Tonga Tree Run Dec 2021

The couple of weeks prior to the 2021 Timber Tamers’ Christmas Tree Run we had almost historically warm temperatures ending-up the wettest meteorological autumn on record. The most frustrating part of this was that we’d had a LOT of rain until a few days before the run, but with the temperatures all in the 50s, it was a warm rain and threatened to melt all the snow, even at altitude. Even more ominous, here on the first weekend of December, the ski resorts weren’t even open yet because they didn’t have enough snow. I started having fears we were going to have to do this run on a wet and un-snowy Forest Service Road. However, the blessing we had was that starting in the early morning hours of the very day we took this trail run, heavy snow was predicted—and heavy snow it was!

Driving US2 from the west toward the Tonga Ridge trailhead, snow started sticking to the pavement from about Baring on—portending a really good day! As a matter of fact, by the time we arrived at the parking area under the trestle, a good 3” or so of snow was already on the ground! I arrived early, and made GMRS radio contact with Curt, who was already up at the fire pit area, and he said he hadn’t even aired down before getting up there. That told me that the snow was falling pretty quickly—a great thing!
The original plans were to try to depart about 9:00 AM. However, the road conditions on US2 made that unrealistic as it took folks longer than anticipated to arrive. Gradually, more Tamers started arriving—including 5 vehicles with candidates, and another 5 Tamers joined us under the trestle. 2 additional Tamers vehicles joined us later on the trails, so with Curt (already at the fire pit) and me, that was a total of 14 Tamers vehicles for the day—not a bad turnout!! However, due to the road conditions, we didn’t actually hit the trail until 9:40 AM once everyone had aired-down and we had our drivers’ meeting.

We took off driving up Foss River Road through the long switchbacks to get us up to the fire pit where Curt was waiting for us. What was especially unusual was that in the past few years, the snow accumulation had usually started at about 2400 feet, but today it actually started all the way down along US2! That means we had snow for the whole day of wheeling, which was fantastic! Going up through the switchbacks for the six miles or so from the trestle to the fire pit, it was just a few inches of snow on the trail, enough to help us get used to the mild slipperiness of the snowpack, but also not so icy as to be treacherous. However, the snow kept falling and the snow depth kept increasing until we got to the fire pit, where it was probably about 12” or so deep. Not as much snow as in past years, but at least also not just merely wet roads! We were saddened to see that actually not too many people were on the trails, and Dirty 13 wasn’t there this year, so there wasn’t actually a fire at the fire pit—just a snow-covered pile of wood. (However, there were a lot more people in regular road cars harvesting trees along Foss River Road as we drove out from the fire pit.)

There was a large Land Rover group that we’d seen would be following us, so we headed out pretty promptly from the fire pit. It was still snowing aggressively, and we took off into a snowy abyss and into the low clouds that enshrouded the trail. That was pretty cool, but it did block the mountain vistas we’d have had, were the clouds not so low. What was really cool, however, was that everyone, even the candidates in deeper snow for the first time, drove around the curves and along the ledges of the trail really well, and only Chris B had a slight “hiccup” when his Xterra got sideways on the trail. Then Chris L wasn’t able to get his XJ started after a stop. His battery was pretty low, and it wouldn’t start even with a jump-box. Then he found the starter solenoid had separated from the starter motor, so at that point a tug from Travis got him pull-started. (Thank goodness for manual transmissions!!)

Then we came to the turnoff onto the steep trail up to the quarry. Curt generously offered to lead a group to the end of the main trail while I led a group up to the quarry. As there had been just a few people ahead of us at the quarry, the trail uphill was still OK and not icy. I went first, and got up with no problems. Then Chris L and Travis followed me up, also with no problems. I cut the tree for the Tamers’ Christmas Party next weekend, and lashed it on top of my Jeep. The snow depth at the quarry was about 15” or so; not as deep as in the past, but deep enough for a little playing! By that time, the three non-Tamer vehicles already up at the quarry headed back down (reportedly sliding a bit), and encountered Bob S in his JKU. By that time, Josh Y and Jeff L had also headed-up. Then they all met at one of the curves on the uphill! By this time the hill had gotten icy, and there was some slipping and sliding! An F150 in the other group was stuck in the ditch on the side of the trail, and the other vehicles were having a LOT of trouble getting started going uphill again, so everyone decided to head back down. Bob S backed-down to a spot where he was able to turn around so he could drive forward going downhill. The F150’s friends got him unstuck, so he was able to head down the hill, too. I followed, and Chris L and Josh Y followed me down to the intersection—and all made it down safely.

From there, Curt and the rest of the folks were still at the far end of the trail, so four of us in our group decided to go join them. We met them about 2-3 miles from the end of the trail, and where we met them as they were driving back out. Gotta say, they looked pretty good with their trees lashed to their rooftops! We made it to the end of the trail (which most of us in the small group hadn’t been to before), and indeed it was quite pretty!! We turned around at the end of the trail, and drove back to the group at the intersection.

From there we all drove back to the fire pit and stopped briefly. I checked on a Toyota pick-up that was on the trail headed up to the right from the fire pit, and they said they were OK. They had just re-seated a tire bead, and they thought they were OK, without a need for help. So, we headed back down Foss River Road (still snowy, but slushier by then) to the trestle to air-up. (Of course, it was getting dark, as it was late afternoon in December in the PNW…)
All in all, only one break (but no trail damage) and a fun day of wheeling, especially helping the newer folks get their “snow bearings” without any problems. In my book, that makes for a good day!!

John Vandergrift