Skiing the Washington Volcanoes

12-20 Jun 2004 - by Reiner Stenzel

This trip was a sequel to last year's successful trip to the Oregon Volcanoes. We planned to ski the more challenging volcanoes in Washington and had a great ski mountaineering adventure. We were a group of five compatible skiers and climbers: Alvin Walter and Fred Gabbard from San Diego, Stan Huncilman from Berkeley, and Wally Drake and myself from the LA area. With two rated leaders (A.W., R.S.) it became an official Sierra Club trip (Ski Mountaineers Section, LA Chapter). We all flew into Seattle where we rented two SUVs to drive from peak to peak, usually camping in nearby campgrounds. We traveled north to south, adjusted our plans according to weather and road conditions. We arrived at the end of a two-week rain period and were very fortunate to experience five days of sunshine, which allowed us to summit Washington's two highest peaks, Rainier and Adams. Below are the details of our trip which is also described on the SMS web page and illustrated with many pictures.

After meeting on Sat, 6/12, around 4pm, at the SeaTac airport we drove north on I-5 to Bellingham, took SR 542 to the Baker National Park and stayed at the Silver Fir Campground that is closest camping place to the Mt Baker Ski Resort. The latter was of course closed and so was SR542 beyond the ski area. All along the way it rained and we arrived at a wet campground setting up the tents in the rain. Alvin and Fred slept in the seats of their car. My Bibler tent developed a leak. It could only get better, we thought.

Sun, 6/13, we woke up to a rainy morning. We gathered under a gazebo with a waterproof roof, ate our oatmeal and discussed the situation. We gave up the idea of skiing all day long in the rain and decided to spend it in "town", i.e., in Vancouver, Canada. But nobody had a passport. At the border we were told that if a heightened security alert would arise we could not return back to the US without a passport. Well, life is a gamble and we could have skied in Canada as well; so we went. We shopped for outdoors gear at Mountaineering Equipment Corp., had lunch and returned in the afternoon. Stan got a bottle of Cognac, in case the rain would not stop. Spent another rainy night in the campground. The locals in Glacier told us it would clear up on Tuesday.

Mon, 6/14, morning: Intermittent rain. We took our chances and drove up to the deserted ski resort, parked the cars and skied toward Table Mountain. The plan was to ascend the Ptarmigan Ridge past the Coleman Pinnacle and ski on the Sholes Glacier of Mt Baker. Initially, there was a glimpse of sunshine, but by the time we contoured around the steep slopes of Table Mtn we were again in a whiteout and rain. This was not a day to ski a glacier. We humbly returned and ascended the slopes of the ski resort. In the afternoon we were lucky: The sun broke through and we saw the magnificent, glaciated north face of rugged Mt Shuksan in swirling clouds. We enjoyed some wonderful turns on black diamond runs of the ski area all the way down to the cars. Mt Shuksan was our goal for the next day, but we were advised to ski it from the gentler south side. Although not a volcano it is one of the most beautiful and skiable peaks in the North Cascades. Thus, we packed up and drove via State Roads 542, 9, 20, and Baker Lake Rd to Shannon Creek Cpgrd where we found a fine site right at the lake.

Tue, 6/15, we were on the road by 6:30am to find the trailhead (2,400') for Mt Shuksan (9,172') at the end of Forest Rds 1152 and 14. By 7:30am we started hiking up a wet forest trail. After about 2 hours we reached the treeline (4,800') and then the snowline to skin up. From a notch at 5,400' we enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the rugged Cascade Mountains and the impressive Mt Baker in full sunshine. We traversed on a steep slope around a rock face, and then ascended the long Sulphide Glacier. By staying on its west side we could avoid its crevasses. By midday we had a lunch break on the glacier and observed periodic icefalls from a hanging glacier, which triggered avalanches. Then we ascended further toward the impressive summit pyramid. Alvin wanted to climb it but it would have been another 3-hour adventure. The 12mi, 6,700' tour is usually done as an overnight trip and we saw quite a few tents on the way. By 2:30pm I called for a turn around since I got concerned about traversing the steep slope on wet snow in the afternoon. We had a wonderful ski run down the Sulphide Glacier. Further below the snow turned into mush and I was glad to have brought my fat skis. We retraced our route and were safely back at the cars by about 5pm. It was our first day of really great skiing. Since it was too late for a long drive south we just we relocated our campsite to the pretty Panorama Point Cpgrd on Baker Lake. It was warm enough for a swim in the evening sun. There were Canadian Geese on the lake, the forest was lush green, raspberries were ripe and many wildflowers in bloom.

Wed, 6/16, we headed to our next destination, Glacier Peak, south of the Cascade NP. It was a long drive down SR 20, 530 to Darrington, then FR 20 to White Chuck. Murphy's law struck; the long dirt road to our trailhead at Kennedy Hot Springs was closed since the bridges were destroyed by recent storms. That was the end of this plan. We decided to drive south to Mt Rainier. It turned into a day of driving. I thought of taking the scenic Cascade Hwy but after two hours of driving on curved mountain roads we gave up and returned to I-5, which got us much faster down to Tacoma, then on SR 706 to Paradise on the south side of Mt Rainier. As we got closer, Mt Rainier became more and more impressive. The next day we would ski it. We spent the night at Cougar Rocks Cpgrd.

Thur, 6/17, we were leaving for Paradise by 6am in order to be sure to get a climbing permit at the ranger station by 7am. But during midweek it was not too crowded. It costs $30/person to climb the mountain. In return you get free blue bags to carry out your treasures. We skinned up from the trailhead (5,400') near the Paradise Lodge and followed the standard route past Panorama Point (6,950'), which had a great view on the Nisqually Glacier. Then we skied up the Muir Snowfield past Anvil Rock to Camp Muir (10, 060'). There are huts of the Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) outfit, the antique Muir Hut for public use, many campsites and some rest rooms. Three of our group stayed in the dungeon-like hut, Alvin and I bivvied in the fresh air. Since we arrived by midday we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the views of the mountains, glaciers, and watched descending climbers who were all roped up. We had left our ropes and crevasse rescue gear in the car since it was not necessary for skiing on the Muir Snowfield. Originally, we wanted to ski two days on different snowfields, but in view of the good weather we decided to make a summit attempt on Friday. We signed out for this private adventure. In order to climb this mountain one has to make an Alpine start, i.e., to leave in the night for the approx. 8 hr round trip to the summit. Then the snow bridges over crevasses are solidly frozen and one returns before wet snow avalanches and rock fall occur by midday. So we ate dinner by 5pm, went to bed by 6pm and set the alarm bell for 1:30am.

Fri, 6/18, we had a quick breakfast, packed and were on the trail by 2:30am. It was cold, windy and pitch black. With flashlights we followed the footsteps and occasional wands marking the trail. The trail led up a rocky slope followed by steeper snowfields, which called for crampons and ice axe or double ski poles. When looking around one could only see the flashlights of a few climbers. By 4am there was a sliver of light on the eastern horizon. By 4:30am it became light and we could hike without flashlights, and half an hour later we witnessed a most beautiful sunrise from high altitude.

Here is a sample of what we saw:

Clouds and snow lit up in red and purple colors. We were in an eerie landscape of glaciers. The trail was faint and difficult to find without wands. We had crossed already half a dozen of crevasses. The climbing was relentless and our group became spread out. One could not take long breaks because of the cold wind and lack of shelter. The pace slowed down as we climbed above 13,000, then 14,000'. Finally, at 7am I reached the crater rim and looked into the large, snow-filled caldera. There was not a soul on the mountain. Of course the high point, the 14,410' Columbia Crest, was at the opposite end. I crossed the crater and inspected a snow-free area from which hot steam rose. It created strange ice formations on rocks and round vent holes in the snow. One had to be careful not to break through the shallow snow near these vents. I had expected great views from the summit of Mt Rainier but clouds drifted in and out and one could only occasionally see Mt Adams, St Helens or even Liberty Cap. A cold, 30mph wind limited the time of picture taking and trying to get radio or cell phone connections. So I retraced my steps and ran into Alvin at the crater rim. He headed for the summit; the others had returned earlier. On the way down I took many pictures of spectacular glaciers, icefalls and deep crevasses. More roped-up climbers came up, but nobody with skis due to the to crevasses, windblown crust and steepness of the upper mountain. I retraced the route and was back at camp by 10am. We packed and waited for Alvin. Then we had a wonderful ski run down the Muir Snowfield on corn snow.Further below it turned into mush on this sunny day. Since the weekend was approaching we counted over 100 hikers climbing up to Muir Camp. After regrouping at Paradise we had a fine meal to celebrate the successful climb/ski of Mt Rainier. Since we lucked out of Glacier Pk we had time for one more volcano, Mt Adams. So we packed up and drove south to the town of Trout Lake. We stayed at the local county campground, took hot showers, had a good dinner and a long sleep.

Sat, 6/19, we got up at 5am, drove out by 6am, and were at the Cold Springs trailhead (5,600') by 7am to find a surprisingly large number of cars and people. The south face of Mt Adams is just a popular route for both climbers and skiers. It offers over 6,000' of crevasse-free skiing and climbing. After an hour hike on forest trails we reached the snowline and skinned up. The day had started sunny and clear but the forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms. Indeed, as we ascended the slopes leading to the false summit (11,700') thunder and lightning moved in. Soon we were in a whiteout, wondering whether to continue or to descend. We joined the majority of other climbers and continued up. Without sun the snow crusted up fast making the steep ski ascent below the false summit somewhat tricky. We had lunch at the false summit. Wally skied down to join Stan and Fred while Alvin and I continued to the real summit some 600' above. Fortunately, the thunderstorm moved out and we had intermittent sun and shade. We were soon on the summit of Mt Adams (12,310'). When the clouds opened up we could see Mt Rainier to the north, St Helens to the west and Mt Hood to the south. We took some pictures, had a snack and waited for the snow to soften in the sun. Then the fun started with a wonderful ski run down the mountain. Below we met up with Stan and Fred. We all skied the mushy snow in the early afternoon on the low part of the mountain. Many wet snow slides were released by us and other skiers. We were glad to be safely back at the tree line. After a fun run through the forest we were back at the trailhead by 5pm. Strangely, this year we had no sticky pollen under the skis like last year in Oregon. We returned to Trout Lake Cpgrd for another hot shower, and then headed south on SR 141 to Hood River for dinner with local microbrews. After 8pm it was time to find a campground. We drove on the historic Lewis & Clark Highway (SR14) along the Columbia River to Beacon Rock Cpgrd, but unfortunately it was full. So we camped wild on the shores of the mighty Columbia River. Except for the sounds of occasional tugboats and trains we had a peaceful night under the stars.

Sun, 6/20, the sun woke us up at 5am. Fish were jumping in the river, herons were after them, and Canadian geese flew by, quite a different environment from the sterile world of glaciated mountains. We packed up and headed for a solid breakfast in a country restaurant. Then we packed our stuff to get ready for the flight home. Since we were too early at SeaTac we made a detour to Downtown Seattle, mingled with tourists at Pike's Market, shopped for souvenirs and finally returned to the airport.

After a week of adventures on the Washington volcanoes we were ready to return home. We had a great week in WA with all kinds of weather, some great skiing and climbing, beautiful sceneries and nature, a fine group of people and no accidents or incidents. Thanks to Alvin for assisting to lead this SMS trip.

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