WritingsThoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.
Winter Woes and Skiing the Wy’east Face
Editor’s Note: I’m excited to introduce you to Mountain Lessons’ newest contributor, Peter Innes. Peter and I met mountaineering in Wyoming, and after he relocated to Portland, he’s become a frequent partner on my adventures. Pete’s a collegiate cross-country runner for Lewis and Clark college, and precocious ski-mountaineering upstart. You may recognize him from photos here and on instagram (@alpenflow). Now, here’s Peter:
For the past month my news feeds have been rife with the woes and complaints of skiers bemoaning the disappearance of winter in the Pacific Northwest. January has become “Juneuary,” humorously summing up the recent weather and conditions of the Cascade Range. In many places the snow pack looks worse that it did last July, especially on Mt Hood. Large islands of rock restrict eager schralpers, gullies are sporting muddy guts, and from afar one cannot help but grimace at the brown shading of the snow on Mt Hood’s lower flanks. Time to ditch the skis, lube the chain of your mountain bike, and beg for a refund on your season pass, I suppose.
No! Surrendering in a mopey cloud of “throwback Thursday” instagrams of skiing powder earlier in the season surely won’t bring about the graces of Ullr, and nor will booking tickets to Japan. The way I see it the only way to improve the situation is by embracing what we have and getting creative. After all, Juneuary has its upsides, even for a skier. Avalanche danger on Mt. Hood is low as a result of over two weeks without snowfall (correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been so long I’ve lost track), and several days of melt-freeze cycles have smoothed out the icy chicken heads that previously riddled Hood’s upper slopes. If that isn’t a recipe for some good-old-fashioned Cascade ski mountaineering, I don’t know what is.
Such a recipe would be remiss without a grand objective. The Wy’east face of Mt Hood towers roughly 5000’ above the base of Mt. Hood Meadows, ruthlessly tempting resort denizens and sparking the imaginations of those seeking to go higher. Wy’east is a classic ski objective on Mt Hood, and no wonder—the first 1000’ of descent are a stout 40 degrees, and the remaining 4000’ average between 30 and 35. It’s steep, long, and catches the first rays of sun striking a lone volcano high above endless waves of coniferous forest. It doesn’t get a whole lot better. I’d wanted to ski it since I first laid eyes on it a year ago, and it has long been on the tick lists of my friends and mentors Patrick (author of this blog) and Ethan.
Despite a Saturday attempt of the Wy’east face initially being Patrick’s idea, med-school complications arose and I was left to find another partner. Ethan was the obvious choice, as we had been trying for weeks to link up for some skimo training in preparation for the Patrol Race in late February.
Ethan drove down from Seattle on Friday night and barely made it to Portland before his brakes gave out. Luck was on our side. I rescued him from the mechanic, and after carbo-loading on pasta and A Bombs we drove to the mountain under starry skies for an alpine-ish start the next morning. A surprisingly restful five hours of sleep in the back of my Subaru plus two packets each of Folgers instant coffee had us chomping at the bit as we started skinning at 5:30am from the Mt. Hood Meadows upper lot.
Ethan showed off the advantages of his skinny race skis by doing some ski-running over the sugary groomers. We were tempted to forego our plans for a headlamp halfpipe session, but neither of us had a Go-Pro, so we continued skirting the resort boundary line in order to gain Vista Ridge. As expected, the ridge was very bony, and we ended up transitioning to walking as the first hint of orange appeared on the Eastern horizon. I didn’t mind the pleasantly-gritty portage, reminded of a climb/ski that I did with Ethan last June on Mt. Audubon in Colorado.
The bone of Vista Ridge took us all the way to the base of the Wy’east, at which point we switched to crampons and brandished our axes. I always get excited when I get to wield pointy things on all four limbs, and I immediately took off front-pointing straight up the slope before Ethan reminded me we still had 3000′ of climbing to go and that I was surely going to blow out my calves if I continued that way. The slope angle gradually increased and soon we were both focused solely on the rhythm and balance of our steps. Step, plunge, step, plunge, repeat.
We quickly passed a party of two climbers, and after that we were alone moving freely up the steep face. We paused occasionally to look at the world below us. The parking lot where we had started three hours previously was now full of cars glimmering in the morning sun, and a blanket of clouds swathed much of Eastern Oregon. After around three hours and forty-five minutes of climbing, we topped out the face and took a look over the ridge at the South Side route. There seemed to be at least fifty climbers on the route, with a couple dogs too. The lure of the summit was strong that day, and we admittedly felt a bit smug for climbing such a spectacular route in near solitude.
While Juneuary weather may seem like the perfect opportunity to tag the summit, the snow is still receiving significantly less solar radiation that it does in the spring or summer, leaving it icier than many hopeful and less-informed climbers expect. After returning to Portland we were saddened but not surprised to learn that three climbers fell from the Old Chute that morning.
After some top-out panoramas and selfies, we clicked into our skis and made our first turns down a steep roll-over. The snow had yet to soften as we’d hoped, but still took an edge. Had we had more patience, waiting at the top until 11 am or so may have been a good idea for enjoyment’s sake. I made short, cautious turns down a few hundred feet of the steepest pitch and then waited for Ethan. Once the angle eased, we skied it all the way down to the terminus of Vista Ridge. I was on mid-fat, relatively heavy skis, so linking steep turns was pure joy even over some shallow runnels up high. Ethan, on the other hand, had to employ Stem-Christie tactics on his toothpicks. I was jealous of his light skis on the way up but not on the way down.
We had originally hoped to continue the line further into Heather Canyon, but conditions for that route looked sparse (big surprise) so we decided we’d just have to make a return trip. The snow got enjoyably softer at around 7000′, at which point we dropped into the resort and were immediately intercepted by a ski patroller. Note to those interested in skiing the Wy’east during resort season: Meadows has a strict closed-boundary policy. According to ski patrol your best bet is to skirt the Vista Ridge resort boundary. The three of us bargained diplomatically, and thankfully the patroller was gracious enough to let us continue down through the resort.
Back at the car we sipped Rainier while lazing in the sun, unable to take our eyes off the Wy’east face. Our legs felt pleasantly tired, and all was right in the world. If February follows the forecast predictions, I’ll be back soon.