Sunday, June 11, 2017

Middle Sister (OR) - SE Ridge, via the Hayden Glacier


With the weekend quickly approaching, Andrew and I had been discussing options for an overnight ski tour, and based on conditions we ended up deciding on Middle Sister. The unseasonably warm weather was our biggest concern, with none of the Cascade peaks in Oregon going through a good freeze cycle during the whole week leading up to our trip. Even though we knew that wet slides and less than optimal snow conditions were possible, we decided to give it a go, knowing that we could at least chalk it up to a mountaineering experience. With the plan set in motion I went to work on Friday with my gear packed in my car and out some routes sketched out in CalTopo. In the end we decided to camp just below the snow line (at around 6,000’), ascend the Hayden Glacier and descend the classic SE Ridge.

I cut out a bit early from work on Friday, we headed toward the Pole Creek trailhead to start our tour. Since Andrew would be coming from Salem and I from Eugene, we decided to meet at Santiam Pass and carpool from there. At the trailhead the temps were in the mid-70s and I was glad I had brought shorts to hike in with, especially since we wouldn’t even see snow for the first few miles of the trail. The area we'd be hiking through was the aftermath of the Pole Creek fire, which was lightning caused and ripped through the area back in 2012. My pack felt much heavier than it needed to be and I cursed myself for overpacking, once again… At just over two miles in we came to the crossing at Soap Creek, which required some fancy foot work and balance as we walked across the fallen logs that doubled as a bridge to the other side.


Andrew starts off the tour from the Pole Creek Trailhead

The crossing at Soap Creek

From the Soap Creek crossing we hiked up another mile before the patches of snow started to grow and close in around us. We quickly found a nice flat/snow free place on top of a small rise, which made for a fantastic campsite, complete with a great view of the surrounding peaks. It was also at the burn line, where the tree skeletons gave way to live ones. By the time we’d erected our tents, pulled water from the nearby stream and made dinner, darkness had started to set in and we decided to head to our sleeping quarters to rest up for an early morning departure. That night I drifted in and out of sleep, and when my alarm went off at 5:15am I was not ready to get up.


Great views of South Sister on the way in

Basecamp

Although we had planned to get out of camp by 6am, I underestimated how much time it would take me to get ready, and I was certainly the one holding up the show. By the time I was geared up and ready to go it was almost 7am. Since our camp was right at snowline we were able to start skinning right off the bat, but it also required some creative route finding to get around the small patches of dirt and rock that prevented us from traveling in a straight line.


Andrew leads the charge on day two

Reaching the timberline

After a mile and a half of skinning through the forest we crossed the tree line and entered the snowfield, sitting directly below the Hayden Glacier. From the snowfield we had some unobstructed views of the Three Sisters and Broken Top, which helped to keep us energized during the climb. As we made our way onto the glacier we headed toward the northern edge, where the main climbing route traveled along a snow ridge all the way to the saddle between Middle and North Sister, on the southern side of Prouty Point. Following the small ridge kept us away from the crevasses, which at this point in the season were sparse and relatively small.


Target acquired!

Wide open from this point on

The author makes his way up the snowfield toward Prouty Point
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Heading up

Andrew, dwarfed by the giant landscape as he ascends the Hayden Glacier

Climbing up the snow ridge toward the saddle
(photo by Andrew Boes)

South Sister and Mount Bachelor in the distance

Closing in on the saddle

At the saddle we took a 5 minute snack break before heading up the north ridge, which led to the summit of Middle Sister. The first 200’ was snow free and consisted of decomposing rock. The scree soon gave way to a steep slope of very firm snow. I was pretty happy to have both my whippet and crampons, and Andrew was happy that I’d brought an extra ice axe for him to borrow – it would have been possible to climb up without this gear but also quite sketchy. We were also aided by kick steps that had been etched into the face by previous summit parties, but even then it was still pretty slow going.


From the saddle we got to see that our friends on the west side of the Cascades were nice and socked in.
Belknap Crater can be seen in the distance.

The mixed terrain of the north ridge

The author takes in the view from down low on the north ridge
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew ascends the steep and somewhat sketchy slope, about halfway up the north ridge.

Cresting the steepest pitch of the north ridge

The Cascade volcanic peaks lined up in all their glory -- Mouth Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood (from left to right)

The ridge eventually flattened out before one last pitch to the summit, albeit less steep than the previous one. The winds at the summit were surprisingly calm and although some gusts would swoop in from time to time it was pretty damn pleasant. The views from the top were also pretty awesome, with a clear view of the entire Oregon Cascade range. After taking it all in and snapping off some summit photos, we prepared for the descent down the SE Ridge. While Andrew planned to rip skins from the summit, I wasn’t confident enough in my skiing skills to descend the first 300 vertical feet of the ridge, which consisted of both firm and slushy snow as well as a few rock bands that needed to be hiked around.


The final pitch to the summit

Andrew takes the final steps toward the summit

The author joins the summit party
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Great views to the south...

...and to the north.
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew descends the ridge down from the summit

When I finally made it down to ~9,700’ I felt comfortable enough to slip on my skis and join Andrew for a proper descent of the mountain. After a couple hundred feet of narrow ridge, the slope widened drastically and continued down another 1,500 vertical feet. I jumped out ahead to grab some photos, and as soon as I cut across the initial/steep pitch, I kicked loose a shallow wet slide that slowly descended below me. I shouted back to Andrew to let him know what was going on and that I was waiting for it to stop before dropping in for my first real turns of the day. As I carved my way down the SE Ridge I started a few more small slides, but since they were only a few inches deep I wasn’t super concerned, from a safety standpoint. Andrew dropped in soon after with similar results – even though the snow was a little sloppy, it actually skied really well and we were having a great time. Probably the biggest challenge was that the slope was fairly terraced, which made it hard to lay down turns with speed. In fact, I got tripped up at one point and had a bit of a yard sale… For the remainder of the descent we leapfrogged down, getting in as many turns as we could before leaving the SE Ridge and starting the traverse back toward basecamp.


Andrew drops in for his first turns on the SE Ridge

Amazing views of South Sister while descending the classic SW Ridge

The author drops down one of the steeper section of the SE Ridge
(photo by Andrew Boes)

The author enjoys some soft turns
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Yard sale!
(photos by Andrew Boes)

Setting up for the next pitch

Andrew, about halfway down.

The author rips some more turns
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew, still descending.

Looking back up at the SE Ridge, after the main descent.


Once we hit the 8,000’ mark we started heading east and away from the ridge. Since we were still a couple thousand feet above camp we had a few more small slopes to descend before we hit the flats and the real work began. We were both surprised that the snow stayed fairly consistent and wasn’t completely rotten, especially with how warm it was at this point in the day. There were some small sun cups but they were soft enough that they didn’t present much of a challenge. Had I been on my splitboard this is where I would have skinned up for the journey back to camp, but being on skis I was now able to step slide along with Andrew, sans skins. This is a fairly new skill set that I haven't fully acquired, but I was enjoying the challenge of it, at least at first…


Finishing up the final pitches

Starting the traverse back to camp

Parting view of South Sister

The flats

Along the way we did our best to maintain our elevation, which was fairly difficult due to the rolly terrain that crossed a few small/snow covered drainages. After a few miles we dropped into and crossed over the NF Whychus Creek, where we entered back into the forest and our route finding became more difficult. Following my GPS we soon found our old tracks which we followed back to camp, where we changed into more comfortable attire and broke down our sleeping quarters. Once again I was the one holding up the show, and with all the gear I had hauled in I was having a hard time getting it back into my pack. Eventually I got it all crammed in and we started our hike out, with my pack feeling about twice as heavy as it did on the way in.


Doing our best to maintain elevation

Heading down the NF Whychus drainage

The 3 mile hike out only took us about an hour and fifteen minutes and we were both pretty happy when the parking lot came into view. We quickly loaded up our gear into the car and headed into Sisters, where we filled up on burgers and shakes at the Sno Cap Drive-In.


The author crossing Soap Creek on the way out
(photo by Andrew Boes)

The slog out

One last view of North and Middle Sister

Conclusion:
Another great volcano tour! Being the second time I’ve done the SE Ridge of Middle Sister, I can certainly say that it's definitely a worthwhile trip. However, I’m not sure I agree that the descent is as good as the local guidebook would suggest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s super fun and it’s relatively long compared to some of the other volcano descents in Oregon, but I actually think that the south route on South Sister provides just as good of a line, with a much more straightforward approach. That said, from a wilderness experience and amazing views it provides, it’s pretty hard to beat, and it’s certainly worth doing for that alone. One final note on the route, I much preferred going up the Hayden Glacier and down the SE Ridge, vs. an out-n-back on the SE Ridge as we had done the last time -- it gives you a better perspective of the whole mountain and you can skin almost the whole way up, excluding the final ridge to the summit.

The tracks from our tour:



Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mount Thielsen (OR) - Southwest Bowl


After struggling to find anyone else that was free for a ski tour, I decided that it was time for another solo mission, which I quite enjoy when the avalanche danger is low. After an internal debate on which zone to head to, I finally landed on Mount Thielsen, based on the weather forecast, proximity to Eugene, and wanting a re-do after encountering less than optimal conditions the last time I was there (total whiteout and breakable crust). My plan was to head out from the Mount Thielsen trailhead parking lot (near Diamond Lake) and skin due east into the base of the southwest bowl. From there I would skin until it got too steep, at which point I would bootpack the remainder of the way up. From there I would drop into either the southwest or northwest bowl, depending on conditions.

I ended up leaving Eugene on Sunday morning at a fairly reasonable time of 6am. After a quick stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee, I jumped on the highway toward my destination. As I reached Diamond Lake, Mount Bailey's Avalanche Bowl came into view, presenting a very tempting alternative to my current plan. By the time I reached the Mount Thielsen parking lot and got my gear readied, it was ~8:30am and the sun was shining bright, with temps right around the freezing point. Using my GPS and the location of the sun, I started skinning east toward the SW bowl. The snow was rock hard and my progress varied based on the density of the forest, which alternated between open glades and tightly spaced trees. One of the main obstacles within the dense sections was the maze of snow bridges between the worn tree wells, which started off as a fun challenge but eventually turned into a bit of a nuisance.


Looking into Mount Bailey's Avalanche Bowl, from Hwy 138.

At the 3 ¼ mile mark and approximately 2 hours in, I finally reached the lower snowfield, which acted as a continuation of the main SW bowl. The long beautiful run was now in full view and I was itching to get to the top of it! For the last mile or so I had been following some fresh skin tracks that indicated there were at least three other skiers that had the same plan as me. Since they continued toward the same highpoint that I was targeting, I continued to follow the tracks up the face of the snowfield/bowl. As the slope of the bowl rapidly steepened I soon found myself struggling to find traction. In fact, at one point I slipped out and quickly self-arrested by plunging the head of my whippet into the icy surface. Not wanting to risk another fall I decided to switch over to boot crampons, and started bootpacking from my current position.


Getting closer

Skinning up the lower snowfield

With my skis now strapped to my back and my boots armed with aluminum spikes, I marched up the hill with surprising ease. With the slope now fully exposed to the sun, the snow was starting to soften, which added greatly to my foot traction. As the slope angle increased into the low 40s I started to question my skiing abilities to get down with any kind of style, let alone safely. I figured I should take a quick break and eat a snack before making a final decision on whether or not to continue up or to drop in from my current position. This was fairly timely since I was at the base of one of the pinnacles that provided some nice shade and a flat spot to hang out. Furthermore, with the snow still pretty firm, it would give the sun some time to soften it up a bit more.

After a few minutes of relaxing and analyzing the terrain, I decided that it would be good to challenge myself and that I should continue up to the ridge that sat at the base of the summit pinnacle. Just as I was nearing the ridge a couple of skiers came into view and appeared to be coming down from the summit. When I finally reached my highpoint (I wouldn’t be summiting) I found a group of four, who were all from Bend. They were a friendly group of guys and we sat around and chatted for a bit while we all waited for the optimal time to drop in, based on the corn cycle and which was quickly approaching.


Closing in on the pinnacles

Topping out

The other group, at the base of the summit pinnacle and to of the drop-in zone

Cool rock feature looking east off the summit ridge

More great views of Mount Bailey -- The north bowl (on the right) was looking extra tasty!

Looking south, onto the Crater Lake zone.

I was actually quite happy that I had run into them since it would allow me to get some shots with some skiers in the frame, which always helps with communicating the scope of the run and surrounding landscape. I hiked down about fifty feet to setup, which also allowed me to assess how well the snow was softening. Once I felt it was about as good as it was going to get I gave them the signal, and soon after they began to drop down in single file. At the very top it appeared that the face was a bit chattery, but about 100’ down their turns started to become much smoother and I couldn’t wait to drop in myself. Once they had all passed I quickly hiked back up to my gear and readied it for the descent.


Dropping!

The first couple heading down the southwest bowl

Reaching the sweet corn band

Sure enough my first couple of turns felt a bit unnerving, but never out of control. As I hit the softer snow down lower and I had a few turns under my belt, I gained some confidence and eventually started to make a series of linked turns. I’m still at the point in my skiing progression that my legs get tired pretty quickly on the way down and I need to take frequent breaks, which I assume is mostly due to poor technique. Even so, I was having a great time and feel like I’ve been improving every time I get out. When I finally reached the lower meadow, which has a slope angle in the mid 20s, I was feeling really good and skiing nice and aggressively as I finished up the run. From top to bottom the run dropped right around 1,600’, which isn’t bad for the backcountry descents around these parts!


Getting ready for my turn

Looking back up at my line through the upper bowl

Looking back up into the lower snowfield

A parting shot of Mount Thielsen, before heading out.

I debated going up for another lap and maybe even dropping into the northwest bowl, but ended up deciding to call it a day based on energy level and being quite content with my first run. Skiing back out to the car, much like the skin in, was a bit of a mixed bag – easy going when I was in the open glades and tough when the trees got tight. That said, it also went about twice as fast, based on it being entirely downhill and sans skins. Back at the car by 2pm I was feeling pretty good, and now questioning my decision not to do another lap; of course this just gives me a reason to head back, hopefully with someone else to enjoy it with.


My line (in red)

Conclusion:
Mount Thielsen’s southwest bowl is a fantastic tour destination. With a ~4 mile approach it makes for a very reasonable day tour, and since the road is always plowed to the parking lot this includes winter as well. The ~1,600’ unobstructed descent is pure bliss, starting with a slope angle in the low 40s and finishing in the mid 20s. Furthermore, with easy/additional access into the northwest bowl, it provides quite a few line choices. I’m really looking forward to getting back in there and attacking some of the other terrain!

My tracks: