Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Mount Hood, OR - South Route (Timberline to Summit)

With the weekend quickly approaching, it was time to start planning another ski tour. My buddy Rich and I had narrowed the field down to Crater Lake and Mount Hood, and although I had been wanting to show Rich the goods at Crater Lake, I was also excited about the idea of bagging another volcanic peak and personal first descent. In the end, the allure of skiing 4k to 5k of continuous descent straight back to the car won out and we opted for Mount Hood, especially since conditions looked like they would be perfect. Since we weren't planning to summit we figured that starting from Timberline Lodge sometime between 8 and 9am would give us plenty of time to make our ascent up the south side of the mountain, hoping to drop in high up on the Zigzag Glacier, near Crater Rock.

On Saturday we were able to get out of Eugene around 5am, and with the 3hr drive it put us at the Timberline parking lot at the time we had planned for. Our first task was to stop into the wilderness permit room and sign in, filling out the necessary paperwork and grabbing our permit before heading back to the car and gearing up for our day's adventure. By the time we were skinned up and on our way it was 9am, and we settled in for our route up the mountain.

Looking at our destination as seen from I-5 on the drive up

Getting closer

Made it!

One thing that differed from my previous ski tours was the manicured approach and the number of people we'd be sharing it with. Like almost everyone else, we climbed up the cat track which got us all the way up to the top of the Palmer chairlift at ~8,500', where we stopped for a quick snack and to take in the expansive views to the south.

The author starts the long road to the top
(photo by Rich Dana)

Gaining elevation

Rich takes in the view from the top of the cat track

For the next phase of the ascent we left the cat track and started up the barren snowfield, which climbed at a modest pitch with unobstructed sightlines all the way up to the summit. This made skinning quite easy and was certainly one of the driving factors of our rapid pace. Along the way we discussed the idea of actually trying to summit, since we were making such good time and the conditions appeared to be optimal. The big concern was that we had gotten too late of a start and the warming throughout the day would lead to ice/rock fall, especially along the final pitch through the Pearly Gates. After talking with various groups of climbers on their way back down from the summit, we had mixed feelings -- some thought it wouldn't be a problem while others thought we were crazy for even considering a summit attempt this late in the day. We finally decided that we would make our final decision at the Hogsback, once we could evaluate the conditions for ourselves.
Once we reached Triangle Moraine the slope angle increased and we were forced to zigzag up the hill to prevent our skins from slipping on the steepening terrain. At one point I actually attached my ski crampons, which helped out quite a bit with both traction and my confidence. Somewhere within this zone we came across a guy from search and rescue, who we quizzed about the possibility of summiting. After a few probing questions about our gear and fitness level, he thought that we wouldn't have any problems getting to the top, especially since his evaluation of the ice/rock fall was that it was very stable. With a bit of renewed vigor at the thought of reaching the summit we continued up the mountain.

Rich exits the cat track onto the barren snowfield

The Triangle Moraine

The Steel Cliffs, in all their glory.

The next major landmark we reached was the Devil's Kitchen, which was basically a bowl-shaped depression with a smoking fumarole in the center of it. This chimney was actually spewing sulfur gas, which of course gave off an unpleasant smell of rotten eggs. As I made my way up the steep side hill to the Hogsback, I had expected the smell to lessen, but instead it started to get a bit worse. It wasn't until I reached the ridgeline that I understood why, as another large fumarole was coming out of the north side of Crater Rock. As I waited for Rich I took a quick breather, put on a second coat of sunscreen and enjoyed all of the amazing views surrounding me. I could see that groups of people were still entering and exiting the Pearly Gates, which was a short but steep climb up from where I was sitting at the bottom of the Hogsback. Rich showed up about 10 minutes later, since he had stopped to help out two hikers that were looking for a cell phone to use. Apparently one of them was so exhausted and unprepared for the summit hike that they didn't believe he could make it down without help from search and rescue.

Reaching the Devil's Kitchen. The rock in the center is actually a fumarole.

Another fumarole coming out of the north side of Crater Rock

Looking up at another party at the Pearly Gates

For the climb up the Hogsback we detached from our skis and secured them to our packs, deciding that hiking up the boot pack would be much easier/faster. The climb up the ridge was a bit tiring but went pretty quickly, and before long we were standing against the rime covered cliffs at the entrance to the Pearly Gates. After a brief discussion we agreed that conditions looked really good, so we unpacked our crampons and ice axes to prepare for the final push to the summit. About 20 yards up from where we had geared up we found a fork in the road, with two different gates to choose from. We ended up opting for the eastern door since it appeared to be the widest and most traveled. The rime glazing coating the rocks made for a rather surreal setting and I started to feel really small compared to the magnificence of the mountain. After climbing up the chute for a short bit, the walls peeled back and gave way to a wide open slope all the way to the summit. With every last step I could feel the elevation in my lungs but the excitement of knowing that I was almost there kept me going with an ear to ear smile. Rich eventually came into view, sitting down with his ice axe raised in celebration – this is when I knew that we had made it to the top of the highest point in Oregon!

Making the slog up the Hogsback

Looking up the west door of the Pearly Gates

Looking south from the top of the east door

The final summit pitch

Rich raises his ice axe in victory, after reaching the summit.

Token photo from the summit of Mount Hood

Other than one other climber, we had the whole summit to ourselves and it also appeared that we would be the last ones to reach it on this day - A nice little side benefit of getting such a late start. After taking it all in for a few minutes we decided we'd better not linger and started making our way back down. This time we chose to descend down the narrower western door, which for me was the crux of the trip. Not being an experienced mountaineer there was a bit of a learning curve as I down climbed the chute facing the snow with my crampons and ice axe. With each step the chute got steeper and at one point my left crampon had loosened up and shifted off of my foot. I was far enough down that I could have made it without re-tightening, but Rich offered to re-secure it since he was in a good position to do so.

On our way back down

Rich down climbing the west door of the Pearly Gates

Making my way down the west door
(photo by Rich Dana)

From the bottom of the Pearly Gates, we looked around to determine where the best place was to drop in. We had originally planned to descend the bowl/chute on the west side of Crater Rock, but since we didn't have a good view of the whole line and potential hazards we decided it would be best to drop in on the Devil's Kitchen bowl instead. With our decision made we transitioned over to descent mode, looking forward to the fun part! Since I wanted to take some photos from below, I went first. The first part of the slope felt pretty steep for the first turns of the day, which was probably in the mid 40 degree range. Although the snow was holding an edge it was somewhat unpredictable, with small bits and pieces fracturing away as I cut in with my heel side. Once I was able to jump turn onto my toe edge I felt much more comfortable and I was eventually able to link some nice turns down the ~500' face. I stopped at our planned meeting spot, which was skier's left of the fumarole just before dropping over the next horizon line. Once I gave the signal to Rich he dropped down using a similar route as mine. Seeing his small outline against the face of the mountain really gave perspective on just how large of a of a rock we were descending.

Rich drops in for his first turns of the day, about 250' down from the summit.

Another shot of Rich dropping down the Devil's Kitchen bowl

Next, we traversed below Crater Rock over to the Zigzag Glacier, which had been our original destination, although we were entering it a bit lower than we'd previously planned. Zigzag had a really nice face but there was quite a bit of debris covering the slope, which I assume was from a previous loose avalanche. Even with its rough surface, it still provided nice edge hold and turns, which both Rich and I took full advantage of. We were also presented with a great view of Illumination Rock, which looked like a giant fang breaking through the surface of the snow.

Leaving the Devil's Kitchen

Rich, dropping intro the Zigzag Glacier. Illumination Rock is in the background. 

Rich somewhere on the Zigzag Glacier 

The author takes his turn on Zigzag Glacier
(photo by Rich Dana)

Instead of riding out the entire Zigzag Glacier we cut back over toward the Palmer chairlift and traveled along its western flank. The lower angle slope allowed for some fast wide turns but my weary legs were holding me back from really opening it up. There were also surface irregularities that did their best to buck you off your feet if you didn't plan your turns accordingly. The further down we went, the softer the snow became until eventually I was forced to lean way back to keep my nose from getting buried - of course this put a good amount of strain on my back leg and I had to stop a few times along the way to give it a rest. Once we passed the bottom of the Palmer lift, we cut even further to the east and were now paralleling the cat track we had began our ascent on. From here we closed in on the parking lot within a couple of minutes, and were actually able to ride all the way down to the exact spot where we had parked the car -- It's not very often you get to do that on an Oregon ski tour!

Rich reflects back on the sweet turns we just bagged 

Time for some soul turns!

A parting shot from below the Palmer chairlift. From here down we party skied. 

Now back at Timberline, we changed into our street clothes and checked back in at the permit station, before driving down to Government Camp for some tacos and beer. Having refueled our drained bodies we started our long drive back to Eugene, reflecting on the day's journey we had just completed!

Although this Mount Hood southern route was certainly not the secluded backcountry adventure that I typically prefer, it was still an amazing adventure -- the sheer alpine experience and spectacular views were plenty to satisfy my appetite. Summiting Mount Hood had also been on my bucket list, so getting to do so without it even being in our original plans was just icing on the cake. It was really cool to see the famous landmarks scattered along the south face, including Crater Rock, Devil's Kitchen, Illumination Rock, the Hogsback and of course the Pearly Gates. The one feature I'm actually glad we didn't get to experience was the Bergschrund, a nasty crevasse located near the top of the Hogsback that starts to open up during the summer months.

As for the snowboarding/skiing, it didn't disappoint! I mean how bad could descending 5,000 vertical feet straight back to the car really be?! With that much elevation change, the snow conditions varied quite a bit from top to bottom -- up high it was a little firm and down low it was pretty slushy. That said, it was about as good as you could ask for during the spring skiing season. The terrain was also really fun, especially the pitch down the Devil's Kitchen bowl and the small face we descended on the Zigzag Glacier. From that point down it was just low angle soul turns, which was a great way to end the day and certainly better than having to skin out.

All in all, this tour stands out as one of the bigger highlights I've had in 2016. I'll definitely be coming back to explore other routes and I even look forward to repeating this one every year or so, it was that good!

The tracks from our tour:

The whole route:
Red = Ascent
Blue = Down climb
Yellow = Descent

Summit pitches:
Red = Ascent
Blue = Down climb
Yellow = Descent


  1. Nate you are the BOMB!!!! this is just so great on so many levels- the quality of the adventure, the execution and the documentation.not to mention how 'in the moment' you are- i just love it! Got my first pair of BCskis this year and love 'em. keep on!

  2. Nate you are the BOMB!!!! this is just so great on so many levels- the quality of the adventure, the execution and the documentation.not to mention how 'in the moment' you are- i just love it! Got my first pair of BCskis this year and love 'em. keep on!