Monday, June 25, 2018

Mount Jefferson (OR) - The West Snowfield

From the start of my foray into backcountry touring, I’ve had my eye on Mount Jefferson. For some reason it just never came together until last week. Not only is this Cascade volcano known for being set in one of the most beautiful places anywhere, it’s also known for being one of the toughest Cascade peaks to climb. The main routes fall on the North side of the mountain, which have the easiest access via the Jefferson Park area. The other area that people access the mountain from is Pamelia Lake, on the west side, which held the line I’d recently been drooling over, the West Rib. Under good snow conditions, it looked like it would serve up ~3,500’ of continuous turns down a fairly steep face, with a slope angle in the high 30s to low 40s.

Putting out the feelers, I was able to convince one of my buddies, Jonathan, that it was a good idea. We had originally planned for Sunday, but unfortunately the forecast changed and it looked like our only real opportunity would be for a mid-week tour. Luckily, we were both able to get Thursday off work and the plan was set. Rolling out Wednesday evening, we reached the trailhead at around 10pm, where we did some gear prep before turning in for the night.

The alarm went off at 4:30am, and by the time we hit the trail it was around 5:30. The Pamelia Lake Trail is well maintained and provided easy going for the first three miles, at which point it reached the PCT. From there we followed the PCT a short distance to the crossing at Milk Creek, where the real adventure would begin. The creek valley was now filled with a band of low clouds but peeking through the occasional clearing we could see the snowy slopes of Mount Jefferson above them – this gave us hope that we’d eventually get above the clouds and that we would indeed have some snow to carve some turns into. Since we were headed toward the West Rib, we left the trail and started hiking up Milk Creek, an imposing glacial canyon leading up toward the west side of the mountain. Luckily, I’d read a few climbing trip reports that warned against going too far up Milk Creek, instead, they advised heading up the first small tributary to the north.

Let the tour begin!

Settling in for the long haul

Looking up Milk Creek with Mount Jefferson obscured by clouds.
Photo by Jonathan Williams

Within a quarter mile we reached the small drainage, where we climbed up and out of Milk Creek to the ridge that separated the two. Climbing out of Milk Creek was no simple task; although the slope we headed up wasn’t very tall, it was extremely slippery, requiring well-placed footing and full concentration. I had assumed we’d find a crude boot path either heading up the ridge or in the creek bed itself, but as far as we could tell none could be found. Both were overgrown, so it’s possible that any trail could have been covered up by recent vegetation growth. It appeared that the coverage on the ridge was less thick, so we opted for that option.

Making our way up Milk Creek

This gives a pretty good idea of what you are in for walking up the creekbed

As we hiked up the ridge, my skis/boots, which were strapped to my pack, were getting tangled in the overhanging tree branches. In some places it was so dense I had to crawl on all fours to break through. It was also quite steep, which slowed our progress but did give me hope that we’d reach the timberline before too long. What ended up being 1,500’ of climbing in 1 mile took us about an hour and fifteen minutes, and I don’t think I’d ever been that happy to get out of the forest. Conveniently, this was also where the snow level started and we broke through the cloud layer, with the mountain looming in front of us in all its glory.

Working our way up the ridge

One of only a few clearings along the way

Nearing the treeline

Closing in on the snowline

Mount Jefferson and the West Rib leading up toward the summit

We took a short break before unloading our skis from our packs and laying down the first skin tracks of the tour. We could now see most of the West Rib, which looked like it would have plenty of snow to ski. Furthermore, since the sun was just starting to splash down on the surface of the snow, we were pretty sure we’d have some great corn conditions for the descent. We hadn’t skinned very far before we reached the rim of a gully that led up the face of the mountain and toward the West Rib. It would have been a straightforward approach if not for all the avalanche debris that had collected down the length of it. Furthermore, it also looked like the face of the West Rib had quite a bit of debris, which would certainly take away from the quality of the descent. Since it was hard to tell just how bad it was from our vantage point, we decided to push on and take a closer look.

Heading into the alpine

Jonathan making some skin adjustments

Being late in the season, we had to hike down the snowless moraine wall to the bottom of the gully, where we decided it probably wasn’t worth continuing to skin, especially with how bombed out the route was. With that, we shouldered our skis and once again started hiking toward our goal. As we gained elevation the snow started to get pretty icy, which was a little concerning since it was starting to steepen, and I had forgotten to bring my second set of crampons for Jonathan, who had planned on borrowing them. He assured me that he was still able to get secure footholds and that we could re-evaluate further up if need be.

Back to hiking...

Navigating the avalanche debris. Obviously not the best ski terrain.

Now at the bottom of the West Rib, we left the gully and headed straight up the face, which started off pretty steep. Since I had boot crampons, along with my whippet and a spare ice ax, I was able to move up the slope with relative ease, but even then there were a few icy sections that challenged both my gear and abilities. At about 500 vertical feet up The Rib, it became clear that we’d probably have to abort mission – simply put, it would have been too risky to climb any further without Jonathan having crampons. Arguably, we had probably climbed too high before making this decision. We were on opposite edges of the slope, and unfortunately, he was on the shaded/icier side. It would take him about a half hour to traverse a mere 50 yards over to where I was at, sidestepping while doing his best to kick footholds into the bulletproof ice of the ~40 degree slope. If not for the dual ice axes, it would have been a much more precarious situation; In fact, I’m not sure how he would have done it without falling.

Jonathan makes his way across the icy slope of face of the West Rib, sans crampons. 

Once he finally reached my location, where the snow was quite a bit softer, we discussed our exit strategy. Looking over at the adjacent snowfield on the other side of the gully we had climbed up, it looked like we might be able to salvage a bit of the tour and get some turns down what looked to be a pretty clean slope. It would take a little bit of effort to get over to it, both heading down the icy face we were on as well as climbing up the other side of the gully, but we figured it couldn’t be anymore challenging than what we’d already been dealing with. Luckily, there was a small exit slope to get off the West Rib that had much nicer snow – it wasn’t great skiing but certainly less sketchy than going down what we had just climbed. As we skied across the gully and up the other side, we tried to keep as much speed as possible to mitigate the inevitable bootpack that lay in front of us.

The author drops the lower West Rib after calling it quits
Photo by Jonathan Williams

Now on the south-facing sidewall of the gully, the snow was quite soft and we sank to our knees stepping out of our skis. The climb out was short but pretty steep and near vertical at the top. On the other side we discovered a pretty amazing snowfield that would certainly provide a nice contingency price for all of our hard work. It was a very clean face which would give us around 2,000 vertical feet of skiing on a ~40 degree slope. To take full advantage we hiked up another 500’ to bag as much of it as we could.

More bootpacking, this time up the West Snowfield

Closing in on our drop-in zone

At our high point, around 8,300’, we quickly transitioned into ski mode and dropped in for our much-deserved descent. The surface had corned up perfectly and we were treated to creamy turns down the hero snow. Per usual on these longer descents, we leapfrogged our way down, taking lots of photos along the way. The low clouds created a cool atmosphere and the trials we’d faced only an hour before faded from our memories. All too soon we reached the run-out of our line, where the snow turned pretty slushy/grabby down to where the snow dissipated and to where we’d left our hiking boots on the way up.

Jonathan enjoying his first turns of the day

Having some fun along the way

Looking south toward the other Cascade Peaks in the area --
Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, and the Three Sisters (North, Middle, & South)

Jonathan works his way out of the clouds

The author
(photo by Jonathan Williams)

Harvesting corn

A little more to go

Jonathan reaches the flats at the bottom of the run

Looking back up the west snowfield

Another view of the west snowfield

Stoked on our lines, we prepared for the inevitable, hiking back down the bushwhack shitfest we’d climbed up. Luckily, we found a slightly less dense line down the first half of the ridge, but we soon found ourselves in the same spot we’d been that morning, threading ourselves through a maze of thick vegetation. Eventually Milk Creek came into view, and I knew that it was going to be a chore to get down into and across it. Up to this point I can say that I’d never used an ice ax to down-climb a dirt slope, but this was no ordinary tour. In fact, I’m not sure how I would have descended without it, as the loose rock and ball bearing gravel made it almost impossible to gain traction. This was certainly the sketchiest part of the day, at least for me.

Heading out

The upper part of the ridge was a little more open on the descent, which was certainly welcome.

A view of Three Fingered Jack, from the ridge.

Scoping our downclimb into Milk Creek

Once we’d reached the creek bed my anxiety levels returned to normal, but now my body was feeling the pain from all the torture I'd put it through. A quick scramble down the creek brought us to the PCT and the trail portion of the hike out – thank God! The last three miles took us a little over an hour and I was relieved when the parking lot finally came into view. Back at the car, we slowly loaded up our gear up and ate whatever snacks we’d left for ourselves as a reward. As we drove back toward Eugene, I was both glad we’d gotten in one last tour for the season but also a little sad that it would probably be the last one… Well, time to break out the mountain bike, I guess.

Milk Creek scramble

One last view of Jefferson before the hike out
(photo by Jonathan Williams)

Mount Jefferson is a rugged mountain indeed! Certainly not in comparison to the peaks in the Himalaya or the like, but for around here, it’s pretty savage. Of course this trip wasn’t during the best of conditions, so that should be factored in as well. On the fun type scale, I’d give it somewhere between 1.5 and 2 – I’d actually love to repeat it under better conditions but I’m certainly not looking forward to the hike in or out. As for the skiing, the West Rib would be a classic 4K descent and well worth the effort, assuming there were good snow conditions. The face we skied was pretty sweet but I wouldn’t say it was worth the 6,000’ feet of climbing and 12-hour car-to-car timeframe. Of course, Mount Jefferson is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas anywhere, so for some that might be worth it alone.

One final note: Make sure you get a permit ahead of time if you plan on accessing this area via the Pamelia Lake Trail, which is both limited and required.

The tracks from our tour:

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Mount McLoughlin (OR) - NE Bowl

For the last few years I’d been wanting to ski Mount McLoughlin, but I’ve had a hard time convincing anyone to do it with me. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to be on the radar of the crew that I tend to tour with. My only guess would be because it’s a longish drive from Eugene (~3.5 hours) and is overshadowed by the other Cascade volcanoes that are in the more immediate area. This is despite the fact that it comes in at 9,495’, the 12th tallest peak in the Cascade Range, sitting just below Middle Sister. Although McLoughlin has skiable lines on all aspects, the one that really got my attention was the NE bowl, with a combination of a steep/longish slope and relatively easy access.

With the weather looking marginal in the Cascades north of Crater Lake, I was able to convince my buddy Andrew that we should finally give McLoughlin a go. Since it was a bit of a drive, especially for him coming from Salem, we decided to head out Friday night and camp near the trailhead for a Saturday tour. The drive from Eugene went well, with only a minor detour to get gas near Medford. By the time we reached the trailhead it was around 10pm, where we quickly laid down our bedrolls and tried to get as many z’s as possible before our early morning start.

When my alarm went off at 5:00am I was still a bit foggy-headed and stayed in my bag for another 15 minutes or so, before finally crawling out and putting together my breakfast and gear bag for the day’s adventure. Andrew, who had overslept his alarm, didn’t get up till ~6am, which was fine since he’s always much faster than me at getting ready in the morning. By the time we had geared up and headed out it was around 6:30am, a little behind schedule but still within the acceptable margin of error.

The trailhead
(photo by Andrew Boes)

From the parking lot, the trail crossed over Cascade Canal before starting its slow ascent up the foothills of Mount McLoughlin. The trail was well maintained and it was pretty easy hiking up to the bench where it intersected with the PCT, which was about a mile in. From there the trail remained fairly flat for another mile and a half, before reaching the NE ridge and starting to climb steeply up toward the summit. As we continued to climb, the patches of snow begin to grow and the trail became less obvious. Eventually, we found ourselves following crude cairns and GPS, as we navigated punchable snow and rocky scrambles. Still in my hiking boots, I decided to push on and deal with the rocks and snow that would occasionally slip in through the tops of my boots.

Andrew starts the long slog

Cascade Canal

Gettin' the low down

Trail marker at PCT intersection

The well-maintained trail made the first half of the ascent pretty straightforward

Our first glimpse of Mount McLoughlin
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Navigating the trail between patches of snow 

Andrew enters alpine and the start of the NE ridge

At around 8,200’ we reached a vista that looked onto the NE bowl, which renewed our spirits and made us look forward to the sweet reward we’d receive for our hard work. From the lookout, the trail followed along the edge of the bowl and alternated between piles of rock and small sections of trail. Eventually, I decided to traverse over to the snowfield on the southeast face, which made for much easier travel, especially with the bootpack that had already been established by the group just in front of us. I was actually a bit surprised the group of four were the only other people we would see on the mountain, and since they didn’t appear to have skis, it looked like we’d have whole NE bowl to ourselves! The last 500’ to the summit went fairly fast but I was certainly feeling the elevation. When I finally got to the top I was greeted by a guy from the other group, who was sitting in a chair (which he had hauled up) and smoking a cigarette. He was a really nice guy and we shared adventure stories while waiting for our respective crew members to gain the summit.

A distorted view of the NE bowl

The author pushes on
(photo by Andrew Boes)

A crude trail led us up the first part of the NE ridge

Wide open panoramics on the climb

NE ridge
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Takin' it all in

The final push to the summit, up the SW face

The weather at the top was fantastic, warm enough for a light fleece, and only a slight breeze. Although it was nice just to relax and take in the amazing view, both Andrew and I were ichin’ to drop in for some sweet corn turns! Andrew dropped off the summit and I dropped in about 15’ down, where it was a little easier to get started. We met up at the roll-in to the bowl and discussed our plan of attack. Since I wanted to do a write-up we decided to leapfrog down and take lots of photos along the way.

Relaxing at the summit

The author gets ready to drop in for the first turns of the tour
(photo by Andrew Boes)

I dropped in first and headed down a small ridge before traversing into the main bowl. With a slope angle somewhere between 40° and 45°, there really wasn’t any warm-up, at least based on my current skill level. After a few cautious turns I pulled over and waited for Andrew to drop in for his first turns of the day. Soon after he came into view, painting a series of S-turns down the slope and past me. Eventually he pulled over to signal that it was my turn. Once again I tentatively started my way down the slope, with every turn feeling more comfortable than the previous one. As I dropped into the large chute between the large rock formations, I caught a ski tip and slid out on the steep slope, knocking one of them off. Luckily I had on my ski leashes, as I’m sure my ski would have rocketed to the bottom had it not been tied off. Once I was able to get it back on I continued down the slope, enjoying every bit of the near perfect corn conditions. We leapfrogged a couple more times down the face, with the 40°+ pitch lasting about 1500 vertical feet before dropping onto the apron and providing some fun hippy turns for another 500’ or so.

Entering the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew drops down the top of the bowl

Sizing it up

Andrew threads the rock features
Harvesting corn

The slope of the bowl remained consistent for most of the descent, at around 40 degrees

The author, about halfway down the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Rippin' some turns
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Looking up the bowl

Andrews finds some softer, but still great, snow lower down

Lots of other line options of the NE ridge can be seen in the background

The author continues down the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)
Another shot looking up the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew finishing up the steep bit

Comin' in hot!

Once the slope had almost completely flattened out, we started looking for our exit strategy. At about 7,000' we started running out of snow. We thought that once we got into the trees there might be enough snow to get a little more descent, but this quickly proved to be futile. Knowing that it wasn’t going to get any better, I decided to cut my losses, throwing my hiking boots back on and tying my skis off to my pack. In order to get back to our ascent track, we needed to traverse south though the woods. The nice thing about the dryer climate of Southern Oregon is that the wooded area isn't nearly as dense. This made our bushwhack relatively straightforward, following the GPS and navigating around any small obstacles that got in our way.

Route finding

Closing in on the snowline

One last look at the NE bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Within a half hour we found our up-track, and soon after this we were below the snow line where the actual trail revealed itself. The next couple of miles down the trail to the car went by pretty quickly, and by the time I reached the car it was around 2pm. Pulling the pack from my shoulders felt pretty good, and although it had been a fantastic tour I was pretty happy to be back at the car and enjoying a celebratory beer. Before starting the drive back north we decided to check out Fourmile Lake. We were both surprised to see how nice of a campground there was at the south side of the lake, with quite a few people who had setup camp there. From there we headed home, only stopping in Grants Pass for some burgers and shakes at In-n-Out.

Parting thoughts:
Mount McLoughlin more than met my expectations -- The NE bowl served up about 2,000 vertical feet of steep/wide open bliss. I’m really looking forward to getting back to this one and plan on making it a yearly pilgrimage, in either winter or spring. With 360° of skiable terrain, there are enough lines to explore for many years to come!

Our tracks