographs, but in this case I wish I could send you some pictures. Here is one that that my friends Ralph and Greg took last year. The first shows part of the route up to the caldera. The snowy lip at the top is the rim. It was a much clearer day when I climbed it.

The second is a picture of the crater lake itself.

Here is an aerial view of the Caldera, which may be the best way to understand its scale.

The route that looked the easiest was to hike through a higher saddle between two peaks and then drop back onto the main glacier for the final push to the rim, and on that saddle before I dropped back down I got an added bonus. I could see the coast! Katmai Bay 20 miles to the south! Through my binoculars I could see the wide braided floodplain of Katmai River feeding out to the ocean, and waves lapping in on the shore. And in the distance, what I thought at first were distant clouds, was actually a range of jagged mountains - Kodiak Island, over 120 miles away. Imagine my feeling - I had always wanted to climb somewhere to see the coast, and I had no idea that this trip would put me in view of it. On the way back, I climbed the small hill whose saddle I was walking through and from there, I could see in a panoramic view the Pacific coast and Kodiak on one side and all the way 45 miles back to Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake (where I sit now typing this journal) on the other. Here is a good satellite image of the Valley, you can see my route - I started at the west end of Windy Creek, camped at Baked Mountain, then went to the Caldera and back. You can also see the Pacific Coast and Katmai Bay that I caught a glimpse of. It was a 12 hour hike that day, and when I finally made it back to Baked Mountain even a foam pad on a plywood bunk gave me pleasant dreams.

1 comment:

Steve said...


Great blog! I was at Brooks for a week last month so we probably crossed paths. I'm seriously considering the Savonoski Loop next summer and have a ton of questions. Can I email you for a phone number?

Thanks again for the excellent info....Steve