After punting on Mt. Hood a mere 1000 feet from our ski objective (the Wy’East Face) due to rain, wind, and general shit weather, we traveled south in search of redemption on Oregon’s 2nd highest volcano, Mt. Jefferson (10,497 feet). We did indeed find that redemption on the massive Cascade volcano, but in true Pacific Northwest fashion it came at the cost of some major physical output. After 9 of 12 days of backcountry skiing, long Cascade horizontal approaches, and plenty of obtuse weather, I was admittedly a bit knackered. But as this was our last day before heading back to sunny Lake Tahoe (and markedly less snow), we just had to go big. Earlier in the trip, as we drove north, I had spied “Jeff” in the distance. It’s proud summit pyramid, once your eyes are laid on it, is undeniable. You simply must go there to experience its proudly kept adventure.
From Wikipedia: “Mount Jefferson is a stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, part of the Cascade Range and is the second highest mountain in Oregon. Mount Jefferson is in a rugged wilderness and is thus one of the hardest volcanoes to reach in the Cascades. Jefferson’s craggy, deeply glacially scarred appearance is especially beautiful and photogenic, and the peak has frequently served as a backdrop for automobile advertisements.”
In a well-noted continuation of the overriding weather during our trip, it was snaining as we launched ourselves down the scenic Pamelia Lake trail. While it would have been easier to travel the 3-plus miles to Pamelia Lake in hiking boots, we rolled in true Tahoe ski-mountaineering fashion wearing our ski boots. If you are going into a physically demanding day, why not up the ante and do it all in your ski boots? But I digress…..
The miles and a bit of vertical passed quickly and in pleasurable fashion as we all enjoyed a landscape drastically different from that which we are used to in the Sierra. The temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest is absolutely stunning. Additionally, it is so fertile that critters, birds, and trippy Jurassic Park-style plants abound. Moving at your own pace, under your own power, under the watchful eye of these gorgeous moss covered giants is a special thing. Passing through wild areas is always unique, but when you are lucky enough to do it in a landscape that your senses are not used to, the sensory overload is quite profound.
As we were attempting the SW Ridge of Mt. Jefferson, we headed upslope upon arriving at Pamelia Lake. Here we experienced the slippery goodness of light snow on a ton of deadfall sticks and branches. This made for difficult travel, to say the least. Our party of three thrashed upslope for around 1000 feet before we hit the Pacific Crest Trail, and shortly thereafter, good snow. The rain in the parking lot was of course snow at the higher elevations, which made all of us pretty fired up for powder skiing. However, it quickly became apparent that the snow-covered forest approach was morphing into a dust-on-crust ridge skin. Ski crampons were mandatory, followed shortly thereafter by boot crampons.
After struggling up the ridge for some time, we were treated to freezing fog and our first views of the massive west flank of Mt. Jefferson from the SW Ridge. Any whining that was uttered during the treacherous skin was quickly quieted under the hulking mass above us. Our ski objectives were wide open, and when the proud west flank came into view, we were in complete awe.
Traveling up the avalanche-protected ridges of ancient giants such as Mount Jefferson is a Lilliputian affair. After a quick bite to eat and an assessment of the snowpack at 8000 feet, the group switched to boot crampons and launched onto the massive, twisting serpentine ridge that constitutes the upper half of the ascent route. While the ridge looked short, and the summit in plain-view, the SW Ridge of Jefferson is characterized by the classic foreshortening common on all volcanoes. The most aesthetic part of the climb, the upper ridge shown below ascends for nearly 2500 feet to the summit.
Climbing on the ridge proper was fast-going and exhilarating. Crampon points pulled us higher with successive steps. Towards the summit pyramid, there was just enough exposure and alpine feel to give the ascent a mildly spicy sensation. Perhaps a 4 on the Thai/ski mountaineering spectrum. The Cascades are seemingly littered with sastrugi, and the SW Ridge was no different. Frozen broccoli florets, albatross feathers, and various assorted fruits and vegetables watched our ascent as we kicked steps around them. These features make the Cascade classics even more intriguing.
Upon reaching around 10,000 feet, we decided against any more vertical progress. The route turned into an ice climb, and for us weak-constitution backcountry skiers, this wasn’t an ideal descent. We polished off the remainder of our Nutella, almond butter, and honey sandwiches, hammered some Clif Blocks, and began to suss out our descent. Our snowpack assessment earlier in the day had shown massive instabilities in the shape of a foot of wind-loaded powder on top of a sugary crust. Accordingly, we decided to descend to the skier’s left of the ascent ridge. This wasn’t an easy decision, however, and each one of us had to implement sound judgement in order to balance the good and bad backcountry angels sitting on our shoulders. While the west flank looked like something straight out of an Alaska heli-drop, it had an eerie feel of no-bueno to it. Bad angel: “Man, that west face is a gem line, one of a lifetime in powder.” Good angel: “You jackass! Look at the avy run-out into the forest 7,000 feet below!” Good observations, conservative decisions, and intuition allow you to ski another day.
While the snow on the descent wasn’t epic, it had that big-mountain feel which always transcends poor snow quality. We took our time getting down the SW face, as the flat light and intermittent patches of blue ice made the going slightly attention-grabbing. But after approximately 1000 feet, we hit great powder, followed by hero corn at the lower elevations. Skiing off the Cascade giant was truly a massive treat. When we hit the Pacific Crest Trail, all three fo us could smell the stable 5 miles away. More importantly, after thrashing up 7,000 plus feet and many horizontal miles, we could almost hear the ice-cold Rainier talking to us….
We made it back to the car in just shy of 12 hours – happy, tired, and content. We celebrated with many Rainier brews and great Mexican food in the little town of Sisters, Oregon. All in all the trip was a success, although the list of desired ski lines only sought to grow in number as the trip progressed. If you have a chance to make it to the Cascades Ring of Fire, we strongly suggest it. Bring your hiking legs, Gore Tex, positive attitude and gas money. The majority of the Cascade volcanoes are worthy, stiff, physical endeavors. This makes the experience that much more awesome; after all, what is adventure if there is no struggle involved? A mentor once told me, “If it ain’t thrashin’ it ain’t backcountry skiing!” All the Cascade volcanoes are worth the effort, and if you put the muscle into an ascent, you will have experiences to last a lifetime. Happy travels.