Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mount Adams (WA) - 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

1 comment:

  1. Yeah the Round the Mountain trail is a little bit harder but makes up for it with fall line skiing. One day I hope to roll a watermelon down the SW chutes ;)

    Kyle Miller