Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mount Hood, OR - Wy'east Face / Superbowl

Christmas weekend was looking really good for getting in a couple of tours, with Sunday and Monday looking the best based on conditions. My buddy Rich sent out an email trying to pull together a crew for a mission on the Wy’east face of Mount Hood on Sunday. I knew that this was a fairly big tour and since I had committed to riding with my other buddy Arthur (who was coming in from SLC) on Monday, I was a bit apprehensive. I did leave the door open slightly, which Rich kicked in, knowing that I have a hard time passing up this type of adventure. After getting me onboard, we agreed to leave Eugene at around 5:30am, hoping to make it to the main lot at Mount Hood Meadows and skinning by 9am.

The night before I didn’t get much sleep, and I wasn’t nearly ready to get up when my alarm sounded off at 4:30am. After I was finally able to peel myself from the warm confines of my bed, I threw together a quick breakfast and loaded all my gear into the car, which I had pre-packed the night before. We both ended up pulling into the meeting spot at about the same time and soon we were heading north on I-5. The drive was fairly uneventful, but once we started up the spur road toward Mount Hood Meadows the massive volcanic peak came into view and the formidability of our mission started to set in.

Before starting our ascent we ventured into the lodge to see if we needed to check-in and where we were allowed to skin up. Unfortunately the help desk was anything but, and we came away more confused than when we walked in. Luckily I had done a bit of research/planning beforehand and was pretty sure that we wanted to hug the southwest boundary of the resort. After strapping on my board halves at the car we headed up from the lot and toward the westernmost run. As we glided past the lift station the attendant quickly accosted us and made sure we'd planned to stay outside the fence line. Just down and to the west of the run and in the woods we found a set of skin tracks, which we assumed would probably lead us toward our destination. Since gearing up in the parking lot, the base of the mountain had become consumed by a band of low clouds, completely obstructing our view of the peak. We skinned past the snowboard park and a few more runs before reaching the top of the Vista Express lift. It was here where we broke out of the cloud layer, which created quite a spectacular setting – Mount Hood in front of us (in all of its glory) and a blanket of clouds behind us, with only the tallest of the Cascade peaks poking through.

Huggin' the boundary

Pretty easy skinning along side the bottom half of the resort

Pea soup 

Breaking through the cloud layer. Rich takes in the view with Mount Jefferson in the background

Target acquired

Now above the Vista Express, we climbed up the west face of the ridge, which was completely wind-scoured and quite icy. Our ski crampons did help out a bit but it was still tough going. We soon determined that it would be best to ascend to the top of the ridge and try climbing on the leeward side, assuming that there would be much better snow. On the other side we found only a narrow swatch of land between the top of the ridge and the in-bound ski run, Texas Trail, which we weren’t allowed to be on. Unfortunately the path wasn’t far enough down from the ridge to be wind protected, and we found conditions that were only marginally better. After struggling up another one or two hundred vertical feet, we gave in and started hiking with boot crampons. As we closed in on the top of the lift served area, we were approached by ski patrol who reiterated that we were not to venture onto the established runs.

Rich climbs up the ridge just above the Vista Express

Rich contends with some icy conditions on the windward (west) side of the ridge 

Rich on the leeward side of the ridge. The conditions on this side weren't much better, so we switched over to boot crampons

Once past the top of the Cascade Express lift, we could pretty much climb wherever we wanted, although that did little to help our progress since the snow conditions didn’t really improve. After a short approach up a small face slope, we reached the top of the main ridge that led up toward the Wy’east face, which provided a good view of our route. For most of the ridge it was flat and easy-going, with the surface a mix of wind loading and small icy patches. Eventually the flat-topped ridge gave way to a series of small jagged pitches, which weren’t too difficult to navigate but definitely slowed our progress a bit. The ridge had also become steeper, and with the thinning air I found myself stopping every few steps to take in an extra breath.

More ice at the top of the lift served terrain

Taking a quick break above Mount Hood Meadows

Marching on

So close, but yet, so far

Rich heads up the easiest section of the approach, where the top of the ridge was surprisingly flat.

Looking down at my GPS, which read ~2:30pm, I knew we would only have at the most an hour before we were forced to start our descent, to ensure we got back to the car before dark. Based on my calculation of 1,000 vertical feet per hour, I knew we wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to the top of the Wy’east face and would probably be dropping in from about 10,000’ instead. Peering into the Superbowl, which sat just below the Wy'east face, it was hard to tell what the conditions were going to be like, but they didn’t look ideal. Sure enough we reached our time limit right around the 10K mark, and since there weren't any flat spots we had to kick in a platform to transition to descent mode. Both the Wy'east face and the Superbowl had fallen into the shadows and the temperature started to dip as a consequence. Once we transitioned over, we gave each other the ready signal and traversed to the east and in-line with the center of the bowl.

Getting steeper

Lots of wind affect snow on the lower part of the Wy'east face

Rich gaining as much elevation as possible before our turnaround time

As we reached the drop-in zone it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be an easy descent – with a slope angle around 40 degrees and 2” wind crust on top of ice, a fall was a real concern and could send you a couple thousand feet down the bowl in a matter of seconds. I was really glad that I had brought my new board which has Magne-Traction, since I needed all the bite I could get. Transitioning between my heel and toe side edges on the steep/icy slope was stressful. My leg muscles were also pretty blown from the ascent and my quads were on the verge of completely cramping up. I soon succumbed to working my way down on my heel-side edge only, sitting down on occasion to rest my burning legs. Even though Rich was also struggling, he was able to make it down much more gracefully and at a much faster pace.

Rich enters the Superbowl
Racing daylight

Digging in for some icy turns

Nearing the bottom of the Superbowl

At about 8,500’ we started traversing away from the bowl and toward the top lift station that was located in the resort’s boundary. This was definitely a no fall zone, since a small cliff band lay just below us. Furthermore, we didn’t want to drop into Heather Canyon since it would send us away from the main parking lot, where our car was parked. Being on a snowboard it was harder for me to maintain elevation along the way, and I soon reached a point where I couldn’t go any further without ascending up to the ridge. Switching over to boot crampons on an icy slope was more sketchy than the slope we had just come down, and it took my full concentration to do so. Luckily I had my whippet which I dug into the snow and used as an anchor while making the transition. By the time I was making forward progress again the sun had all but dipped below the horizon and at this point it was a race to get back in bounds and onto the safety of the groomed runs. With all of the time that had gone by, Rich had become worried and hiked back to make sure I was alright. Now back together we made the final push back into the resort, which luckily was uneventful.

Starting the icy traverse back to Meadows

Back at the Cascade Express lift station we strapped into our skis/board and headed down the groomers under the glow of our headlamps. We were glad to see that the bottom half of the resort was lit up for night skiing and had a mini celebration when we reached the illuminated runs. It was quite a juxtaposition between where we had just come from and the green groomers adorned with families celebrating what was left of Christmas Day. When we finally made it back to the car it was 5:45pm, about an hour after the official sunset, and I must say, I was pretty happy that it wasn’t much later.

It has been said that this is the best skiable route on Mount Hood, and although we didn’t make it to the very top of the Wy’east face, we were very close and could easily see the remaining ~600 vertical feet. I could certainly see how this could be the case, but certainly not with the conditions we had. I would love to do it again, but would probably wait until the spring corn cycle, which would provide longer days and much softer conditions. That said and due to the steepness of the headwall, it is prone to sliding even during the spring, triggered by solar radiation. If I ever do decided to do it again in the winter it would have to be under rare optimal conditions – at least 6” of powder with low winds and low avalanche danger. I’d also camp in the parking lot the night before and skin up the runs before the resort opened, just to make sure I have enough daylight for the full mission.

The tracks from our tour:

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