Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sun, Snow and a Big 'Ole Volcano - January in Oregon

Crater Rock and the bootpack towards the Old Chute
The first week of January brought relatively calm weather and sunny skies over the Oregon Cascades.  Easing back into the day-to-day after the holiday season, I played hookey on my birthday this past Thursday and then squeezed in one more day in the Mt. Hood backcountry on Sunday.  After the recent storm cycles, the mountain is holding a lot of snow, which is mostly stable and well bonded.  The skiing conditions have been a little tough, but the calm, sunny skies and the wilderness solitude have been sublime.

I'm always amazed that I don't see more people in the Mt. Hood backcountry during the winter.  The south side climb is mobbed on any given spring day, but the climbing/skiing conditions and the atmosphere oare often far better from January through March.  The weather can be a role of the dice, but you have to be on the mountain to see how it unfolds.  Often the wind will be howling on the drive up to Timberline Lodge, only to let up for 2-3 hours right after sunrise.  Or, like today, a cold, dense fog will sink into the valleys while the mountain itself basks in warm, winter sunlight.  Anything is possible on Mt. Hood if you show up.      

Thursday - Ski of the Old Chute

On my 41st birthday, I was hoping to take advantage of the stable weather window to ski the Old Chute, hoping to find some soft snow left over from the last storm.  I talked Ralph and Andrew into coming with me, and we left Portland around 5:30 am headed towards Timberline.

We started up around 7-7:15, and were soon greeted by a stunning sunrise over the mountain.

We made pretty good progress on the slog up to the top of the Palmer, which followed a well groomed climber's trail maintained by the good people at Timberline Lodge.

Up to the Triangle Moraine.

   From the Hogsback, I bootpacked it up towards the Old Chute.

I waded towards the summit ridge through hip deep snow with just a little bit of crust on top, where I was greeted by 30-40 mph winds and spindrift blowing up the mountain into my face.  After topping out on the ridge at about 12:15, I saw weather moving in quickly turned tail back towards the Chute. 

I put the skis back on, and enjoyed some really fun, steep turns down towards Crater Rock on wind affected snow with 2-3 inches of penetration.  From there, the three of us went back down to the Lodge, where we enjoyed a couple of beers, before skiing down to Government Camp. 

From the summit ridge to Govy - 7000'.  Not bad for a mid-week day in January.  Apart from our party, I saw only two other people on the upper mountain the entire day.  They summitted through the Peary Gates and descended through the Old Chute, reporting a short step of ice and lots of wallowing.  They descended just as I was getting to the Hogsback, so I had the upper mountain virtually to myself.  What a birthday gift!    

Illumination Rock and Rain Cloud

The final turns of the day on the Alpine Trail
For the night session, Kristin and a few friends met me at Ski Bowl, and I got in another 8-10 runs under the lights in between beers at the Warming Hut - the birthday 2fer!  Mt. Hood by day, Ski Bowl by night.

Sunday - Pea Gravel Ridge

I knew the snow conditions were getting worse, and the weather looked suspect, but I had a free day this weekend, and I couldn't resist one more day on Mt. Hood.  I went in without expectations just looking forward to getting a little exercise and being on the mountain.

As we drove up Highway 26, a thick, dense layer of fog slowly started to give way, and by the time we drove around the mountain towards White River, the upper slopes of Wy'East were glowing through the fading mist, lit up by the morning light.  We pulled into the Hood River Meadows parking lot to clear skies, 2-3 inches of new snow, and calm winds.

We decent time up Pea Gravel Ridge and eventually emerged from the trees to be greeted by Mt. Hood in all her wintry glory. 

We peeled the skins and dropped off the northeast side of the ridge towards Newton Canyon.  The snow on the way up had been a really challenging frozen crust and that made for tough skinning conditions.  We chose an aspect that was getting early sun in the hopes that it would soften up first.  The first turns off the top were excellent, but then it started to get a little tough a few hundred feet down.  But it was well worth the walk.
Run #1
Jaime Dropping into the First Run
Mt. Hood and the Black Spider
Luis headed up for Run #2
For Run #2, we dropped off the other side, hoping that the afternoon sun would soften up the south facing slopes leading into Heather Canyon.  We found everything from corn to crust to glop, but it was skiable and definitely fun.

Jaime Headed up for Run #2

Upper Pea Gravel Ridge, Wy'East and the Black Spider

Wy'East and Lenticular

Run #2 in Heather Canyon

Afternoon turns in Heather Canyon
After a couple of runs, we called it a day and headed down to Hood River for beer and football.  We arrived just on time to watch the second half of the Seahawks/Skins game!  Perfect timing.   Oh yeah, and the total number of people we saw up on Pea Gravel?  2.

2 days, 15,000 ft of vertical, 4 other people and one big, snow-covered volcano in my back yard.  Om. 

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