Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tilly Jane Tour

Last Saturday the Mazamas ski mountaineering class scheduled its first all-day ski tour of the season.  Students had the choice of three locations, and I chose the Tilly Jane Ski Trail.  I'd heard about this tour from many different people over several years.  Now was the chance to finally ski it for myself.

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

Yes, I love trail sign photos!

The Tilly Jane/Cloud Cap area is located on the NE side of Mt. Hood.  It's an officially designated historic district.  This area contains some of the oldest structures on the mountain.  There's the Cloud Cap Inn, built in the summer of 1889.  At an elevation of 5837 feet, it's the country's oldest high alpine ski cabin.  The Inn is still in use today by the Crag Rats, a local climbing club.  Other historic structures include the Snowshoe Club Cabin, constructed in 1910; the Tilly Jane Guard Station, circa 1934; and the Tilly Jane Ski Cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939.  In order for skiers to access this cabin, the CCC also created the Tilly Jane Ski Trail.

Skier obstacle course

Early Saturday morning, two Mazama groups gathered in the sno-park adjacent to Cooper Spur Ski area.  The faster group put on their skis and took off quickly up the trail.  That left my group, dubbed the "leisurely group"  (we didn't want to call ourselves the "slow group") with Kevin, our fearless leader. 

So off we started from the trailhead.  Precip from the night before had frozen on the needles of the fir trees.  Sunshine filtered through the branches, turning the forest into a mass of glittering tiny icicles.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.

Only a half mile in and I'm already pooped!

This year the snowpack has been less than usual.  Not far from the trailhead, my group encountered the effects of low snow.  In many areas, the snow was totally gone from the trail - washed away by rains.  That meant we had to ski over areas of dirt, rock and pine needles.  (Lucky we had our climbing skins on - that saved our ski bases!)  Then we began to encounter a bunch of blown-down trees across the path.  Between the bare spots and the trees, the first half mile was a true skier's obstacle course.  It was so bad, two people from our group turned around and headed back.

We began our tour to lovely blue skies

But it was a lovely blue-sky morning.  The nice weather was a surprise, as the forecast had called for clouds and precip.  Bonus!

Hello from Young and Julie

After the first half mile, things began to get better.  The trail stayed relatively snow covered, the forest cleared, the there were no more trees to hop over.  But skiing uphill is hard, hot work.  Most of us got so warm we stripped down to our long john tops and zipped open the sides of our ski pants.  Even so, sweat poured from my body.  No worries about keeping warm as long as I kept moving!

The snow was sparse in some places

Our group climbed until we reached an area where a fire had recently scorched the forest.  In the fall of 2008, the Gnarl Ridge Fire burned a large portion of the Tilly Jane woods.

Checking the map

The burned tree trunks made for an eerily beautiful landscape.  And the great thing for us skiers - the fire-cleared forest created nice wide glades.  Epic tree skiing on a powder day.

Blue sky and smiles!

Sadly, today's snow was hard and icy.  No powder to be seen anywhere.

Burned out remnants of the fire

But the lovely blue sky made up for the crunchy snow.  And it was great to be in the backcountry on such a nice day.

There are some photos you just have to post at ginormous size

I, of course, had a grand time taking photos.  Whenever our group stopped for a break, the first thing I'd do is whip out my camera and start shooting.  Sometimes I spent so much time snapping away, it left almost no time to take in food and water.

Happy skiers

But I couldn't help myself - as we climbed, the scenery kept getting better and better.  If it wasn't for the fact I needed to stay with the group, my photo count would've been much higher.

The Tilly Jane A-frame

Finally, we climbed a steep pitch, and there before us was the A-frame of the Tilly Jane Ski Cabin.  Yahoo!  Time for a well-earned lunch break.  After skiing uphill for the last couple hours, my body was ready for some food.

The cabin made a great lunch spot

The cabin was rustic, but charming.  The downstairs was full of picnic tables, and had a wood stove off to one side.  There was an upstairs loft that appeared to be a sleeping area for anyone who wished to spend the night.  The cabin was full of outdoor recreation-lovers, all enjoying a dry, warm place to take a break.  Besides our group, there were a bunch of snowshoers in the cabin having lunch.

Back on the trail again

After lunch, I assumed Tilly Jane was our day's destination, and now we'd ski back down to the trailhead.  But Kevin surprised me when he said, no, we were continuing our uphill climb. 

Skiing through the snowy fog

Although disappointed at first (I was getting tired of skiing uphill and really wanted a break), I'm glad we continued.  Turned out the best was yet to come.

Our fearless leader Kevin demonstrates how to dig an avy pit

We skied through dense forest until finally reaching a wide, treeless gully.  And much to our delight our group discovered that at this higher elevation the gully's slopes were covered in a couple inches of powder!  Woo-hoo!   The sky clouded up, and began to spit snowflakes.

Husband-wife digging team

At the top of the gully, Kevin stopped and announced this would be our turn-around point.  But before we could ski back down, he wanted the class to dig an avalanche pit to determine the snow's stability.

Colorful gear decorates the forest

Our group shed it's gear, dropping backpacks and sticking skis and poles into the snow.  The colorful gear really stood out against the white snow.  We dug out our warm jackets and grabbed snow shovels.

Julie tests the snowpack

Everyone took turns digging the avy pit.  After Kevin determined we'd reached the proper depth, each person got into the pit and analyzed the snow.  We were looking for any weak layers, which indicated a potential slide.

Giving it the shovel test

Then Kevin instructed our group to dig out a column of snow and give it the "shovel test."  Whacking the column with a shovel, first with light taps, then graduating to heavy blows, would give us an idea of how the snow would react under loads (like the weight of a skier).

Time to click in the heels and ski!

After determining the snow was indeed safe to ski, next came the moment we'd all been waiting for.  Time to ski down that nice powdery gully!  As we were putting away our gear and clicking in our boots, the first group came whooping down from above, making tracks through our perfect snow.  Poachers!

Downhill is so much fun!

But there was enough pow for all, and once everyone was ready, we picked our lines.  It was a run of pure bliss.  The snow was soft, and the gully the perfect pitch.

I was the only telemark skier in my group. Although my tele skills still need lots of improvement, I gained the admiration of my group-mates when I somehow executed a few perfect turns through the pow (it helps when you're the only telemarker - no one to compare to!)

Zipping through the forest

The rest of the ski down was way funner than I expected. Winding through the forest was a blast.   And once we got down lower, the warm temps of the day had softened the icy snow enough to be skiable. We skied down in about a fourth of the time I'd taken us to ski up.

Class group photo

But our group had one adventure left in the day. About a mile from the trailhead, the snow became thinner, and thinner. We had to navigate our skis around a host of obstacles; trees, rocks, vegetation. Finally, fearing for our bases, we decided to take the skis off and hike the rest of the way out. I was able to figure out how to carry my skis on my little backpack, and it wasn't as hard as I though I'd be. We walked out on a different trail, and ended up at the top of Cooper Spur Ski area's lone chairlift. Of course no one was going to pass up the opportunity for one more downhill slide.  We put our skis back on and had a final run down the slopes of Cooper Spur.

We had to carry our skis for the final mile

At the bottom of the hill, who should I meet snowshoeing to the parking lot, but my hiking buddies Chuck and John.  Boy, what a small world!

I was ever so grateful to see my car.  The tour had completely worn me out.  My body was so sticky with sweat, I felt like I'd run a 20-miler.  My legs, back, and arms all ached.  Backcountry skiing is such a full body workout. 

Thanks to my fellow "leisurely" groupmates for such a wonderful day.  You were all great people to ski with.  And also kudos to our leader Kevin for volunteering his time to take a bunch of rookies skiing out-of-bounds.  You totally rock!

Total stats for the day: 8 miles round trip and approx. 2000 feet elevation gain.  And the satisfaction of knowing I'd earned every inch of that wonderful downhill run.


  1. Well that was one heck of a work out. Gorgeous photos!

  2. What a very, very cool adventure! And BEAUTIFUL, too!!!

  3. That looks like so much fun! Great pictures and looks like an awesome workout!

  4. Wow that was some trip. But looks like you had fun. Nice learning about the avalanche testing too. Be specially in light of recent accidents


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