I'll admit it. I'm a peakbagger.
I like to collect summits like some people collect stamps or baseball cards. So when I learned about the Sky Lakes Traverse — an enchainment of five summits positioned along a cirque above the Seven Lakes Basin in southern Oregon — I could hardly contain myself. The chance to reach five summits in a single day made me practically giddy.
Despite the fact that two of the peaks are known as Lucifer and Devils Peak, I figured it would be peakbagging heaven. Little did I know that the evil one keeps his domain closely guarded.
On Sunday I made the long drive past Crater Lake, through the town of Prospect and across fairly decent unpaved roads, arriving at Seven Lakes Trailhead in the Sky Lakes Wilderness early enough that it was still cool. It was cool enough that Satan's minions, commonly known as mosquitoes, were still actively guarding the approach.
Normally these little demons are most prevalent in July when the snow melt provides plenty of wet, damp breeding grounds. With this year's snowpack still lingering throughout higher elevations, the timeline has been pushed back a month. I was unwittingly walking into the height of mosquito season.
There were two cars at the trailhead ahead of me, so I was hoping the mosquitoes would be well-fed and satiated. No such luck. I had brought no DEET, no OFF, not even a bug net, and the skeeters were taking full advantage, swarming around me, penetrating my cloth defenses.
I've seen a nature documentary about the migration of the caribou, which explained that the annual stampede starts because the herd is trying to escape swarms of mosquitoes. I can believe it. I barreled down the trail like a man possessed, my arms failing about trying to shoo the mosquitoes away from my head, neck and arms. I was praying I would run into another hiker that could perform an exorcism with a can of bug spray.
Seven Lakes Trail climbs steadily over the first 3.5 miles, gaining about 1,700 feet in elevation, as it passes Frog Lake and meets up with the Devils Peak Trail. A few hundred feet past the intersection of the two trails, I left the trail and headed straight up the first of the five peaks in the traverse, a 7,315 summit known only as Venus.
The slopes of the peak are covered in talus rock, the dinner-plate type of lava rock that sounds as if you're walking over a pile of grandma's china and feels just as secure under your feet. Apparently this was the fire and brimstone part of the approach. At least the mosquitoes had vanished.
Climbing up the talus rock was a slow process. If this was Venus — goddess of love and female shaving implements — what would Lucifer be like?
After nearly 400 feet of battling the talus, I stepped onto the summit with a good view of Mount McLoughlin and the rest of my route. Each of the five peaks is connected to the next, requiring a descent to a saddle and a climb back up to the next summit. There's no trail, so the difficulty is primarily in finding the path of least resistance. The ridgeline itself is often blocked by trees or rock formations, so it's easier to drop to one side or the other.
Many of the summits in this area are marked with small depressions in the rocky surface, pits about 6 to 8 feet in diameter. There are reportedly spiritual sites created by Klamath Indians.
Descending from summit to saddle is tricky, as none of the rock seems permanently attached to the slope. Test every step before fully committing to it.
I made quick work of Venus and Jupiter, then lingered on the summit of Lucifer to refuel and gather my energy for the tallest summit, Devils Peak at 7,582 feet. If Devils Peak is your only destination, you can follow the Devils Peak Trail all the way to the saddle with Lucifer, where it connects for a short distance with the Pacific Crest Trail. A side trail then leads to the summit of Devils Peak.
Having a trail to follow makes Devils Peak probably the easiest of the five summits to climb, but it doesn't necessarily feel that way after doing the first three. A rocky summit provides great views in all direction.
All of the first four summits also offer nice views of the Seven Lakes Basin, although some of the lakes seems to be hidden from view by the surrounding trees.
To continue on to Lee Peak, the final summit in the traverse, drop down the southeast slope of the peak, crossing over the Pacific Crest Trail in the saddle. If there's an easy or obvious route to the summit of Lee, I certainly did not find it.
The direct path along the ridge was blocked by several large rock formations, so I dropped to the southern side and traversed across a horribly loose slope. Eventually, I found a cleft in rock, and scampered up to a flat summit. As I looked back across the ridge, however, the last rock formation looked as if it might be a little higher.
It might have been a difference of only a few feet, but I figured, if that was the summit, I should give it a go. The route of the rock formation involved about 50 feet of more difficult terrain, bordering on rock climbing, with more than a little exposure. It wasn't a place to make a mistake.
On the top, I looked back to the flat area I had previously climbed. It was still a close call as to which was the true summit.
With all five under my belt, it was time to take the easiest path back to the trail. I picked my way back across the traverse to the saddle with Devils Peak and the PCT. From here it would be a relatively easy 6-mile hike on a well-established trail.
It seems old Lucifer still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Once back on the Devils Peak Trail, I encountered significant snow, requiring some fancy footwork along the trail as it passed below Lucifer and Jupiter.
When the trail entered the forest, the patches of snow were so big, it was at times hard to follow the trail. When the path disappeared under the snow, I tried to follow the general direction, but inevitably had to search the edge of the snow field to find where the trail picked up again. It's probably a good idea to mark the intersection of the Devils Peak Trail and the Seven Lakes Trail with a GPS, to ensure you don't get lost.
In the midafternoon sun, the mosquitoes had died down, but not completely. When they started to bite, I took to jogging in a valiant but ultimately fruitless attempt to outrun them.
But after 12 miles, and about 4,000 feet of elevation gain, the true damnation began — I was cast out of the wilderness and back into civilization.