Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mount Hood, OR - Wy'east Face / Superbowl

Christmas weekend was looking really good for getting in a couple of tours, with Sunday and Monday looking the best based on conditions. My buddy Rich sent out an email trying to pull together a crew for a mission on the Wy’east face of Mount Hood on Sunday. I knew that this was a fairly big tour and since I had committed to riding with my other buddy Arthur (who was coming in from SLC) on Monday, I was a bit apprehensive. I did leave the door open slightly, which Rich kicked in, knowing that I have a hard time passing up this type of adventure. After getting me onboard, we agreed to leave Eugene at around 5:30am, hoping to make it to the main lot at Mount Hood Meadows and skinning by 9am.

The night before I didn’t get much sleep, and I wasn’t nearly ready to get up when my alarm sounded off at 4:30am. After I was finally able to peel myself from the warm confines of my bed, I threw together a quick breakfast and loaded all my gear into the car, which I had pre-packed the night before. We both ended up pulling into the meeting spot at about the same time and soon we were heading north on I-5. The drive was fairly uneventful, but once we started up the spur road toward Mount Hood Meadows the massive volcanic peak came into view and the formidability of our mission started to set in.

Before starting our ascent we ventured into the lodge to see if we needed to check-in and where we were allowed to skin up. Unfortunately the help desk was anything but, and we came away more confused than when we walked in. Luckily I had done a bit of research/planning beforehand and was pretty sure that we wanted to hug the southwest boundary of the resort. After strapping on my board halves at the car we headed up from the lot and toward the westernmost run. As we glided past the lift station the attendant quickly accosted us and made sure we'd planned to stay outside the fence line. Just down and to the west of the run and in the woods we found a set of skin tracks, which we assumed would probably lead us toward our destination. Since gearing up in the parking lot, the base of the mountain had become consumed by a band of low clouds, completely obstructing our view of the peak. We skinned past the snowboard park and a few more runs before reaching the top of the Vista Express lift. It was here where we broke out of the cloud layer, which created quite a spectacular setting – Mount Hood in front of us (in all of its glory) and a blanket of clouds behind us, with only the tallest of the Cascade peaks poking through.

Huggin' the boundary

Pretty easy skinning along side the bottom half of the resort

Pea soup 

Breaking through the cloud layer. Rich takes in the view with Mount Jefferson in the background

Target acquired

Now above the Vista Express, we climbed up the west face of the ridge, which was completely wind-scoured and quite icy. Our ski crampons did help out a bit but it was still tough going. We soon determined that it would be best to ascend to the top of the ridge and try climbing on the leeward side, assuming that there would be much better snow. On the other side we found only a narrow swatch of land between the top of the ridge and the in-bound ski run, Texas Trail, which we weren’t allowed to be on. Unfortunately the path wasn’t far enough down from the ridge to be wind protected, and we found conditions that were only marginally better. After struggling up another one or two hundred vertical feet, we gave in and started hiking with boot crampons. As we closed in on the top of the lift served area, we were approached by ski patrol who reiterated that we were not to venture onto the established runs.

Rich climbs up the ridge just above the Vista Express

Rich contends with some icy conditions on the windward (west) side of the ridge 

Rich on the leeward side of the ridge. The conditions on this side weren't much better, so we switched over to boot crampons

Once past the top of the Cascade Express lift, we could pretty much climb wherever we wanted, although that did little to help our progress since the snow conditions didn’t really improve. After a short approach up a small face slope, we reached the top of the main ridge that led up toward the Wy’east face, which provided a good view of our route. For most of the ridge it was flat and easy-going, with the surface a mix of wind loading and small icy patches. Eventually the flat-topped ridge gave way to a series of small jagged pitches, which weren’t too difficult to navigate but definitely slowed our progress a bit. The ridge had also become steeper, and with the thinning air I found myself stopping every few steps to take in an extra breath.

More ice at the top of the lift served terrain

Taking a quick break above Mount Hood Meadows

Marching on

So close, but yet, so far

Rich heads up the easiest section of the approach, where the top of the ridge was surprisingly flat.

Looking down at my GPS, which read ~2:30pm, I knew we would only have at the most an hour before we were forced to start our descent, to ensure we got back to the car before dark. Based on my calculation of 1,000 vertical feet per hour, I knew we wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to the top of the Wy’east face and would probably be dropping in from about 10,000’ instead. Peering into the Superbowl, which sat just below the Wy'east face, it was hard to tell what the conditions were going to be like, but they didn’t look ideal. Sure enough we reached our time limit right around the 10K mark, and since there weren't any flat spots we had to kick in a platform to transition to descent mode. Both the Wy'east face and the Superbowl had fallen into the shadows and the temperature started to dip as a consequence. Once we transitioned over, we gave each other the ready signal and traversed to the east and in-line with the center of the bowl.

Getting steeper

Lots of wind affect snow on the lower part of the Wy'east face

Rich gaining as much elevation as possible before our turnaround time

As we reached the drop-in zone it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be an easy descent – with a slope angle around 40 degrees and 2” wind crust on top of ice, a fall was a real concern and could send you a couple thousand feet down the bowl in a matter of seconds. I was really glad that I had brought my new board which has Magne-Traction, since I needed all the bite I could get. Transitioning between my heel and toe side edges on the steep/icy slope was stressful. My leg muscles were also pretty blown from the ascent and my quads were on the verge of completely cramping up. I soon succumbed to working my way down on my heel-side edge only, sitting down on occasion to rest my burning legs. Even though Rich was also struggling, he was able to make it down much more gracefully and at a much faster pace.

Rich enters the Superbowl
Racing daylight

Digging in for some icy turns

Nearing the bottom of the Superbowl

At about 8,500’ we started traversing away from the bowl and toward the top lift station that was located in the resort’s boundary. This was definitely a no fall zone, since a small cliff band lay just below us. Furthermore, we didn’t want to drop into Heather Canyon since it would send us away from the main parking lot, where our car was parked. Being on a snowboard it was harder for me to maintain elevation along the way, and I soon reached a point where I couldn’t go any further without ascending up to the ridge. Switching over to boot crampons on an icy slope was more sketchy than the slope we had just come down, and it took my full concentration to do so. Luckily I had my whippet which I dug into the snow and used as an anchor while making the transition. By the time I was making forward progress again the sun had all but dipped below the horizon and at this point it was a race to get back in bounds and onto the safety of the groomed runs. With all of the time that had gone by, Rich had become worried and hiked back to make sure I was alright. Now back together we made the final push back into the resort, which luckily was uneventful.

Starting the icy traverse back to Meadows

Back at the Cascade Express lift station we strapped into our skis/board and headed down the groomers under the glow of our headlamps. We were glad to see that the bottom half of the resort was lit up for night skiing and had a mini celebration when we reached the illuminated runs. It was quite a juxtaposition between where we had just come from and the green groomers adorned with families celebrating what was left of Christmas Day. When we finally made it back to the car it was 5:45pm, about an hour after the official sunset, and I must say, I was pretty happy that it wasn’t much later.

It has been said that this is the best skiable route on Mount Hood, and although we didn’t make it to the very top of the Wy’east face, we were very close and could easily see the remaining ~600 vertical feet. I could certainly see how this could be the case, but certainly not with the conditions we had. I would love to do it again, but would probably wait until the spring corn cycle, which would provide longer days and much softer conditions. That said and due to the steepness of the headwall, it is prone to sliding even during the spring, triggered by solar radiation. If I ever do decided to do it again in the winter it would have to be under rare optimal conditions – at least 6” of powder with low winds and low avalanche danger. I’d also camp in the parking lot the night before and skin up the runs before the resort opened, just to make sure I have enough daylight for the full mission.

The tracks from our tour:

Monday, January 2, 2017

Favorite Photos of 2016

Another year filled with great adventures shared with great people! Here are my favorite snaps from 2016:

The Watchman
Crater Lake, ORBoarder - Alex Scott
Sony A6000 with Sony Zeiss 16-70mm F/4 Lens
(1/1000 sec, F/8, ISO 200)

Mount Hood, OR
Skier - Rich Dana
Sony A6000 with Sony Zeiss 16-70mm F/4 Lens
(1/640 sec, F/9, ISO 100)

The Pearly Gates
Mount Hood, OR
Climber - Nate Pfeifer
Samsung phone camera
(Photo by Rich Dana)

Little Moab
Syncline, WA
Rider - Bill Riedl
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/1000 sec, F/4.5, ISO 125)

SW Chutes
Mount Adams, WA
Skiers - Jeff Nastoff & Chris Jensen
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/2000 sec, F/6.3, ISO 125)

Sun Halo
Mount Washington, OR
Skier - Rich Dana
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/2000 sec, F/7.1, ISO 125)

Droppin' the Shoulder
Diamond Peak, OR
Skier - Ethan Stehley
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/2000 sec, F/8, ISO 125)

Kickin' Up Dust
Grasshopper Mountain Trail
Riders - Jason Snook & Emily Pfeifer
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/1250 sec, F/5.6, ISO 125)

Mount Currie
Pemberton, BC
Rider - Emily Pfeifer
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/1600 sec, F/4, ISO 125)

Opal Creek, OR
Boater - Roman Androsov
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/320 sec, F/4, ISO 400)

Flume Trail
Lake Tahoe, CA
Rider = Emily Pfeifer
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/2000 sec, F/4.5, ISO 125)

Spring Corn
Three Fingered Jack, OR
Skier - Rich Dana
Samsung S6 phone camera

Soul Turns
Crater Lake, OR
Rider - Nate Pfeifer
Photo by Andrew Boes
Canon EOS 80D
(1/320 sec, F/11, ISO 100)

Garfield Bowl
Crater Lake, OR
Skier - Andrew Boes
Sony RX100 M5
(1/4000 sec, F/4, ISO 125)

Fish Gap
Blackrock, OR
Rider - Nate Pfeifer
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/1000 sec, F/2.2, ISO 400)

Tahoe Meadows
Lake Tahoe, CA
Rider - Arthur Turlak 
Canon Powershot G5X
(1/2000 sec, F/3.5, ISO 125)

The White Room
Tombstone Pass, OR
Skiers - Rich Dana & Ethan Stehley
Sony RX100 M5
(1/500 sec, F/4, ISO 125)

Racing the Light
Mount Hood, OR
Skier - Rich Dana
Sony RX100 M5
(1/500 sec, F/4.5, ISO 125)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tombstone Pass (OR) - Cone & South Peak

Tombstone Pass is one of the closest backcountry zones to Eugene, which combined with its short/easy approach makes it an extremely appealing day tour. There are a half dozen peaks or so at Tombstone Pass with the main targets being on the north side of Hwy 20 -- Iron Mountain, Cone Peak, South Peak, Echo Mountain and North Peak (from west to east). Even though you only get about 400 to 800 vertical feet of descent out of each of them, it's easy to run multiple laps on one of them or a combination thereof. For the record, I've only done Cone and South Peak, and although I can't speak for the quality of lines found off the other summits I've gotten a good enough view of them to assume they'd be worth hitting as well.

After a nice build up of snow from a couple of large storms that hit us during the month of December, I was psyched that Tombstone Pass would finally have enough snow to get in some good turns. The weather forecast during the week leading up to our trip teetered between cloudy and a chance of storms. By Friday afternoon the weather looked decent so we decided to pull the trigger, especially since Rich had not been to this zone and was eager to do so. Along with Rich and me, Ethan would be joining us, who’s always an asset to any backcountry adventure.

Since Tombstone Pass was fairly close and we didn't have to worry about rising temps, we got a relatively late start and left Eugene around 7:45am. We decided to go up I-5 and pick up Hwy 20 out of Sweet Home. I'd done this drive many times before, although usually for kayaking on one of the many great whitewater runs in the area, including Upper Quartzville, Canyon Creek, and the Monster section of the South Santiam River. By the time we reached the pass it was about 9:30am, the temps were in the teens and a 6' wall of snow surrounded the parking lot. It took us about 20 minutes to ready our gear and soon we were hiking down the road toward the Cone Peak trailhead.

At the trailhead we had to use a little teamwork to get up onto the snow bank, formed by the plows that keep Hwy 20 open throughout the winter season. The last time I had been to Cone Peak we followed the trail, which led through some fairly thick trees and made skinning up difficult in spots. This time we decided to head up through interconnecting meadows, which made for a much easier approach. The snow itself was amazing and definitely the driest that I've experienced in the PNW -- I mean this was champagne powder like I'd been treated to in Utah. As we switchbacked our way up, we looked up at Iron Mountain, which has a really fun looking line that drops down its eastern face. That line would have to wait for a future trip, since this time our sights were set on Cone and South Peak. At about the one hour mark and 700 vertical feet of climbing, we crested onto a treeless knoll that provided our first good view of both peaks, and the conditions looked fantastic!

Rich starts the ascent up to Cone Peak


Rounding another turn

The first good view of Cone Peak

And South Peak to our east

Rich led the charge up the southwest ridge of Cone Peak, throwing in kick turns where appropriate. The only downside to the dry snow was that my skin traction was suffering and I found myself slipping backwards throughout our charge up the hill. We soon got to a point where we felt it was probably easier to just boot up the remaining 100 vertical feet to the summit.
At about the two hour mark we reached the summit of Cone Peak, where we took in the view for a few minutes before digging a pit to analyze the snow conditions. The snow had felt stable during our approach and we hadn’t seen any ominous warning signs, but the area had a few reported avalanches earlier in the week and we also thought it would be good practice. With three of us, we dug the pit pretty quickly, especially since we hit solid ground about 100cm down. We could easily see the rain crust that had formed about two weeks prior, but other than that the snow looked/felt pretty uniform throughout. After a quick shovel shear test and a couple of compression tests we gained more confidence in the stability of the snow and started scouting our first lines of the day.

Rich and Ethan continue the slog 

Boot packing up toward the summit

The final pitch

safety first...

Since we'd planned to head over to South Peak afterward, we decided to drop down just the upper portion of Cone Peak, heading in a southeast direction. I dropped in first so that I could grab a couple of photos of the other two heading down. The first couple of turns off the summit revealed a wind crust just below the powdery surface, but after a few more turns the powder got deeper and face shots on each heel-side turn ensued. After selecting a spot just down from the summit, I signaled to the others that I was ready. Ethan dropped in first, picking a line off a small rock drop that sat just above me. Once he had pulled up next to me we gave Rich the go-ahead, who painted a nice series of turns down the untracked face just to the east of us. Once he had stopped below us we each took our turn down the rest of the run, where we were treated to some amazing snow that had me grinning from ear to ear. All too soon the run was over, and we traversed over to the ridge that led to the summit of South Peak.

Rich drops in for his first turns of the day

Ethan digs in

Stepping out of my snowboard I sank up to my knees in the deep powder. Before transitioning over to climbing mode, I stomped out a platform to work from. Once I had readied all my gear I threw my pack over my shoulder and laid out my two boards in front of me -- this is when I noticed that something was missing... "Oh no, where the hell are my poles?!". At this point I couldn't remember if I had left them at the summit or another stopping point, or if they had gotten buried in the deep powder during the switchover. Trying not to bury them even further, I dug around, hoping to uncover them. After a few minutes and coming up empty I decided to head back up and take a look, figuring that I must’ve left them somewhere. At this point Ethan had already taken off, putting down a skin track for us, so unfortunately he had no idea about my misfortune. Rich offered to chase him down while I strapped on my snowshoes and climbed back up the lines we had just laid down. I ended up hiking all the way back up to the summit, where I found nothing but disappointment, and I started pondering how much it was going to suck climbing up South Peak without poles. I ran/slid down the face trying to mitigate the delay that I had already put on our tour. Once back where I started I gave one last search before accepting the situation and skinning up the hill, sans poles.

I was certainly glad that the others had already laid down a skin track, but as I suffered around the first couple of switchbacks I knew that this was going to be one of those days. Ethan, who was now back on the scene, offered up one of his poles, and although I felt bad for putting him out, I knew that it would be best for the group and keeping us moving at a necessary pace. Even with one less pole Ethan blazed out ahead at an impressive rate. I could certainly not say the same for myself, and although it was much better than with no poles, I had a hard time keeping up with the other two. Eventually I caught up to them on the main face of South Peak, which we traversed along looking for the best place to continue our ascent. As with Cone Peak, we got to a point were we felt it would be best to boot up the remainder of the climb to the summit. It was at this point where we encountered our first winds of the tour, and even though they were fairly mellow, it was enough to cool down my core a bit. After a few hundred feet of climbing we reached the top, and I was pretty happy that I wouldn't need any poles for the next part of the tour, our second descent!

Starting the traverse up to South Peak

The fog started to roll in as we climbed the ridge up toward the summit of South Peak

Once again I dropped in first to get some photos. The snow on South Peak was even better than on Cone, with each turn kicking up a cloud of white dust. After readying my camera I gave a whistle, and soon after that Ethan came into view, also throwing up a rhythmic series of powder clouds. He flew by and dropped out of sight below me. I quickly packed away my camera and raced down a little further, in hopes of setting up somewhere else before Rich came down. Before long, he entered the scene and I snapped off some more shots as both he and Ethan worked their way down the middle section of the descent.

Ethan drops in on South Peak

Kickin' up dust

Ethan grabs some freshies 

Synchronized powder clouds 

Ethan finishing up the steeps

As the slope angle started to lessen I straightened out my line and ramped up my speed to stay afloat on the soft snow. With the flat light I didn't see a steep roller in front of me and ended up flying off of it and nosing into a pit of white fluff. I actually had to call the others down to give me a hand standing back up -- ah, the beauty of locked together feet and no poles... Of course, history would repeat itself and within minutes I found myself doing the same damn thing again. It actually ended up being a nice place to stop for photos anyways, since there was another drop-off to huck, this time formed by a buried tree.

One last hurrah

Tree jibs

The descent lasted about a half mile and dropped about 900', and was true bliss the whole way down. Trying to ride it out as much as I could, I ended up getting suckered into a drainage that looked like the clearest path. Unfortunately it necked down and became chocked with blow-down, and even worse a small stream dug a deep narrow channel which would have been bad to fall into.

Now at the treeline, my plan was to strap on my Vert snowshoes and hike -- downhill skinning through thick trees is not one of my strengths. Since I knew I would be slower getting out than the other two and that we were out of avalanche terrain, I told them to go ahead and that I would meet them at the car. In hindsight this was a foolish decision, as tree wells were a serious threat and sunset was only an hour away. The one mile hike out through the trees ended up being a difficult task indeed. Although I had my snowshoes, they have a really small surface area and aren't designed for hiking downhill through deep/light powder. At one point I dropped into a well and spent about five minutes digging my feet out; luckily I had fallen in feet first. I certainly could not afford to spend anymore daylight with these types of mishaps. Using my phone's GPS and map functions I was able to navigate to a small forest road that made travel much easier. I was also glad to see skin tracks which I had to assume were from Rich and/or Ethan. Eventually this road teed into the more established one that we had planned to skin out on -- this was a huge relief since I knew that I could easily navigate it in the dark if I needed to, especially since I had my headlamp.

By the time I reached Hwy 20, I was completely exhausted and not looking forward to the one mile hike back to the parking lot. Then, just when I needed some encouragement, I heard a voice behind me; it was Rich who had just reached the road himself. It's amazing how finding your buddy can re-energize your spirit. Apparently he had a bit of an epic himself, getting stuck in the bottom of a drainage and having to hike out of it in armpit deep snow and without the luxury of snowshoes. After a short discussion and agreement that we'd made a poor decision to split up, we shouldered our packs and started the slog up the road toward the Tombstone Pass parking lot. Within minutes a pickup truck rolled by and offered us a ride, which was truly a godsend. By the time they dropped us off the light had all but vanished, and you could tell that Ethan, who was already back at the car, was very happy to see us. After a quick celebratory beer, we loaded up our gear and started the drive back to Eugene, reminiscing about the sweet lines and tribulations of our tour.

The tracks from our tour: