Sunday, March 10, 2019

Black Butte (OR) - NE Face

Black Butte - SE aspect, from Smith Rock.
(photo by Adam Bodie)
Each time I’ve toured at Three Fingered Jack I’ve looked over at Black Butte and wondered how good the skiing would be. I knew that it had a wide-open face on the north side (not visible from 3FJ) and that it was occasionally skied when conditions permitted. One of the challenges is its relatively low elevation--with the base of the butte being around 3500’ and the summit at 6,436’, it doesn’t hold a reliable snowpack. Luckily for us, we’d had a series of storms roll through and build up enough snow to facilitate a tour there, so we decided it was time to pull the trigger.

Black Butte - NW aspect, taken from Thee Fingered Jack

For the tour we’d have a team of seven, with six of us coming from Eugene and one coming from Bend. Since none of us had done it before and there wasn’t much available information for winter access, we weren’t sure where the best place to start would be. Eventually, we settled on a pull-out near the intersection of Hwy 20 and the road to Camp Sherman, which would require a ~2.5 mile approach and 3,000’ of climbing to the summit. Under a blanket of clouds, we readied our gear and did a quick beacon check before heading out, hoping that we’d break through the fog and find sunny conditions up high.

The starting point for the tour

Jace, leading us off

The first half mile was flat, which allowed us to warm our legs up a bit before the climb. Although we didn’t see any other skin tracks, we did take advantage of a few snow bike tracks, which were headed in the same direction as us. The climb up the butte was gradual but sustained. All too soon the snow bike tracks we were following diverted from our trajectory and we were forced to break trail for ourselves… well, actually Eric did, and he ended up setting the skin track for the entire tour, while still outpacing the rest of the crew – the guy is completely savage. The higher we ascended the thinner the tree and cloud cover became, until we eventually broke through, revealing the tops of the surrounding Cascade peaks in all their glory. It was actually a pretty surreal view and it would set the mood for the rest of the tour.

The crew starts the ascent up Black Butte's west face

Signs of blue sky above

Breaking free of the fog line

Starting to get some great views (the Three Sisters in the background)

Jace continues the assault

Audrey, getting stoked early on in the tour.

Eric and Jace, closing in on the top.

The happy author
(Photo by Eric Finan)

At the summit, we found a few man-made landmarks, including a lookout tower, a yurt and a small dwelling that for some reason reminded me of a tea house. The yurt was almost completely buried in snow, while the tower and tiny house were coated in a think layer of rime. The view of the surrounding peaks was also quite amazing, especially the Three Sisters - We could even see all the way to Mount Adams! We also ran into another group of three skiers, who had started at Black Butte Ranch and come up in the hopes of fresh lines as well. After exchanging pleasantries, we found our own lunch spot and took in the view while fueling up for our first downhill lap.

First glimpse of the "tea house"

Pano, from the summit
(Photo by Eric Finan)

Jace, the tea house and Three Fingered Jack.

Ethan, taking in the view from the top.

The yurt

The lookout tower

Lunch break!

Leah, ready to drop in!
(Photo by Eric Finan)

The line below us looked pretty sweet – an open face with sparse tree covering to spice it up a bit. Since the slope angle was in the mid 20s, there wasn’t any visible wind loading and observations along the way didn’t produce any suspect results, so we forewent a pit test. That said, we did go one at a time for the first couple skiers, just in case there was an unanticipated slide event. As the cameraman (per usual), I went first and pulled over a few turns down, to get some shots with Mount Jefferson in the background. Although I didn’t get enough turns in for a complete assessment of conditions, it felt pretty damn good – a soft/thin crust on top of fluffy goodness. Soon the others dropped in, finding some great little shots and communicating their delight through hoots and hollers.

Looking down the NE face -- looks like fun!

Audrey drops in for her first lines of the day

Kickin' up dust

Ethan takes his turn

Entering the glades

Leah finds an opening

Eric, hot on her heels.

Meeting back up at the halfway point/cloud line.
The author
(Photo by Jace Akerlund)

About halfway down we reached the cloud line and visibility gradually decreased. The fog never got too problematic but did create a cool atmosphere. Eventually, the open glade necked down and we reached the forest edge. After a quick discussion we decided to continue on for a bit to see how good the tree skiing was – unfortunately it wasn’t very good and we decided to cut our losses after another hundred vertical feet or so.

Jace enters the fog of war

Still having fun down lower!

Ethan, all smiles!

Ethan closes in on the treeline

Synchronized skiing

Eric enters the scene

Leah, finishing up.


Now ~1000’ below where we had dropped in from, we quickly transitioned over and started the skinning process back up to the summit. Since Eric wasn’t even close to being tired, he once again jumped out ahead of us and set the skin track – basically, it was like having our own personal escalator. Going up the line we’d just skied, as opposed to down, made it much easier to take in the view, with Mount Jefferson being the dominant landmark. I couldn’t help but dream of future lines down Jeffy, with the SW face looking especially tasty.

Transition time

Breaking back out of the fog


Still climbing


Now back at the top, we ate another snack and discussed our next plan of attack. In the end we decided to do another lap on the line we’d just skied, since there was still plenty of untouched snow and we’d have a pre-established skin track to get back up. The second lap went very much like the first and maybe even a little better, being a little more warmed up. We also made sure to get in some party skiing, since the conditions and terrain allowed. This time we stopped before the forest section, saving our energy for the remainder of the tour.

Lucy takes her first turns of the day

Pilot: Leah
(Photo: Jace Akerlund)

Leah digs in, with Mount Jefferson in the background.

Party ski!

Jace, giving chase.

The author paints some lines down the middle pitch
(Photo by Jace Akerlund)

Jace rips some lines on the way down

Slalom time

More party skiing down low

Lucy with some nice powder turns

Heading back up, once again.


Sitting at the summit for the third time, our group started to splinter. Lucy, Eric and Leah decided to head back down to the car while Jace, Ethan, Audrey and I decided to lay down another lap – conditions were just too good to pass up! This time we dropped in a little further (skier’s) left, which was a little steeper and the snow a little fluffier. The only downside was the fog, which had gotten thicker and started moving up the slope. On this lap we only dropped about 700’ before calling it quits and heading back up, which was probably good since my legs were starting to feel a little haggard.

Jace, starting off lap three.

More pole dancing

Ethan kicks it up a notch
The author finishing up the last good turns of the day
(Photo by Jace Akerlund)

One last assault on the summit

Parting shot of Jefferson

After making our way up to and across the summit back to the tea house, we ripped skins and started our journey back to the car. Now back on the west face, the snow on the upper portions was a bit wind scoured, and we uncovered some rocky bits with our skis. Not far after that we dropped below the cloud line and the snow conditions became quite variable. Up higher we found a nice mix of soft snow and crusty bits that were reasonable enough to ski. The further we went down the more the conditions deteriorated and as we neared the bottom I was really struggling to keep my skis above the breakable crust, so I was being pretty cautious to avoid injury. It was impressive to watch Jace and Ethan goofing off and crushing the breakable crust, although they did take a couple good crashes, which was quite entertaining. Eventually, we reached the flats, which for me was quite a relief. Luckily we had been following our up track, which allowed us to make it across without putting our skins back on. Back at the car we loaded up and headed out, making the long drive back to Eugene.

Taking in the final views of the Sisters

The author poses for a final summit shot
(photo by Audrey Squires)

Starting the descent back to the car

Not as straightforward as our lines down the NE face

A final shot

Black Butte exceeded expectations! I figured it would be a pretty fun ski, which it was, but combined with the views, it was quite fantastic. Although the terrain was fairly mellow, the conditions, 1,000’ vertical shots and open glade skiing made it well worth the effort. It actually reminded me a lot of Maiden Peak, but with a shorter approach and being slightly less steep. It’s actually a great option if there is enough snow and avalanche conditions are a bit sketchy since there is so much low angle terrain to play around on. I’ll certainly be making return trips to Black Butte, when it has enough snow; although, this time I think I’d approach from Black Butte Ranch, which would be a little shorter and I’m guessing getting back down would require a little less work.

The tracks from our tour: