Ski season is upon us!
Editor’s Note: Norwegian-born John Loseth is the President of Cascade Ski Club and one of the most experienced ski mountaineers on Mount Hood. Here is his account of a weekend attempting to ski several of the most challenging lines on the upper mountain, in less-than-ideal conditions.
Last weekend turned out to be perhaps the best climbing weekend of the season: two beautiful days with blue skies and no wind to speak off. I wasn't going to let a weekend like this get away without spending time above 11,000 feet on the roof of Oregon.
Saturday started with a good night's sleep Friday night at Cascade Ski Club lodge. I was on my way to Mt. Hood Meadows by 5 am and ready to start skinning up towards the Wy'East Face with Newton Headwall as my destination. Newton Headwall is wedged between Wy'East Face and the Black Spider, and the drop in is steep enough to make your heart pound a little faster than normal.
After skinning up to the crevasse visible at the top of Superbowl and climbing up the Wy'East Face, I was greeted by the view of one of the summit pinnacles.
The top of Wy'East is broad and relatively flat. From here, it's a short walk to Newton Headwall saddle which is hidden behind the little bump to the right in the picture below.
From the top of the little bump, you can wave hello to all the climbers hanging out on Hogsback, looking like little ants either climbing up or down on the ant trail on the south side of Mt Hood. The next day, I found myself being part of the ant trail on my way to the summit with the grand plan to ski Sandy Headwall.
Newton Headwall and Wy'East face get sun-baked from sunrise and it's advisable to descend before the snow gets too soft, or you risk setting of a wet slide that can make a fun day quickly turn into a not-so-fun day. My plan was to ski Newton Headwall, one of my favorite descents on the mountain. Unfortunately, it was trashed out by junk melting off the pinnacles and small wet slides.
Albeit far from as exciting as Newton Headwall, the Wy'East Face is not a bad alternative. Started skiing down 11:30 am and 20 minutes later, I was back to a melted out base area of Mt Hood Meadows with cold beers waiting.
Sunday went down as one of my top 5 climbs of Mt. Hood, which is now getting to be close to 100 (I've lost count). Easy skin up from Timberline to the top of White River Canyon. Then staircase-step climb from there to the summit. Right side Pearly Gates was in great condition, with no ice chunks falling off the pinnacles.
Five hours after starting from Timberline parking lot, I was on the summit with blazing sun and no wind. It was t-shirt weather up there. I ran into one of our members at Cascade Ski Club, who I told should have brought his trumpet being the professional trumpet player he is.
After spending a half hour on the summit, I made my way across the summit ridge towards Sandy Headwall.
I could see that Cooper Spur was in great shape — one of my favorite lines off the summit of Mt Hood.
What I didn't know was that a friend of mine, Juergen Steinhart, was on the opposite side of Sandy Headwall taking pictures from Bald Mountain. He captured an image of me down-climbing to Sandy Headwall. The silhouette of a person in the picture below is me approaching Sandy Headwall, which starts from the flat section below.
Not only did Juergen capture me, he also got some great shots of Sandy Headwall which gives the reader a little more appreciation for what it is.
The ski down Sandy Headwall is in the sunny section, with slopes greater than 40 degrees. When you've negotiated the ice fall half way down and successfully made it down on Sandy Glacier below, it's an easy skin to the bottom of Yocum Ridge, which you have to cross to get onto Reid Glacier and back to Timberline.
Once onto Reid Glacier, you have a few crevasses to negotiate before you get to Illumination Saddle and an easy ski back to Timberline.
Unfortunately, the snow on Sandy Headwall was not the creamy corn I had been hoping for. In fact, Sandy Headwall is rarely in great shape. I had my hopes, but my hopes got dashed again. When I started skiing down, I found myself skiing on small ice pellets with very little edge grip. Not safe.
The good news is that Leuthold is right there as well. By aborting Sandy Headwall, I was pretty sure I'd still get a good ski down Leuthold — at least to the Hour Glass. My wishes came through and I had a super-nice ski in creamy corn snow all the way down to the Hour Glass.
Leuthold starts at the top of Yocum Ridge. The Hour Glass is at the top of the open face of Reid Glacier Headwall. It’s a narrow section that is rarely in great ski shape, and you usually sideslip through to the face below. Then it’s pure bliss again — provided the face is not trashed by runnels and debris.
In retrospect Sandy Headwall is perhaps best done the opposite way from what I've been attempting over the years, with a couple of solid partners in case something happens. It's perhaps the most remote line on the mountain and you can't depend on calling for help, no matter what.
Climbing up the headwall before attempting to ski it might be the better strategy. By climbing up, you would know what you're in for. Coming in from the top as I did, you really don't know what the conditions are below. It's crucial that the narrow section which can have an icefall is passable. You can’t see that from the top. Coming up from below, if you find the narrow section impassable, you still will have a good ski, provided the snow is decent, back down to Sandy Glacier.
Sandy Headwall will have to wait until next year. A year I hope will be a far, far better snow year than what we had this year. I also hope to gather a good team before then.
We are so lucky to have a playground like Mt Hood in our backyard. Go out and have great experiences that will last a lifetime.