December 3, 2005 I needed to get out of the house and work on my conditioning. I live in Medford, Oregon and it had been snowing in the mountains all week. I decided Stein Butte would be a good effort for today. Just as I was leaving the house it started snowing again. I headed out anyway.
By the time I got to Jacksonville, the snow had stopped, but the roads were a little icy with patches of snow on the roadway. I put my Tacoma into 4WD just in case I needed it on an ice patch. It took me about 50 minutes to get to the trailhead about 34 miles from my house. It was icy and cold at the trailhead, about 30 degrees, but good hiking weather. I packed up (extra weight in my pack for training purposes) and headed up the hill. The snow on the ground was very light and powdery and easy to walk on. I made good progress and in just over an hour gained a highspot on the ridgeline at about 3,600ft. Here the hike became more interesting.
I noticed fresh tracks in the fresh snow. The tracks were made by a cat! Yikes! I’m in cougar country. Well, I know that most bears in this area turn tail and run whenever they see a hiker. I know cougars are reputed to be numerous in this area, but I had never seen one in the daylight…. yet. I decided to continue on to Stein Butte. I was following the cougar along the trail in the snow. Needless to say, I slowed down from my normal pace and I was carefully checking the trail ahead, overhanging trees, and higher rocks along the way. It was interesting to see where the cougar went. He went off the trail occasionally to check out a view or to see where some deer tracks disappeared off the ridge. I kept going until the trail took a left hand jog around a highpoint on the ridge and the cougar went up the ridge. Great!! Maybe he is gone. I hurried along, keeping an eye on the highground to my right. Soon the trail came to a saddle on the other side of the highground and the cougar prints came back down to the trail. I was following the cougar again. On we went up the ridge to Stein Butte. This cat probably travels this trail everyday, but no one knows that because there usually isn’t snow on the ground to see his tracks.
After about 1.5 miles the cougar left the trail and I was left alone with about 1 mile to go to the summit. I continued on to the summit and the snow got deeper. On the summit the snow was about 6 inches deep, but it was a light powder and easy to walk through. On the summit it was beautiful weather. No wind, a few puffy clouds overhead. The view was great. Most of the taller surrounding mountains were all socked in with their summits in the clouds. The Red Buttes were almost clear as was Grayback in Josephine County. I couldn’t see the top of Mt. McLoughlin or the summits of the mountains to the east either.
I returned to my car the same way that I came. No new cougar tracks on my hike back to the car. Total hike was about 4 hours for the 10 mile hike.