Mount Hood — Vital Information for Backcountry Skiers and Snowboarders

Post by blogger | June 4, 2014      

Timberline Lodge has one full restaurant; the Cascade Dining Room.

The lodge has two bars. The Ram’s Head has a perfect view of the mountain, and a bounty of historical photographs. In the event of a Northwest blizzard, you can fit in at the Ram’s Head by wearing your woollies and sipping coffee all day. The other bar is a dark hole, but after several days of weather it can appeal to depressed mountaineers.

Across the parking lot from Timberline Lodge is another large building called the Wy’east Day Lodge. This is a conglomeration of ski shops, gift shops, and a cafeteria where you can get a standard burger meal. None of the restaurants at Timberline serve during the wee morning hours of an alpine start. Our solution for that problem was to keep an ice chest of goodies our room.

For the budget minded, proletarian lodging is less than 45 minutes from Timberline in and around the town of Government Camp. Twelve Forest-Service camps circle Mount Hood. Alpine Campground is several miles down the road from the lodge, and others are nearer to Government Camp. The higher elevation campgrounds will still be closed during the spring ski mountaineering season. You can buy groceries in Government Camp, or eat in a choice of several restaurants in the town.

About a thousand vertical feet above Timberline Lodge, next to the ski slopes, the Silcox Hut is available for luxury bivouacs. This beautiful stone and wood structure was built in the thirties, became decrepit, and is now renovated. Contact Timberline Lodge for information.

On the northeast side of the mountain, just below the Elliot Glacier, there is a huge A frame called the Tilly Jane. Access is from Hood River or Parkdale, via the Cooper Spur ski area. The Tilly Jane is owned by the Forest service, cost is per night is reasonable.

For the truly budget minded, several primitive stone shelters are open to all comers. The most useful is the Cooper Spur Hut, located just below timberline at 7,000 feet elevation on the Cooper Spur.

A dormant volcano, Mount Hood rises from the plains like a mystic sentinel, glowering over more than 20,000 square miles of forest, river, ocean and desert. Any mountain that exposed and that close to the ocean will have rabid weather. Hood is no exception.

During a “good winter,” in some places the snow will accumulate up to 75 feet deep. However, a sparse winter’s snow-pack will still yield magnificent spring skiing. Snow comes packaged with horrid storms. During one winter on Hood, high winds blew out a window in a snowcat being used for a rescue. The driver got so cold he had to be rescued himself. Grim winter weather on Hood will give climbers a challenge, but only those with the luck to find a lull in the storms will enjoy the frigid season.

Mount Hood weather warms in the spring, but storms keep barging in off the ocean. Then, sometime in May or June, a slightly better weather pattern begins. Storms still roll in, but less often. This is the time when ski mountaineers will find the best travel. Also, on some years early snows combine with an indian summer for superb autumn mountaineering. Locals love this, but designing a ski vacation over the illusive fall season would be hard. All talk of good weather aside, any local can tell you that Mount Hood makes its own bad weather — any time of year. Be ready.

Mount Hood is just a big pile of loose lava rock. So, when the snow cover melts off, dangerous rockfall is common. Rumor says that years back, the Forest Service installed a steel cable hair-net over the summit to keep it from falling down.

You should register for mountaineering on Mount Hood. This is best done by ducking into the registration booth at the Wy’east Day Lodge across the parking lot from Timberline. The registration booth has excellent oblique aerial photos of all sides of Mount Hood, and a weather radio. If your plans do not include a stop at Timberline, you can register at the Forest service offices in Government Camp or Hood River.

The most popular and accessible spring ski mountaineering is on the south side of Hood, accessed from Timberline Lodge. Timberline Ski Area, next to the lodge, operates the Palmer chair lift until September. For people from southern climes, a day of lift skiing in summer weather is a worthwhile novelty. But almost 50 square miles of ski mountaineering terrain make the lifts pale in comparison.

An early morning walk up the ski area, or a snowcat ride ($20.00 each for 3 people) gets you to the top of the Palmer Chair Lift at 8,600 foot elevation. From there, you can strike north or south for excellent tours, just use your altimeter and compass to lock onto the traverse back to the lodge, rather than being suckered into deadly canyons below timberline.

For more challenging skiing on the South Side, you can make summit ski descents, or ski from The Hogback above Crater Rock. For the classic summit ski descent (maximum angle 45·), follow the standard south side route, via The Hogback, to the summit. A good brochure on this route is available from the Forest Service. From the summit, ski north to the small false summit, then continue a few hundred feet farther north to a point just above The Mazama Face. If you’re on ice forgo your skis and use crampons until you find skiable snow. Ice in the Northwest is real ice, not hard snow! Ski the Mazama Face, and either traverse back to The Hogback, or continue down through the amphitheater on the north side of Crater Rock. The later requires good snow cover. If you have something more extreme in mind, the gully directly down to the Hogback from the summit is sometimes in skiable condition (maximum angle about 50·, varies with snow cover).

Farther to the east on the south side, good skiing can be found on the broad slopes east of the White River Glacier. This area is best approached be a traverse from the top of the Palmer Chair Lift. Summit ski descents have been done here as well, though they are more involved and perhaps more dangerous than the Mazama Face or Hogback Gullies.

Moving even farther around the mountain, the Newton Clark glacier and Wy’east [this is the correct spel.] Snow Chute were used by Sylvan Sudan for a classic ski descent route back in 1971 (maximum angle 50·). The best access to this area is probably via the Mt. Hood Meadows ski area, though those who know the mountain well can climb the South Side, then ski the East Side.

If you like wilderness, the vast north side of Mount Hood is a fantastic area for multiday trips. Various trailheads are accessible from the towns of Hood River and Parkdale. If you are fit and know your glacier travel, try a one day orbit of the peak. Several groups have done this by staying between 7,000 and 9,000 feet elevation.

Use safe glacier-travel methods during any skiing or climbing on Mount Hood. Early in the season, most of the crevasses are well bridged, so skiers may not need to rope up as often as foot travelers. Nevertheless, if you get off-route you may find yourself in dangerous crevasse fields. So carry a lightweight rope, harnesses, ice axe, crampons, and ascenders. To stay on your route use map, compass, altimeter (and GPS if you prefer). Stay on top of your orienteering; the weather can change to a whiteout very quickly, and the mountain has many drainages that will trap the lost. One classic mistake is to follow the fall-line from Crater Rock. You think you are headed for the Palmer chair lift and lunch at the Lodge. Sadly, a true fall line route takes you down into the endless moraines of the White River drainage. Read your compass and map at Crater Rock, and the Cascade Dining room will be yours.

Mt. Hood National Forest (503)667-0511
Timberline Lodge (503)622-7979
Tilly Jane Hut Karen Graves (503)667-3405

Timberline Mountain Guides

SWS Mountain Guides

USGS 7.5 minute topographic: Mount Hood South and Mount Hood North
Forest Service: Online Recreation Mapping.


In all honesty, I believe my historical guidebook, Wild Snow, is a good guidebook for a classic ski or snowboard descent of Mount Hood, and it has the added bonus of much historical information on Hood and many other North American ski descents.



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