After our jaunt up Mt. St. Helens, our crew was hungry for some larger mountain skiing. With this in mind, we headed to Washington’s second highest (12,280 feet) stratovolcano, Mt. Adams. Adams fits the bill of “big mountain skiing,” and is located in a remote wilderness 31 miles east of Mt. St. Helens and just a few miles north of Hood River, Oregon. Air travelers flying the busy routes above the area sometimes confuse Mount Adams with nearby Mount Rainier, which has a similar flat-topped shape. The mountain itself is made up of an interesting subdivision of acreage: the upper mountain consists of the Mt. Adams Wilderness, the east component belongs to the Yakima nation, and below the wilderness boundary, snowmobiles run wild. The area is obviously cherished, as the Pacific Crest Trail passes through the zone in the summer. An interesting side note is that the glaciated aspects of the mountain have decreased by 49% since 1904. For more cool information on the peak, click here.
Most of the research we conducted prior to our arrival consisted of phone calls to the local climbing ranger, and beta gleaned from www.turns-all-year.com. If you head to the PNW, this is an awesome resource for everything Cascades, from trip reports to conditions to weather. What PNW backcountry skiers told us was that we were too early to ski Mt. Adams. Apparently the peak normally gets skied in June and July, when skiers can virtually drive to timberline. But being fit skiers from Tahoe, and extremely fired up, we decided an attempt on one of the most sought-after descents in the Cascades was worth it. But…we definitely had to work for it. We arrived in the late afternoon on day 1 to realize that our intended trailhead of departure was buried under multiple feet of snow and was literally miles away. We were a little apprehensive with this, as it meant a monster approach consisting of 5 miles of relatively flat and rolling terrain. But since we had the time to bang it out, and thought that a quick bivy at 5k on a volcano would be pretty sweet, we packed our bags, wiped our noses, and got on with it.
While none of us would categorize the slog into our intended bivy at 5000 feet as fun, it was adventurous and the scenery was beautiful. Plus, we came to the mountains for adventure, and no one said that was ever easy. As we gained elevation ever so slightly, we passed into the Lava Flow and headed towards our intended ascent route, the Suksdorf Ridge vicinity. En route, we gained what the local sledders called “the burn,” a ghostly landscape of several hundred acres of wildfire detritus. This area was quite beautiful pitched against the backdrop of Mt. Adams, and was enough to keep our minds off the sweltering temperatures and miles of flat terrain.
After three or so hours, 8 miles, and 3500 feet of vertical gain, we reached our camp on top of the Lava Flow. Camp was pitched and we were quickly enjoying our burritos along with a wonderful Cascades sunset. We set our alarms and start time, and quickly fell asleep under the watchful eye of the mountain. Out goal come morning was to blast up the Suksdorf Ridge proximity, assess the snow, and see if we could get down the classic South West Chutes and back to camp in a sane fashion.
The morning dawned clear and cold, and conditions were perfect for a quick ascent. Our team of three moved fast and seamlessly through timberline and up the south headwall to Piker’s Peak at 11,600 feet. Like most volcanoes, a fair amount of “foreshortening” occurs in the Pacific Northwest. As you ascend these hulking masses, your mind begins to play tricks on your visual acuity and just when you think you are ready to top out, there is another ridge. And then another. And then another. Eventually you just settle into making it to the next rock band or an anomaly in the snow surface, kick some tunes, and enjoy the scenery amidst your companions.
Before we new it, we were standing on the summit of Mt. Adams at just over 12,280 feet. While a bit hazy, we enjoyed views of Mt. Hood, St. Helens, and the always impressive Mt. Rainier while refueling with our Nutella/almond butter/honey sando’s. There is always something special about sitting atop a big peak with close friends – the conversations are always a little clearer and more real, and downright special – ones you’ll keep with you forever.
The hard work which put us on the summit was now about to open the door to some incredible snow sliding. While we had hoped to descend the South West Chutes, we deemed it ill-advised if we were going to be able to make it back to our camp in a sane fashion. The road closures and big winter, which pushed us too far east, dictated that this descent would have to wait for another day. Having said that, these chutes look SICK and if you ever have the chance to ski them, you must. So we descended our ascent line, which is always a safe approach, and had a blast doing so. The snow ranged from frozen broccoli heads to breakable crust to velvety corn. True big mountain skiing, the conditions covered the entire spectrum.
And the skiing was phenomenal…
We arrived back at the car roughly 24 hours after we had left. The vertical gain hovered around 9000 feet for the day, with plenty of horizontal miles. Cold beers and glass-bottle Coca-Cola’s awaited us, both of which were a treat after the long skate ski out from our basecamp in sweltering temperatures. While we all secretly hoped for a snowmobile pull out, we were all happy and proud when we reached the truck on our own volition. Another North American classic ski descent in the books, we motored back to Hood River tired and content. And of course, eager for the next adventure on our tour!