Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The White Room

Another weekend, another ski tour with John and Young. It's getting to be routine.  This time, our adventure took us to Timberline Ski area for a self-propelled trip along the Palmer Lift.

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

Well, the day started out with partial blue skies

Our day started out partly cloudy, with some sun and blue sky teasing us.  The top of Hood peeped in and out of the clouds.  John said he'd heard things were supposed to clear up later in the morning. 

Beautiful untouched snow

Snow had been falling for several days up on Hood, and we were happy to see the adjacent slopes draped in a thick white coating.  It was totally untouched and unbelievably beautiful.

Taking turns skiing across a steeper slope

But John, Young and I couldn't resist making tracks through this perfect whiteness.  We began our tour with a climb up a steep powdery knoll right off the end of the climber's parking lot.  The slope was a little steep, so as an avalanche precaution, we crossed one at a time.

Our last small ray of sunshine

On top of the ridge, our views opened up.  We could see the adjacent snow-covered  hills, and low clouds hugging their tops.  But we could also see darker clouds and fog moving in. 

Single track through the white plain

John continued to believe things were supposed to clear up, and reminded us of this.  And then, it began to snow.  The higher we climbed, the stronger the wind, and the heavier the snowfall.  I was beginning to wonder where John heard his weather report.

The snow begins to fall

It wasn't like we were skiing in the wilderness. We were adjacent to a ski resort. Our goal was to ski from Timberline Lodge up to the top of the Palmer, the highest chairlift at Timberline Ski area. Our first leg paralleled the Magic Mile lift on a snowcat track, Timberline's designated uphill route. This snow road provided nice views of the historic lodge.

John skiing through the trees

Skiers and boarders whipped by on the adjacent runs of the Magic Mile.  Some snow-riders stared at us fools, trudging UPHILL.  Young and I laughed when John commented "they must think we're crazy!"

John and Young skinning up the cat track

Even though we were working hard skiing uphill, the strong wind kept our body temps from overheating. All three of us pulled our hoods up over our heads to protect faces from the icy blast. This time, I didn't remove any clothing layers during the climb.

Rest break (photo by Young)

Looking uphill, we could make out the outlines of the Magic Mile and Palmer lift buildings through the gathering white fog. Conditions didn't look very good up there. There wasn't any blue sky or sunshine anywhere to be found.  Hmmmm....... John, are you sure you got today's weather report?

The Mile and Palmer Lifts shrouded in white

After a long, tiring climb, the cat track we were following led us to the top of the Magic Mile. We took the opportunity and had a quick water and snack break. A very friendly ski patroller stationed at the top asked our destination, and gave a weather and conditions report. The guy said there was a storm coming in bringing more snow - a totally different forecast than John had heard. Looking at the current windy, snowy weather I tended to believe the patroller. Sorry John, no blue sky today!

I'm enjoying my chocolate (photo by Young)

At Timberline Ski area, the Palmer Lift begins at the top of the Magic Mile. The Palmer is the highest lift on Mt. Hood, reaching an elevation of 8,540 feet. It's located on a  treeless, exposed side of the mountain, and due to severe wind and visibility, is rarely open in the winter. This lift gets used mainly for spring and summer skiing, when conditions are much milder. Due to weeks of crummy weather, the Palmer hadn't been in use for awhile, as evidenced by it's iced-encrusted cables.

Snow and fog envelop the Palmer Lift towers

Above the Mile, visibility became very limited. We used the Palmer's iced-over lift towers as guideposts to navigate our way up. Every once and awhile a skier or boarder who'd already reached the top would materialize out of the fog and zip by.

The ice-crusted cables of the Palmer Lift

A lot of ski movies talk about entering the "white room" - a euphemism for riding deep powder or skiing in a storm.  My companions and I got totally enveloped in a thick, foggy cloud.  All I could see was the color white.  With the howling winds and swirling snow, getting heavier by the minute, I began to feel as though we'd entered our own white room (cue that Eric Clapton song!)

Visibility is getting worse

Two towers beyond the Palmer's midway unloading building, John halted our group and exclaimed "I can't see sh**!"  The conditions had deteriorated so much that we couldn't see a thing but white.  It was an unanimous decision to bag our goal.  Time to take off the skins, and try to make our way down.

Lunch break at the midway unloading building

It was an extremely slow return trip.  We alternated between hitting icy, blown-off areas, and deep snowdrifts full of fluffy powder (with a couple of small drop-offs thrown in just for fun).  And, thanks to the fog and blowing snow, we never knew the snow conditions until we were in them.  It was a true "skiing by Braille" experience.

Trying to pack up amidst the wind and snow (photo by Young)

But, oh the snow was so good!  It was the finest dry powder I've skied in a long time.  It's a rarity for Hood to get such light, fluffy snow.  I wished for some visibility.  It would've been so nice to be able to rip through this pow.

By the time we returned to the top of the Mile, conditions had improved.  Finally I could see farther than a foot in front of my face!  We continued our descent on the groomed run below the Mile.  But the slope was blown-off, and conditions weren't near as good as the untracked pow on Palmer's slopes.

Can you tell it's me under all these layers?

Time to go off-piste again!  John led us away from the groomed run, to some untouched fluff on the side of the cat track.  More fun ensued.  We skied down to the steep knoll we'd climbed first thing in the morning.  Our tracks were the only ones marring a perfect white slope.  John told me to go first.  I swooshed down that lovely powder slope, making graceful curving turns all the way. doesn't get any better than this!

Sorry, there's no photos of our wonderful trip down.  I was having way to much fun to stop and take pictures.  So you'll have to take my word for it, skiing down through that magical, lightweight snow was worth all the sweat and toil it took to reach the top.  I'd even endure a couple more hours in the "white room" to ski snow like that again!

Total stats for the day:  4 miles round-trip, 2000 feet elevation gain.  Three pairs of tired legs.  Too many powder turns to count.  And huge smiles on all our faces.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Although the calendar says it's spring, winter is not over yet in the Oregon Cascades. Not by a long shot. 

Perfect pow run (photo by Grant Myrdal)

For the past couple of years, March has been the month the Cascades receives it's largest amount of snowfall.  This year is no exception.  All last week, Hood got hammered by storm after storm, dumping huge amounts of white, fluffy goods.  The skiers were rejoicing!

No spring here

In many parts of the US, March is when the ski season winds down.  Not true on Mt. Hood.  We're just getting started.  The resorts typically stay open into May.  And at Timberline Ski area, the season lasts most of the summer (and sometimes into September, if we're lucky).   Spring skiing is the best.  Longer days, sunny skies, and tons of snow.  That's what I love about the Pacific Northwest.

Mid-day blue sky surprise

Last Friday was no exception.  I took one last vacation day, and headed up to partake of the newly-fallen snow that had been slamming Hood all week.

Gorgeous frosty trees

I hit the lift right at the 9 am opening.  A large amount of pow had fallen the night before.  Gazing out at the untouched slopes from the lift, it looked like a white canvas ready for a painter's brush.

More lovely white trees

Of course, it didn't take long before that perfect smooth snow was totally tracked up.  I had one opportunity for first tracks, and I messed it up by wiping out and losing a ski.  It took ten minutes of digging through hip-deep powder to locate my wayward plank.  The perils of deep pow!

I never tire of the views
By that time, deep grooves appeared in most every main run at Meadows.  But I was able to find a couple of nice powder stashes in between the trees.  And photographer Grant caught me whipping out of the forest into a nice deep bowl.  Woo-hoo!

There's no place I'd rather be

Some folks have asked if my skiing is nearing the end of the season (maybe they're getting tired of my endless skiing posts!)  But no - the party's just beginning.  As long as the snow keeps falling, I'll keep makin' turns.  I'm hoping to close down Mt. Hood Meadows, and then, I'll continue the fun in the backcountry.  My goal for this year is to surpass my all-time record number of ski days.  Counting today, I'm up to 29.  My previous high mark was 32 days.

I'm gonna blow this record out of the water!  :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cooper Spur Road

Ski mountaineering class finished in early March.  I thought that was the end of my chances to go backcountry skiing.  But another opportunity presented itself, thanks to my friends John and Young.  A couple of Saturdays ago, they invited me to join them skiing up the Cooper Spur Road.  Of course, I responded with a most enthusiastic YES!

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

Snow-covered Cooper Spur Road

Cooper Spur Road is a narrow, winding Forest Service lane, that, in the summer, takes visitors up to the historic Cloud Cap Inn and Tilly Jane Cabins.  (See previous post here to read more about the historic Cloud Cap Inn and Tilly Jane area).  But this road is closed in the winter, and access is restricted to hardy souls on snowshoes or skis (well, and snowmobiles too).

Following the tracks up the road

The weather report was iffy for Saturday.  A storm was predicted to roll in midday, with winds and snow.  But we left Portland in warm temps, and encountered torrential rain while driving through the Gorge.  Uh-oh!  Maybe today wasn't going to be good for skiing.

But entering the town of Hood River, the sky began to clear.  Young spotted a rainbow arching over the Columbia River.  The second time in two weeks I'd seen a rainbow on my way to go skiing!  I told my companions it was a good omen.

Heading cross-country into the forest

We arrived at the Sno-Park near the Cooper Spur Ski area.  It was familiar territory, as our class began the Tilly Jane tour here a month ago.  This time, instead of following the trail, our plan was to ski up the snow-covered road.  Our destination, however, remained the same.  The goal was to reach the Cloud Cap Inn.

My great skiing companions

Weather was warm from the get-go.  We didn't get too far up the road before stripping down to base layers.  The above-freezing temps meant that the snow was already soft.  That was fine with me.  I don't like skiing on ice ever - even if I'm skiing uphill with climbing skins. 

Treewells in the burned-out forest

About two miles up the road, John whipped out his map and gps, and decided we should short-cut into the woods.  The Cooper Spur road is very windy, and it was much shorter and more direct to ski cross-country through the forest.  Young wasn't too sure about this.  She was afraid of getting lost.  But John assured her there was no way this would happen.  We had maps, compass, and two gps units.  Plus, our route would cross the road many times, so there was always an bailout point.

A single skiers track through the ghost forest

So off we went, making our own tracks through the snow.  The forest in this area was scorched in a 2008 fire, and the blackened, dead trees made for a scenic, if not slightly eerie route.

Lunchtime!  PB&J never tasted so good.

Happily, the snow was soft and easy to ski through.  John, Young, and I eyed the slopes we were ascending, already plotting our trip down.  If the temps held, we'd be rewarded with some sweet corn snow for our descent.

Young enjoys some hot tea

We made frequent rest, photo, and navigation breaks.  John was teaching Young how to use a map and compass and included me in the lessons.  I appreciated the instruction - this is one skill I'd like to get better at. 

Great photo of Young and John

The weather cooperated big time.  The temperatures stayed pleasantly warm, the skies partly cloudy, the wind nonexistent.  Considering the forecast, we couldn't believe our luck.

The skiing trio

Finally John skied up a steep slope.  Although his gps said we were less than a half mile from Cloud Cap, our watches read 12:30, and our tummies said lunch was past-due.  So we decided to take a lunch break, and settled down on the side of the hill amongst the ghost forest.  My hot tea and PB&J bagel never tasted so good!


The sun even came out during lunch!

Once we had food in our systems, it was decision time.  Did we continue on uphill to Cloud Cap Inn, or was it time to take off the skins and ski back down?  The weather was starting to change, and a fog bank rolling in.  The temps seemed to be dropping slightly, and we didn't want the nice soft snow to turn icy before we could get down.  So the consensus was to turn around and head for the trailhead.

Nice views on the ski down

All morning while huffing and puffing up the slope, I'd looked forward to effortlessly sliding back down through the trees.  I'd hungrily eyed the soft snow, anticipating the first sweet turns.  But my return trip didn't turn out as I'd imagined.

I manage a few tele-turns

I was skiing with a new, larger backpack.  I don't know if it was the bigger pack throwing off my balance, or fatigue from the four-mile run I'd done the night before.  Or maybe the tele-gods deserted me.  Whatever the reason, I began to have a heck of a time making turns in the snow.

John flying through the snow

I made frequent falls.  Getting up started to become extremely difficult and taxing.  My backpack acted like a anchor, tipping me backward, and making it hard to stand back up.  I felt like a turtle that got flipped on its back.

Young takes off through the forest

At first, I made jokes about my crashes.  I told my companions: "Help I've fallen and I can't get up!"

I fall for the umpteenth time

But after wiping out over a dozen times, I lost my cool.  After unsuccessfully struggling to right myself, I had a meltdown right there in the forest, hollering out a bunch of choice cuss words (that I hardly ever say).  It probably didn't help that John had my camera at the time and captured me sprawled out in the snow.

John's wackiness cheers me up

But John and Young, being the good PATIENT friends that they are, came to my aid and put up with my little hissy fit.  Young helped me onto my feet and John offered to take some of the weight in my pack.  John stared acting goofy, and got me laughing again.

I actually stayed upright this time

After blowing off some steam, I felt better.  And after that, things improved.  I managed to stay upright the rest of the way to the road, and even got a couple more good tele-turns through the soft snow, which was beginning to get a tiny bit crusty.

Here comes Young!

Navigation back to the road was a breeze.  We just followed our tracks through the woods.  I didn't take long and my group reached the point where we'd began our forest traverse.  An easy two mile slide down the road was all that remained.

I'm havin' fun now

Higher up, I'd noticed the clouds and fog moving in and getting thicker.  A few snowflakes occasionally drifted through the trees.  But once we reached John's truck, raindrops began to dot the ground.  What perfect timing!  We'd managed to make it to the trailhead before the precip started to fall. 

We earned these beers!

Now there was only one thing left to do.  Time to head to the brewpub for some well-earned beers!  After a good day's backcountry ski tour, nothing tastes better.

Aside from the minor frustrations with my downhill trip, I still had a great time.  A fantastic day to be out in the woods!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

54 Degrees

Last week a heat wave hit the Portland Metro area.  On Thursday, temps were predicted to top 60 degrees in town.  That meant above-freezing weather on Hood for sure!

Slopeside wackiness

Thursday was also the final ski bus day of the season.  But even though the warm weather meant less-than-ideal snow conditions, I couldn't miss the last bus!

Barb tries out some demo skis

It was already warm at 9:30 in the morning, when the bus pulled in to Mt. Hood Meadows.  Upon deboarding, I realized I'd put on way too many layers.  I should've left my extra clothes on the bus right then and there, but since you never know what the wind's doing up on top, I kept everything on.  I paid for that decision dearly, sweating it out all morning.

My great skiing buddies

The bad thing about skiing on super-warm days, is that you only have a short window of time before the snow turns to mush (aka "mashed potatoes").  Once snow reaches this point, it gets extremely sticky and grabby.  Not good for someone bombing along on skis (the cause of many a face-plant).  I reckoned we had until 2 or 2:30 before conditions would force us off the slopes and into the bar.

Heather Canyon, looking in from A-zone

But my skiing friends and I were determined to wring as many runs as we could from the day.  Our plan was to start at the lower slopes, and as the temp rose, move higher.  I buddied up with Linda, Judy, and a man named Pat, one of Judy's high school friends.  We later met Barb, who'd been held up renting some demo skis.

Entering Heather from A-zone

Although the day was warm, I was enjoying the sunshine.  And you can't beat the wonderful views from Mt. Hood Meadows' slopes.

Sunshine reflecting off an icy slope

Photographer Grant was out on the slopes, taking advantage of the blue skies to get some skier shots.  I stopped to say "hi" and we chatted for a bit.  Grant told me the ski patrol was going to open some of the bowls off of Heather Canyon, and when that happened, he was heading over. 

Linda pauses mid-canyon

Hmmm......Heather Canyon.  I'd only skied in there once so far this year.  Most Thursdays, I've had my tele-skis and I'm not a good enough tele skier yet to go down double-black diamond runs (which is all there is in Heather).  But today I had my alpine skis, and was ready to rip things up. 

Heather Canyon is huge!

It was almost lunchtime by then, but the seed had been planted.  I convinced Linda and Pat that we needed to take a trip down Heather, before the snow turned into slushees.  At the top of the lift, we talked to a really nice patroller who gave us the rundown on which bowls were open.  Apparently only the south-facing bowls had snow soft enough to ski.  The bowls that didn't get the morning sun were still very icy.  But A-zone, the highest lift-accessed run on Heather, was open and conditions were rumored to be good.

An incredible place to be on a sunny day

Pat and Linda rarely ski Heather.  So I became the de facto leader, guiding our group to the top of A-zone's steep face.  Peering into the abyss, the snow appeared to be very cut up.  But we were already here, and there really wasn't any way to go but down.  So we pointed our skis and entered the canyon.

Hood view from Heather runout

Heather Canyon is a beautiful place.  It's a huge ungroomed skier's paradise.  From the bottom of A-zone, people on the slopes above looked like tiny ants.  The summit of Hood loomed large at the top of the canyon.  Linda, Pat, and I picked our way down the bowls and gullies, occasionally pausing for rest and scenery breaks.  Although the snow wasn't too bad in A-zone, the lower we traveled, the stickier it became.  At the very bottom, there is a long flat run to the lift, and if you don't get up enough speed, you'll end up walking.  I was afraid the snow conditions would slow us on the runout.  But we tucked the final slope and were able to make it all the way.

View from the Heather Lift

The Heather lift crosses over the top of the Shooting Star lift.  On the ride back, I whipped out my camera and captured this unique view.

Lunchtime gear pile

Lunchtime was past due!  We headed to the lodge to meet up with Barb and Judy, who'd gone in before our Heather expedition.  Everyone was so warm, once inside, we shed as much clothing as possible.  Barb laughed at all our clothing piled up on the counter.  A sure sign of a warm spring day!

"Love Bus" riders on top of Cascade

After refueling, our group returned outside to grab skis.  Meadows had put out a bunch of picnic tables on the patio, and they were full of people enjoying a sunny lunch.  The snow was melting like crazy.  There were puddles of water everywhere.  We heard someone say it was 54 degrees outside.  54 degrees?  Wow!  That's awful warm to be trying to ski.  I hoped the snow was still okay.  This might be a short afternoon.

Can't beat the blue skies!

My friends and I headed up to the Cascade lift.  On top we discovered, much to our delight, that the snow was nice and soft, but not sticky.  My group ran into a bunch of people from our bus, all skiing together.  We combined into one large massive swarm of skiers and completed several runs.  It was great fun to ski in such a large bunch of people.  And of course, I had great fun taking photos of everyone.  The snow up top stayed just cold enough, so we ended up skiing until 3:00, much later than expected on such a warm day.

All I can say is "yahoo!"  (photo by Grant Mrydal)

I skied at temperatures of 54 degrees and survived!  Not only did I survive, but I had loads of fun.  I'm sorry the ski bus is done for another season, but skiing is definitely not over yet.  The Cascades tend to get their biggest snowfalls during the month of March, and Meadows usually is open until early May.  Lots more good times ahead.  And I love spring skiing!

So I leave you with one last photo from my buddy, photographer Grant.  When I saw his photos from the day, I just had to buy this.  He captured me perfectly in a moment of pure bliss.  I have nothing else to say, but WOO-HOO!