Category Archives: Skiing

South and Middle Sisters

Middle and North from South


The Sisters are Bend’s iconic peaks, the three highest of a field of volcanoes west of town supporting a surprising number of large, low-lying glaciers. Being on the Cascade crest, they accumulate a huge winter snowpack that lingers well into Spring. The main access road at the southern end, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, is plowed only as far as the Mount Bachelor ski area in winter, making access to South Sister, the highest peak, longer and more difficult. I had thought to do the peak as a bike-and-ski, but learned to my surprise that the road had just opened to cars the day before my planned outing. This gave me time and energy to do more skiing, continuing to Middle Sister and reascending the South on the return. The outing was about twenty miles with a bit over 11,000′ of elevation gain and loss, with every bit of the descent done sliding on skis.

First view of South Sister

I slept in the small plowed pullout by the sort-of trailhead, then got up early for a reasonable start around 6:00 AM. I had no idea how long South Sister would take, or how soon the snow would soften, so I packed plenty of food but headed out with no particular plan. Starting through the woods, I found myself on the wrong side of a creek, and had to squelch across a bit of wet moss to get back on-route. I then followed a well-established ski- and snowshoe-track toward the mountain, passing a tent down in the forest, and another on the long plateau where the peak first comes into view. It was looking much snowier than when I was here last year, and the line to the summit seemed obvious.

Upper ridge

The snow was hard and crunchy, sticking like Velcro and making it possible to skin directly up remarkably steep slopes. The skin-track looked like it had been made late the day before, so it was well-incised but icy. The final switchbacking climb to the south ridge was somewhat desperate skinning, and it probably would have been faster to take my skis off and kick steps. I met a group of four guys at the base of the final ridge who had done just that. I was still moving well, so I left them behind as I continued skinning up the ridge. I finally gave up this silly game near the top, kicking steps up the final, wind-carved slope to the summit crater. I had not brought crampons, but the snow was just crunchy enough to give me a bit of purchase in my ski boots. Falling might not have been a great idea, so I didn’t do that.

Broken Top, Bachelor, and a fire

From the summit I could see a wide panorama of volcanoes, with Jefferson and the other Sisters to the north, Broken Top and Bachelor nearby to the east and south, Diamond and possibly McLaughlin farther away, and a number of lesser ones like Washington. It had taken me something like 3-1/2 hours to skin up, and the snow was still obviously too hard for fun skiing, so I decided to continue to Middle Sister, whose south face looked like a good ski. I knew nothing about how to get down the north side of South Sister, but figured that it was a volcano, so how hard could it be?

Sketchy descent

I transitioned and tipped off the north side, making slow, chattering turns on the icy snow until I reached some rock outcrops. The northeast side, descending to the Prouty Glacier, looked way out of my league. Poking around a bit, I spotted a line left of the north ridge that would get me back to the ridge lower down if I wanted. The problem was that the top of this line was icy and steep, with a cliff band beneath it; being on skis always adds ten degrees, but CalTopo says the slope is 45-50 degrees. I dithered a bit, then slid through a gap and carefully side-slipped toward the ridge, then down along its base. I thought of crossing to the sunny side, but decided the open slope on the northwest side looked better. I side-slipped until I had a clear line, then made some inelegant, chattering turns into the bowl, my quads complaining at the effort.

North, Jefferson, and Hood from Middle

I started having more fun as the angle eased and the snow softened lower down, traversing back east toward the highest saddle between the two peaks. The terrain between the peaks is a torn-up wasteland, with surprising pockets and steep sections, but I managed to slide to near the point of inflection before switching back to skins. Unsurprisingly Middle Sister sees much less traffic than South, but the line was clear enough that I did not miss having a track to follow. I saw another person ahead of me on my way up, and made some effort to catch him but, perhaps seeing me, he kept his lead. I later learned that he was a skimo racer with ultralight gear, which made me feel better about my failure.

I switched to booting near the top of the face, then continued that way along the ridge toward the summit. The snow was still hard and wind-sculpted, and the ridge narrow enough that I was not looking forward to the descent. I saw tracks on a proud line on the steep east face, as well as the debris of a sizable wet slide from the day before, reminding me that I am only a middling backcountry skier. I met the skimo guy on his way down, then two taciturn, bearded bros doing the Sisters traverse from the north. Like most skiers, they had skipped North Sister’s true summit, a difficult mixed scramble this time of year. The peak’s south side looked like a miserable ski in any case, so I was glad to be doing an out-and-back instead.

I watched the bros side-slip the ridge as I transitioned, then headed for home myself. I managed a few turns on the ridge, but the top was mostly an unpleasant, chattery side-slip. Lower down I found softening snow and decent turns on the crest, then headed far left to the sunniest aspect in search of softening. While I found some fun parts, I had to contend with both wind-sculpting and rounder waves probably caused by uneven melting, making it a bit like a bump run in places. I returned to where I had transitioned on the way north, stopping to put skins back on to head back up the north ridge. The other two guys slid by to the west, toward some lower saddle; they probably knew the “right” path, but I knew the ridge would go.

South, Broken Top, and Bachelor from Middle

I skinned for awhile, then put my skis back on my back for 1500 feet or so of hiking and step-kicking. My boots were already well-used when I got them, and their liners are basically just thick socks at this point, so the plastic was starting to chew my ankles and shins from all the booting. As I had hoped, I found bits of a summer trail in the exposed volcanic rubble, reassuring me that the underlying terrain was no more than class 2. I finally rejoined my outward path where I had side-slipped to the ridge, with only a bit of very easy scrambling. Above, I stayed close to the ridge, kicking steps up the steep snow and experimentally wandering to find where it was softest. I traversed left at the top to get through the short cliffs, then plodded up the final slope to the crater rim.

After a final transition, I was ready for some good skiing. There were a half-dozen or so people loitering around the rim, with more still skinning up. I dropped in through the icy fins, still finding the snow surprisingly firm; apparently the wind and low air temperatures had delayed its softening. I traverse to the sunnier ascent route left of the ridge, where I finally found good snow and was able to make looping GS turns. Traversing again back into the bowl to the right, I found more fine skiing before finally reaching the plateau. From there on it was heavy, though not sticky, slush for the long pole and skate, then the slow tree-ski to the road. Reaching the car mid-afternoon, I ate lunch and dinner rolled into one, then sat dazed in the car while my stuff dried outside. Another storm was coming in the next day, but I had driven all the way from town, so I decided to stick around and try to do something short in the morning before retreating to the rain shadow.

Willamette Pass Peak, Maiden

Maiden from ski area


My legs were a bit tired, and my shins a bit beaten up after eleven hours in ski boots. But the weather was good and I was in the area, so I looked around for a suitable shorter objective and found Maiden, a P2K (peak with 2000 feet of prominence) behind the Willamette Pass ski area. I drove back to the pass, found a spot off the Odell Lake Road where it seemed I would not get towed, then got ready and hiked back along the highway with skis on my shoulder to start at the closed lodge. The ski area is oddly designed, with runs on all sides of Willamette Pass Peak including the south one facing the highway. Despite there being plenty of snow in woods on most aspects, plants and rocks were showing through on these, so the ski area had closed for the season. I stepped off the highway, then skied ironically across its empty parking lot.

Diamond, Success

Not knowing the area’s runs, I skinned straight up under the lift, switchbacking up the headwall between the basalt and manzanita. The trees were again covered in rime and, looking back, I saw Diamond gleaming in the morning. While today would have been a more scenic day for my long ski, the previous day’s clouds probably kept snow conditions better given my late start. I stopped at the top of a black diamond called “Success,” wondered if its neighbors were named “Delusion” and “Insatiable Emptiness of the Soul,” then continued across the ridge to the higher, northern lift and summit.

Diamond from Maiden

Here I got my first clear view of Maiden, still almost three tree-covered miles away. I transitioned near the lift, then took my only good turns of the day down a backside run leading nearly to the saddle. I switched back to skins to follow a blue-diamond-marked cross-country ski route for awhile, took the turn toward Maiden Lake, then left the markings at a flat area to head directly up the conical peak. The slope was mostly gentle and tree-covered, but it was warm and the sun had been up for awhile, so the snow began glopping on my skins. I periodically knocked them against a tree or ski pole, and was rewarded when one pole finally broke near the summit. This is the inevitable end of repeated conflict between poles and metal edges, but these poles were less than a season old. Luckily I had paid good money for them at REI, and was headed through outdoorsy Bend, where I could warranty the shoddy things.

Bachelor and Sisters

Reaching the summit on one pole, I admired a clear view of about ten volcanoes, with the Sisters and Bachelor to the north, Paulina and Diamond to either side, and the Crater Lake area to the south. There was much snow to be enjoyed if it would only stop falling from the sky. The reward of a fast ski down was denied to me, as the fresh snow had all turned to sticky glop, even in the shady trees. Ski poles seem silly for going downhill, as you flap them at the ground and slide past in an instant, but it feels surprisingly awkward to ski without one. That, the trees, and the unpredictably sticky snow made the descent frustratingly slow.

I shuffled back through the woods, then returned up the backside of the ski area before transitioning once more to cautiously stick and slide down the front to the highway. I noticed a few more fresh tracks, but saw no other skiers, and only a couple of cars parked near the highway. Back at the car, I laid out my wet gear on the hood to begin drying, then took my time preparing food before heading into Bend. Weather and ski boot-related injuries would make skiing daily for a month unpleasant, but I had other plans.

Diamond

Peak at last!


At last it was time to go skiing again. To survey the surrounding snow-clad peaks, then huck the cornice and schralp the gnar. To be pitted in blower pow, carve sick turns on a rad line, take face-shots on fat sticks, then harvest corn like John Deere… Who am I kidding? Skiing has almost as much ridiculous dude-bro jargon as weightlifting (e.g. “yoked,” “shredded,” “swole”), perhaps because both sports generate enthusiasm and lack complexity. But I am not that kind of skier, and Diamond was definitely not that kind of peak. Skiing, in its original form, is mostly walking with hunks of wood, plastic, and metal on your feet to keep you from sinking into snow. Sometimes you hike with those hunks on your back when the snow is missing or ill-behaved. Occasionally you slide on them and try not to fall. The last part can be thrilling, but comprises less than a tenth of the overall activity.

Skis from the car!

Recent and previous plowing had left most parking along Willamette Pass blocked by snowbanks, but the sno-park just to its west was open and, it being May, no longer required a special permit. I slept there, availed myself of the outhouse, then started off toward the peak, skiing right from the parking lot. Coverage was a bit thin for the first few hundred yards, but there seemed to be several feet of snow in the woods above 5000 feet. I followed an old skin track along the PCT to Midnight Lake, then took off generally uphill where it ended.

Yoran Lake

Thanks to the dense woods and flat terrain — typical Oregon — I could see none of my surroundings. I also soon lost the trail in the snow, but fortunately did not matter, since the woods were mostly open and I could skin wherever I wanted on the gentle slope, occasionally looking at my phone to make sure I was still going in a straight line. Even when skinning across the relatively large Yoran Lake (alas, poor Yoran!), some combination of woods and clouds blocked my view of the summit.

Not skiable

After yet more woods, I finally emerged under Diamond’s northeast bowl, and my route became only slightly clearer. The peak is normally skied from the west, but that way involves much more driving, and bread is cheaper than gas. Coming from the northeast, one is faced with a long, undulating ridge leading to the summit, and a long east spur splitting that face. I skinned up the bowl, then chose a non-corniced place to reach the the ridge, where I hoped to find easy travel.

Scrambly bits

Unfortunately, what I found was a cold west wind and a mixture of scoured ground and slick rain-crust. I carefully skinned south as far as I could, then put my skis on my pack to boot up to the first bump on the ridge, a collection of choss-pinnacles covered in rime. This turned out to be a shorter version of my Shastina struggle, clomping up, down, and around what was probably class 3 rock in ski boots, kicking at highly variable snow to see what offered firm steps, and what was either impenetrable ice or unsupportive powder.

Typical views

I eventually made my way up and over, and put on my skis to skin the gentler ridge, only to find that the snow remained highly variable and wind-sculpted. Worse, the clouds had descended, so everything was gray and I had no depth perception. I tried to follow the ridge as best I could, looking for the faint black shapes of protruding rocks as indicators of solid ground, and otherwise trying to keep one ski on either side of the snow-crest. I poked ahead with my poles to find both this crest and the frequent dips across the ridge, neither of which I could really see despite uselessly bending over and squinting. Once I even slid off the left side, then spent a few minutes tossing my skis back on top and doing a “beached whale” to regain the crest.

I considered turning around, but conditions were frustrating rather than threatening, and I had my phone’s map and GPS to guide me. I thought of leaving my skis several times before finally ditching them only a hundred yards or so from the summit, from where I seemed to have a clear line down the east face. From there, I wallowed along the crest to the Peakbagger app’s red dot, turned it green, and turned around. Such is the peakbagger’s transcendent communion with Nature.

Clearing on the traverse

Even having passed only a few minutes before, I had a difficult time following my tracks back to my skis, as they were partially filled-in and invisible from more than about ten feet away. I transitioned, clicked in, and made a trial ski cut across the east face. The heavy, gloppy powder was not going anywhere, so I made my way down in slow, careful, awkward turns, unable to ski confidently without depth perception. The clouds thinned as I descended, and as soon as seemed reasonable, I started on a high traverse north, hoping to cross the east ridge high enough to return to the Yoran Lake drainage.

Tired old USFS

I made quite a bit of distance on my traverse, but not enough to reach my outgoing path without some climbing. Fortunately the terrain is all gentle, the woods open, and I had a map and GPS. I spotted another trail following Trapper Creek back to the west side of Odell Lake, and set off down a side-creek to join that, and thereby return to the pass. While it was not quite sunny, it was warm and bright enough to make the snow sticky, and my route was generally downhill, so I progressed best by shuffling along with free heels and boots in “walk mode,” but without skins. This was long and tedious, and I dared not play music lest I kill my phone battery and hence my map, but I needed to plan, so the forced lack of distractions was helpful.

Tracks within tracks…

I finally picked up the trail just above where the creek turns east, and followed it to where there used to be a bridge. A sign said that it had been washed out and that the Forest Service, in its dotage, would be unable to repair what it had once built. Past this sad sign, I continued to the train tracks, then skinned up between them for awhile, defiantly listening to podcasts rather than for approaching trains. I fortunately had no run-ins, and left the tracks just before a tunnel to cross Pengra Pass and return to my private sno-park. At twenty-some miles and over eleven hours, this was the longest thing I had done in awhile. I enjoyed the feeling of a day well-spent, but as I hung various bits of wet gear to (fail to) dry inside my car and shoveled in food, I realized that this was unsustainable for more than a few days.

Shastina

Shasta from Shastina


Mount Shasta is one of the big-daddy ski mountains of the Pacific Rim, offering over 7,000 feet of relief in peak season. I had already climbed it three times, twice via Avalanche Gulch and once via Clear Creek, but had never skied it. Though this has been an exceptionally dry year, the mountain still had coverage almost to Bunny Flat, with good turns to be had from the top of the Red Banks to below the Sierra Club hut. With hurricane winds forecast both before and after, I saw a one-day window to ski the rapidly-melting south side and took it. My plan was to climb Shastina, a subpeak I had yet to visit, then continue to Shasta and down Avalanche Gulch, a logical link-up that probably has a name.

Shasta was also one of the Clatsop tribe’s three directional peaks, which they named named Wy’East (Hood), Wy’North (Rainier), and Wy’South (Shasta). Since the ocean was always to their west, they felt no need to assign that direction a summit. To show their prowess, Clatsop warriors would set off in late Spring, toboggans on their backs, to sled the three great peaks before the Solstice. Those who returned brought a piece of sacred sulfur from each summit, and tales of death-defying speed on their descents, a precursor to the current “Fastest Known Time” craze. As a final test, to honor the West, they would wind-sail the mouth of the Columbia, much as bearded hipsters do today.

The extremes of car-camping

I camped off one of the many side-roads along the Everett Memorial Highway, then drove up to the trailhead at dawn. The lot was already mostly filled with a mixture of the cars of those camping at Helen Lake and various car-sleepers ranging from a guy in a Honda Fit to full-on hashtag-vanlife. I found a spot next to a truck with a couple getting ready to head up. They asked me where I was headed and, when I mentioned Shastina, offered that it looked pretty thin. “I’m more of a peak-bagger than a skier,” I replied before returning to my preparations.

Entry to Hidden Valley

Skis and boots on my pack, I set off up the well-beaten path, hiking the couple of miles to the stone hut at a sorry pace. I stopped to switch to skis there, then skinned through the woods and up the base of Casaval Ridge, finding a mix of ski- and boot-tracks. I traversed up and around, aiming for a flat spot on the ridge near Hidden Valley. Coverage was thin, forcing me to wander a bit to dodge brush and rocks, but I managed to keep the skis on to the small shoulder I had spotted. There I made one of my slow, awkward transitions, then coasted down into the bowl before putting skins back on to resume the climb.

Slogging Shastina

Shastina looked just as bare as from the trailhead, with a couple of strips of snow not quite connecting the south gullies to the summit crater, but there was continuous snow up Cascade Gully to the Shasta-Shastina saddle. The lower part was mostly a pleasant angle for skinning, with only one lip requiring some precarious switchbacks. As the upper gully steepened and went into the shade, it became too hard and steep to comfortable skin, so I put my skis on my back again and headed up one of the south-side snow-strips, weaving a bit to find bootable snow. The combination of altitude, weight, and age made me painfully slow on the climb, frequently stopping to pant and “admire the view.”

Southwest from Shastina

Crossing a bit of loose rubble near the top, I finally saw the layout of the summit. Fortunately I had a map and GPS, because there are several near-equally high points spaced widely apart, separated by a mess of partial craters full of snow and rubble. I debated leaving my skis at the rim, then foolishly decided to carry them to the top, hoping to find a continuous skiable line on the east, Shasta-facing side. I found a hint of a summer trail in the rubble near the top, following it to the ridge before dropping my pack to scramble to the highest bump. To the south and west I could see snowy Mount Eddy and the Trinity Alps, while to the east, Mount Shasta looked depressingly bare.

Upper Whitney Glacier

I picked my way down some scree, then skied a short distance before running into more rocks and giving up, hobbling down to the saddle, then booting up the ridge right of the Whitney Glacier. The Cascades Skiing website I had been using suggested ascending the Whitney Glacier, but it was last updated fifteen years ago, and I suspected the glacier would be too dry and broken up to be useful. Instead, I booted up a broad snowfield, aiming for the ridge to its right, which joins Casaval near the base of Misery Hill.

End of ridge

This turned out to be a moderately bad idea, as the ridge was frequently loose, sometimes narrow, vertical on the left, and often steep and icy on the right. I tried to find the best route I could in ski boots with skis on my back, sometimes scrambling class 3 rock on the crest, sometimes traversing slopes to the right, but it was slow, cautious, tiring work. I told myself that, having not done any real mountaineering since last Fall, this was good and necessary practice.

Ice chickenheads

I finally reached the junction with Casaval and headed for Misery Hill, intending to skin up to the summit crater, tag Shasta, and have a nice, long ski. I hiked down to a shallow saddle, then noticed that the south and west sides of the Hill were a mixture of bare talus and what a guy in the parking lot referred to later as “ice chickenheads” — finger- to hand-sized blobs of clear ice formed when moisture is blown across textured snow by vicious wind. It looked somewhere between unpleasant and unskiable. I stopped near where a splitboarder had discarded his gear, and watched a few skiers skinning back up toward the top of Casaval Ridge. I thought for awhile, looked toward Shasta, then decided I had had enough for the day, and all the good skiing was below me.

Left of Heart chutes

I slid back to the saddle, booted up a short rise, then clicked in again and dropped into one of a few steep chutes northwest of the summer route in an area called “Left of Heart.” The initial drop looked steep, but the chute was wide enough that I was mostly able to link turns, and the snow was enjoyably firm. It gradually turned to more of a Slurpee lower down in Avalanche Gulch, but it was highly consolidated and momentum was my friend. I linked leisurely turns down the bowl past the tent city at Helen Lake, then followed a gully as I began searching for the route that would get me closest to the car. Things gradually deteriorated, but with only a couple of minor scrapes and short hikes, I reached the trail about a quarter mile from the parking lot.

The lot was a mixture of happy skiers and tourist hikers. I hung my stuff to dry, made some food, then chatted for a bit with the members of the Honda Element Club parked across the way. I hung out as the crowd thinned, waiting for it to cool down in the valley, then retreated to another forest road for a quiet night. The weather was some form of bad for much of the next week in every place I checked within convenient driving distance, leaving me scrambling for options. I was slightly disappointed in myself for not summiting Shasta, but I had skied the best part on a near-perfect Spring day, and felt no need to return for the final 1000 feet.

Lassen

Looking down ski line


Lassen Peak is the southernmost Cascades volcano, and a fairly active one, having erupted as recently as 1921 and still featuring sulphur vents and boiling mudpits on its flanks. It took me a couple tries to summit, thanks to the whole mountain being closed for trailwork, but when dry it is an easy trail hike from the road. However I had yet to ski it, and with the road still gated to cars and the High Sierra transitioning to summer, now seemed like a good time. Fortunately I had the necessary gear to make it enjoyable — a bike and skis — and David made do with a bike and splitboard. I am old enough to consider snowboarding contrived and impractical, so splitboarding a mountain seems like rock climbing in roller skates: it can be done, but why?

In any case, the parking lot was much busier than it had been during the week, though still more than half empty, and there were several other people with bikes and skis. It was not a long day, and the snow had to soften, so we were in no hurry to get started. We passed one young woman on an old beater bike, stopped to adjust her skis, and I noted how they were attached. They were held on opposite sides of the seatpost, with one ski strap suspending them from the saddle rails, a second holding an end to the top tube, and an optional bungee cord securing them to the rack. I had seen pictures of people carrying skis this way, so it was good to finally learn how it was done.

Skinning past Helen Peak

Continuing up the road, we found several other bikes at the end of the plowed section ahead of us. We switched to ski mode, then started skinning toward the peak, taking a line between Helen Lake and the road. There was no single established skin track, so I chose what seemed like a reasonable line, passing near what I thought was the summer trailhead. The trail follows the south ridge, largely wind-blasted and currently windy, so I continued around to the more sheltered southeast face, figuring this would be both more sheltered and softer.

Trail ridge

While it was more sheltered than the ridge, the snow was still surprisingly hard. I managed to keep side-hilling into the bowl, but David, on his ridiculous splitboard, was having more trouble. First, because the halves of a splitboard are shorter than skis, he had less surface area to grip the snow. Second, because he had comfortable, squishy snowboard boots, he lacked ankle support to edge into the hill. I tried to choose an easier line for his sake for awhile, but then gave up and followed some other skiers ahead and above in the bowl. I figured he could fend for himself, and I would take an extra lap to check in on his progress.

The skinning became a bit desperate as the bowl’s angle increased. The skiers ahead of me mostly had ski crampons or actual crampons, but I had brought neither. When the skinning became a bit too dicey, I traversed over to the rocks on the right, strapped my skis to my pack, and booted up a mix of volcanic rubble and softer snow on its margin. Farther up, the lensing effect of the chute had softened the center snow, so I followed that, passing a couple people near the top.

Shasta in the distance

I had hoped to get out of the upslope wind on the summit plateau, but was immediately hit with a contradictory wind from the west. Still, it was sunny and I had a down jacket, so I was comfortable enough to enjoy the view for awhile. The various summit knobs were, predictably after the previous day’s storm, covered in rime feathers, while Shasta looked invitingly white far to the north. The two other guys on the summit worked at least seasonally for nearby Plumas National Forest, and we talked a bit about the recovery from the Dixie Fire.

Almost crowded…

As another couple of skiers arrived, I decided to down to check on David. The top of the mountain was still a bit crusty, but the skiing soon improved in the bowl. I did not see him on the snow, so I put my skins back on at the base of the steeper part and headed back. Partway up, I switched to booting and found it much more efficient than zig-zagging on skis, passing the young woman we had met on her bike just at the top. I found David had arrived several minutes earlier, having scrambled up the rock rib right of the bowl, and already tagged the summit.

We hung out some more, then headed down in more favorable skiing conditions. It turns out that splitboards are also not great at going downhill, at least if one has to side-hill, so while I took a fun, straight line in the best snow, David had to begin traversing high on spiky crust. We had a bit of trouble dodging bare patches at the base of the south ridge, but mostly had an easy glide back to the bikes. There were now ten or so bikes locked to trees or leaned against snowbanks, almost a “crowd.” If only more of our National Parks were open to cars for less of the year…

Diamond, Helen, Bumpass, Brokeoff

Maximum gear, not maximum effort


After a period of indecision, I belatedly set out for a bit of “adventure,” or at least something focused more on the activity itself than on gaining fitness. Lassen Park was in that happy transitional state of plowed but gated roads, so I headed there first, arriving late to a surprisingly-empty parking lot. Not having the energy to pack or plan the night before, or the will to deal with a cold start, I finally started sometime after 8:00.

Lassen from visitor center

This was my first experiment cycling with skis on my back, but it was little worse than carrying a heavy pack, except that the tails caught occasionally mounting and dismounting. I slowly spun past the sulfurous hot springs, then continued to the northeast side of Diamond Peak, my first goal, where I saw some tracks leading up and down the short 500-foot slope to its summit ridge. I followed a skin track some of the time, made my own for the rest, and reached the base of the summit pinnacle without difficulty. I did feel slow, however: while I know from my running and cycling times that I am reasonably fit, I still found myself stopping to gasp for breath skinning uphill at a plodding pace. This is not unexpected, but it is always disappointing to be reminded that I am far from being able to race on skis.

Diamond summit block

Diamond’s summit is an undulating choss-ridge with highpoints on either end. I changed into running shoes, then went to the middle first, where I had cell service, and downloaded Bob’s and others’ trip reports to see which was the highest (an indication of my level of preparedness). Thankfully people seem to agree that the north pinnacle is the highest, because the south one is a large balanced rock that appears to overhang on all sides. I made the easy scramble in my worn-out shoes, then returned to my skis for a five-minute glide to the road. As usual, I had spent more time getting into and out of ski boots than actually sliding downhill.

Taking the day off

Back on the bike, I continued up the road to where the plows had given up near Helen Lake, then leaned my bike against the snowbank and locked it. I suppose I was blocking further plowing, but it was already close to 11:00 and the plows were still parked, so I assumed they had the day off. There had been a couple in a van camped at the visitor center, and I found their bikes a short distance onward, stashed behind some trees. They were of course headed for Lassen, but I was interested in two nearby minor summits, Helen and Bumpass.

Lassen from Helen

I had seen “Bumpass Hell” on maps during previous visits to Lassen, but had not bothered to explore. The “Hell” part is due to a volcanic feature, in this case some boiling mud-pools, in keeping with the geographic naming convention that has given us the Devil’s Tower, Postpile, and Corral. The “Bumpass” part remains an amusing mystery, perhaps inspired by a rough road through the park. I find it amusing, though, and see a missed opportunity in not naming nearby Bumpass and Brokeoff Mountains “Bump-ass Hill” and “Broke-ass Hill.”

Lake Almanor

In any case, I started up Helen first, finding it an easy skin from the lake. From the summit, I had a clear view of Lassen’s south side, including the largely-dry trail and more skiable southeast and southwest slopes. I saw the couple nearing the summit plateau, specks on skis sticking to the snow. I found some obnoxious brush and cliffs on the direct line to Bumpass, forcing me down and east, then back west to ascent its west ridge to the peak. I took a similarly suboptimal line back to the road, side-hilling across a couple of drainages before finally booting up to the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Brokeoff summit and Shasta

One clunky road-walk later I was back at my bike, talking to the couple as we all put away our ski gear and prepared to ride. They had been traveling seasonally for a few years, though oddly enough in the winter, and were headed up the Cascades to ski various volcanoes. They were of a different dirtbag economic stratum than Yours Truly, but we got along well enough. Back at the car, I had a late lunch, then decided to tag nearby Brokeoff Mountain to fill the rest of the afternoon. The sun doesn’t set until 8:00, so while the skiing would not be great, I had a lot of time to kill.

Brokeoff summit and Shasta

I entered the woods near the entrance station, then wandered up the broad drainage toward its headwall, where all routes converge on the summer trail. Others had apparently done the same, and I found bits of up- and down-tracks throughout. I followed an intermittent and bad skin-track up the headwall, then meandered up the ridge, dodging rocks and brush. Once I finally broke out on the broad south face, it was an easy skin and hike to the summit, the east-most of three peaks. Brokeoff offers excellent views of Lassen and Shasta, the latter’s isolation and snowpack making particularly impressive.

I found a few good turns on Brokeoff’s south face, but the snow was wet and sticky, and all too soon I had to cut left to cross the ridge back to my drainage. From there it was mostly side-hilling, skating, and careful dodging between trees back to the road, then a short walk to the parking lot. Other than the few turns on Diamond, there was very little real skiing in my day, but my purpose was to tag minor peaks, not big lines, so that was fine. Day complete, I made myself a dinner of odds and ends, then napped, read, and prepared my pack for what I thought would be another day of bike ‘n’ ski.

Baker (Coleman-Deming ski)

Baker from near camp


I had previously done Mount Baker in 2014, going up the “fun way” via the Coleman Headwall and walking down the standard Coleman-Deming route. This time I decided to have my fun on the way down instead, lugging skis up the Coleman-Deming. Mid-July is late for skiing, but I figured that Baker is the northernmost Cascades volcano, that it accumulates incredible amounts of snow each winter, and that the generally north-facing Coleman Glacier would have decent snow-cover. However, I underestimated how much the recent heat wave had melted off. While there was still some good skiing on the Coleman, the west-facing Deming had a couple of unavoidable patches of bare glacier, which skis better than waterfall ice, but is not exactly fun.

Heliotrope Ridge

Heliotrope Ridge, like seemingly every other National Forest trailhead in Washington, is a fee area, so I drove past it to park in a flat spot a quarter mile beyond. I understand that the Forest Service is badly underfunded, but this sort of nickel-and-diming, like the good old “Adventure Pass” to park on roads around Los Angeles, just annoys me. I would happily spend $80 on an Interagency Annual Pass to make the problem go away if they made it easy to buy one, but I refuse to spend money on a regional forest parking pass.

Anyways… knowing that the suncups would have to soften for the snow to be skiable, I took my time getting started in the morning. The first stream crossings were easy, but I somehow missed the turnoff for Heliotrope Ridge. Running into an uncrossable stream, I looked at my map to realize I had come too far toward the Coleman Glacier overlook. I was soon back on track, feeling slightly ridiculous as I passed the Real Mountaineers (helmet, picket, boots) in my trail runners with skis and boots strapped to my pack. Heliotrope Ridge was as spectacular as I remembered, covered in various wildflowers, with Baker and the large Coleman Glacier as a backdrop.

Baker and Colfax

Passing a few tents at the normal camping spot, I scrambled up a rock rib for a bit, then got on the glacier. I thought I might have to put on skis and skins here, but between the suncups and a solid boot-pack, I found it easier to stay with running shoes and ski poles. I met a guided-looking party coming down at the ridge separating the Coleman and Deming glaciers, a novice Asian couple and a slightly overweight white guy carrying extra gear. The latter informed me that there was quite a bit of ice on the Deming, making me question my choice of activities. Hiking up the choss-ridge between the two glaciers, I saw that the Deming was indeed in sorry shape.

Fire near Silver Star

I sketched my way up the icy patches and over a small crevasse on the way to the summit plateau, sort of wishing I had brought crampons, but refusing to take out my ice axe. I stashed my skis at the top of the glacier, then hiked across the glacier plateau to the summit dirt-hill. I met an Eastern European couple from Chicago on top, acclimatizing for Rainier. Looking at my feet, the woman began “coming up here in just shoes seems…” “Sketchy,” I suggested, before she could bring herself to say “dangerous” or “stupid.” We talked for awhile, then I took some time to look over the familiar peaks, from nearby Shuksan, to the Pickets, to the more distant high peaks like Goode. On the other side of the range, I saw a fire blowing up near Silver Star, which would eventually close Highway 20 near Mazama.

Deming descent

A large guided group had arrived from the Baker Lake side, so I let them have the summit and returned to my skis. After an awkward transition standing in the boot-pack, I made a few hesitant turns around some rocks, then skied a bit quicker down to the ice, where the surface had softened enough to make crossing it safe, if not fun. Below, I stayed left of the choss ridge, finding decent snow for some asymmetric turns along the right side of the Deming Glacier. Rounding the corner where I would cross back to the Coleman, I was surprised by a small crevasse, which forced me to make an emergency hop. I put my skis back on my pack, then kicked steps back to the ridge and crossed the choss to get back on the boot-pack.

I had thought of doing Colfax, a bump on this side of Baker, but once again lacked the motivation. I instead skied down the Coleman Glacier near the boot-pack, finding the suncups softer but still a bit bumpy. I managed to open up in a couple of places, but only hit around 30 MPH. Cruising down the final slope to camp, I sailed by some guys hiking in boots, and felt happy to have brought the skis. While transitioning back to hiking mode, I met a couple of undergrad girls sampling stream insects, and congratulated them on choosing a major that let them hike around in the wilderness for their summer research. I passed the usual tourists on the hike back, plus a trio headed up to camp and ski. So I wasn’t the only crazy one…

Glacier comparisons

Having made two trips to the Coleman-Deming route, one on 7/31/14 and the other on 7/14/21, I took some similar photos, which give some idea of how the mountain has dried out in seven years. Here is Colfax in 2014 and 2021:

Colfax icefall (2014)


Colefax icefall (2021)

And here is Baker itself, showing the Coleman Headwall:

North ridge (l), Headwall (c), standard (r)

Baker from near camp (2021)

Trapezoid

Fine turns


I had one final break between May snowstorms (!) to do some Sierra skiing, so I was thinking of going big and doing something crazy. However, I ran into Dan, and he convinced me to head back up to South Lake and explore another drainage, the Treasure Lakes valley between Mounts Johnson and Goode. I slept in comfortable temperatures near the Buttermilks, then drove up to frigid South Lake early in the morning. I took longer than I should have to prepare myself for the cold, finally starting skinning around 7:15.

Skinning across South Lake

Someone getting an earlier start had bravely skinned across the lake and not fallen in, so I followed his tracks through about 6″ of fresh and surprisingly light powder. The track on the other side of the lake was less than ideal, bobbing and weaving around cliffs in the woods instead of following one of the inlet streams, but it eventually led into the open area above the lake. I left the beaten path where it seemed to head toward Thompson, arduously breaking trail up toward Treasure Lakes. The well-worn track from two days earlier had been completely obliterated by the fresh snow.

Unnamed peak near Treasure Lakes

The terrain was mostly uphill, but there were enough flat sections that I knew the return would be slow. I saw potential lines facing all directions, but thanks to my late start, I dismissed the east-facing ones, which had already been baking for hours on a calm, sunny day. I eventually chose a northwest-facing slope on “Trapezoid Peak,” a minor summit on the ridge between Johnson and Goode that I had not yet climbed. Based on the map on my phone, it looked like I would get about 1300 vertical feet of skiing out of the line — not huge, but not bad either.

Slog, slog, slog

The slope started out fairly gentle, steepening to about 45 degrees toward the top. There was 8-12″ of fresh snow on the slope, already starting to become heavy from the sun and warming temperatures. The fresh snow had not bonded to an underlying hard layer in some places, and while it didn’t slide, it did make skinning a bit annoying. I switchbacked up the lower half, booted for a bit, then skinned the rest when the angle eased and the postholing got worse.

Goode and Palisades

I eventually reached a saddle about 80′ below the summit, from which I could look down to where the Bishop Pass trail passes near Saddlerock Lake. The final climb to the summit looked painful, but I was so close… I put my skis on my pack, and booted thrashed, and dug my way toward the summit, kicking through to the old snow, and digging for rocks to get an occasional solid stance. I booted to within about 30 feet of the summit, then was forced to put my skis back on to avoid thigh-deep postholing.

Le Conte Canyon

The summit rocks had been scoured dry, so I took off my skis, found a good seat, and ate a late lunch while admiring views of the Palisades, the Black Divide, and more distant peaks including Goddard and Humphreys. The wind eventually picked up intermittently, chilling me and coating me with spindrift. I waited for a break, then quickly transitioned to downhill mode.

I had noticed a narrow chute leading to the summit on the way up, and found its entrance after a bit of searching. A few careful turns later, I was on the main slope I had ascended, making fun, swooping turns toward the uppermost Treasure Lake. I got in a few more turns lower down, but there was a lot of poling and shuffling to get through the flat sections in increasingly-sticky snow. I was regularly whacking my skis with my pole to keep the bases clean, and on one whack, the bottom part of my pole flew off to one side of the ski track. I thought for a moment that the bottom section had come out, but quickly realized that the pole had broken. Ugh. I picked up the piece, then cautiously one-poled my way back down to the lake, and around through the South Lake Glacier to the parking lot, where I deposited the pole pieces in the dumpster. Perhaps it was a sign that ski season is over for me for the time being…

South Lake skiing

After getting shut down two days in a row on Red Slate Mountain, first by a mechanical failure and then by weather, I took advantage of a break between May snowstorms to sneak in a couple days’ skiing out of South Lake. The road is plowed all the way to the lake at 9500′, opening up a lot of terrain that is difficult to access during the winter and early spring, when the road is gated miles from the summer trailhead. The 6″ or so of fresh, heavy powder made for pleasant skiing on the way down, but brutal boot-packing on the way up.

It seemed like it might be cold up at the trailhead, so I slept down in the desert before the first day, where temperatures were pleasant and I had cell service. I got a reasonably early start, though a couple of other parties were ahead of me. This was fortunate, because one of the parties knew the best route from the trailhead to the base of Ski Mountaineers Peak, my goal for the day. Had I been forced to break trail and find the route myself, the trenching and inevitable route-finding errors in the cliffy terrain above the lake would have been wretched.

The first trick was to navigate the South Lake Glacier, a rim of broken ice that forms when they lower the level of the lake, causing the thick surface ice along the edge to crack as the center ice drops. I followed the boot-track through the crevasse maze, then along a stream and through some cliffs to open terrain leading toward Ski Mountaineers and Thompson. The track continued toward the latter, so I abandoned my original plan to see what the Thompson chutes might hold.

I saw a skier ahead of me checking out the western Thompson couloir, and skied a bit farther to see for myself. I didn’t like what I saw, so I returned to the eastern couloir, which is lower-angle and did not have a cornice. The other skier apparently didn’t like what she saw, either, and returned to the base of the couloirs. I switchbacked up increasingly steep snow toward my couloir, hoping I could find some solid boot-packing to reach the ridge. However, whenever I tentatively stepped off my skis, I sunk at least knee-deep. I eventually gave up on the frustrating endeavor, and made some fun turns back to the valley, intending to ski Ski Mountaineers Peak instead.

I spoke to the woman I had seen ahead of me, who told me that her partner had booted up the western couloir (with a huge cornice — yikes!). She decided to use my skin track to take a lap, while I skinned and scrambled through some rocks to reach Ski Mountaineers’ gentle east face. Looking back, I saw that her partner had dropped into the middle chute, triggered an avalanche partway down, then absolutely flew down the lower part, making huge turns where I had made cautious, small ones.

Ski Mountaineers’ east face had been baking in the sun all morning, and while the lower part was reasonably wind-packed, the top was horrible heavy powder. It felt too steep to skin, so I agonizingly booted final slope to the summit ridge, where I stashed my skis to scramble to the summit. The register, if it still exists, was buried, but I still hung out for awhile, enjoying the impressive views of the Palisades to one side, and Sabrina Basin and Darwin to the other.

The descent went well enough until I decided to stop following skin track and take a more direct line toward South Lake. I soon found myself in a maze of small cliffs, and had to side-step, shuffle, and throw my skis down a small step and downclimb at one point to get back on-route. Thanks in part to these shenanigans, I did not make it back to the lot until late afternoon. Not wanting to waste gas driving 40 miles back and forth to Bishop, I settled in to read for awhile, then prepared for a cold night.

The next morning, I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag until around 6:30, then got a lazy start after 7:00. I headed up the trail toward Bishop Pass, but found a long stretch of bare dirt, and decided instead to check out the open bowls west of Mount Gilbert. Starting out on the previous day’s skin track, I took a branch to the south, following a slightly fainter path from the day before. The chute west of Gilbert looked like a fun ski, so I eventually left the skin track to sidehill around the head of the basin.

I found a boot-pack in the chute, which gave me some hope, but things soon turned grim. I persevered despite knee-deep postholing, but after the third time I managed to stomp out a waist-high wall in front of me, I gave up on the wallow and headed down. I found good skiing in the upper and lower bowls, separated by some tricky crust in the middle, and returned to the car just after noon. This was earlier than I had planned, but probably for the best, since the wind was already picking up ahead of the next storm system. Winter is not yet done with the Sierra.

Bloody Couloir

In the summer, Bloody Mountain is a slag-heap like many of its neighbors, build mostly of loose red talus. However, the couloir dropping north from its summit is a popular spring ski descent. It was a bit steeper than the other descents I have done this winter, but not unreasonably so. While there is a road leading almost to the base of the couloir, most people will start down in the desert. A high-clearance 4WD can make it a bit farther, but will usually be stopped by snowbanks well before the end of the road. My car is more capable than a sedan, but I rolled in late and didn’t want to risk backing back down a dirt track, so I pulled into the first flat-ish pulloff to sleep.

The Bloody Couloir is reasonably steep and shaded, so I planned to bring an ice axe and real crampons, which meant I had packed the big pack (Mammut Ice 45) the night before. As I lashed on my skis using the side compression straps, one of them broke at the attachment point, which does not look easy to repair. (It is worth noting that one of the ice tool holders broke in exactly the same way many years ago; hopefully they have a better design now.) I hate to get rid of a pack that has served me so well for 10 years, so I will probably keep it for awhile, but it can no longer carry skis.

Only a few minutes from the car, I noticed some motion in the distance. Stopping to check it out, I saw a massive herd of 40-50 deer slowly crossing the road. Deer are wary creatures, so I tried to get close by the best mixture of jittery high telephoto and scared deer. They definitely noticed me, but fortunately quite a few of them seemed to feel safe once they had crossed the road and climbed up the hillside a bit. The road switchbacking out of the desert was definitely slower with skis and boots on my back, but I still managed to out-walk a 4WD Sprinter inching up the jeep road. If I had a car like that, I wouldn’t abuse it like that to save a 10-minute walk, but I was surprisd at the enormous Sprinter’s off-roading abilities

The long hike up Laurel Canyon on the road to the lower prospect was almost pleasant, since I had plenty of podcasts, as well as a steady view of my intended couloir. I had scouted the spring route up to Laurel Lakes, which follows the streambed rather than traversing above it on the road, and would have taken it again if I intended to boot the couloir. However, with no crampons or axe, I needed a new plan. I remembered a trip report from someone who had gone up the summer route, a class 2 talus-hop from the col between Laurel and Bloody. Sure, I would be carrying skis and boots on my back on a long ridge of mixed scree and snow, but what other choice did I have?

Unfortunately, I first had to get back up to the road leading to Laurel Lakes. I should have retraced my steps, but that part of the road looked like it was still covered in angled, frozen snow. Instead, I had the genius idea to follow what looked on the topo like low-angled slopes, returning me to the road near the trail where I planned to leave it. My shortcut turned out to be a mix of thrashing through willows and aspens with skis and boots on my back, kicking steps in old snow with worn-out running shoes, and telling myself that I could totally self arrest with a ski pole. Why running shoes instead of ski boots? I knew that I would be dealing with mixed scree and snow higher up, and I much prefer running shoes on snow to ski boots on scree.

I eventually reached the road and, side-hilling along it for awhile, then took the trail to the col, which was already bare in many places. Always eager to take a shortcut, I decided to climb a closer spur ridge rather than following the partly-snowy trail all the way to the pass. This shortcut worked better than the last, with patches of good step-kicking snow providing a break from the underlying loose scree. Looking back while catching my breath, I saw (presumably) the Sprinter crew skinning up the big snowfield west of my ridge. They were making good time, but I had a solid lead, and only saw them occasionally in the distance for the rest of the day.

The skiers were still making steady progress when I finally reached the ridge junction. This section is discouragingly long, but doesn’t gain too much elevation, and in summer, there is a decent use trail compacting the scree. The trail I found was sometimes useful, but often became an “anti-trail,” a narrow path buried by hard, angled snow. I mostly ignored it, taking what looked like the best line on solid-ish rock and wind-beaten snow.

Reaching the summit, I was pleased to see that the register canister was completely exposed, its contents dry. There was even a nice rock seat nearby where I could peruse it while eating Grocery Outlet bargain lean salami ($4.99 for 2 lbs.), my new favorite non-carb trail food. It was warm out, but I thought it might be a good ideea to give the upper, steepest part of the couloir a bit more time to soften, so I hung out for 30 minutes or so, finally leaving around noon. At least for now, you can ski right from the summit.

The top of the couloir looked intimidatingly steep from above, with a blind rollover a short ways down, but I had been checking it out on the way up, and had chosen the safest-looking path through the rocks below this bulge. I played around with different aspects within the couloir, but no single line skied well all the time, and I nearly ate it when I hit an unexpected patch of windboard. A better skier could probably plow right through, but I did quite a bit of survival skiing: side-slip for awhile, make one or two jump-turns, then stop to plan my next moves.

The middle part was easier, but unpleasant, with lots of wet slide debris (i.e. ice-and-snow-balls) of varied hardness. I moved a bit faster on this, but little I did was elegant. It looked like most of the debris fell from the couloir’s sides, and while I was sometimes accompanied by a few friendly snowballs, I never set off a slide. Once through the debris, I finally reached more predictable snow, and was able to make a few good turns.

Unfortunately there does not seem to be a way to glide past the lakes, especially in warm, grabby afternoon snow, so there was shuffling, double-poling, cursing, and a short carry through a bare section. I skied down to the creek junction where I had set out on my first “shortcut” in the morning, then decided that I would rather posthole to the road than ski through the maze of aspens and pines near the creek. Looking back from somewhere on the road, I could just make out the other party and their tracks as they negotiated the couloir.