Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Tombstone Pass - Cone Peak (OR)

Ever since my buddy Randy told me about the great tour options at Tombstone Pass, I'd been anxious to check it out for myself. Of the peaks in that area, he specially mentioned Cone Peak, telling of treeless runs from the summit down the south face. Armed with this bit of information I started scouring topo maps and pre-scouting in Google Earth to start planning a route. The biggest obstacle I ran into was the lack of snowpack in this particular area -- even though we had been getting plenty of precipitation the passes along Hwy 20 didn't have cool enough temps to produce the white stuff like it had in some of the other surrounding areas. Although I had to put this zone on hold, I was ready to get to it as soon as conditions allowed.

Fast-forward to last weekend. After we were hit with a cold front and a rather a large storm that dropped a healthy amount of snow at Tombstone Pass, I knew I'd better act fast since it was now mid-March and this would probably be my last chance of the season. The next challenge, as always, was finding some folks to join in the adventure. In the end, my buddy Brian ended up being the only one that was available. Once I had filled him in on the particulars we agreed to meet up in town at 7am. We wanted to get an early start since the weather called for fairly warm temps and sunny skies, bringing with it the possibility of loose wet avalanche conditions.

It was now Saturday, and from Eugene it took us about an hour and a half to reach the Tombstone Sno-Park. By the time we had gotten geared up and starting hiking down the short bit of road to the Cone Peak trailhead it was a little after 9am and the temps were already starting to warm up. Within 100' of the start of the trail we reached a clearing where recent free water melt had etched an impressive array of runnels across the surface of the snowpack. Although it indicated that the quality of the snow probably wasn't going to be very good it was still firm enough to ease our concerns over avy danger. Along with the runnels we also found a couple pairs of skin tracks carved into the snow, which we decided to use as breadcrumbs for our ascent.

Gettin' skinned up

The start of our ascent

Brian cuts across some crazy runnels near the start of the climb

As we continued on a little further, the tracks lead across a small running stream and headed off in a westerly direction. Not sure if we should continue to follow them, I consulted my GPS which had our pre-planned route overlaid onto it. Since I wasn't sure where exactly the other tracks would lead us, we opted to head back in the direction of our original plan, which sent us up and through the trees. Navigating through the maze of trees certainly proved to be more challenging than in the open meadows. Before too long we reached the ridge that would lead us to the bench about halfway up and into full view of Cone Peak.

Route finding through the trees

Our first good view of Cone Peak, from the bench at the base. 

Some good looking lines off of Iron Mountain 

South Peak, from the bench

Looking up toward the summit of Cone Peak, the southwest ridge that we had originally planned to climb was a patchwork of thin snowpack and exposed ground, hardly optimal conditions for skinning up. Since there was still plenty of snow on the main face, I suggested that we just zig-zag our way up, while spot-checking the snow to make sure we weren’t putting ourselves in avalanche danger. As we worked our way up using a series of traverses and kick turns, the slope got steeper and steeper until we were forced to boot pack up the final 200 vertical feet.

Brian scouts out an ascent route

Partway up the south face of Cone Peak

Brain poses for a photo on the south face of Cone Peak

Climbing up the eastern ridge toward the summit
(photo by Brian Watson)

Making the final push

The view at the summit did not disappoint, and we had an amazing 360-degree panoramic of the surrounding landmarks, including almost all of the Oregon Cascade peaks. Although it was a little breezy the temps were mild and pleasant. We spent about 10 or 15 minutes taking in the view and eating a snack before we started our transition into descent mode. The snow, which was getting a heavy dose of solar radiation, was starting to get pretty wet – we weren’t getting any major red flags but I was certainly getting anxious to get in our turns before it loosened up too much. From the summit, we slowly worked our way down the southwest ridge and looked for a good place to drop in, which essentially came down to the place with the most snow and longest bit of uninterrupted turns. I offered to go first and after doing a few test cuts/jumps on the snow I pointed it downhill and threw in some nice toe and heel-side turns. I made sure to pull off to a safety zone that was still within eyeshot of Brian and once I had my camera ready I signaled him down.

Made it!

Mount Jefferson, from the summit of Cone Peak.

The Three Sisters

Mount Washington

Looking down the western ridge towards our drop-in point

Brian makes his first turns of the descent

From our meeting spot we would have to traverse either a little to the right or left, since an island of volcanic rock sat just below us. With a good view to skier’s right we opted for that route, and once again I dropped in first so that I could set-up for some photos from down below. I was now about halfway down the south face where a hard heel-side turn kicked off some rollerballs that gathered snow and speed as they made their way down the hill in front of me. Although I still felt confident with the snow conditions, I threw in a couple more test cuts before settling into a few more flowing turns to the next safety zone. After getting the verbal to Brian, he painted his own lines down the mountain and we were once again reunited.

More treeless turns

Brian reaches the second pit stop 

Now, we were faced with a decision, continue west (skier’s right) toward the bench or drop down to the east to extend our line a couple hundred vertical feet. Since I really wanted to get in some more turns I proposed we go with the second option, which Brian agreed to. With that, I packed up my camera and started down, making as many turns as I could. Eventually the trees closed in a bit and we were forced into some reactionary navigation. As we made our way down the slope, we knew we’d have to skin a couple hundred feet to make our way back up to the bench, but I accidentally led us down a little further than I should have. We ended up getting stopped by thick trees and flanked by a small stream drainage on either side of us. Once it became obvious that continuing on our path would be a bad idea we consulted the map to figure out how we were going to dig ourselves out. With no great options, we ended up boot packing up a steep crotch-deep slope that eventually brought us back toward the bench at the base of Cone Peak. Without going into too much detail, it sucked pretty badly and I’m glad that Brian wasn’t too pissed at me and took it in stride.

Looking down into the second (east) option

The author heads east for an extended descent
(photo by Brian Watson)

Kickin' up rollerballs

Funneling down to the point of no return

As soon as we had reached a point where we could skin again, we made the transition and worked back toward our original ascent route, which we planned to use to get back down to the road. Before too long our old skin tracks came into view, which certainly brought a bit of relief. Instead of using the exact path back, which would have sent us though some pretty steep/dense trees, we tried to link the snow covered meadows, like playing a round of golf. Toward the bottom, the slope flattened out and the trees once again closed in around us and we were forced to hike out the remaining ¼ mile, following the sound of the road traffic. Eventually we reached the highway and made the final leg of the trip back to the car. Although we hadn’t put in an extremely long day or very many miles, I had burned nearly 3,500 calories and was certainly feeling it.

Time to skin again

Runnel art

One final view of Cone Peak

Enjoying some turns in one of the lower meadows

The last bit of skiable slope

For being within 1.5 hours of Eugene, I can see Tombstone Pass becoming one of my go-to zones, assuming conditions allow. Cone Peak itself offers up some really nice turns down from the summit, but as always the ride is over way too quickly. In hindsight, I should have stuck to my original route plan and not have gotten greedy, leading us into the drainage of which we had to hike out. I also would have stuck to our original ascent route as well, or at least done a better job with the pre-planning and built in a couple of options. As for the snow conditions, they certainly weren’t the best but still provided some nice turns on the face; albeit a little wet. There are also some other good looking peaks in that zone like South Peak and Iron Mountain, which I’m really looking forward to putting some tracks on.

Our tracks:
Red = Ascent
Yellow = Descent

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