Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mount Washington (OR) - NE & NW Bowls

Mount Washington is one of the dominant landmarks that can be seen from Santiam Pass, and I have gawked at it many times while driving between Eugene and Bend (OR). This former shield volcano has been heavily eroded, leaving a pronounced volcanic plug as its centerpiece. The slopes that drop down from the summit pinnacle command the attention of any backcountry skier or snowboarder that drives by on Hwy 20, specifically the northeast and northwest bowls. Initial plans for doing Mount Washington actually began when Rich, Andrew and I were skiing/snowboarding Three Fingered Jack, where it was in view for almost the entire tour. However, since we knew that the northern aspect would hold snow later into the season, we focused our attention on other peaks which would melt out sooner.

The time to do Mount Washington finally came during the last weekend of spring, and based on weather forecast it looked like Sunday, June 18th would be the best day. After coordinating with Rich, we decided to get an early start, planning to bag both the NE and NW bowls. After meeting at the edge of Springfield at around 5:30am, we drove up the McKenzie River to the pass where we turned south on NF-2690 toward Big Lake. Since we didn't want to pay the day use fee at Big Lake we drove east on Old Santiam Wagon Road to the PCT trailhead, where we'd start our tour.

Unloading at the trailhead

About to start my first ever section of the PCT

By the time we started down the trail it was 8am, and although the sun was out the temperature was nice and cool. It didn't take much hiking before we started to warm up and needed to shed a layer. The first few miles of the PCT had been cleared of logs but eventually blow-down began to impede our progress and we found ourselves hiking over and around many downed trees. This wasn't too surprising since we were hiking through the area of the Shadow Lake Fire. Although it had decimated ~10,000 acres in 2011, the recovery has brought its own beauty to the Mount Washington Wilderness area, with undergrowth full of ferns, wildflowers, and blooming Beargrass.

Rich, startin' it off.

The hike through the burn included many wildflowers and Beargrass 

About 3 miles in we came across a cairn marker with a crude trail branching off to the left. Consulting my GPS, it appeared that we needed to go a little further before leaving the PCT, so we decided to continue on to where the offshoot was indicated on the map. After a bit of searching and not finding another trail junction we determined that it probably was the trail we needed to take, forcing us to backtrack. Now on the spur trail, our route became much steeper as it made its way toward the north ridge which was the dividing line between the two bowls we'd planned to descend. As expected the "Climber’s Trail' was much more overgrown than the PCT and a few sections of it climbed right up a small drainage, where we found plenty of logs and other debris that had washed into it. We did lose the trail a few times but finally broke through the thick forest and onto the ridge, which had less tree coverage and where the patches of snow began. The snow was too intermittent to skin and still pretty firm, which made it somewhat difficult to hike along. The trail up the ridge alternated between a narrow band of trees and loose decomposing lava rock, both of which had a sporadic covering of snow.

The cairn that marked the Climbers Trail

The first patches of snow on the climb

Rich, doing a bit of trailblazing. 

Taking in the view of Three Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson

We soon reached an opening where the summit crag of Mount Washington came into view, which was partially obscured by clouds and had a bit of an ominous look to it. Although we weren’t planning to summit, just getting to the drop zone for our second descent down the NW bowl looked like it would provide a navigational challenge. What we could also see from this vantage point was the lower half of the line down the NE bowl that we’d planned to ski down, which looked really good! Reinvigorated, we put our heads down and continued up the ridge until eventually we needed to put on our ski/snowboard boots and kick in steps the rest of the way up. Trying to get in as much vertical descent as we could, we climbed up to 7,200’, which was at the base of a steep rocky pitch.

First good view of the summit. Well, sorta...

Looking out toward the northwest provided great views of  Big Lake, Hoodoo Butte, and Hayrick Butte.

Lots of loose lava rock on this section of the approach

Starting up the knife ridge with the summit now clearly in view

Plenty of boot tracks up the ridge for us to follow 

The terrain at the drop zone was not the easiest for transitioning over to descent mode – a steeply angled slope of loose rock and snow. Once we were geared up and ready to drop in, we discussed our plan of attack. Since the snow was a little wet and the slope was right around the target angle for avalanche activity, we planned to leap frog down and keep a close eye on each other. As usual, I asked to go first so that I could setup for some shots. The first 100’ or so was pretty steep and required me to jump-turn my way down until I found a nice place to pull over and wait for Rich. Soon after setting up and giving him the signal, Rich came flying by, painting some nice lines as he descended a few hundred feet below me. As we reached the bottom of the 1,000’ descent, the slope started to mellow out and we were able to make some really nice turns – way too much fun!

Rich drops in for the fist turns of the day

Plenty of snow

Still a ways to go

The bottom half of the slope was at a great angle for some nicer turns

Finishing up the NE bowl 

Looking back up the NE bowl

After running out of good slope angle, we strapped our boards to our packs and started the taxing process of boot packing up the steep slope that we had just come down. As we neared the ridge, I looked up to see a really cool ring that had formed around the sun, which I originally thought was caused by my sunglasses; however, removing them revealed that it was a sun halo, created by light refracting through ice crystals trapped in the clouds. Regaining the 1,000 feet we had just lost took about an hour, and I was definitely ready for a short break before traversing over to the NW bowl.

Rich laying the bootpack

Getting close to the ridge, with the sun halo in full effect.

Climbing the north ridge one last time

Rich finally reaching the spot where we had dropped in for the previous run

Looking back down the bowl at our lines

Once we were sufficiently rested and fueled up, we started the trek over to the top of the NW bowl, just below the summit crag. Getting there was not overly difficult, but I did have to watch my footing on the loose rock and steeper pitches of snow that hadn’t softened yet. I was pretty glad that Rich had taken the lead at this point since he was able to kick steps into the hard snow for me to follow – without them I would have needed to put on my crampons to safely ascend at least one of the pitches. When I finally caught up to him he was sitting down at the top of a chute and eating a snack. Looking down the chute it appeared that it would deposit you into the main bowl, however, there were a couple of large roll-overs that made it difficult to see the whole route. Honestly, it didn’t look like that great of a line so we decided to hike over to the next chute and see if it looked any better. Sure enough, we discovered the money line, which looked just as good if not better than the line down the NE bowl!

Crag navigation

Once again we found ourselves in a somewhat precarious location for switching our gear over for the descent. Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to kick in a platform in the middle of the chute in which to setup from. Dropping in first, I headed over to the west side of the chute and setup for some more photos. Watching Rich drop in really helped bring some scale to the slope, which looked massive compared to his outline. After descending the narrow section at the top, we traversed over to the east and entered the main bowl, where we were rewarded with amazing corn conditions, slope angle, and views of Three Fingered Jack & Mount Jefferson.

Dropping into the NW bowl

Traversing over to the main bowl

Rich, about halfway down

About halfway down the bowl we regrouped to plan our exit strategy. Since we wouldn’t be regaining the ridge we’d used during the approach, we needed to find the best and/or most direct route back to the PCT. Up on the slope we could see a long distinct clearing in the trees that traveled in the general direction of where we needed to go. After verifying this with my GPS, we established our target at the end of the bowl and continued down, getting in our final and very satisfying turns for the day.

Scouting out our exit point

Rich nears the bottom of the NW bowl

Kickin' up corn! 

Looking back up at our brush strokes down the NW bowl

When we got to the tree line we switched over to hiking and soon found an established trail that would lead us out through some expansive meadows. Turning back around, I caught a parting view of Mount Washington and the line we had just skied down. Within a mile the meadows gave way to dense forest, and logs began to block the trail once again. Soon after this we reached the PCT, which was a welcome sight even though we still had around 3 miles before we’d reach the car. By the time we got back to the parking lot it was ~4:30pm and both my shoulders and feet were pretty sore. Dropping my pack onto the ground felt incredible, as did changing back into some casual attire. Once we were loaded up, we drove back to Eugene with great memories of yet another amazing tour.

Starting the hike out

parting view of Mount Washington

Easy hiking and route finding on the way out

A final shot on the PCT

Mount Washington was just as I hoped it would be – super fun ski lines surrounded by amazing views and surreal terrain! It certainly doesn’t give you the huge 3,000’ (+) descents that you get on some of the other surrounding Cascade peaks, like South Sister and Middle Sister. Also, the ~5 miles approach is a bit long for just 1,000’ lines down the face. That said, it does make up for it in quality, and you can also do more than one lap even as a day trip. I can certainly see this being a zone that I’d return to once a year and I’d love to bag the west bowl, although a little more snow would be needed for that aspect. One bit of advice, if you’re not planning to ski the NE bowl, your best bet would be to avoid the north ridge and instead head into and boot straight up the NW bowl, which in my opinion would be easier.

Our Tracks:
Red = Hike in
Dark blue = NE bowl descent
Light blue = Traverse to NW bowl
Yellow = NW bowl descent
Black = Hike out

Full Route

Northeast Bowl

Northwest Bowl

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