Volcano Season

Volcano Season

WORDS: Kyle Miller PHOTO COVER: Jason Hummel

 

With longer days, warmer temperatures, and dry snow transforming to slush within a few minutes of direct sunlight, it’s official–Spring is here. Now for most places in the world it’s a sign to put the snowboards away and focus on other activities, but fear not because here in the Cascades spring means corn skiing season and the opportunity to ride the biggest lines on the western side of the United States.

With well over 600 inches of annual snowfall and the snowpack reaching its climax in the first week of April, the Spring corn season really hits its stride about the same time that the local ski hills close for the season. From Washington state to Northern California there are more than 20 unique volcanos to choose from with opportunities ranging from 500 foot descents at the aptly named Crater Lake to 11,000 foot descents on Mt. Rainier and all in between for people of all skill levels.

I’ve had the good fortune of learning how to split board mountaineer on the Cascadian and have learned a few important lessons that will highlight so that you can make the best out of the long days and experience these beautiful peaks in there prime conditions.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle descending Mt. Shuksan with Mount Baker clearly visible between maritime and high level clouds during the quest for the 10 tallest peaks in Washington

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle making the first descent of the Chocolate Glacier headwall on Glacier Peak

1. Aspect is everything- Here in the northern hemisphere, south facing slopes are going to be the first to soften up followed by east, then west, and finally north. The snow is softening up due to solar radiation so the moment it gets shaded you can expect the snow to convert right back to ice. In general we like to say get South and East facing slopes before noon and West and north facing slopes after that.

There is a delicate balance between too hard, soft enough, and too soft, and that is usually a 30 minute window. Throwing a rock down the slope to see if it causes indentations is a good way to we see if the corn is ripe for harvest.

2. Freezing levels and winds tell everything- If you are looking at doing Mt. Rainier which summits out at 14,400 feet I wouldn’t recommend heading up there unless the freezing level was 15,000 feet. If there is even the slightest bit of wind it will keep the slopes cool and frozen. Plan your trips according to the freezing levels and expect prime conditions only if it is a windless day. There have been many times where I went to climb a 10,000 foot volcano with the freezing levels right at the summit only to find bulletproof snow because of wind exposure.

3. The early bird gets the safe and efficient travel- It’s always smart to start your trips off before the sun rises allowing you more than enough time to climb with the slopes frozen above you. This helps to mitigate avalanche hazards, (wet slides are just as strong if not stronger that loose snow avalanches) and it’s always nice sitting on a summit, taking in the view and waiting for the corn to ripen compared to being in a race against time with conditions turning to slush and becoming unstable because you decided to hit the snooze button a few times. Rock fall is another hazard that is mitigated by frozen slopes.

4. Crampons are a must- the one way to guarantee that you will need crampons is by not bringing them, and this can cause things to get serious real quick. Things get icy in the early morning or in the afternoon shade and people find themselves over their heads. You can consider crampons an insurance policy that can get yourself out of almost anything. Ski crampons are great for early morning skinning on firm slopes and boot crampons make easy work of steep faces so I would say bring both. In addition if you are passing through glaciated terrain make sure you have everything you need for crevasse rescue as well as potential self arrest.

5. Bring Sun protection- At the prime of solstice we have over 18 hours of sunshine and more than enough time to destroy any exposed skin, so you are going to want to be really careful about this one. Make sure to apply it multiple times a day and try to get sweat proof sunscreen because there is nothing worse than sunscreen getting into your eyes while you are crossing a sketchy snow bridge. Another great piece of gear is a balaclava which if thin enough could be used to cover your face while in the high alpine.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle enjoying the view of Mt. Saint Helens from camp during a 3 day traverse from Mt. Rainier to Crystal Mountain ski resort.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle enjoying a much needed break before the final ascent of Glacier peak during the 16 day American Alps Traverse.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle making history and along with Jason Hummel pulling off the American Alps Traverse, a dream of Lowell Skoog more than 2 decades earlier.

Usually people have one horrible experience and they learn quickly from their mistakes.

Now where are these beautiful lines and what month should I be there?

Most of them are in Oregon, but with lower elevations and a drier climate these are the first to melt out and are in their prime in April and early May. By then Shasta in Northern California and the volcanoes of Washington hit their prime. Places like Mt. Adams in Southern Washington don’t even allow access to the trailhead until mid July and still can deliver smooth turns into early August.

Now that you know the rules and have a general idea, here are a few lines that are instant classics based on skills, elevation gain and aspect.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Ben Starkey enjoying powder in a mid winter 4 day traverse from the Northwest to Northeastern corners of Mt. Rainier National Park.

Beginners

When the Mt Bachelor lifts shut down Mid April there is more than enough snow to get turns in over the next two months. This is a great place just to learn efficient skinning and get 3000 feet of perfect volcano corn right back to the parking lot. April May and June are great months to get your corn riding on

Mount Mazama AKA Crater Lake is perfect once they plow out the road that circles the crater and though the runs are only about 500 feet the scenery is among the best in the Cascades. Peaks like the Watchmen and Mt. Scott are easy to access and can keep you busy for days at a time. The road is plowed out by Early May , but be warned that a descent into the crater can find you exhausted and with a bit of jail time.

Intermediate

The SW Chutes on Mt Adams are a great introduction and provide over 3000 feet of consistent 38 degree slopes. Though the last climb does require some cramponing you are never exposed and will always find people climbing the bootpack that are more than willing to answer questions. The month of July is a great time to be here.

The Old Chute on Mt. Hood right above the Timberline Lodge is the pride of Oregon and the most climbed peak in the lower 48. You have the choice of using chair lifts or skinning for the first 3,000 feet. The last 3000 feet is straight forward, yet it can be a bit technical and a place that you don’t want to hang out for too long. Crampons and an ice axe are a must but your exposure isn’t usually life threatening. April and May are the best times to be out here.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle descending the Sitkum glacier on Glacier peaks as a storm approaches upon the North Cascades.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle and Adam Roberts breaking trail up the Coleman Demming route of Mt. Baker. A early and late season favorite for most locals.

Advanced

Mt. Shasta’s Hotlum-Wintun is a classic route that provides a sweet turn for every 5 steps you make as you push your way almost 7000 vertical feet up the eastern slopes. Though exposure is minimum it is a slog all the way to the top but in exchange you get perfect fall line riding making this run one of the best in the Northwest. May and June is when this area shines.

The Easton Squak route on Mt Baker’s South Side is direct route straight to the top with over 7000 feet of climbing. Most of the route is mellow glacier travel, but it gets a bit spicy for the last 1000 feet, and the crevasses demand respect. This line has been known to stay good until Mid-August some years.

Expert

The Furher Finger on Mount Rainier is arguably the longest line in the Cascades with almost 11,000 vertical feet of descent all the way back to the road. This route demands time, patience, and a respect for the mountain as you will be hopping over crevasses in a race to reach the top of the mountain well before noon. It has everything I love about steep volcano corn and a well maintained parking lot at the base. April through June is the time for this gem with a crux well over 40 degrees so plan on climbing all night or break it down into a multiday trip.

Glacier Peak is the full package with a 20 mile slog just to get your feet on the glacier and start your ascent. The reward is truly wild and remote country and in my opinion the best summit view in all the Cascades. People usually take a minimum of 3 days, and head in with over 50 pounds of gear on their backs all to ride the Cool and Geradine. Though not nearly a technical climb, the isolation makes it a beast of its own. Usually you don’t see activity out there until late July.

These are just a small sample of what is out there. Here is a list and some vital links to make sure you get the best out of the Volcano corn season.

volcano season kyle miller

Photo: Jason Hummel / Kyle drops in above the main bergshrund of the Chocolate glacier to find that it is holding powder conditions in Mid May.