Although most of the lower 48 experienced lackluster snow totals this season the Pacific Northwest (PNW) did just fine. They’re still reaping the benefits with a stellar season of spring skiing that’s been going off for a few weeks now. Zeb Blais has been killing up in the PNW sharing great reports from classic ski objectives like Mt. Hood and Mt. ST. Helens, and here we have a mega trip report put together by the owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, Brendan Madigan. Check’em out on facebook if you aren’t already friends.
Each spring, the Alpenglow Sports crew spends a few weeks in the Eastern Sierra skiing peaks and enjoying the High Sierra. This spring, however, with the East Side hovering around 35% of normal snowpack, the call was made to head to the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. An amazing time was had! If you love skiing Mt. Shasta, you absolutely have to put the Pacific Northwest Ring of Fire on you bucket list.
In an eight-day whirlwind tour, the crew covered the major peaks from northern Oregon to southern Washington and most highlights in between. A marked departure from our sunny Sierra spring, the Northwest was still in full-on winter. Their pack is deep, the approaches long, and every single volcano is chock-full of good-time adventures.
The first stop was just outside of Bend, Oregon to ski the Tam McArthur Rim and Sisters area. The crew spent three days skiing spring corn at the Three Sisters Backcountry Yurt while testing Winter 2012-13 skis, packs, skins and poles at the annual Black Diamond Dealer Camp. The days were sunny, warm, and gorgeous, the company fantastic, and the terrain definitely eager to please. The area provided a good warm-up, as well as the opportunity to assess the snowpack and familiarize ourselves with the terrain.
After the initial stop at the Sisters, it was off to a rainy Mt. St. Helens in south-central Washington. When the rain finally stopped, we were all secretly hoping for powder at the higher elevations. Our party of three was extremely exited to ski such a famous volcano, especially considering that the peak is still active and could erupt again. Best known for its catastrophic eruption in 1980, Mt. St. Helens stands as the most deadly and economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.
We left the Marble Mountain Sno-Park (elev. 2650 feet) around 830am. As we worked our way through the rainy lower forest towards timberline, we were all in head-to-toe Gore-Tex as the rain hadn’t quite subsided. However, when we popped out a few miles above the trailhead, we were treated to wonderful bluebird views of our objective. We ascended the standard winter climbing route, and the more elevation we gained, the more we realized how big of a treat we were in for. Boot-top powder and wonderful wind-buff allowed us to skin all the way to the summit without having to use ski crampons or deploy axe or whippet. The climb went quickly, and in a matter of hours, we were taking in the amazing views from the summit.
The roughly 6000-foot descent was rip-able windbuff and boot top powder. Hoots and hollers were let out over the ancient volcanic giant as our skis ate up the vertical. The snow quality was some of the best of the season, and our group was completely fired up. Only when our legs were gassed at around 3000 feet did the snow turn just slightly sticky. Cold beers awaited us at the car, and we rallied back to Hood River to enjoy micro-brew, good food, and begin planning for the next objective, Mt. Adams. At 12,281 and the second highest peak in Washington, Mt. Adams made Mt. St. Helens look like a mere warm-up.
Next we headed to Washington’s second highest (12,280 feet) stratovolcano, Mt. Adams. Adams is located in a remote wilderness 31 miles east of Mt. St. Helens. Air travelers sometimes confuse Mount Adams with nearby Mt. Rainier, which has a similar flat-topped shape. The mountain itself is made up of an interesting subdivision of acreage: the upper mountain consists of the Mt. Adams Wilderness, the east component belongs to the Yakima nation, and below the wilderness boundary, snowmobiles run wild.
We headed to Adams with the understanding that we were attempting the peak a solid month early. This meant a monster approach and a quick bivy. But being fit skiers from Tahoe, and extremely fired up, we decided an attempt on one of the most sought-after descents in the Cascades was worth it.
While none of us would categorize the slog into our intended bivy at 5000 feet as fun, it was adventurous and the scenery was beautiful. After three or so hours, 8 miles, and 3500 feet of vertical gain, we reached our camp on top of the Lava Flow. Camp was pitched and we were quickly enjoying our burritos along with a wonderful Cascades sunset.
The morning dawned clear and cold, and conditions were perfect for a quick ascent. Our team of three moved fast and seamlessly through timberline and up the south headwall to Piker’s Peak at 11,600 feet. Before we new it, we were standing on the summit of Mt. Adams at just over 12,280 feet. We were treated to views of Mt. Hood, St. Helens, and the always impressive, Rainier.
We descended our ascent line, which is always a safe approach, and had a blast doing so. The snow ranged from frozen broccoli heads to breakable crust to velvety corn. True big mountain skiing, the conditions covered the entire spectrum.
We arrived back at the car roughly 24 hours after we had left. The vertical gain hovered around 9000 feet for the day, with plenty of horizontal miles. With another North American classic ski descent in the books, we motored back to Hood River tired and content. And of course, eager for the next adventure on our tour – Mt. Jefferson!
After punting on Mt. Hood a mere 1000 feet from our ski objective (the Wy’East Face) due to rain, wind, and generally dangerous weather, we traveled south in search of redemption on Oregon’s 2nd highest volcano, Mt. Jefferson (10,497 feet). We did indeed find that redemption on the massive Cascade volcano, but in true Pacific Northwest fashion it came at the cost of some major physical output.
As this was our last day before heading back to sunny Lake Tahoe (and markedly less snow), we just had to go big. Earlier in the trip, as we drove north, I had spied “Jeff” in the distance. It’s proud summit pyramid, once your eyes are laid on it, is undeniable. Mount Jefferson is in a rugged wilderness and is thus one of the hardest volcanoes to reach in the Cascades. Jefferson’s craggy, deeply glacially scarred appearance is especially beautiful and photogenic.
As we were attempting the SW Ridge of Mt. Jefferson, we headed upslope upon arriving at Pamelia Lake. Here we experienced the slippery goodness of light snow on a ton of deadfall sticks and branches. Our party of three thrashed upslope for around 1000 feet before we hit the Pacific Crest Trail, and shortly thereafter, good snow. The rain in the parking lot was of course snow at the higher elevations, which made all of us pretty fired up for powder skiing. However, it quickly became apparent that the snow-covered forest approach was morphing into a dust-on-crust ridge skin. Ski crampons were mandatory, followed shortly thereafter by boot crampons.
After struggling up the ridge for some time, we were treated to freezing fog and our first views of the massive west flank of Mt. Jefferson from the SW Ridge.Traveling up the avalanche-protected ridges of ancient giants such as Mount Jefferson is a Lilliputian affair.
After an assessment of the snowpack at 8000 feet, the group switched to boot crampons and launched onto the massive, twisting serpentine ridge that constitutes the upper half of the ascent route. While the ridge looked short, and the summit in plain-view, the SW Ridge of Jefferson is characterized by the classic foreshortening common on all volcanoes. The most aesthetic part of the climb, the upper ridge shown below ascends for nearly 2500 feet to the summit.
Climbing on the ridge proper was fast-going and exhilarating. Crampon points pulled us higher with successive steps. Towards the summit pyramid, there was just enough exposure and alpine feel to give the ascent a mildly spicy sensation.
The Cascades are seemingly littered with sastrugi, and the SW Ridge was no different. Frozen broccoli florets, albatross feathers, and various assorted psychedelic frozen features watched our ascent as we kicked steps around them. These crazy features make the Cascade classics even more intriguing.
Upon reaching around 10,000 feet, we decided against any more vertical progress. The route turned into an ice climb, and for us weak-constitution backcountry skiers, this wasn’t an ideal descent. Our snowpack assessment earlier in the day had shown massive instabilities in the shape of a foot of wind-loaded powder on top of a sugary crust. Accordingly, we decided to descend to the skier’s left of the ascent ridge.
While the snow on the descent wasn’t epic, it had that big-mountain feel which always transcends poor snow quality. We took our time getting down the SW face, as the flat light and intermittent patches of blue ice made the going slightly attention-grabbing. But after approximately 1000 feet, we hit great powder, followed by hero corn at the lower elevations. Skiing off the Cascade giant was truly a massive treat. When we hit the Pacific Crest Trail, all three fo us could smell the stable 5 miles away. More importantly, after thrashing up 7,000 plus feet and many horizontal miles, we could almost hear the ice-cold Rainier talking to us….
All in all the trip was a success, although the list of desired ski lines only sought to grow in number as the trip progressed. If you have a chance to make it to the Cascades Ring of Fire, we strongly suggest it. Bring your hiking legs, Gore Tex, positive attitude and gas money. The majority of the Cascade volcanoes are worthy, stiff, physical endeavors. This makes the experience that much more awesome; after all, what is adventure if there is no struggle involved? A mentor once told me, “If it ain’t thrashin’ it ain’t backcountry skiing.” All the Cascade volcanoes are worth the effort, and if you put the muscle into an ascent, you will have experiences to last a lifetime. Happy travels.