Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Solo Up the Palmer

The forecast promised a clear sunny day.   My backcountry buddies, Young and John, decided to ski up Mt. St. Helens and invited me to join them.  Although summitting MSH has been on my bucket list, I was battling a very sore hamstring.  Not wanting to be out in the wilderness should something go awry, I reluctantly declined.

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

Timberline Lodge view behind me

But the itch to get out and ski somewhere was nagging me.  I needed some sort of tour to satisfy my backcountry craving.

The sun tries to break through clouds

Luckily, there is always the Palmer Lift at Timberline Ski Area.  Closed in the winter due to severe weather, the Palmer is only operated for spring and summer skiing.  But uphill travel is allowed on its slopes anytime.  Due to the close proximity of the resort, it's a safe place for solo backcountry skiers.

Not sure what this tiny building is

I'd never before tried backcountry skiing by myself, so was a little bit nervous as I gathered my skis and backpack in the parking lot.  A huge class of Mazamas mountain-climbers-in-training were just heading up, and with their ropes, ice axes, and huge backpacks, were a bit intimidating.

Hood begins to emerge from the clouds

But I managed to find the snowcat road adjacent to the lodge, and after securing my climbing skins, and donning my backpack, began to climb.  Although sunshine was predicted, the skies were cloaked in thick, white clouds.  A bright, fuzzy, round sun struggled to burn through the foggy layers.

Snow covered Silcox Hut

My ascent was turtle-slow.  I'd done a long training run the day before and my body was still tired (and my hamstring unhappy) from the exertions.  But I was also distracted by a small grove of snow-crusted trees adjacent to the cat road.  The icy white patterns on the branches were most picturesque.  Lots of good photo ops.  (In truth, this delayed me more than my worn out legs.)

Mountain climbers in training

As I ascended the lower slopes, the sky began to lighten.  The shape of Mt. Hood's summit started to emerge from the clouds.  By the time I reached the top of the Magic Mile lift, my favorite mountain was in full view.

Follow the tracks

Ah....looking back downslope, the adjacent forests and mountains began to appear.  That sunny day I was promised might just happen after all!

Ice crusted lift cables

The path to the top of the Magic Mile lift gains approximately 1000 feet in elevation over a mile.  Not super-steep, I covered the distance without too much trouble.  However, the ascent from the Mile to the top of the Palmer was much steeper, gaining 1500 feet in a slightly shorter distance.  After a quick snack and photo session near the Silcox Hut, I gathered my strength for the tough climb ahead.

Ahhh.....nice groomed track

The good news - I discovered a wonderfully groomed track cut into the snow leading to the top of Palmer.  Yippee - no breaking trail!  The bad news - once I started up the steep black diamond slope, my body was not happy at all.  Legs and lungs screamed, my breathing became labored gasps for air, and my heart hammered in my chest.  The higher I climbed, the more frequent the rest stops became. 

Mt. Jefferson makes an appearance on the horizon

Luckily, the sky was mostly clear, providing excuses to take lots of scenery-capturing photo breaks.

Maintenance Man trying to knock ice off the tower

My groomed track paralleled the Palmer lift.  Still recovering from a recent storm, the cables and towers were coated in a white, icy crust.  About halfway up, I noticed some activity at one of the towers.  A maintenance guy had climbed to it's top and was attempting to knock the ice off.  An interesting sight, it didn't take much convincing to take a break and watch.

Ice removal from the lift cables

After all the ice had been removed from the pulleys on top, the maintenance guy climbed down, and was joined by another man in a snowcat.  They attached a long rope to one section of the lift's icy cable.  The other end of this rope was then tied to the snowcat.  Once everything was secure, one of the men jumped into the snowcat and drove it downhill.  As the rope traveled along the cable, snow and ice sheared off.  In no time at all the cable was clear, and the men had moved on to the next section.  For a skier slogging up the steep slope, watching this show was a welcome distraction.

Gettin' passed yet again....

I wasn't the only person crazy enough to ski uphill that day.  Chugging up this second section, I was passed by a couple dozen skiers.  Almost all of them were young and male, so I didn't feel too bad.  Then an older gentleman slid by me (he appeared to be in his 70s).  Then I started to feel like a wimp.  Looking back down the hill I realized I was now the last skier. 

Timberline's snowcat - the cheaters way to the top

Oh the last quarter mile was so hard!  I was dead tired, my heart kept trying to leap out of my chest, and it appeared the top of the lift would never come.  It got so bad I made myself count to 20 before I'd allow a rest stop.  I even briefly considered taking off my skins before reaching the top and just skiing back down.

View from the top of Palmer

But finally, finally, I climbed the final pitch to the top lift station.  What a sight for sore eyes!  The first order of business - find a spot to sit and have some lunch.

Clouds coming back in as I ski down

There were a few people sitting around by the snow-covered lift house.  I spotted a couple ski patrollers having their lunch, so I sat down nearby.  I wondered why the ski patrol was way up here when the lift wasn't running. 

Snow begins to fall near the top of the Mile

Then I made a discovery.  Timberline was using one of their snowcats to shuttle skiers up to the top of the Palmer.  I watched a bright red snowcat lumber up the slope.  Once stopped, a dozen snowriders got out.  The ski patrollers were assisting the people riding the snowcat. 

I was kind of disappointed.  Here I'd climbed all the way to the highest lift under my own power, and was looking forward to skiing pristine snow.  I'd earned the right to ski this.  But now I'd have to share the slope with people who took the easy way up.

The snowcat makes another trip uphill

Some lunch in my belly mellowed me out a bit.  There really was enough snow to go 'round.  And the nice groomed run wasn't very tracked up yet.  So I packed up my lunch, took off my skins and prepared to enjoy my reward.  Downhill travel, here I come!

Timberline Lodge in the snow

As I began my descent, I noticed the sunny skies had disappeared.  They'd been replaced by heavy clouds, that began to spit fat snowflakes.  Halfway down the snow began to fall in earnest.  At the bottom of the Palmer, I looked back up slope, and discovered visibility was deteriorating.  I could only see about halfway up the lift now.  I'd enjoyed a sunny trip up and sunshine while on top - my timing had been good.

I reached the Timberline Lodge with tired legs, but a smiling face.  I'd successfully completed a trip up the Palmer all by myself!  A huge confidence booster for sure.

Now to go home and ice that cranky hamstring.....


  1. just can't believe the amount of snow you have!?
    Great pics ^_^

  2. I have learned so much from you this year about skiing and you've certainly provided this easterner with a unforgettable view of your neck of the woods. So glad I found your blog.

  3. What an achievement and to do it on your own is really brave. You must have felt a great sense of satisfaction when you got to the top. Congratulations.

  4. Wow, I am impressed you made it all the way with your cranky hamstring! Great job! I bet it felt nice going down the slope :)

  5. You kicked butt on this one girl! Wow - you really pushed yourself. Nicely done.

  6. Very Impressive. Quite the hike. Thanks so much for sharing. Love the photos and the Timberline lodge in the snow make me want hot coco :)

  7. LOVED this Linda! I've never been higher than Timberline Lodge (although I know about the Palmer Lift)--it was wonderful to see the areas above there! Fabulous photos:)


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