Just outside the boundaries of Timberline and Meadows ski area lies one of the most underappreciated touring areas on Mt Hood, White River Canyon. The terrain options and the altitude strata offered by White River are diverse. The top of the canyon is capped by a headwall which spills down onto a fading (but still dangerous) glacier, which in turn gives way to moraine that can be skied all the way to the highway. Along the way, a number of aspects are available for skiing. The canyon is challenging to navigate in poor light or bad weather, as it is largely untreed. Still, it is one of the nation’s biggest corn factories in the spring, and offers a big playground when the sun is out.
White River is best accessed by one of four ways:
From the highway/snow park: though this involves more approaching over flatter ground, it is the best and safest way to learn your way around White River. Park at the White River snowpark along highway 35. From the trailhead follow the climber’s left bank of the White River about 1.5 miles to the beginning of the moraines. From here, you can cross the closest fork of the White River and ascend along the apex of moraine to the upper White River area.
From Timberline: Accessing White River from Timberline allows you to skip some approaching that you would have to do from the highway. In return, you’ll have to end your day by climbing back out of the canyon, and you also face additional hazard entering into White River. From the dirt lot at Timberline, climb along the Eastern boundary of the ski area, either climbing up through the moraines of Salmon River Canyon or staying on the edge of the ski resort until around 7400′ of elevation or the base of the Palmer Snowfield. From here angle to the East until you encounter the edge of White River. DO NOT do this in a whiteout. Skiers/climbers have died falling into White River in a whiteout. From the edge of White River scout an entrance that suits your skiing. Most of this wall is steep, and is prone to wind-loading by Westerly winds. Cornice fall has produced large avalanches of car-sized blocks on this aspect in recent years. If this intimidates you, consider another entrance.
From Crater Rock: At the top of White River, the canyon can be accessed by skiing down the headwall from Crater Rock. This is a ski-mountaineering type descent which shouldn’t be undertaken casually. Approach as you would for Timberline, but continue until just below Crater Rock. From there, a steep roll leads into White River. This forms excellent corn in Spring but can be blue ice or unstable windslab in winter. This descent leads directly onto the White River Glacier, which sports several crevasses of fatal size. Be assured of good snow bridges and rope up as necessary. Skip this entrance if you lack glacier experience.
From the Wy’East Headwall: From the base of the Wy’east headwall above Meadows, at the top of Superbowl, skiing to the Southwest leads to big descents into White River. Though these are often snow covered throughout the summer in big years, the author has not seen crevasses to suggest glaciation, though take care, as a bergschrund and glide cracks are possible here. It would be possible to reascend and exit this way, but most who choose this way will continue to the road.
This large area contains too many possibilities to describe in full. A few are highlighted, and many more are available to those willing to explore.
Complete White River Descent
The whole enchilada. Best done from the bottom or with a car shuttle. This route involves traveling on many aspects, through many elevations, and on glacier, and should only be attempted by experienced parties. Descend the White River Headwall from Crater Rock, either center-punching the steep roll (<45 degrees) or following a debris gully along the cliffs to the East (beware of falling rock and rime if in the sun). The upper white river glacier has several crevasses in the 1/2 mile below the headwall which tend to fill in by mid to late winter. The cracks are larger to skier’s right, and may be observed on the West Wall.
Below the upper canyon, the middle canyon widens significantly. Continue to skier’s left, aiming for just left of middle of the canyon and ski down an enormous football field of a run (the corn farm) until a central canyon begins to fall away to the right. Stay just outside this canyon, holding a line that lets you stay near the top of the ridge that is now forming beneath you. This ridge terminates in the lower white river bowl (see below) which can be accessed by a quick sidestep, or continue to ski along its base to skier’s left, exiting high along the bowl’s far side, which delivers you to the confluence of several of the braids of the white river and yields access to the deproach along the bank of the white river.
White River Corn Farm
This huge, low angle run makes for fun spring skiing, with runs lasting several minutes (and miles) at a time. Approach either from the bottom or from Wy’east. If approaching from the bottom, follow the approach from the snow park as described above. When reaching the beginning of the large moraines, cross the river and follow the climber’s right side of the very large, central moraine. Skirt along the climber’s right side and ascend the gully at it’s base, aware of avalanche danger from the bowl. Reaching the ridge above, continue upwards towards the summit and you will reach the toe of this enormous area.
Lower White River Bowl
Approach from the snow park as described above. When reaching the moraines, cross the White River and aim for the large central moraine, which forms this bowl. The commonly skied aspect faces East towards meadows. Either ascend the steep downhill ridge of the bowl or expose yourself to the avalanche hazard of the bowl and climb beneath it to the East to reach it’s upper ridgeline. This shot is short but sweet.
Either return via the route of your approach or ski to the highway. From the confluence of the upper braids of the white river, and the base of the moraines and the beginning of the tree line, there is usually a snowshoer’s track or skintrack which leads first through the trees downhill before then holding the edge of the white river all the way to the snowpark. All downhill travel eventually hits the road, but provided that there’s a good track in and not too much loose snow, it is possible to ski to the car without skins. The low angle often forces the use of skins or skating if conditions are less than ideal.