Written on a plain white envelope scavenged from junk mail, the list seemed innocent enough: simply my spring ski goals. Peaks, lines, ideas that had been swirling around my head for a couple years, most located in my Montana backyard. Each was worthy. Most of them would require ideal conditions and solid partners. Plus, incredible luck from the ever-fickle weather deities.
Of course, those ideas had no bearing on the winter we had. Most required more snow, which gave the list the sort of ugly promise that comes with stupid amounts of bushwhacking. So I started scanning the weather. The West Coast was due for a high pressure spell. If I packed up and headed out, I could give some of the volcanos a go. Stick around as long as the sun held. In the light of my failed plans, it seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
Mt. Adams was the first place I'd hit. Ten hours minimum from home. Rowen was game to come down and meet me from Seattle; we'd link up at the trailhead. So I started the drive, picked up a couple hitchhikers to keep things entertaining, and was happy to be rid of the one who would snore loudly every time he fell asleep when I dropped him off in Ritzville. He was headed home to Olympia, but when I asked him what he liked to do for fun, he couldn't really give me an answer. There wasn't anything in his life that really got him excited, nothing worth packing up the car and heading out on an uncertain road trip. As the miles passed, I thought about how lucky we are to have found some purpose, some direction on our skis.
Something worth chasing up the absurd dirt road to the South Climb trailhead on Mt. Adams in the dark, as I did. Third to second to crawling up over the ruts in first gear, wondering if I'd be able to find Rowen at the trailhead. I couldn't, so I rolled out my sleeping bag with the alarm set for 5am. If he didn't show, I'd head out alone.
Which happened. I wasn't too sure of the route, didn't have a map, but the weather was perfect and it seemed straightforward.
Many of the Ring of Fire volcanos have giant, easy ramps on their south sides. Adams is no exception--I made good time to the Lunch Counter. Ski crampons went on there. Loose footing and a long potential fall had me switching to real crampons below the false summit. A short jaunt later, I stood on the icy, windblown plain that serves as a summit, wondering what happened to Rowen.
Turns out, all I had to do was drop in. His red bibs caught my eye as I skied the not-yet-melted thunder down the upper face.
His feet hurt, so we partied our way back to the parking lot and dove in on some celebratory Ramen and kale chips. One rest day in Portland, then up to St. Helens to meet up with Mike.
Earlier this year, Mike had made it within 700ft of Rainier's summit before exhaustion and altitude forced him to stop. The other three of us put him in a sleeping bag, and took off to tag the top. Some weeks later, he was turned around below the top in gnarly winds on Adams. So going into Helens, I was hoping we'd have an easy climb.
That "easy climb" started with 2500' of hauling skis and boots on our backs. At 5500', skins went on, and it actually felt like a reasonable thing to bring skis with us.
We tagged the climbers' summit, went and skied off the true one, and came back to the climbers' to make our descent easier. Looking down into the crater is really impressive--even thirty five years on, the devastation wrecked on the areas to the north of St. Helens is clear. Rafts of blasted logs are visible in a lake from the summit, and the lava dome in the center grows a little bit each year. Pretty dang cool to be able to ski on such an active piece of geologic history.
The descent was super sludge--wet, wild, and fun, when it was steep. The trip back to the parking lot was simple, and Mike left from his first volcanic summit saying something about swimming and then drying off with baby powder because he didn't have a towel. I turned the ship back to Portland, spent a couple days there, and left for Bend at 8pm of the second day.
Brody and Alyssa had come out from Salt Lake, and they'd invited me along to ski the Middle and North Sisters. It was four hours south to Bend. Though I'd be short on sleep, it'd be worth it, and since I was in a hurry to leave town, I wanted to get some miles under the hood before pulling over for gas. I turned off from Salem thinking I'd hit the next small town. The pumps were closed, because in their infinite wisdom, Oregon requires a person to pump your gas for you. Maybe the next town? The gas gauge dipped onto the E by the time I pulled in to Detroit, OR. Ten pm. Not a pump open. No help. Even the bar wasn't open, so I couldn't ask anyone there if they had some extra to get me the last ways to Bend. It looked like I'd be sleeping there, missing the climb, and having wasted the drive and two days.
Car insurance saved me. After a phone call, USAA dispatched someone with gas. It was covered except for the price of the fuel, and by midnight, I was on the road again. By 1:30am, I was asleep in the parking lot of a Grocery Store in Sisters, OR. Brody's phone call woke me three hours later. They arrived, we repacked, and headed off for the real Sisters.
With the snow line a ways in, we hoofed it through a recent burn. Charred pines stood in scorched earth along the trail, making things feel slightly more erie than most forest approaches. Our route lead us off the trail and for the saddle between the Middle and North Sisters.
From there, we switched to spikes and moved well up the ice and styrofoam snow to the top of the Middle Sister. For the first time of the trip, I could really see the long curve of the Ring of Fire stretching north--Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, and Adams barely visible. To the south, the South Sister, Bachelor, and Broken Top crowded in.
Skiing back to the saddle was treacherous. Ice, scour, a little bit of edgeable snow to give you hope--classic alpine ski mountaineering conditions. We picked our way down, and finally got a little reprieve just above the saddle. Brody slices the last few good turns.
From there, we traversed, and started our climb up the last thousand feet to the top of the North Sister. It seemed pretty straightforward from afar.
Of course, it wasn't. Gendarmes near the summit forced us to drop below the ridge, traversing through sludge and water ice over a series of fins. It took forever. Once finally atop the thing I thought was the summit, it was clear that we were still fifteen feet short. It was 7:30pm, having taken nearly three hours to make our traverse. We wouldn't be able to make it up there. At least the view was worthwhile.
Our descent made up for it, though. We dropped down a steep, icy couloir system on the NE face. The refrozen, shaded snow surface was plenty edgable. Slowly, we made our way down. Here, Brody and Alyssa get ready to exit onto the apron.
The difficult traverse had left me on edge. Skiing the couloir totally revamped my spirits, and somewhere in there I recall saying that "if there's a purer form of joy than this, somebody had better tell me, because that was really ridiculously fun." Which was good, because we then followed Brody's GPS out through the dark, burned forest by headlamp until we hit the trail. Then the car. Then back to the back of my Subaru in the Sisters parking lot, where I promptly fell asleep in more or less my skiing clothes.
The next day, I tried to skin up Bachelor, but was shut down by inbounds uphill rules. So I went back north:stopped in Salem to say hi to a friend, stopped in Portland to climb rocks indoors, hit Voodoo Donuts, and make it about fifty miles towards Seattle before pulling over into a Denny's parking lot to sleep. The next morning, I swung over to Rainier. The mountain was shrouded in fog. A skin track lead away from Paradise through fresh snow.
I tried touring up to Camp Muir, but in the higher mountain winds, it was a straight up blizzard. Total whiteout skiing followed on the Pan Point apron. My feet registered that I was skiing pow. My eyes could make out nothing. I skied back to the car, and braved traffic into Seattle with all the mad PNW drivers. Two days of climbing rocks with my sister followed, but you don't care about that.
Four volcanos seemed like a solid trip. I was running out of money. More importantly, I really needed to wash the duffel-full of ski gear festering in my car. So when Rachel told me to stick around to do Glacier Peak the following weekend, I weighed the options a while. It seemed like a good idea. Maybe I could even slot Hood into there.
So back to Portland I went, with Hood in the back of my head. The second day in the Rose City, I woke to realize that it was gorgeous. This was the weather I needed. Three hours later, I left Timberline and started skinning up. I walked past beginning stages of the jump for WCS and K2's spring training. There's something truly bizarre about touring up through a terrain park. I skirted Palmer, and headed up towards Crater Rock.
That morning, before I left, Ryan had mentioned that people usually don't leave quite that late to summit Hood, due to falling ice and rock in the Pearly Gates. Less than a thousand feet below the top, standing atop to the Hogsback, I could literally hear what he had been talking about. Fist sized chunks of rime ice rattled and bounced down the snow I'd have to climb and descend, by myself. For once, there was nobody else around. Going alone had made my margin for error slimmer. I'd started late, which made it slimmer still. This was the consequence. I put on my skis and retreated. Here's the view from above Crater Rock, just before I dropped in.
Driving back to Portland, I was already plotting to come up the next day. Shawn agreed to hop in for his 13th climb of Hood this year. We took off from Portland at 4:30am, left T-line at 6:30. Twenty minutes in, things were already going poorly: his skins refused to stick the refrozen mess of tank tracks that were our ascent route. With no ski crampons, he'd be even worse off higher up. Apologetically, he bailed. So it was just me again, but much earlier this time, weaving around the jumps between the HCSC and Windell's lanes on my way up. Day two view of the upper mountain.
Many people had seen the weather and made for a climb. I saw small black dots above me during the whole climb, and chased a couple of folks through the Pearly Gates once I got there. For all the people on the mountain, I stood alone on top. There's an otherworldly blankness to the top of the volcanoes, sort of what I imagine the Moon must feel like. Wind blows across the barren plateau with its sharp drop offs framed against haze and blue sky.
But of course, the fun part of going places like this is skiing down. The ridge off Hood's summit is plenty narrow. Looking down brings it home: don't fall.
Tight, icy turns down Old Chute were the order of the day. I dipped into White Salmon, then mached groomer turns down Palmer and the Mile to find Shawn reorganizing the pile of gear in his car.
Back to Portland, where I picked up some minty fresh Steeples at ON3P, said my goodbyes, and headed back North to Seattle. Traffic sucked. I was tired. It felt strange to be making my way through the jams--hadn't my whole morning been spent in the alpine? The next day was a blur of frantic emailing, getting supplies for Glacier, mounting the new boards at EVO (thanks!) and going climbing. Rachel finished packing at 11pm, then headed off to a friend's birthday party. 4am was the wakeup. North to Arlington, over to Darrington, east through the potholes to the North Sauk trailhead.
There was no telling when we'd hit snow. At least six miles went by before we were skinning, which meant a lot of this:
We traversed a mountain, kicked off a couple wet slides, skinned across a glacier, and after thirteen miles of up and down with heavy packs, we were still two miles short of our intended camp spot. Thankfully, the glacier provided us a big boulder to camp under. It was a fairly scenic spot to tiredly slurp macaroni and cheese.
Because I'd left my avie gear in Seattle, we had no shovel to level out a tent platform. Because there was no level platform, the tent flapped in the winds all night. Not exactly a nice thing to contemplate at 1am. Thankfully, the morning dawned clear and we set out across the glacier for our summit bid.
Rachel really impressed me on this trip. She started it with no sleep, coming off four quarter-ending accounting exams, having not done a major volcano in three weeks. She hadn't carried a pack like that in a while. Yet she forged steadily up the glaciers, keeping her own pace on her end of the rope.
As we moved higher, a lenticular cloud came in and buried the upper mountain. We'd seen people above us, they'd disappeared, and then came skiing down the glacier. They were wearing tutus, and told of waiting for an hour in a whiteout, hoping for a chance to make the top. Since they were going out that day, they had to boogie.
We continued on, hoping that it would clear. Mountains definitely traffic in irony, because the winds that had flapped our tent all night shifted. That blew the cloud away, leaving the top shining in the sun. The upper slopes made for nice ski cramponing, and we topped out at about 2pm.
Most of this trip saw me descending in the morning, on hard snow, but this was something very different: corn. Lots of it. Four thousand feet of glorious, soft, ripable corn. Then the traverse back to our boulder, where I rigged up a nap spot in the loft.
That night, we dug the tent in better, and I slept accordingly. We started the long trip out the next morning. We'd run out of fuel the night before, so a creek stop to filter water for breakfast cereal was in order. Then this nice uphill back to the ridgetop:
And the walk back out towards milkshakes.:
It took a while, but we found them in Arlington, their sweet savoriness a fitting end to a silly amount of walking in and back out and sleeping in the snow. I took my time coming back from Seattle, driving through the empty fields on US 2. Flat, tilled earth rolled gently away from the asphalt. There were no hitchhikers to distract me, or thoughts to interrupt the Adventures of Tom Sawyer audiobook playing out through the car speakers. I didn't even think of the failed plans on the envelope, those ideas I'd written down in earnest, because with all the dirty clothes and big days behind me, it had turned out to be a pretty killer spring after all.
Huge thanks to all my skiing/climbing partners, friends that offered me places to stay and showers to smell less disgusting, sponsors who helped fund and equip the trip, especially Mountain Equipment and ON3P, and every one of you who read through this TLDR worthy pile of a story. Check out http://www.skinningwithbearspray.com for more stories and trips, and follow me on Instagram http://www.instagram.com/davidpowdersteele