Thursday, May 12, 2016

Diamond Peak (OR) - SW Bowl

Being an avid mountain biker and riding in Oakridge throughout the summer months, I’ve often looked onto Diamond Peak and wondered what it would be like to snowboard one of its many bowls, which look amazing as seen from the many vistas in the surrounding area. In fact, Diamond Peak really jumpstarted my desire to snowboard the various volcanic peaks in the Pacific Northwest. However, with mountain biking and whitewater kayaking consuming all of my free time, it would be years before I finally invested in the gear and avalanche training that was needed to get out there and actually do it. Now 2016, I had jumped into the sport headfirst and Diamond Peak was high on the list. Since I didn’t have a snowmobile or proper overnight gear, I would need to wait until the roads melted out to get close enough for a day tour.

As seen from Fuji Mountain
With Roland Vilett - RIP dear friend

As seen from Bunchgrass

As seen from Dead Mountain

It was now the last week in April, and I got word that the snowline was high enough to bag the southwest bowl as a day trip, with the one caveat being that downed trees or snow drifts might prevent us from getting all the way to the trailhead. The worst case scenario was that we might have to start down further, adding another mile or two to the approach. As for the team, Jason Barber was the only one that I knew; the others were Waldy, Brian, and Hillary, who were all friends of Jason’s.

On Sunday, May 1st, I drove to Oakridge and met Jason at the Mercantile at 7am sharp. From there we drove a short distance to pick up Waldy before heading south out of Oakridge along Hills Creek Reservoir and eventually the upper MF Willamette. Soon after passing Indigo Springs we made a left on FS-2149 and soon after that a right on to FS-2160. From there we drove up to a where the snow blocked the road (a little past the Pioneer Gulch TH), which happened to be right where we were planning to start our approach from. After shuffling out of the car, we headed over to greet Brian and Hillary, who had arrived before us. Since they were pretty much geared up and ready to go, they started the approach while the rest of us made our final preparations. As I was putting on my boots, the wind was whipping through the trees pretty good, which made me a bit nervous about what the conditions would be like high up on Diamond. After expressing my concerns with the others, Jason stated that the winds were supposed to die down a bit throughout the day, which was certainly welcome news.

From the car, we’d be hiking on bare ground for the first part of the ascent. After walking a short distance up a gravel spur road to where it dead ended, we turned northeast and headed up through an old logging cut which had some dense manzanita to contend with. It was pretty tough going for a 1/8th mile or so, but eventually we entered the uncut wilderness which was much easier to navigate through, albeit much steeper. Eventually we reached the Pioneer Gulch Trail, which we followed for a very short distance before breaking off and heading directly toward Diamond Peak’s SW bowl.

A bit of gravel road before the bushwhacking began

The crew climbs up a short section of the Pioneer Gulch trail

Although we had finally reached the snowline, we continued to hike rather than skin, since the snow was still firm and the terrain was fairly uneven. From time to time you could see the summit of Diamond Peak through the trees, which appeared to be getting blasted by the wind, based on the fast moving clouds and blowing snow. Before long our path became much more conducive to skinning, at which point we transitioned over and started to make some pretty good time. Instead of traveling up the ridge, which is usually how I’ve done my approaches, we headed right toward the foot of the bowl, of which we planned to ascend straight up the center.

One of our first views of Diamond Peak through the trees. It was looking awfully windy...

Skinning -- finally!

Jason and Waldy skin up though some typical terrain between the snow line and timberline

As we continued along, the forest began to open up a bit, and after crossing over the SW ridge we found ourselves in the runout to the upper bowl. Heading straight up the drainage we crested over a small rise and passed the timberline into the bottom of the SW Bowl, where I got my first glimpse of the amazing terrain we’d be skiing/boarding down – it was quite an amazing sight! The wind also seemed to be dying down which was a huge relief, since we'd be pretty exposed for the rest of the route to the summit. The bowl started out pretty flat but soon began to steepen as we made our way up the expansive snowfield. At this point it was Jason, Waldy and me up front and we were moving at a pretty solid pace. Brian and Hillary were on a more leisurely schedule and were a little bit behind us with their dog in tow.

Reaching the run-out to the SW bowl

Jason climbs a small rise just below the timberline

Gettin' higher

Jason and Waldy, crossing over the timberline.

Skinning up the bottom of the bowl

As planned, we skinned straight up the face of the bowl, and amazingly, without the need for a switchback. The snow was just starting to corn up and I was amazed at how steep we were able to climb without sliding backwards. We did finally reach a point where the slope angle was steep enough to force us from our skis and finish up the climb with a boot pack. Since Jason and Waldy had ski boots and I was in relatively soft toed snowboard boots they offered to switch off kicking in the steps while I pulled up the rear and took advantage of their hard work. Now about three quarters of the way up, we were above the ridge that had been blocking the wind, coming across the bowl from the southeast. I’m not sure what the wind speed was, but it was certainly strong enough to knock you off your perch if you weren’t firmly planted. It got to the point where I didn’t feel safe climbing during a gust, so I’d lay down on the slope with my toes resting in the foot holes and my fingers gripping the snow as best I could. Between the gusts I’d climb 10 yards or so before the next one hit and I was sent back into my defensive position. This process repeated itself all the way to the summit ridge where the wind was surprisingly calm.

Some steep skinning about halfway up the bowl

Jason, establishing the boot pack. 

Looking down from the midway point of the boot pack 

Taking a breather on the summit ridge

We were now about 100 vertical feet and a very short distance from the true summit, which we reached a few minutes later. Although the wind was not as calm as it had been on the ridge, it was much better than I had expected and it was actually quite pleasant. The views from the top were simply amazing, with a full 360 degrees of unobstructed Oregon wilderness. You could pretty much see all of the Oregon Cascade peaks and many other notable lakes and lesser summits. Also within our view was the abundance of skiable terrain that Diamond’s many faces provided, which certainly had me drooling and thinking about what my future routes would be. After taking it all in, I quickly ate a snack and transitioned over for the descent, hoping to drop in before the others so that I could take some photos of them descending the main bowl.

Jason and Waldy making the final push to the summit

The summit!

Looking northeast onto the north (lesser) summit.
The Three Sisters, Broken Top and Mount Bachelor are in the background.  

Looking onto the edge of the northwest bowl

Looking south onto a a frozen Summit Lake (foreground) and Mount Thielsen (background) 

Looking east onto Crescent Lake and Odell Butte

Once I had my splitboard assembled I strapped in and prepared to drop in. Although the snow felt good and was holding an edge very well, I always feel a bit shaky on my first few turns of any tour. I scooted down on my heel edge for about 50 vertical feet before jumping onto my toe edge and traversing over to the center of the bowl. As I crossed over our boot pack I gave a shout and wave to Brian and Hillary who had just reached the summit ridge. With a couple of warmup turns under my belt I built up more and more speed, while transitioning between heel and toe side turns. About halfway down the bowl the snow developed into perfect corn conditions and I felt much more confident in my edge hold. As I neared the bottom, the bowl started to flatten out and I was able to finish up with a nice series of hippy turns!

As I waited for the others to come down, I noticed that another group of skiers were dropping in for some turns off the southwest ridge. It was great to see other folks enjoying some different lines on Diamond, although I wondered why they hadn’t dropped in from the top. Before long, both Jason and Waldy came into view, appearing as tiny dots up near the upper ridge. Watching them paint their lines down the bowl really highlighted just how big it actually was – 1,500 vertical feet of treeless bliss! After a few minutes they reached my position, where it was obvious that both had enjoyed their turns along the way.

The last skier of another crew dropping low off the SW ridge

About halfway down the SW bowl, Jason and Waldy still look pretty small.

Paintin' lines

Getting closer

Jason, coming in hot!

Brian and Hillary were still hanging out at the summit and were actually planning on doing a few laps on the SW bowl. Since we didn’t plan on doing a second run we continued down the hill, where the trees started to get thicker the further along we went. What also started to change were the snow conditions, which turned rotten pretty quickly. It got so slushy that it was hard to keep my speed and the tip of my snowboard up. It also became quite difficult to turn, so I eventually stowed my board away and pulled out the Verts (snowshoes) I’d been carrying. Since Brian and Waldy were both experienced tele skiers, they had a much easier time navigating the trees, so they kept their skis on while I jogged down the hill just to the side of their ski tracks. I was actually making pretty good time, and although I was not as fast as them I was keeping up pretty well.

Waldy contends with some velcro snow near timberline

The snow was getting pretty rotten at this point

As I chased them down the hill for about a mile or so I was starting to get pretty tired, so I was happy when we hit the bare ground and skiing was no longer an option. Brian and Waldy secured their skis to their packs while I pulled off my Verts before bushwhacking down through the forest toward the cars. In another 1/8 of a mile we reached the logging cut, although this time Jason navigated us along a much cleaner course. We couldn’t have planned our route better, since we ended up exiting the forest right where the road had dead ended. From there it was a quick stroll back to the cars, where we celebrated with some good beer and conversation!

Navigating the manzanita down to the road

Diamond Peak provided one of the best faces I’ve had the pleasure of snowboarding down in Oregon. I can’t believe it was only a 2 mile approach to the summit, which is really rare for backcountry volcano skiing in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the topography and imagery using programs like Google Earth it appears that the southwest bowl is the main skiable face on Diamond Peak; however, there are many other bowls, chutes and faces that also look very good. I was able to see some of the other terrain from the summit and I can certainly say that there are other zones I’m excited to tour into. Speaking of the summit, the 360 degree unobstructed view is probably worth the trip alone, even if you were doing it during the summertime as a hike. In summary, Diamond Peak was one of the volcanos I was most looking forward to doing, and it definitely exceeded my expectations!

The track from our tour:

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