A whiteout in one of oregon's famed fire lookouts.
Words & Photos by Scott Pontoni
The weather looked promising as we started our trek up to the lookout on a warm, sunny afternoon in March. Eight hours later, we were still trekking. It was dark, cold and the wind whipped the heavily falling snow. But we trudged on, exhausted and lost. The only reassurance came when our headlamps revealed another marker pole navigating us to our destination.
Reserving the Warner Mountain Lookout is not easy. The remote fire lookout in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, south of Oakridge, fills up quickly. Reserving the lookout for weekdays must be done months in advance and reserving it for a weekend is something few can enjoy. When a friend of mine finally secured a reservation, I quickly seized the opportunity.
Two friends and I left Corvallis on a Friday with a plan to hike our skis and snowboards up to the lookout that night. A second wave of guys would meet us on Saturday, riding up on an 1980 Yamaha Exciter snowmobile, the result of a last-minute Craigslist search and a college budget. Our goal was to stay in the cabin for the weekend and make it back in time to glimpse at a few textbook pages before returning to school on Monday.
South on I-5, past Eugene, we drove through the little town of Oakridge on Highway 58, and then onto gravel roads before we arrived at the trailhead. We began the hike up an icy road on cross-country skis with downhill skis and a snowboard for the return trip. Following faint snowmobile tracks through the forest, we steadily gained elevation on a trail better suited for skilled cross-country skiers.
Our lack of experience made for some frustrating and comical outbursts. The backpacks were large and cumbersome and as our frustration boiled over, the profanities flew wild. Just like infants learning to walk, we fell constantly.
Darkness fell quickly and as we approached the long ridge leading up to the top. We continued through the blizzard as the ridge opened up into a large inclined meadow area where, finally, the tower stood.
We warmly welcomed the sight of the lookout at about midnight. The 14 by 14-foot enclosure housed a table, chairs, propane stove, full bed and two-way radio for emergency use. Exhausted, we turned on the little stove for warmth and crashed instantly.
The three of us awoke early Saturday morning to howling winds and a pure whiteout. Happy to have shelter, we melted snow on the stove for drinking water and broke out some coffee and pastries. Listening for the snowmobile, we recapped the long ascent over a warm breakfast and hung our wet clothes up to dry. We dozed off again and it was impossible to know how long we had slept when we awoke to nothing but white once more. I kept imagining the faint call of the snowmobile’s engine but each time it was only a false alarm.
Waiting for the others, we enjoyed some time messing around on skis, embarking on cold trips to the log outhouse below, and enjoying a hearty meal of ramen, freeze dried Santa Fe-style chicken and astronaut banana cream pie. We went to sleep Saturday still expecting a handful of rowdy boys to roll up with an old sled.
Sunday morning was crystal clear and beautiful. It was the first time we could see anything from the lookout. The sun shined a violet and yellow light with a bluish cast in the shadows. We were high above a freshly powdered wilderness with morning clouds lingering off in the distance. The stilted cabin—no longer swaying in the wind—featured a full wrap-around deck for ultimate visibility of the spectacular view.
Ready for our return journey with our packs on, we slid by fresh rabbit tracks in the powder, reveling in the beauty of the scenery we missed on the way up. After circling ridge, we could just barely see a silhouette of the lookout against the blue sky. We bid farewell to the shelter and continued down through the snowy forest toward the car.
The snowmobile crew never made it up. Heavy snow quickly overwhelmed the Exciter’s old treads, forcing the guys to cautiously turn back and head home. After that trip, someone lost the keys to the snowmobile, making the Warner Mountain attempt the last time it would run.
I have since been back to the lookout. The climb was equally relentless and draining, but the fruits of our labor were delicious once again. It’s a calorie-burning, character-building, relationship-testing climb—and well worth it. Though this winter trip may not be suited for the faint-of-heart, with an early start, the challenging trek to the Warner Mountain Lookout promises incredible rewards.