While it is far from the best skiing on Mt Hood, the South Side Climber’s Route is the most common introduction to Mt Hood steep skiing, and the route that is most often skied. Skiing from the summit is a true rarity on this route as the snow along the summit ridgeline can be fairly worthless, but sliding from the summit should be on anyone’s collectors list just for the sheer ambiance and the novelty of skiing from summit to car in one go.
It is critically important, with any ski route but particularly the steep skiing routes on Mt Hood, to be well trained with and confident in the use of avalanche equipment, mountaineering technique, and steep skiing tactics. Standing on a steep and firm slope above a cliff or fumarole is not a place to become familiar with your equipment or to wonder about your turning ability. It is normal to have doubts, but if you are at all uncertain that you cannot safely manage the route, conditions, weather, or nearby climbers, then it’s best to pack it in and live to ski another day.
Season: Mid-winter to Late Spring.
Timing: 4-16 hours round trip depending on speed, aim to be on the summit before noon in winter, 9 am in the Spring.
Hazards: Avalanche, Rock/Ice fall, Bergschrund, Steep Terrain, Fumaroles, Other Parties.
Special Equipment: helmet, crampons, ice axe, consider rope + protection.
When in doubt, start earlier. Beginning from Timberline dirt lot, skin up the Eastern boundary (skier’s right) of the ski area to the top of the Palmer Snowfield. Above the Palmer, bear left slightly to clear a small ridge that tends to be covered in rime ice. Ascend slighty better snow on skins or crampons to the West of the ridge, aiming towards Crater Rock. Approaching Crater Rock, pass it on the right, gaining a small platform at the top of White River Canyon.
Under most conditions, this is an opportune place to switch from skis to crampons, though good snow can permit skinning to the summit. Ascend the climber’s right side of the Hog’s Back to the top of this small ridge. From here, there are 3 common options.
1. Drop down the opposite side of the Hog’s Back, avoiding a large fumarole and aiming for the steaming muddy rocks known as the Hot Rocks. From here, ascend directly up the old chute, aiming for the skyline.
2. Continue up the Hog’s Back to near the bottom of the rime towers. From here traverse left (West) past several towers until you join the direct line up from the Hot Rocks.
For both routes 1 and 2, either gain the ridge directly above the Hot Rocks, or deviate slightly right into a long rime chute (One O’clock Chute) which is steeper but offers more direct access to the summit. If gaining the ridge, make a traverse right towards the summit along narrow ridgeline with significant exposure before reaching the broad summit snowfield.
3. Continue to the top of the Hog’s Back and move slightly right, climbing steep snow or moderate ice through the Pearly Gates. This option is more advanced, and as the route is more challenging to reverse, it is recommended that you are already familiar with one of the above options to use as a descent.
For any route of ascent, be sure to look back frequently as you approach the summit to mark in your mind the route of ascent. Many parties have fallen into misadventure on the descent, not sure of where they ascended.
From the summit, return along the route of ascent for routes 1/2 above until reaching the very narrow ridgeline directly above the hot rocks. If you have not put your skis on yet, chop a platform here and click in. Wary of ascending climbers and the ever-present rime ice, descend by the route of your choosing. A few routes are favored.
1. Descend the “old chute” towards the hot rocks until you can cut left under the rime towers. Better snow is often found here, or on the other side of the Hog’s Back leading towards the top of White River. If descending this way, pass Crater Rock on skier’s left, but make sure not to go too far to the left or you will be led into White River. This is a fine ski descent, but only for those who planned to make it.
2. Descend the Old Chute wholesale, passing Crater Rock on skier’s right.
3. Traverse right onto sunnier slopes before descending and passing Crater Rock on skier’s right.
4. Stay high on skier’s right, skiing out onto the steep shoulder of the Steel Cliffs that form the Western boundary of Mt Hood’s Crater. Spill down over steep terrain back towards Crater rock, ending on the Zig-Zag glacier.
All of these routes reconvene below Crater Rock. From here, ski down the Zig-Zag glacier but be sure not to descend beyond 8500′ before making a hard hard traverse to skier’s left. If skiing without an altimeter (what are you thinking?) then make this traverse when level with Illumination Rock and be sure to have Timberline Resort in sight before continuing downhill. Failing to make this traverse leads down the fall line to Mississippi Head, which can be a fatal cliff encounter in a white out, or a major inconvenience at the very least.
It is worth noting, for the energetic of you, that this descent can lead you directly to the top of Little Zig-Zag Canyon. Skiing this way will require skinning to return to the lodge and will add hours to your day.
From the top of Timberline, one can always ski the resort back down to the car, taking care not to interfere with the skiing public, operating machines, or any posted signs. Salmon River Canyon makes a good, quieter alternative that still leads to the car without additional climbing.