Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tombstone Pass (OR) - Cone & South Peak

Tombstone Pass is one of the closest backcountry zones to Eugene, which combined with its short/easy approach makes it an extremely appealing day tour. There are a half dozen peaks or so at Tombstone Pass with the main targets being on the north side of Hwy 20 -- Iron Mountain, Cone Peak, South Peak, Echo Mountain and North Peak (from west to east). Even though you only get about 400 to 800 vertical feet of descent out of each of them, it's easy to run multiple laps on one of them or a combination thereof. For the record, I've only done Cone and South Peak, and although I can't speak for the quality of lines found off the other summits I've gotten a good enough view of them to assume they'd be worth hitting as well.

After a nice build up of snow from a couple of large storms that hit us during the month of December, I was psyched that Tombstone Pass would finally have enough snow to get in some good turns. The weather forecast during the week leading up to our trip teetered between cloudy and a chance of storms. By Friday afternoon the weather looked decent so we decided to pull the trigger, especially since Rich had not been to this zone and was eager to do so. Along with Rich and me, Ethan would be joining us, who’s always an asset to any backcountry adventure.

Since Tombstone Pass was fairly close and we didn't have to worry about rising temps, we got a relatively late start and left Eugene around 7:45am. We decided to go up I-5 and pick up Hwy 20 out of Sweet Home. I'd done this drive many times before, although usually for kayaking on one of the many great whitewater runs in the area, including Upper Quartzville, Canyon Creek, and the Monster section of the South Santiam River. By the time we reached the pass it was about 9:30am, the temps were in the teens and a 6' wall of snow surrounded the parking lot. It took us about 20 minutes to ready our gear and soon we were hiking down the road toward the Cone Peak trailhead.

At the trailhead we had to use a little teamwork to get up onto the snow bank, formed by the plows that keep Hwy 20 open throughout the winter season. The last time I had been to Cone Peak we followed the trail, which led through some fairly thick trees and made skinning up difficult in spots. This time we decided to head up through interconnecting meadows, which made for a much easier approach. The snow itself was amazing and definitely the driest that I've experienced in the PNW -- I mean this was champagne powder like I'd been treated to in Utah. As we switchbacked our way up, we looked up at Iron Mountain, which has a really fun looking line that drops down its eastern face. That line would have to wait for a future trip, since this time our sights were set on Cone and South Peak. At about the one hour mark and 700 vertical feet of climbing, we crested onto a treeless knoll that provided our first good view of both peaks, and the conditions looked fantastic!

Rich starts the ascent up to Cone Peak


Rounding another turn

The first good view of Cone Peak

And South Peak to our east

Rich led the charge up the southwest ridge of Cone Peak, throwing in kick turns where appropriate. The only downside to the dry snow was that my skin traction was suffering and I found myself slipping backwards throughout our charge up the hill. We soon got to a point where we felt it was probably easier to just boot up the remaining 100 vertical feet to the summit.
At about the two hour mark we reached the summit of Cone Peak, where we took in the view for a few minutes before digging a pit to analyze the snow conditions. The snow had felt stable during our approach and we hadn’t seen any ominous warning signs, but the area had a few reported avalanches earlier in the week and we also thought it would be good practice. With three of us, we dug the pit pretty quickly, especially since we hit solid ground about 100cm down. We could easily see the rain crust that had formed about two weeks prior, but other than that the snow looked/felt pretty uniform throughout. After a quick shovel shear test and a couple of compression tests we gained more confidence in the stability of the snow and started scouting our first lines of the day.

Rich and Ethan continue the slog 

Boot packing up toward the summit

The final pitch

safety first...

Since we'd planned to head over to South Peak afterward, we decided to drop down just the upper portion of Cone Peak, heading in a southeast direction. I dropped in first so that I could grab a couple of photos of the other two heading down. The first couple of turns off the summit revealed a wind crust just below the powdery surface, but after a few more turns the powder got deeper and face shots on each heel-side turn ensued. After selecting a spot just down from the summit, I signaled to the others that I was ready. Ethan dropped in first, picking a line off a small rock drop that sat just above me. Once he had pulled up next to me we gave Rich the go-ahead, who painted a nice series of turns down the untracked face just to the east of us. Once he had stopped below us we each took our turn down the rest of the run, where we were treated to some amazing snow that had me grinning from ear to ear. All too soon the run was over, and we traversed over to the ridge that led to the summit of South Peak.

Rich drops in for his first turns of the day

Ethan digs in

Stepping out of my snowboard I sank up to my knees in the deep powder. Before transitioning over to climbing mode, I stomped out a platform to work from. Once I had readied all my gear I threw my pack over my shoulder and laid out my two boards in front of me -- this is when I noticed that something was missing... "Oh no, where the hell are my poles?!". At this point I couldn't remember if I had left them at the summit or another stopping point, or if they had gotten buried in the deep powder during the switchover. Trying not to bury them even further, I dug around, hoping to uncover them. After a few minutes and coming up empty I decided to head back up and take a look, figuring that I must’ve left them somewhere. At this point Ethan had already taken off, putting down a skin track for us, so unfortunately he had no idea about my misfortune. Rich offered to chase him down while I strapped on my snowshoes and climbed back up the lines we had just laid down. I ended up hiking all the way back up to the summit, where I found nothing but disappointment, and I started pondering how much it was going to suck climbing up South Peak without poles. I ran/slid down the face trying to mitigate the delay that I had already put on our tour. Once back where I started I gave one last search before accepting the situation and skinning up the hill, sans poles.

I was certainly glad that the others had already laid down a skin track, but as I suffered around the first couple of switchbacks I knew that this was going to be one of those days. Ethan, who was now back on the scene, offered up one of his poles, and although I felt bad for putting him out, I knew that it would be best for the group and keeping us moving at a necessary pace. Even with one less pole Ethan blazed out ahead at an impressive rate. I could certainly not say the same for myself, and although it was much better than with no poles, I had a hard time keeping up with the other two. Eventually I caught up to them on the main face of South Peak, which we traversed along looking for the best place to continue our ascent. As with Cone Peak, we got to a point were we felt it would be best to boot up the remainder of the climb to the summit. It was at this point where we encountered our first winds of the tour, and even though they were fairly mellow, it was enough to cool down my core a bit. After a few hundred feet of climbing we reached the top, and I was pretty happy that I wouldn't need any poles for the next part of the tour, our second descent!

Starting the traverse up to South Peak

The fog started to roll in as we climbed the ridge up toward the summit of South Peak

Once again I dropped in first to get some photos. The snow on South Peak was even better than on Cone, with each turn kicking up a cloud of white dust. After readying my camera I gave a whistle, and soon after that Ethan came into view, also throwing up a rhythmic series of powder clouds. He flew by and dropped out of sight below me. I quickly packed away my camera and raced down a little further, in hopes of setting up somewhere else before Rich came down. Before long, he entered the scene and I snapped off some more shots as both he and Ethan worked their way down the middle section of the descent.

Ethan drops in on South Peak

Kickin' up dust

Ethan grabs some freshies 

Synchronized powder clouds 

Ethan finishing up the steeps

As the slope angle started to lessen I straightened out my line and ramped up my speed to stay afloat on the soft snow. With the flat light I didn't see a steep roller in front of me and ended up flying off of it and nosing into a pit of white fluff. I actually had to call the others down to give me a hand standing back up -- ah, the beauty of locked together feet and no poles... Of course, history would repeat itself and within minutes I found myself doing the same damn thing again. It actually ended up being a nice place to stop for photos anyways, since there was another drop-off to huck, this time formed by a buried tree.

One last hurrah

Tree jibs

The descent lasted about a half mile and dropped about 900', and was true bliss the whole way down. Trying to ride it out as much as I could, I ended up getting suckered into a drainage that looked like the clearest path. Unfortunately it necked down and became chocked with blow-down, and even worse a small stream dug a deep narrow channel which would have been bad to fall into.

Now at the treeline, my plan was to strap on my Vert snowshoes and hike -- downhill skinning through thick trees is not one of my strengths. Since I knew I would be slower getting out than the other two and that we were out of avalanche terrain, I told them to go ahead and that I would meet them at the car. In hindsight this was a foolish decision, as tree wells were a serious threat and sunset was only an hour away. The one mile hike out through the trees ended up being a difficult task indeed. Although I had my snowshoes, they have a really small surface area and aren't designed for hiking downhill through deep/light powder. At one point I dropped into a well and spent about five minutes digging my feet out; luckily I had fallen in feet first. I certainly could not afford to spend anymore daylight with these types of mishaps. Using my phone's GPS and map functions I was able to navigate to a small forest road that made travel much easier. I was also glad to see skin tracks which I had to assume were from Rich and/or Ethan. Eventually this road teed into the more established one that we had planned to skin out on -- this was a huge relief since I knew that I could easily navigate it in the dark if I needed to, especially since I had my headlamp.

By the time I reached Hwy 20, I was completely exhausted and not looking forward to the one mile hike back to the parking lot. Then, just when I needed some encouragement, I heard a voice behind me; it was Rich who had just reached the road himself. It's amazing how finding your buddy can re-energize your spirit. Apparently he had a bit of an epic himself, getting stuck in the bottom of a drainage and having to hike out of it in armpit deep snow and without the luxury of snowshoes. After a short discussion and agreement that we'd made a poor decision to split up, we shouldered our packs and started the slog up the road toward the Tombstone Pass parking lot. Within minutes a pickup truck rolled by and offered us a ride, which was truly a godsend. By the time they dropped us off the light had all but vanished, and you could tell that Ethan, who was already back at the car, was very happy to see us. After a quick celebratory beer, we loaded up our gear and started the drive back to Eugene, reminiscing about the sweet lines and tribulations of our tour.

The tracks from our tour:


  1. Great post! Those early season hikes out through varied terrain can be sketch! A buddy and I were out two hours after dark trying to skin through fluffy powder in the Newton Creek drainage on Mt. Hood a couple weeks ago. Had to cross the stream a couple times, got wet, skins popped off...etc. Fun in retrospect!

    1. Thank for the sharing, Mike! It can definitely turn in to type 2 fun, especially on the way out. I guess the hope is that we learn and grow from these experiences. =)