Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Mount Jefferson (OR) - West Rib

The west aspect of Mount Jefferson, with the West Rib splitting the face.
(Photo by Jason Loomis at http://loomisadventures.com/)
Mount Jefferson is probably my favorite Oregon Cascade peak, with rugged beauty and big skiable lines. The reason that it doesn’t get as much traffic as the other major volcanoes is probably due to its challenging approaches, at least for the more desirable lines like the SW Ridge and West Rib. Of these two, I had successfully ticked off the SW Ridge but was shut down by the Rib in 2018, due to some gear limitations (trip report here). Feeling the need for redemption and having a much better understanding of the challenges associated with the route, it was time to give it another go.

For this attempt I was able to recruit Markus, one of my go-to skiing buddies. With a good snowpack and weather window for the upcoming Saturday, we knew we’d have a good chance of completing the mission. Since the temps were forecasted (at ~9,200’) to be 35°F the night before and reach the mid-50s the day of, we knew we’d need to get an alpine start to mitigate our exposure to rock/ice fall and wet slides. The plan was to camp at the trailhead the night before, so we could start the tour around 3am.

After meeting up in Springfield on Friday evening, we started the drive toward the Pamelia Lake trailhead, which was about a 2hr drive. When we pulled into the parking area we found a few other cars but it wasn’t crowded. Before heading off to bed, we readied our gear so we could wake up and head out quickly. That night I dosed in and out of sleep and just when I had started my deep sleep the alarm went off. It was 2:30am.

We threw down a quick bite and made some final gear preparations before starting down the trail at ~3:15am. Almost immediately we were confronted by trees lying across the trail -- I was really hoping this wasn’t a sign of what was to come. Over the next 3.5 miles we had to navigate under, over, and around a couple of dozen downed trees. This was made more difficult with the skis on our packs and the limited visibility based on the lack of sunlight. Despite these obstacles, we still made decent time and reached the intersection of the PCT and Milk Creek after an hour and a half from starting the tour.

The last time on this approach the bottom part of Milk Creek was free of snow and patchy on the upper half. This prevented us from using it as an avenue to reach the base of the mountain, due to unstable snow bridges over the creek. This time around, and to our delight, it looked like we’d have adequate snow coverage the entire way, allowing us to travel through the canyon safely. The main benefit of this was that we wouldn’t need to bushwhack up the ridge between Milk Creek and the side creek, which was truly a sufferfest on the previous tour.

Entering Milk Creek

Milk Creek, leading to up to Mount Jefferson.

Shortly after leaving the PCT we were able to pull our skis from our packs and skin up. Within a ¼ mile we reached the side creek, where I left a small rope and some other climbing gear. I had brought it to help with getting back down into Milk Creek, assuming we had followed the other drainage, which ended up being the sketchiest part the last time. The rest of the way up Milk Creek went really well and we were able to skin its entirety, except for a small section that didn’t have enough coverage. The headwind through the canyon was pretty strong/sustained and the floor of the canyon was littered with rock debris. Toward the mouth of the canyon a small waterfall dropped down from the cliff face on our left and the summit of Mount Jefferson presented itself -- it was truly a sight to behold!

Partway up Milk Creek

Plenty of rockfall along the way

Exiting Milk Creek canyon. Note the cool waterfall coming down of the left wall.

Eventually, our journey up Milk Creek terminated were it dropped down a small cliff in front of us. As we skinned up and over the small ridge to the north we found fairly wet snow, which we hoped would firm up higher on the mountain. On the other side of the ridge, we skinned alongside the adjacent drainage to the base of the Rib. Once we’d reached the ramp that led up to the rib we switched over to crampons, strapped our skis to our packs, and started booting up the steep slope.

Climbing out of Milk Creek

Starting up the adjacent drainage, toward the base of the Rib.

The author nears the base of the Rib
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

The further we made our way up the West Rib the firmer the snow surface became and I was glad we had decided to put on our crampons early. To get the most spike purchase and mellow out the slope a bit, we zigzagged our way up. Passing over the 8k elevation line the Rib started to steepen even more and the sidewalls sloped up a bit, forming a gully. The left side was also lined with a series of rock formations that looked a bit like a dragon’s back.

The start of the Rib

Getting steeper


Lots of cool rime formations along the way

At the upper end of the gullied portion of the Rib, the slope angle steepened to around 50°. That combined with the near solid ice surface, made for some heady and tiring front-pointing on all fours. This process went on for about 600’ until we reached a relatively flat spot surrounded by rime covered rock formations, at 9,600’. From this point to the summit pinnacle the slope mellowed out quite a bit and the route appeared to be much less difficult and sketchy; however, my calves were on fire from all the front-pointing and I was more interested in resting then continuing on. Furthermore, we weren’t planning to summit anyways and the skiing between the pinnacle and our current position didn’t look all that inviting - firm/wind-textured snow.

Front pointing on the upper section of the Rib

No fall zone

Since we’d need to wait for the snow to soften up, I figured I might as well get comfortable and made a chair with my backpack and skis. Even though the sun was now splashing down on us, there was a constant light wind that made it a bit cold. Even so, It was hard to complain too much since the views were nothing short of amazing! From time to time one of us would get up from our seat and check to see if the slope had softened up enough. For whatever reason conditions were being a bit stubborn and I could only assume it was due to the wind.

A  nice place to stop at ~9,600 (600' below the summit pinnacle).

The author waits for the snow to soften
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

After almost 3 hours of waiting, and wishing we’d slept in later, we got impatient and decided it was go time. We spent a little extra time transitioning over and then prepared to drop in. The top inch or so of the snow was nice and soft, but it was still pretty firm underneath. Markus went first and dropped in delicately, testing the edging with some side slipping and a couple of tight turns. He communicated that it was certainly skiable but a bit icy and to use cation -- We were basically in a “no fall zone”, with 3,000’ steep runout below us.

Markus drops in for the first turns of the day

Markus postioned above the first steep pitch.

As I dropped in I was certainly tentative and probably the most nervous I’ve been in some time. It’s not that the terrain was overly difficult, it was just steep (~50°) with pretty serious consequences for slipping out and failing to self-arrest. I slowly made my way down to Markus’ position mostly side slipping with a few turns thrown in to test the snow. My hesitation was certainly affecting my skiing and I was hoping I’d find my groove once I warmed up a bit.

Once below the first pinch the run opened up a bit and allowed us to make some easier turns, although we did have to contend with some old icefall debris that had collected on the slope. Luckily, it was a bit softer lower down and made it less challenging then it would have been otherwise.

Feeling a bit more relaxed below the first steep pitch

Dropping into the next section

Before long we reached the second steep pinch, which once again Markus dropped down through first. With the softer snow and feeling a little better about our turns, we made it through without much issue and dropped into the next bit, which was probably the most opened up section on the rib.

Above the second steep pinch

Safely below the second pinch
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Although The debris was fairly prevalent down the center of the slope, it was soft enough that it wasn’t too bad to ski through. Markus chose to ski along the left wall, where the surface was nice and smooth but it was also a bit firmer, since it hadn’t received as much solar radiation. I mainly stuck to the center and right flank, near the rocks that formed the dragon’s back.

The author enters the middle (and widest) section of the West Rib
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Markus heading down to the next staging area

Pointing it down one of the mellower pitches 

Riding the smoother, but firmer, left flank.

Hugging the dragon backs
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

The author
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

The further we descended the softer the snow was, and it even became a bit grabby. This required us to be a bit more aggressive with our turns, but at least we didn’t have to worry as much about self-arresting if we did take a spill. I actually enjoyed this section quite a bit and was feeling much more relaxed.

Starting to soften a bit

Markus enters the lower half of the Rib

Still plenty of slope left

Markus, above the 3rd (and final) pinch on the West Rib.

Before exiting the rib we still had one last steep pinch, which I dropped through first. With the soft snow, I was able to link a nice series of turns before pulling over and waiting for Markus, who dropped down soon after.

Markus, exiting the main Rib.

We were now traversing above the drainage to the north of Milk Creek, essentially following our uptrack. It was actually a pretty fun section to ski, riding high on the left wall and slashing turns along the way. We did kick off a few rollerballs and based on the giant terrain trap we were riding along, we didn’t dilly-dally too much and kept our eyes open for any significant warning signs. My legs were also pretty smoked by this point, so I didn’t expend too much energy playing around.

The author finds some more good turns on side of the gully leading back down to Milk Creek
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Back in the gully

Still finding some fun snow along the way

(photo by Markus Allgaier)


We were soon positioned on the ridge above Milk Creek, where we had ascended out of it on the way up. I was pretty sure that the south-facing slope we were about to descend was going to be really soft and potentially produce a wet slide. Before fully committing to the slope, I cut across the top of it to see if I could get a reaction. Sure enough, a shallow wet slide broke from the entire length of my ski track and headed down the face. It started off pretty fast but eventually moved along at a fairly slow pace. The slide path actually made for some pretty nice skiing, but I had to move in fits and starts as I followed the slow-moving slide in front of me.

Markus, dropping back down into Milk Creek.

Now back in the Milk Creek drainage, we ‘milked’ as many turns as we could get out of it before we had to start hiking. We would have been able to ski almost the whole way back to the PCT if it hadn’t been for all the rock debris - basically, if we didn’t care about your ski bases, it would have been possible, excluding one small section. Markus took it a bit farther than me, but better judgment eventually took over and we soon found ourselves with our skis on our pack for the remainder of the tour back to the parking lot.

Entering Milk Creek

Finding a few last turns on the left wall of Milk Creek

looking back up at Mount Jefferson

A few final turns

Markus navigates the debris field

The start of the hike back to the parking lot

Before leaving Milk Creek we made one last stop to grab the rope and climbing gear I’d left on the way up. Unfortunately, someone else had taken it, which was a bit of a surprise to me since I had laid it out on a rock so it was obvious that it was left there intentionally. I also had figured that anyone heading up Milk Creek probably wouldn’t be the thieving type. I was actually pretty pissed off that someone would take it, especially since I’d consider it safety gear. Just as the PCT crossing came into view, I saw two people leaving the drainage and assumed it could have been them that had grabbed my gear. I sped up my pace and yelled out to get their attention. They turned around and acknowledged my calls, but then turned away and started down the trail. I let Markus know that I was going to give chase and started after them. To make a long story short, I eventually caught up to one of them at Pamelia Lake. They said that they assumed someone had lost it and were going to post it to the local climbers' forum. Based on some miscommunication between the two of them (they had gotten separated) I didn’t get my gear back until an hour or so later at the parking lot -- in the end, it wasn’t a big deal (for our situation), but I’m still a little annoyed that they had grabbed it.

Back at the car, Markus and I sat around for a bit and enjoyed some snacks and reflected on the day’s adventure, before heading our separate ways.

The West Rib of Mount Jefferson certainly did not disappoint, and pretty much lived up to what I was expecting. The approach was much easier this time around since Milk Creek had enough snow to use as an avenue to the base of the mountain. I also feel we hit just about right in regards to the point in the season -- late enough where it had gone through enough of a corn cycle but still early enough that it wasn’t completely tattered with ice/rockfall and runnels. It was probably the most committing ski line I’ve done to date, with its sustained steepness and no-fall zone at the top of the run. I do have some minor regrets about not going all the way to the summit pinnacle, which would have added another 600 vertical feet, but once again I was pretty happy to hang out on the relatively flat spot and the conditions for skiing didn’t look that great -- oh well, you gotta leave something to come back for. In the end, it certainly pushed my limits as a skier, which was mainly a mental battle, which I’ll use as experience for the next big line.

Our Tracks:

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Tombstone Traverse (OR)


Although I’d done many ski tours at Tombstone Pass, it’s always been confined to Cone Peak and South Peak, and some tree skiing in the Echo Basin area. It’s not that there is a lack of good ski lines on the other peaks, they're just a bit more effort to get to. The desire to explore the range further only entered my mind when a buddy, Adam, had mentioned the idea of doing a traverse across its length, on the north side of Hwy 20. As I looked into the idea a bit more and sketched it out in CalTopo, it looked like it would provide some good adventure but still be a fairly reasonable day tour, although a full one. The variation I was considering would top out on five of the main summits – Iron Mountain, Cone Peak, South Peak, Echo Mountain, and North Peak. Although the route could be extended further east along the range, I felt the shorter version would target the main attractions and be a better choice for a first attempt. It would also be a good recon mission, leaving the longer variation for a future date. With a plan drawn up, I proposed it to a few folks and was able to convince three others, Lucy, Audrey, and Markus. With the weather looking promising for a Sunday tour, we set that as the target day.

The morning of the tour we met up in Springfield at 5:30am – a little earlier than our typical departure, but due to the unknowns, it was necessary. We quickly loaded into two cars (we would need to set a shuttle) and made our way up to the Pass. After dropping off a car at Lost Prairie, we drove up the road to Tombstone Pass sno-park, where we’d start the tour. Once we finished sorting gear and doing a quick beacon check, we started down the road toward the Iron Mountain trailhead, which would lead us up its west aspect.

A chilly start to the day

The skin along Hwy 20 was a bit of a drag but went by pretty quickly. Once we reached the trailhead, we headed into the woods and started following the tracks of previous adventures. With the recent snow, the tracks faded in and out, and I was often just leading us up the mountain using the path of least resistance. For the most part skinning was pretty straightforward, but it did get a bit icy and steep as we reached the upper portion of the mountain. For the final 200’ to the summit we found it easier to just shoulder our skis and boot up to the obvious high point. At the summit of Iron Mountain we were treated to amazing views, with Mount Jefferson being the dominant landmark. The summer lookout platform was visible but not very usable due to the stack of snow on top of it. It did provide a good summit photo op, which we took advantage of before looking for a ski line down the east face of the mountain.

Road skinning

The crew, starting the climb.

High spirits early on!
(photo by Lucy Barton)

Partway up Iron Mountain's west face
(photo by Lucy Barton)

Audrey closes in on the summit of Iron Mountain
(photo by Lucy Barton)

First summit - Iron Mountain

A view from the top
(photo by Audrey Squires)

Looking east toward the rest of the traverse. Mount Jefferson way off in the background.

Heading east to find our drop-in point

Since I’d seen the line on previous tours, from the summit of Cone Peak, I’d had a reasonable idea of what to expect – Basically, a steep narrow clearing between trees that looked short and sweet. As we peered down the line it looked good, with the only unknown being how deep the new storm snow was over the recent sun crust. Using standard avalanche terrain protocol, we dropped in one at a time and regathered at safety zones as we made our way down the hill, using radios for communication. The slope started off fairly steep (~40 degrees) and eventually mellowed out as we descended a few hundred feet. The snow was a bit of a mixed bag, with a few icy patches underneath a thin snow covering, and a few deeper spots with fluffy dry powder. We did kick off some very small surface slides, but nothing that was too concerning.

Audrey drops in from the top of Iron Mountain 

Steep up top

Markus finds some soft snow

Lucy, lower down.

Kickin' up dust

The bottom half of the line

The author, nearing the bottom.
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Audrey finishes up the line down Iron Mountain

Once we had reached the bottom of the run, we reapplied our skins and headed back up to the ridge that headed over towards Cone Peak. The skinning in this stretch was a bit challenging in spots and definitely slowed our pace; in fact, at the rate we were traveling, I was a bit concerned we’d run out of daylight by the end of the traverse. Eventually, we made our way onto the south face of Cone Peak, where we were able to improve our speed a bit. The sun had been baking the slope for an hour or so, but luckily there was only a thin layer of storm snow that had softened on top of the older sun crust. Since the slope felt stable, from an avalanche standpoint, we continued up the south face toward the summit. Along the way we came across another skier, who had just started his turns down the mountain. At the summit of Cone Peak we ate a quick snack, transitioned over to descent mode and discussed options for making our way towards South Peak.

The east face of Iron Moutain, taken on another tour.

Heading toward the next objective, Cone Peak.


Heading up Cone Peak as the clouds move in
(photo by Lucy Barton)

Nearing the summit of Cone Peak

Second summit - Cone Peak
(photo by Lucy Barton)

Echo Mountain and South Peak

Based on snow conditions and the terrain leading toward the saddle between the two peaks, we decided to ski down the northeast side of Cone Peak, which held some nice dry snow. I dropped in first and did a ski cut to see if I could get any reaction. After cutting across the slope I made my first few turns, which were a little challenging, due to being both steep and slick. Once I was at a safety zone, the others dropped in one at a time, joining me below a small cliff band. The snow was really nice on the lower half of the slope and I was really tempted to drop a couple hundred more feet for some additional turns. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule and we needed to keep moving.

The author drops down the northeast face of Cone Peak
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Lucy, stoked on the stash of soft snow!

Markus grabs a few turns while the getting is good

The next section of the traverse, between Cone Peak and South Peak, was certainly more straightforward and went much faster. There were a couple of congested bits, but all and all it was a pretty straight shot along a wide-open ridge. As we closed in on the summit of South Peak, we had to navigate through some thin coverage but nothing that required us to remove our skis. From the summit we transitioned quickly and continued our journey toward Echo Mountain. The descent down South Peak to the saddle was actually pretty fun, with low angle terrain and soft snow, which allowed us to open it up a bit.

The ridge up to South Peak

An easy bit between Cone and South peaks

Third summit - South Peak

Audrey enjoying some mellow bits

Markus and Lucy 

The climb up the ridge to Echo went by really quickly, with Lucy leading the pack and setting an aggressive pace. The southwest face looked like it would be a really fun ski, although the snow coverage was a little thin, and once again we were in a hurry – definitely an objective for a future tour. Now at the summit of Echo, the clouds rolled in, preventing us from seeing the ridge that we’d be following next. This was somewhat unfortunate since I had been most concerned about this section of the traverse, due to the potential for large cornices and rugged terrain.

Heading up Echo Mountain
(photo by Lucy Barton)

A nice looking slope for a future tour

Forth summit - Echo Mountain

Even with the limited visibility, we were undeterred and continued toward our final summit, North Peak. Almost immediately we were confronted with both cornices and a stand of thick trees. We soon discovered that it was faster to shoulder our skis for a short bit before the ridge opened up again. Halfway between Echo Mountain and North Peak was a lesser summit with a rock outcropping. After a quick evaluation, we decided the best approach would be to drop down a bit and wrap around its western flank. Along with low visibility, the cloud cover had also dramatically cooled the temperatures down and the snow surface had begun to refreeze. This, along with the thin coverage, convinced all of us but Markus to throw our skis on our packs and boot around the cliff band. On the other side of the lesser peak the skin became a bit easier and we started making good progress once again. Before long I was making the last few switchbacks up toward the summit of North Peak. Before long, the others showed up and we took in the view for a few minutes before dropping in for our last descent of the day.

One of the few bits where we had to shoulder skis
(photo by Lucy Barton)

Opening up once again
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Looking for a line around the lesser summit between Echo Mountain and North Peak
(photo by Audrey Squires)

Booting around the lesser summit
(photo by Lucy Barton)

More thickets

Fifth (and final) summit - North Peak

The open glades below us looked very inviting – well-spaced trees and a slope angle of around 35 degrees. Unfortunately, the refreeze had happened on this slope as well and although it wasn’t quite breakable crust, it was a little grabby. Although, I was just glad that we wouldn’t have to worry as much about wet slides. As long as you kept up your speed and didn’t turn too sharply, it was pretty good. We leapfrogged our way down and the lower we went the worse the surface crust became, especially in the shaded sections.

The author prepares to drop down the south face of North Peak
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Markus dropping in
(photo by Lucy Barton)

The author
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

The author rounds a corner and drops into the next section of glades
(photo by Markus Allgaier)

Markus heads down for some more turns



(photo by Lucy Barton)

Reaching the flats

At the bottom of the slope we entered the woods and the snow softened substantially. We were all pretty happy about this, as skiing breakable crust a couple miles back to the car would have been soul-crushing, especially at the end of a fairly long day. Since I had skied the Echo Basin a few weeks prior, I was in familiar territory and was able to lead us out of it without too much trouble. Before long, we reached the road that connected the basin trailhead to Hwy 20. Unfortunately, I knew that this road had lots of blowdown, which was a major pain on our last tour. I tried to paint a rosy picture but also let the rest of the team know what we were up against. The silver lining was that we knew we’d have enough daylight, which would make it a bit easier.

Sure enough, the road did its best to kill our spirits, but luckily we’re a tough bunch and were able to take it in stride. When we finally reached Hwy 20 it settled in that we had just completed the Tombstone Traverse. I was pretty stoked that we’d finished it with minimal issues. In fact, we had great weather, countless laughs, and we even had a few fun ski descents. Back at the car we celebrated with a beer and hugs, feeling a sense of accomplishment – all in all, a pretty good way to spend a Sunday!

A small creek crossing on the road section

A lot of this one the way out
(photo by Lucy Barton)

Conclusion – the Tombstone Traverse did not disappoint. Although I had an idea of how it would go, you never know when you do a mission that doesn’t have any documented accounts. I’m really glad that Adam had put the thought in my head and that I was able to convince a crew to tick it off the list. This one is definitely worth repeating and even extending. It was also a great way to do some recon on all the line options in the Tombstone Pass area. As Markus stated, I’d give it a near perfect 5 out of 7 stars – this must be a German thing…

The tracks from our tour: