A Short Guide to Mt Hood
No matter how you choose to access the backcountry, doing so is inherently more dangerous than not doing so. This resource is provided freely and represents only my unfounded opinions and personal experiences. Some of the information is most certainly wrong. It is up to you to be responsible for your actions, to verify information here before using it, and to be prepared for all of the eventualities of mountain travel. If you fail to prepare adequately, to think clearly, and to make good choices, you will certainly have a bad experience and you could possibly die. By continuing to use this resource, you acknowledge that any harm or losses you sustain traveling in the mountains is your responsibility and not mine. I wish you the best.
As I mentioned on the homepage of this guide, Mt Hood is no skier’s paradise. It is a challenging place to be a backcountry skier, as weather and snow conditions are rarely ideal. To log any volume of days in the Mt Hood backcountry is to accept that you will ski in poor weather, poor snow conditions, poor visibility, or possible all three. Because Mt Hood stands as a lone volcano in the company of those others that dot the Ring of Fire, it’s weather and terrain can be confusing and frustrating to those accustomed to mountain ranges and not sole monoliths.
Each of the following sections introduces some key aspects of skiing Mt Hood’s backcountry as I have experienced it.
The slopes of Mount Hood are defined by moraines and by the presence or absence of trees. A fairly distinct tree line circles the mountain at around 6000 feet of elevation. Above this line, the summer hiker will find undulating piles of rubble that culminate in the crumbling rock of the summit, while the winter skier finds large swaths of treeless terrain. Speaking in generalities, the steeper terrain on Mt Hood lies above tree line, while few slopes of skiable angles exist below the tree line.
This unfortunate fact means that the most promising ski slopes on Hood are those least protected from wind and sun, and consequently they often house terrible snow. In foul weather, visibility can be limited-to-none above the trees, and a skier finds themselves confined to dense and low-angle woodland. Consequently, viable tree-skiing is in short supply and is highly prized.
Because Mt Hood was once bedecked by circumferential glaciers, the predominant topographical feature of Mt Hood is the moraine. These scoured tracks left by advancing and receding glaciers form valleys of various sizes arranged radially around the compass with their origins near the summit. This would be mere curiosity if it didn’t affect snow quality, but it does; inevitably, one wall of these valleys will be seriously wind scoured, sometimes down to the dirt, while just over the ridge the snow may be piled deeply (and potentially dangerously).
For better or for worse, the slopes of Mt Hood have few points of access relative to the total area of the mountain. To the South, Mirror Lake trailhead, Timberline Lodge, and Mt Hood Meadows main lot provide points of departure. A few sno-parks are found quite low on the mountain’s East flank, and the Tilly Jane trailhead provides the sole point of Winter access to the North side. Conspicuously missing is access to the Western side, as Lolo Pass road and Muddy Fork road are not maintained for Winter access and only melt out late into the Spring.
With the sole exception of parking directly in Government Camp, a Sno-Park permit is required to park a car anywhere that can reasonably access skiing between November 1 and April 30. Annual cost is around $30, and the pass can be purchased at a number of points en-route to the mountains. I recommend stopping at Joe’s Donuts in Sandy for some dough that’ll sink Voodoo and a sno-park pass to boot. One ticket for parking without a pass is equivalent to the annual price, and these are enforced even on weekdays.
The early season or spring skier will likewise require a Northwest Forest Pass to park at most trailheads. The forest service enforces the forest pass sporadically but vigorously, and the tickets are painful. Though many of the trailheads where these are enforced do not meet the Forest Service’s own standards for where they can charge the public for access, not carrying a pass will just cost you more.
Mt Hood is large enough that it creates it’s own weather. Warm, wet air moves inland from the Pacific and after it gives a token sprinkle to the coast range mountains, it encounters a significant barrier in the form of an 11,000-foot barrier. Through the magic of orogaphic lift, this creates precipitation on Mt Hood, and lots of it.
Don’t get excited. Throughout the season, in any month, some of this precipitation can fall as rain, which temporarily destabilizes the snowpack, certainly ruins any good snow hiding about, and forms icy crusts. Finding good skiing conditions requires aggressive pursuit of clear days immediately following storms so that snow can be skied before it is ruined.
Mt Hood’s solo posture in an otherwise flat landscape also means that it is subject to significant winds. Prevailing wind direction is from the Southwest, but wind directionality on Mt Hood is just a concept. In reality, winds on Mt Hood swirl in a variety of directions, and fluctuations in the treeless landscape can force winds to blow up-canyon, down-canyon, and even opposite to the direction of prevailing winds. Rarely, as arctic air pushes down into Wyoming and Idaho, the prevailing winds will pivot and come instead from the Northeast, completely reversing the normal pattern of wind-scouring and wind-loading.
The successful skier will approach Hood with the understanding that it takes three ski days on Mt Hood to find one actually good snow day, and that normal mental-models of where wind-loading can be expected need to be discarded in favor of observation and vigilance in the field.
Travel in the backcountry without avalanche awareness, training, partners, and equipment is stupid. If you have not taken at least a US Level 1 avalanche class, then you should stop reading and go sign up before proceeding. Avalanche education resources for the United States can be found at Avalanche.org.
Mt Hood has a true maritime snowpack. The snow is wet, heavy, and deep. Persistent weak layers do not persist long under normal conditions because they’re either crushed under a huge volume of snow or they’re drenched with liquid water. Consequently, avalanche hazard generally increases during storm cycles and quickly decreases afterwards. The riding quality often decreases along with it, so skill in the evaluation of terrain and wind-loading is needed to be able to ski during or shortly after storms.
Unfortunately, our snowpack is comparatively very safe. This is a bad thing for two reasons. First, a skier who learns about the backcountry on Mt Hood is poorly equipped to make good decisions when traveling, particularly to continental locations like Colorado, Utah, or Wyoming. Second, foolhardy behavior that would lead to a short career in those mountains does not often get punished here, so bad habits run rampant. Be aware that skiers on Mt Hood will ask you whether the snow is stable, will watch to see if you ski a slope, and will then drop in on top of you after you’ve proved its “safety”.
Though avalanche incidents are uncommon on Mt Hood, near misses are easy because the snowpack can lead to complacency. An avalanche buried a skier just a few years ago in Little Zigzag Canyon, a common approach to a number of backcountry runs near Timberline. Personally, I’ve had a near miss in Heather Canyon in which an entire slope cracked and collapsed but thankfully didn’t slide. Be aware that a day on Mt Hood without an avalanche doesn’t mean a day without bad decisions. Behave cautiously. When avalanches do actually happen on Mt Hood, they can be massive.