avalanche-mount-hood

A huge avalanche rips down the north side of Mount Hood. Photo by Walter Burkhardt

If you’ve never seen a large avalanche rip off the top of a highly prominent peak and sweep three thousand vertical feet onto a glacier below, I highly recommend you check one out. Preferably from a safe distance.

Last week on the north side of Mount Hood, my buddy Walter and I were greeted with not one but four of these monsters that scoured the whole north side of the mountain while we watched from a safe distance on the Eliot Glacier. Having planned to climb the north side’s right gully, we left the Cloud Cap Inn around 5am, heading west to the moraine on the north end of the Eliot. Everything felt different from last year.

Though there was no base to speak of, there was more than a foot of fresh snow even below 7000 feet. In between two ridges on our way to the moraine we crossed a sheltered gully covered in glistening surface hoar crystals. As the sun came up and we rounded a cliff band, the whole north side appeared before us in all its splendor.

Walter knew immediately that we were not climbing the gully that day. He pointed out the fan of new snow below the entrance and we could see the wind blowing significant amounts of snow up top, cross-loading the very gullies we hoped to ascend.

I tried to remain optimistic and we agreed to go a little higher to take a better look before bagging our plans. Sure enough, about four minutes later the first slide broke just above the mid-way point of our intended route. After a good amount of yelling and cheering, Walter and I veered left onto the glacier to do some ice climbing. We no longer needed to discuss going any higher.

A few minutes later, the left gully (next to our intended route) tore out in style and sent an even larger slide all the way down to the glacier from an initiation point just below the summit ridge. It sounded like an airliner taking off and the powder cloud blocked out the sun for several minutes. Within an hour, the left gully had avalanched again, just as big as before, depositing a fan of debris out onto the glacier to our left.

Right as we began to set up our top rope above one of the yawning crevasses on the Eliot, the day’s main show kicked off as a true monster of a slide scoured all of Cooper Spur. It looked as if it started just above the chimneys at over 11,000 feet. As it rolled down the ridge east of us, we watched the whole slide in profile as it poured over the headwall onto the lower Eliot Glacier, leaving what looked like waterfalls of snow cascading over the cliff band for several minutes after the main body of the slide had come to a stop.

This was my third time being shut down by poor conditions on the north side, but each time I go I gain a new appreciation for Mount Hood’s nordwand. It’s harsh beauty and isolation make it a world apart from the well-traveled south and east slopes. And if you didn’t gather as much from the above description…there is a ton of snow up there! Grab your skins and your beacon and go do some exploring! Keep one thing in mind: Northwest Avalanche Center forecasts do not apply to the top of the mountain. We were below their “reporting ceiling” and conditions were very stable. Yet the top of the mountain threw off some serious slides that would have made for a real bad day had we been in the runout zones. While slides on the southern side of the mountain don’t tend to run terribly far, these went well over 3000 vertical feet. It’s an amazing playground up there, but one that requires a little more attention to detail.

 Photos by Walter Burkhardt

Mike Getlin grew up skiing and hiking in the Cascades. He lives in Portland with his wife and kids and splits his time between marketing consulting (as little as possible) and climbing (as much as possible).

Walter Burkhardt is a former Nepal mountain guide who lives in Hood River.

The day before these four slides broke loose on the north side, writer and photographer Joe Poulton documented a big slide on the south side of Mount Hood. It's been a hazardous early snow season - be careful out there!