Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Beyond Palmer

About a month ago, my friends Young, John and I attempted to ski to the top of the Palmer Lift at Timberline Ski Area.  As you may recall from a previous post (which can be found here) we ran into a blinding snowstorm, and had to abort.

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

Good mornin' Mt Hood!

Well, last Saturday was redemption day.  The forecast called for clear skies and warm temps.  We couldn't have asked for more fantastic weather.  Perfect spring skiing conditions.  Time to give skinning up the Palmer another shot.

Lots of solar power today

The air was balmy from the very beginning.  Above-freezing temps meant no icy snow to traverse.  The snow was soft and forgiving from the very first step (or should I say, first slide?)

Starting our climb

There wasn't a cloud in the sky.  This meant panoramic views of the surrounding hills and valleys as we ascended our route.

Our destination in sight

Skinning up a steep slope is so much better when you can see where you're going!

Enjoying the sunshine

Even though skiing uphill is slow, tiring, and extremely difficult, I enjoyed our first 1000 feet of climbing.

The Magic Mile and Palmer lift houses

But things got tougher once we passed the top of the Magic Mile and the bottom of the Palmer Lift.  The slope became much steeper.  Let the slog begin!

Climber's tracks lead to the summit

And slog it was.  By that time, my body was beginning to tire, its fuel tank on low.  It was getting close to lunchtime, and I'd burned through breakfast long ago.  My hip flexor muscles were screaming, requiring frequent rest breaks.  And to top it off, I began to get hot spots on my heels from moving my feet up and down, propelling the skis forward.

My view skinning beside the Palmer

I stopped and taped up my right heel.  That didn't seem to do any good.  Then I remembered the heel risers on my bindings.  I'd never tried them before, but I was desperate.  Once I popped the risers up, my feet didn't have to sink all the way back down to my skis with every step.  Less motion meant less friction on my heels.  Instant relief!  I continued my slow shuffle up the slope, keeping the top of Palmer in my sights.

Looking waayyy back down to Young

Young's energy was also flagging.  We plodded along the designated climber track, adjacent to the groomed Palmer ski trail.  But Young and I were hardly alone.  The nice weather had brought out many backcountry skiers, all doing the slow shuffle up the mountain.  Of course, most of them were way faster than us!  One man was even accompanied by his dog on leash.  (I wonder what the dog did when he skied back down?)

All the cheaters who rode the lift up

And, for the first time this season, Timberline opened up the Palmer Lift that very same day.  Not only were we joined by a host of backcountry ski enthusiasts (and a few lone snowshoers and climbers) but we began to encounter skiers and boarders zipping down the groomed run beside us.  Some of these folks weren't content to stay on the corduroy, and instead chose to make their way down the ungroomed side, very close to our path.  It wasn't exactly the quiet, backcountry atmosphere I was expecting.

Close-up view of ice-crusted crater wall

After an extremely long, tiring climb, the top of the Palmer Lift came into view.  I spied John taking a rest with some of the other skiers.  He'd skied ahead, dug out his blister care kit, and was ready to attend to my sore feet.  "Dr. John" taped up my raw heels and then I dug out my lunch.  Boy was I famished.  PB & J never tasted so good!

Same wall with humans for scale

Young finally arrived at our lunch spot.  She was also mighty hungry, and we wolfed down our food while watching all the snow-riders get off the lift, pose for photos, and ski back down.  Our ski mountaineering class had an acronym for these folks - L.A.M.E. (Lift Assisted Mechanically Equipped).  My companions and I were feeling mighty superior.  No LAME skiing for us.  We earned our turns!

Contrail over Illumination Saddle

The entire trip up the Palmer's slopes, I'd been eyeing the nice, soft corn snow, gleefully anticipating a great ski back down.  I was almost disappointed when after lunch, John announced we were traveling yet higher on the mountain.  I hoped we weren't going to climb for too much longer, and miss our good snow window of opportunity.

Amazing icy views!

But I'm so very glad John wanted to climb higher.  It turned out to be the best part of our tour.  Above the Palmer, the snow changed dramatically.  The very top layer consisted of small icicle-shaped chunks of ice.  The morning sun had softened the ice so that our skis edges easily cut into it.  The snow below was just the right consistency - soft, but not grabby.  The best snow we'd encountered all day, it was a dream to ski through.

John is a speck against the summit crater

John's goal was to reach Illumination Saddle, a wide depression between Illumination Rock and Mt. Hood's crater.  Illumination Rock is a large basalt plug that sits very prominently on the western side of the crater (look back at my first photograph, and you'll see it off to the left).  As we climbed further up the mountain, the icy cliffs of Hood's crater came closer into view.  They were truly spectacular!


Me and my trusty skis

Luckily, the terrain above the Palmer Lift was not as steep as what we'd been climbing (my heels appreciated that!)  Our route dipped into a bowl-like depression downhill from the crater that seemed to block the pesky wind that'd been blasting us all day.  With no wind and pure sun, temps in the bowl were downright toasty.  It was a very comfortable ski across a glittering, icy plain.

Group photo

Finally, John picked a spot in the middle of the wide, icicle-spangled slope and declared it our turn-around point.  We sat down, took a breather, and enjoyed the wonderful views from high on Hood.  From my perch, I could see both the Zigzag and Little Zigzag Canyons far below.  Uphill, the summit crater looked so close, it seemed one could reach out and touch it.  And views looking west extended almost all the way to Portland.  Truly amazing!  There is nothing more satisfying than taking in vistas that most people never see.  Especially when you've traveled there under your own power.


New elevation PR for Mt Hood!

And I reached a new elevation personal record for Mt. Hood.  My previous Hood high point had been the top of the Palmer, elevation 8,540 feet.  But John got Young and I up past 9,000 feet elevation.  Almost 9,100 feet, to be exact.  From Timberline's parking lot we'd climbed a grand total of 3,000 feet.  Woo-hoo for us!

Wonderful view of Illumination Rock

So my party and I spent a lovely half hour sitting on top of the world, eating, resting, and taking lots of photos.  By this time it was mid-afternoon, and the sun-warmed snow began to sluff off from the steeper slopes above us.  We were far enough away not to be in any danger, and it was cool to watch small point avalanches roll down the crater walls and the slopes below Illumination Rock.  But the temps were still on the rise, and we didn't want to miss our good snow window.  Time to do what we'd been dreaming of the entire climb - take off those skins and go downhill!

Time to ski down!

The first run down was pure heaven.  The ice parted beneath my ski edges for some sweet, effortless turns.  I glided down the first 500 feet sporting the world's biggest smile.  Totally hero snow!

Enjoying the fabulous corn snow

Of course by now, my legs were mighty pooped from our grand climb.  I stopped for frequent "quad breaks" whenever my tele-turns became shaky.  Young was tired too, so she didn't mind. 

Skiers against the skyline

And besides, on this sunny day, the scenery was so fantastic!  From Hood's  high slopes, we could see a panorama of mountains and forest, from the plains of eastern Oregon, past the Cascade volcanoes, to the foothills of Portland.  A descent with views this grand just shouldn't be hurried.

Here comes Young!

But warm sunny days on the slopes means you'll eventually encounter snow that is too soft for skiing.  As we traveled further down the mountain, the snow became softer and slushier.  The consistency slowly grew thicker.  Then the mushy slop began to grab our skis.  This started to happen about the time we reached the top of the Magic Mile Lift.  There was still another thousand feet to go.  Ugh!  The last mile was a long, slow, careful trek that tested our "survival skiing" skills to the max.

Below the Palmer lift house

Finally Timberline Lodge came into view.  A most welcome sight!  We all agreed it was time to head to Hood River for some well-earned beer.

A day like today totally stoked my enthusiasm for backcountry skiing.  Even with the endless uphill haul, numbing fatigue, and blisters, I still had a fabulous time.  Backcountry skiing is taking me to places I've never been before.  I'm discovering new aspects of Mt. Hood, on beyond Palmer.


  1. Wow - what views - I'm not a skier but that's some beautiful country there.

  2. Linda, thanks for visiting my blog because otherwise I would not have found yours. I am looking forward to reading about your exploits and drooling over your pictures.
    I wish I could ski better but I learned to ski only 3 years ago and haven't spent enough time on skis to consider myself a skier.
    BTW, are you on facebook? If so, maybe you could send me an invite:

  3. What an absolutely glorious day! The vista's you had are unbelievable! You caught it through your lens so perfectly.

  4. What a tour! And many thanks for flagging up that "chandelier snow". Never yet met any, but I'll sure be on the look out for it from now on.

    PS: Many thanks for visiting One Hundred Mountains. Good to see there's a readership in the vicinity of Mt Hood.


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