Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mount Adams (OR) - The Southwest Chutes

The southwest chutes on Mount Adams (WA) are said to be some of the best volcano descents that exist, with nearly 4,000’ of continuous vertical descent and a sustained slope angle in the high 30s. This route had certainly been on my bucket list, but waiting for the right conditions proved challenging and a couple of planned trips had fallen through due to weather. Obviously, with the slope angle that is so conducive to both avalanche activity or an uncontrolled fall/slide during icy conditions, hitting it at the right time is critical. Keeping my eye on Mountain Forecast, it looked like Sunday, June 12th was shaping up nicely and might provide a small window, so I sent out a few emails and texts to see if I could rally a crew; Unfortunately, everyone that I contacted either already had plans or were going to be out of town. Assuming at that point that I would be doing it solo, I got a text back from a buddy in Portland, and although he couldn’t go he knew of some folks that were also planning on doing the SW chutes, and he offered to put me in contact with them. About an hour later I got a text from his friend Mike, who graciously invited me on their trip. This was great news, since I prefer to tour with a group, especially when doing a route for the first time.

Mountain Forecast for Mount Adams, showing the day we did the tour (the 12th).
As an additional reference point, Portland had a high of 76 degrees that day.

The plan was for me to meet part of the crew in Portland on Saturday evening, then grab dinner and head to the trailhead to camp, since we’d be getting an alpine start the next morning. After a delay on I-5 due to traffic, I arrived a little late to Mike’s house, but luckily the crew was still relaxing on the porch when I showed up. After meeting Mike, Jeff, and Chris, and loading all the necessary gear, we headed east toward Hood River, where we crossed over the Columbia River onto the Washington side. Before reaching the trailhead we stopped for a bite to eat at Everybody’s Brewing and also grabbed our permits at the ranger station in Trout Lake. The drive from Trout Lake to the Cold Springs campground transitioned from paved to gravel and eventually to a rutted-out jeep road, which requires a decent amount of clearance. It felt a bit odd driving up the White Salmon like I had many times before, but this time without my boat. I had spent many seasons running the classic sections of that river, including The Farmlands and The Green Truss.

When we pulled into the makeshift encampment, which was a spillover from the actual campground, it became very obvious that we weren’t the only with our sights set on Mount Adams' southern route. Luckily, we easily found the other member of our team, Kelsey. After hanging and chatting for a bit, I set-up my cot in between some trees, hoping to get at least a few hours of sleep before my alarm would go off at 3:45am.

When my alarm finally went off I had already been stirring for some time. With all the people and early start times it was pretty hard to get any real sleep. Speaking generously, I was only able to get about two hours of real sleep, but surprisingly I actually felt pretty good. While we were getting geared up, two more members of the group showed up, Evan and John, increasing the team count to 7. Since they were on a tighter schedule, we figured that we’d start out together and they would break off later, if need be.

It was around 5:15am when we finally started up the trail, which for the first mile was a wide dirt path that was completely void of snow. At around 6,000’ we ran into intermittent patches of snow. At ~6,500’ and a mile and a half into the ascent, we found enough snow coverage to start skinning. Within a quarter mile of skinning we reached the junction between the standard approach (to the left) and the early season approach (to the right). After some discussion we decided to head to the right, which appeared to be the route that most people were taking. Between this junction and the South Butte, the snow surface had not yet been softened by the sun and was pretty icy. This was actually nice for the mellow to moderate pitches, but once things steepened it got a bit tricky. At one point during a side-hill climb I lost my skin purchase and slid down about 30’ to the bottom of the small/steep rise. Out of reaction I tried to dig my fingers into the snow surface to slow myself down, which didn't help at all. Since I wasn’t wearing gloves and the rough and icy surface was like a cheesegrater, my fingers got pretty torn up. Even though they were only surface wounds I was bleeding all over the place and even with a few bandages had a hard time getting it to stop. Lesson learned – wear gloves when climbing in icy conditions…

Dawn patrol

Chris settles in for the long climb ahead

A few hikers taking the standard up route 

Great view of Mount Hood behind us

Starting to steepen

Right around the time we reached South Butte, the sun had risen high enough to splash down onto our route. The warming from the sun felt great and helped to diminish the morning chill. We took about 10 minutes to eat a snack and regroup, before continuing up the mountain between the Crescent and Gotchen glaciers. Since falling, I had put on my ski crampons, which proved extremely helpful for both traction and confidence. Although they added some drag I was able to climb slopes around 30 degrees without throwing in a switchback, which helped to offset the minor drawback. Near the foothills of the “Lunch Counter” we came across many tents that were nestled between the lava rock that had been fashioned into windbreaks. This certainly would have been a great place to camp, but since our descent route did not come back through it we would have been forced to climb all the way to Pikers Peak with our overnight gear.

Climbing up from the South Butte

South Butte and Mount Hood

Taking a quick break as we neared the Lunch Counter

At the top of the Lunch Counter, the final pitch to the South (false) Summit came into full view and I then realized just how many people were climbing the mountain on this day – basically it looked like a line of ants following the boot pack between the Lunch Counter and Pikers Peak. Before getting in line ourselves, we took another break to bask in the sun and allow a little more time for the snow to soften, which was still pretty firm at around 9:30am and 9,300’.

Kelsey continues the climb at the Lunch Counter 

The line of ants heading up to Pikers Peak

Since I didn’t want to rest too long and allow my muscles to stiffen up, I jumped out ahead of the group and started up the ever steepening face in front of me. My plan was to skin up as far as I could and then switch over to boot packing (with crampons) once the slope became too steep. With the boot pack line headed straight up the center of the slope, most of the people that were skinning chose to use the less tracked route just to the right (east) of it. Once again, I had on my ski crampons which allowed me to climb straight up the bottom half without sliding out. Eventually it did steepen to the point that I needed to use a more zig-zag approach. Although the snow was starting to soften and was pretty good for climbing, being at ~11,000’ I had to take frequent breaks just to catch my breath. I could see that the people in front of me were also struggling, which brought some comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only one.

Joining the fray

Another group climbing up the boot pack

Looking back down toward the Lunch Counter

Another skier (of many) making the trek in hopes of good lines

At around 11,300’ I decided to rest and make the switch over to boot packing for the final 300’ to the South Summit. I did see a few folks that were able to skin up the last pitch but it was a bit too steep for my liking. It wasn’t until I started hiking that I realized just how tiring that was, even when following in the steps that had been kicked in by the many people before me. The wind became much stronger as I crested over and onto the large platform that sat at the western foot of Pikers Peak. It was also quite cold and I struggled to put on my down jacket and shell in the sustained wind. The true summit was now in full view and although it was only a thousand more vertical feet and less than a mile away, the task of climbing it looked daunting. Of course determining whether or not to hike to the true summit was going to be a group decision, so I just put it out of my mind and relaxed while I waited for the rest of the crew. One-by-one the others showed up until finally everyone was accounted for. As a group we were a bit conflicted on whether or not to summit; in the end we determined that it would be best to conserve our energy for the traverse that would be required after descending the SW chutes.

Looking up at the true summit

Great views of Mount Saint Helens

Jeff & Chris relax while we wait for the others

The next topic of debate was where we were supposed to drop into the Chutes, with two potential options. A few in the group felt pretty strongly that we needed to enter down the northern side of a small ridge that ran from Pikers Peak toward the west, which was based on both some verbal beta and a GPS. Since this was the best we had to go on, the plan was set and we made the transition over to descent mode. Once I had put both sides of my board together and strapped in, I made a couple of turns on the rough icy surface, which did not inspire a ton of confidence. One of my buddies from Eugene had told me not to worry too much about how icy Pikers Peak was, since it gets continually blasted by wind and is not necessarily a true reflection of what the conditions will be like on the SW chutes. Still, I had also been warned that falling on in the chutes during icy conditions could lead to a long uncontrolled slide, which would be quite dangerous. The way I looked at it was that we should at least drop down them for a few hundred feet and evaluate, knowing that we could always use crampons to climb back up if need be. I was happy to hear that the rest of the group felt the same way – with that we proceeded down to check them out.

As I dropped down the right side of the small ridge, the snow softened dramatically. The interesting thing was that it had a soft and dry wind-loaded consistency rather than sun-softened corn. Just below the ridge the slope was fairly gradual, which provided some nice wide lines and a great warm-up. Once we reached the rollover onto the south face, it became apparent that we were a little too far north and not lined up on the SW chutes. After consulting my GPS it appeared that we just needed to traverse a short distance to the south and we’d hit them about 300 vertical feet below the South Summit. Sure enough, as we crossed over the small ridge the chutes came into view, in all of their glory -- without even taking a turn I knew that this was going to be a very special descent! Carrying as much speed as I could muster, I traversed over to the center chute and dropped in for a heel-side turn. I was quite happy and relieved, as the snow conditions were excellent and provided plenty of edge hold. One-by-one the others entered the chute and you could tell from their expressions that they felt the same, knowing that we were about to drop into one of the most classic lines in the PNW under prime conditions!

With a descent this long, we tackled it by leap-frogging and taking frequent breaks to rest our legs and sending me out front so that I could snap some photos. It was actually a bit difficult for me to stay focused on the terrain since the views were so spectacular, with Mount Saint Helens being the dominant landmark. What was truly amazing was how the slope angle remained fairly consistent, in the high 30s for ~3000 vertical feet! The snow was perfect for almost the entire chute and only started to slush up as we neared the runout.

Kelsey drops in for her first turns down the chute

Chris, droppin' in! 

Scouting out the next pitch

Kelsey eyeing her next route

Still a long way down to the bottom

Looking back up the center chute

This photo helps give some scale to the chutes -- they're massive!

Mike sets up for some more turns

Comin' in hot!

Mike, ready for more!

Jeff, kickin' up corn!

Chris, with his game face on.

Slashin' corn

Chris nears the bottom of the chutes

At around 8,400’ we started planning our exit strategy, knowing that we needed to start traversing southeast sooner rather than later. The first move was to head left of a narrow rock island that was centered in the runout of the chutes. To do this we needed to navigate around a debris field of loose lava rock that had broken from the upper part of the bowl that we’d be traversing across. Of course with the warming temps and signs of unstable rock, we wanted to move quickly and not spend too much time in the direct path. Luckily, it was pretty easy to ride high on the center ridge to avoid the rock, and build up enough speed to carry us across the flatter section.

A couple from our group setting up to get around the debris field

The traverse begins

At around 8,000’ feet and just around another ridge, we regrouped and discussed our next plan of attack. Using GPS and the ski tracks in front of us, it appeared that the best route was to traverse over to and through an obvious pass. Once we had made it through the pass and around the next corner we were sitting at around 7,000’, which we’d try and maintain for the remainder of the traverse back to the ascent route. As a splitboarder, and not being highly skilled with dual planks, this is where my day’s struggles really began. With the warm temperature the snow was pretty soft, which made side-hill traversing a difficult task indeed, even with my ski crampons attached. We actually saw a couple of people from another group slip out and slide down the hill, losing 50 to 100 feet that was not going to be easy to regain. At one point I did try and boot across but even this proved challenging.

Leveling out

Crossing one of many bowls on the way out

Staying high

Kelsey awaits beta for the next section

Jeff crossing the flats

The pass

Looking back up at the SW Chutes

After a mile and a half of transitioning between boots and skins along the traverse, we finally reached the up tracks and our progress became much easier. Since I knew we only had about three to four hundred vertical feet of skiable snow through the trees, I decided to just hike down versus skiing or snowboarding. This process actually went pretty fast, and before long I reached the dirt trail that led down to the Cold Springs campground, just a half mile away. By the time I reached the parking lot, my feet were really sore and I was pretty spent. Seeing my parked car was an extremely welcome sight, and celebrating with the crew over a beer was even sweeter! The four-hour drive back to Eugene was pretty rough, especially since my eyes were feeling the effects from the prolonged sun exposure. When I finally pulled into the driveway it was around 10:15pm and after unloading my gear into the garage I crawled into bed for some much needed rest.

Amazing view of Adams on the way out

Close-up view, with the SW Chutes centered.

Looming over Trout Lake

There is not much to say about the SW chutes of Mount Adams that hasn’t already been said. What I can tell you is that they absolutely lived up to the hype, and I can honestly say that it was the best single descent that I've done. Of course, this type of run doesn’t come easy and both the climb to Pikers Peak and the traverse out were pretty taxing, especially on only a few hours of sleep. Being a splitboarder, I think the next time I will forgo the ski traverse and instead drop down to the Round-the-Mountain Trail and take that back. All that said, any suffering that you endure will be highly rewarded, assuming weather and snow conditions are good. I do have some regret that we didn’t make the push to the true summit, although I do believe we made a wise decision not to, since we hit the chutes during prime corn conditions and traversing out would have been that much more exhausting. I would certainly make this tour a yearly pilgrimage, which will give me plenty of opportunities to reach the true summit sometime in the future. For now, I’ll just have to reminisce about dropping into one of the finest descents anywhere! On a final note, a big thanks to the crew that let me join up with them – all were super welcoming and great touring partners!

The tracks from our tour:

Red = Ascent
Blue = Descent

Sunday, June 5, 2016

South Sister (OR) - Devils Lake to Summit

The last time I had been on South Sister was nearly 10 years ago during a full moon hike to the summit with a few friends. It was my first volcanic summit hike in Oregon and I still remember the feeling while standing at the top and being blown away by the grandeur of the Three Sisters Wilderness and its other volcanic peaks – it was one of those places that made you feel really small and insignificant. Standing at ~10,300’ it’s one of the easiest major peaks in Oregon to summit, even so, it still gave me a great sense of accomplishment and I knew I would want to make a return trip at some point.

South Sister from Moraine Lake
(taken on a hiking trip back in 2006)

A small crater about 1,300' from the summit
(taken on a hiking trip back in 2006)

Standing on the summit of South Sister
(taken on a hiking trip back in 2006)

Now 2016, and with splitboarding being one of my new hobbies, I began thinking about South Sister once again, only this time with the benefit of a much faster (and more fun) means of descending. Since Cascade Lakes Highway is closed during the winter, I figured I would just wait until late spring when the road was open, eliminating the 6-mile skin approach (one way) just to get to the trailhead. I had heard through both the guidebook and local beta that you should do it as soon as possible after the road opens, when there is still enough snow to ski all the way back to your car. Armed with this intel, I monitored the website (here) for the most current conditions and news on the scheduled opening. Right around the second week in May they released the opening date, which was set for Monday May 23rd. Since I already had off Thursday the 26th, I set that as my target date and went to work on pulling together a crew.

After emailing all of my touring buddies the only one that was available on Thursday was Andrew Boes. Since he is based in Salem, the plan was to meet at the Devils Lake trailhead at 8:30am. That would provide us the most direct route to the summit, around a 6-mile trek and 5,000' feet of vertical ascent. Google Maps had estimated my drive at around three hours, but with little to no traffic and breaking various speed limits I reached the parking lot in just over two hours. Luckily, the clouds that had blanketed the Willamette Valley had dissipated near the base of South Sister, and it looked like we'd have beautiful conditions for our day's adventure -- the sun was shining bright and the temperature at 5,500' feet was in the low 40s. Andrew reached the parking lot soon after, and once we had gotten geared up we started the long steady journey toward the summit.

My first view of South Sister, from Cascade Lakes Highway.

Made it!

Andrew gets ready while South Sister looms in the background

The first third of a mile was actually along the highway to where the South Sister Climber Trail (No. 36) started, near the mouth of Hell Creek. Over the next two miles and 1,200 vertical feet, we climbed up the gully between Kaleetan Butte and Devils Hill, which was in the trees but had minimal undergrowth. Unfortunately the snow on the lower half was very spotty so we were forced to hike instead of skinning. Eventually we got high enough in the drainage to where snow blanketed the entire forest floor and we were able to switch over to skis, making for a much quicker pace. At 6700' we reached the timberline and we were presented with an amazing view of South Sister, where almost our entire southern approach route was visible.

The start of the Climber Trail - 6 miles to the summit

Starting it off with hiking boots

Andrew nearing the point of skinning

Reaching the timberline

For the next mile or so we traveled along a flat bench that led to the foot of the mountain and the real climbing began. The snow was just starting to soften and provided decent traction under our skins as the slope gradually began to steepen. At about 8,000' the slope angle started to prove challenging, so I slipped on my ski crampons and was immediately given the extra bite that was needed to make it up the next few pitches. After one last set of steep switchbacks I found myself at the small frozen lake at the base of the Lewis Glacier, at an elevation of around 9,000'. As I waited for Andrew, who didn't have the luxury of ski crampons, I enjoyed the amazing views and watched as the clouds slowly moved in from the west, concealing the terrain that lay below us..

Andrew skins across the flat bench, hoping that the clouds continue to move through.

Some nice views along the way, including this one of Broken Top -- More skiable terrain!

Starting the real climb

Rising above the cloud layer

Andrew follows the skin track up one of the steeper sections on the lower half of the mountain

Looking toward the blanketed Willamette Valley

The Lewis Glacier

From the frozen lake, we continued our ascent up the south ridge between the Lewis Glacier and the Clark Glacier, where we saw other skiers and snowboarders making the trek, both up and down the mountain. The further up we skinned the steeper and more narrow the ridge became, until eventually we were forced to strap our planks to our packs and start bootpacking up the remaining 1,000 vertical feet to the summit crater. At this elevation the snow still hadn’t completely softened and in some places it was difficult to kick in steps with my snowboard boots. Not wanting to stop to unpack and attach my crampons for such a short distance, I decided to make the remainder of the climb without their assistance. Luckily the crew before us had kicked in shallow foot holds, but even then it was right on the line of needing the toe spikes. As I crested over the southern rim of the summit crater I was very relieved that the climbing was all but done.

Starting our ascent up the south ridge

Getting steeper and narrower

Andrew making steady progress up the south ridge
(Mount Bachelor in the background)

The final push toward the summit crater.
Luckily, the crew before us had kicked in some shallow steps.

Across the crater I could see a line of boot prints that lead up towards the true summit. Before tackling the last ¼ mile and 100’ ascent, I ate a quick snack while taking in the amazing views that surrounded me. I also decided to unbuckle my planks and skin across the crater, which helped reduce some of the load on my shoulders and sped things up a bit. Just below the summit I ran into two other splitboarders who were relaxing and enjoying the view to the north that looked onto the other two Sisters. I was really looking forward to seeing Middle Sister from this vantage point, as it would allow me to take in the entire line we had skied just a few weeks earlier down its southeast ridge (trip report here). When it finally came into view I was not disappointed – I would even go as far as to say that it’s the most spectacular vista that I’ve been to in Oregon - it’s that amazing! The clouds that had been moving in from the west had started to wrap around the base of the other Sisters, which only added to the overall grandeur of the scene.

Looking onto the true summit, from the southern rim of the crater.

The view I had been looking forward to -- Looking north on to Middle and North Sister

Looking onto a frozen Teardrop Pool, from just below the summit.

Before long, Andrew came into view and crossed the crater. When he reached the summit we celebrated a bit and had a quick lunch on our perch at ~10,300’ above sea level. With a strong breeze and cooler temps it started to get a bit chilly, so after about 10 minutes we transitioned over to descent mode and started heading down to find some warmer weather. Since we still needed to get across the crater to the south rim, I built up as much speed as I could off the summit, in hopes that I would be able to make it all the way across the crater. Unfortunately I only ended up making it about 3/4 of the way, but after a short hike I was once again strapped into my board and looking onto the ~3,200’ of high alpine descent that lay in front of us.

Andrew, closing in on the summit.

Looking southeast from the summit.
Broken Top on the left and Mount Bachelor on the right.

Since I wanted to take a few photos, I dropped in first and set up on the west side of the south face. The plan was for Andrew and I to meet up where the headwall funneled down onto the south ridge, near the cliff band at the top of the Lewis Glacier. Once he had skied past, I packed up my gear and dropped into my first real turns of the day down the face. The slope angle was in the high 30s and the snow was just starting to corn up, which produced some exciting edge transitions as I made my way down to the meeting spot, ~300 vertical feet below me.

Andrew drops in for his first turns of the day

Starting to warm up

Enjoying some great terrain and views

Nearing the meetup spot

Now on the south ridge, we discussed our next route down the mountain. Everyone that we had seen skiing to this point had taken the ridge down toward the frozen lake and continued down the face that sat directly below it; however, while scouting potential lines on the way up, it looked like the bowl(s) just to the west of the ridge would make for a better run. After deciding to go with our own line we looked for an opening in the lava rock fence that ran parallel to the ridge and separated us from the route to the west. We eventually spotted a doorway about 600’ down where we planned to meet up once again. Andrew dropped in first and made a series of tight turns to stay centered on the narrow ridge. Once he passed through the opening I took my turn, also keeping it tight to avoid what would have been a nasty fall off the eastern edge of the ridge and onto the Lewis Glacier.

Andrew prepares to drop into the second pitch, down the south ridge.

Kickin' up corn!

Just as we had imagined, the route that we were now lined up for looked amazing – a steep S-turn bowl that resembled an enormous luge course. Both the line and the snow conditions down the bowl ended up being fantastic, with every turn as good as any I had taken before it in the backcountry. Exiting the bowl required us to ride high up on the right wall to get around a rock island that was seated in the flat bottom.

Andrew dropping into the third pitch, to the west of the south ridge.

Lining up the S-turn bowl

Here we go!

Checking out the view on the way down

Andrew contemplating where to place his next series of turns

Heading high on the right wall to get around the rock island on the flat bottom

The author finishes up his line around the rock island
(photo by Andrew Boes)

For the last thousand vertical feet of alpine skiing, the slope started to mellow out, allowing for some wide flowy turns. Eventually the snow started to slush up and we had to straight line it to get across some of the flatter sections. Right at the 7,000' mark, the slope became too shallow for me to continue snowboarding down the hill, and I was forced to apply my skins for the rest of our time spent above timberline.

Starting to flatten out, but still finding plenty of fun turns

The author drops into the next pitch
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Straightlining it across the Velcro snow

Andrew nears the end of "the goods"

Heading back across the flats

Once we reached the forest setting, I was able to reassemble my snowboard and ride down the ravine for about a mile until the snow became too patchy to continue. From here, I hiked down the remaining mile to the highway, while Andrew linked together the ever shrinking islands of snow. By the time we reached the road I was pretty worn out, and the last third of a mile to the car only emphasized how tired I actually was. Back at the car we celebrated another successful mission over a beer, before parting ways and heading back to our respective towns.

The south aspect on South Sister holds some of the most popular backcountry routes in Oregon, and for good reason, as both the terrain and views are spectacular! Although it’s not the most difficult ascent/descent in the Cascade range you’ll still feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re celebrating back at the car over a beer. Comparing it to Middle Sister which I had done a few weeks prior, I would say that the terrain was just as good. The main benefit over Middle Sister is that it’s much more accessible and can be done as a day tour, albeit with less of a wilderness experience. That said, you could certainly turn it into an overnighter by camping at Moraine Lake, or better yet, staying at Green Lakes and combining it with a tour on Broken Top’s western bowl. I’ll certainly be repeating this tour again, and we’ll be anxiously waiting the opening of the Cascades Lakes Highway for many springs to come!

Our tracks:

This image shows our entire route, from the Devils Lake parking lot to the summit and back
(red = ascent, blue = descent)

A zoomed in view of our tracks on the upper mountain
(red = ascent, blue = descent)