An Alaska expedition plan falls apart; a volcano tour comes together
Big trips, lofty objectives, and new experiences take planning, preparation, and patience. Experience guides the deliberate and meticulous craft of expeditioning. Maps are poured over, gear lists compiled, calendars aligned, and training engaged. In the words of Hannibal Smith (the Colonel from the A-Team), “I love it when a plan comes together!”
Of course sometimes, weather, partners, conditions, and unexpected glitches throw all of that out the window….
Last year, a couple friends and I hatched a plan to explore a relatively random and remote part of the southern Alaska Range. Bush planes, expedition tents, and down pants were ready to go. My friend Andy planned to come up from Colorado and we were going to fly in with another friend from Anchorage to ski couloirs in a far off corner of the wild. The team was strong, fast, and fit. We poured over google earth and photos. Anticipation grew as the spring snow pack up high in Alaska was looking good.
The week of the trip finally arrived just as Southcentral AK began what became the rainiest May on record. We couldn’t fly in, didn’t have the time to wait out the storms, and no longer had much faith in conditions for the objectives we had in mind. So, for the first time in the past seven years, I did not head out to the Alaska Range.
Facing similar variables in the past, I have tried to ‘force it.’ Summits, turns, and fun dissolve into broken tent poles, endless digging, white-outs, fear, and accidents when you stick to a plan despite the weather gods denying your application.
Once the dismal short-term forecast came into focus, we asked what we could do instead?
We had discussed some other areas of the state, but none look particularly promising for the week. We thought about postponing, but feared schedules and conditions wouldn’t align. So, we widened our net and noticed a week of sunshine on the forecast for the Cascades.
Andy and I had talked for years about darting to Washington for a quick trip, plus flying to Seattle from Anchorage is actually cheaper than flying into the Alaska Range on a bush plane. We had both spent some time in the Cascades, but neither of us had done so on skis. It was settled. We traded a remote expedition in the subarctic for a trip to ultra ski classics in a bird van (check out Escape Campervans. We rented one and it was rad).
It was tough letting go of our AK goals, but five days of perfect weather and nearly 30,000 feet of amazing skiing in the Cascades sure beat twiddling our thumbs in a snowstorm. We skied classic lines on Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, and Hood. Read on for a few thoughts on each line.
The Fuhrer Finger
Rolling into our first stop in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt made it feel like we were in paradise. Okay, it was Paradise, the trailhead/visitor center on the south side of Mount Rainier. We set our alarm for 3 a.m., packed up and went to sleep.
The idea of route finding in the dark sounded totally reasonable while drinking beer at 5 p.m., but when 3 a.m. rolled around, it was clear to both of us that we might have come in a bit too hot. Some new snow and high overnight temps caused concerns over big wet slides. We went back to sleep.
Paradise sits at 5400ft on a shoulder of Mount Rainier. The trailhead is the starting point for the popular trip to Camp Muir and the Disappointment Cleaver route up to the summit. It is the best spring time access to the mountain and situated with incredible views of the goliath volcano.
Awkwardly sidling around the trailhead, most of the info we needed was readily available. Large guided groups headed up and down, tourists went sledding, skiers zipped along the Muir snowfields, and climbers slowly began filling the parking lot. We toured up a short way our first day and scouted the line across the Wilson Glacier to the base of the Finger. Armed with beta from our tour, some friendly Park Rangers (maybe the best Ranger interaction I’ve ever had at National Park), and folks heading off the mountain, we now had a fully hatched plan.
Most folks do the Fuhrer Finger in two days with a camp on the Wilson Cleaver. The route is more than 9000 feet from trailhead to summit, making this a reasonable approach. Andy and I didn’t want to burn too much time on one mountain, and didn’t care that much about the summit, so we figured we would give it a go from the van. If time wasn’t on our side, we’d ski the route from the upper Nisqually instead of from the summit. This was also the perfect opportunity to test out a new mountain philosophy I am trying on for the year: avoid the top. Summits are funny things. They offer a destination and a definitive sign of achievement. At the same time, I find that summits cloud my judgment in a fog of ‘summit fever’ (fodder for another post…).
We filed our permit in the ‘Guide House’ by the trailhead and headed out at 2:30 a.m. By 9 a.m. we reached the upper Nisqually just above the namesake Furher Finger Couloir. It was hot, really hot. 7500 feet of skiing seemed like plenty, so we made a cup of coffee and decided to ‘take the win’ and ski the route from there.
While the route offered impressive views in an amazing spot, I was honestly a bit let down by the skiing considering it’s such a classic line. The zigzag up the mountain felt a bit more like a mountaineers’ route than an ultra classic ski line, the couloir isn’t that long, and there is not very much steep skiing. Call me crazy. It was plenty of fun, but I give it a B.
The Worm Flows
All day on Rainier we were looking over our shoulders at Mt. St. Helens. As a reformed geology nerd, I have wanted to ski St. Helens for years. We also decided it would make a good ‘rest’ day after the Finger. We ate a couple of cheeseburgers in Ashford, found an open permit for the next day and drove over to the South Climb Trailhead for the night.
The permits in the spring are capped at 70 a day, and with the hot weather, many people were getting early starts. The snooze button got the better of us again and we weren’t properly moving until 7 a.m. A bit of cloud cover and some aspect options actually made this timing about perfect. We got to the crater rim around noon, just in time for perfect corn up high and fun sloppy wiggles through the ‘Worm Flows,’ old cut-off lava tubes that look like geologic half pipes: A–.
The day was perfect, but the scratch in my throat turned into full on cold by the time we got back to the car. I convinced Andy a real rest day was in order.
The Old Chute to Hot Rocks
We slow-rolled over the rest day down to Mt. Hood, picking up every cold med we could find along the way. Hood was the peak over our shoulder the whole day on St. Helens, so again we let the view guide the van.
Mt. Hood is a weird place. The parking lot smelled thick with baggy pants, Keystone Light, and twin tips. The lift area feels like an outpost of the 90s––equal parts horror movie (half of ‘The Shining’ was filmed there) and grunge ski bum scene.
Nonetheless, Mt. Hood is undeniably beautiful. It is prominent and pointy. Its top is rimmed with snow reminiscent of Patagonia, with the added sulfur smell of rotten eggs. The next morning we took the standard route up the Hogsback and through the Pearly Gates. The infamous bergschrund was barely noticeable, but the open fumaroles offered an appropriate level of spice to the otherwise straightforward route. Indeed an unlucky climber had fallen into one of these the day before…
We took the ‘Old Chute’ to the ‘Hot Rocks’ down. I felt awful. My cold bloomed in the thin air. Andy had an ear-to-ear grin, while I was a hunched over grumpkin. He obliged my poor form and assured me that another 5500 feet of corn was sure to make me feel better. Skiing through the rime section down the steeps of the Hot Rocks and back into the Mt. Hood ski area worked far better than NyQuill or ColdEase ever has. Somehow we had perfect snow top to bottom: A.
The Best Line in the World
My revival was short lived. Back at the van I was ready to go to sleep for a week, but Andy had been staring at Mt. Adams all day and suggested heading that way.
“Check it out,” he said, Lou Dawson calls the Southwest Chutes on Adams “the world’s best ski descent!”
“Dang,” I responded, “that’s pretty tough to argue with.”
The road to the summer trail head wasn’t open yet, but a short walk from a few miles before it went quick in the morning. The snow was cold, the weather was perfect, the stoke grew.
We climbed the South Ridge and as we crested the South Peak, we could see our past four days on the horizon of every direction.
I ate smoked hooligan fish and took a nap while the snow softened. A guy walked up to me and said, “Hey, do you live in Anchorage? I think I ran into you once on the Jewel Glacier?” The crazy part is that I didn’t find this surprising. I truly love how small the ski community is.
Okay, I thought surely Lou was exaggerating. Surely Adams isn’t among the ‘best’ lines in the world. Well, I was wrong and Lou was right (no surprise there).
The Southwest Chutes drain off Adam’s South peak for nearly 4500 feet of perfect fall-line skiing to a short traverse that leads to another 3000 feet of rolling fun. Once in the woods, we followed an uptrack that ended right at our car. Somehow once again conditions were perfect top to bottom. Best run of the trip hands down: A+.
Sometimes you gotta just go with the flow. Changing plans doesn’t mean letting go of goals, but embracing new ones. The Alaska Range ended up having an all-time summer season, but there’s always next year. We didn’t have an epic expedition in Alaska, but we did have a hoot skiing perfect corn down iconic peaks.
I love it when a plan falls apart!
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Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.