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|
(photo by Jonathan Williams)
|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.
|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: