Palmer Snowfield / Zig-Zag Glacier
The Palmer Snowfield lies within the Timberline permit area and provides the most consistent postage stamp of snow for early and late season human-powered laps on Mt Hood. During Timberline operations, skiing is still allowed, but uphill travel is limited to the eastern margin of the snowfield to prevent conflict with downhill skier traffic. Downhill skiing within the resort during operations is not allowed, but this rule is currently not enforced.
This is the ideal location to learn to use your gear, and to learn to skin efficiently. Avalanche hazard is essentially zero, as slope angles aren’t sufficient to produce a slide. The primary hazards are downhill skiers, resort vehicles (snowmobiles, snow cats), and low visibility in poor weather.
The Zig-Zag glacier is a natural extension of a tour to the top of the Palmer Snowfield, though it’s not contiguous. This patch of snow can hold everything from sheltered powder skiing to horribly unskiable rime ice blobs depending on weather and season. Like the Palmer, this area essentially cannot produce avalanches, though it is threatened in spots by surrounding steeps. To the West, the slopes below Illumination rock and saddle do slide, and avalanches/rockfall beginning near Crater Rock have also run out onto the snowfield.
Park at Timberline parking area, ideally in the “mud lot”, which is the first parking lot encountered on the way in. Begin uphill directly from the lot or from just East of the lodge, following the climber’s right margin of the ski resort. In early or late season, a sole gully will hold the only path of snow up and down the mountain, and be aware that you will share this road with snowcats and snowmobiles even when the resort is not operational.
Ascending directly towards the summit, and avoiding being drawn into any gullies, particularly those of Salmon River Canyon to climber’s right, the skier arrives at the quaint stone shelter known as Silcox Hut. This hut is closed to the public except for events etc., but marks the top of the “magic mile” and the bottom of the Palmer Snowfield.
During resort operations or when there are resort vehicles operating, ascending skiers should use the east/climber’s right boundary of the snowfield to ascend, which requires angling away from the ski lift for a time before heading directly uphill. The upper terminus of the palmer snowfield is usually demarcated by a horizontal cat track. From here, you can descend the snowfield and return to your vehicle along the route of ascent, or you can continue onwards to the Zig-Zag snowfield.
To access the Zig-Zag glacier, begin from the Northwest corner of the Palmer snowfield near the lift shack. Ascend with a rising traverse to the West, aiming for just above Illumination Rock if visible. If visibility is limited, this route is not recommended. After crossing a small ridge/bulge, the entireity of the Zig-Zag snowfield becomes visible. Either continue your tour to Illumination Saddle for good views of the Reid Glacier beyond, or ascend the snowfield to below Crater Rock.
If descending the Zig-Zag, be aware that fall line leads you away from the resort. Simply skiing downhill will lead you to Zigzag Canyon or off of the cliffs of Mississippi head. This problems creates the so-called Mt Hood Triangle. Do not ski on the Zig-zag in poor weather if you are not familiar with the area and do not have a GPS unit to navigate in a white-out. If weather is good, you can ski the snowfield to the point where the terrain becomes more varied and begins to roll over into multiple drainages. At this point, make a hard traverse to skier’s left/east until you return to the Palmer snowfield.
The Palmer may be descended via the groomed ski runs (technically not allowed but not enforced for the polite and competent backcountry skier) or via out of bounds terrain to the east. Salmon River Canyon (described separately) provides multiple options for descent but introduces additional subjective and navigational hazards. The beginning tourer is advised to follow the route of ascent or to default to skiing the resort down until familiar with the area.