Portland Winter Escapes

Backcountry to the Future
  |  Gorp.com

Way back when "air-conditioning" was an open window, and "fast food" was how Mom yanked pans from the oven, people in these parts still skied the mountains. "Ski lift" was a pair of snowshoes, or skins, or sturdy boots for negotiating steep uphill approaches, and "slopes" were whatever glen or dale unfolded on the solitary swoosh to the bottom. There were no lift lines, or base lodge cafeterias, or ski patrols; just you, your friends, the mountain, and whatever you could pack along. But such adventures need not be relegated to stories of yore. There's nothing between a fit skier and an expanse of unblemished backcountry but a willingness to work and a shove in the right direction.

Mount St. Helens is just one of several volcanoes within a few hours of Portland that offer outstanding backcountry skiing opportunities, but the season is generally late winter through the early summer. "From November until about February the snow up high is heavy and it really gets hammered by the winds, so we stick to tree skiing at lower elevations," says 20-year backcountry buff Don Pattison. "In the spring everyone skis off the tops of volcanoes—it's faster, easier, and a lot more fun." Bennett Pass and White River Canyon on Hood are two lowland spots he recommends on Hood, but once there's snow in the hills, the possibilities are virtually limitless.

To reach the summit of St. Helens, head north from the Marble Mountain Snowpark on Spring Creek Trail (#244). Views of the peak are obscured at first by Douglas fir groves that escaped the fiery tempest of The Eruption back in 1980, but about a half-hour out the trees will dissipate and the trail will cut across a lava ravine, called Worm Flows, that continues uphill. Once across them, follow the Worm Flows towards the summit. The trees will vanish, the Flows will taper out, and before long it will be too steep for skis. Strap them to your back and start kicking steps up the steep incline. Stick to ridges as you ascend towards the summit, it's another five hours of exhausting uphill before the lip of the crater. The terrain is minimalist—swept clear by volcanic housecleaning—but the views on a clear day are spectacular, with Mount Hood and Adams visible to the south and the spine of the Cascades evident clear to California.

Approaching the summit, St. Helens' big brother Rainier looms to the north. Cresting the top, take in the full panorama: the nearby peaks and below, in the crater, the 1000-foot lava dome that grew like a tumor until 1986 and then slowed to remission. Sit back, eat, drink, and revel in your accomplishment, but avoid the cornices on the edge, which can break loose with dramatic flourish. The snow bank is your summit lodge for the day, and the sole 5,500-vertical-foot ski run will be at hand soon enough.

Strap on your skis and the trip down is relatively short—tight serpentine tracks through open fields of Cascade corn snow. Don't rush it, enjoy the fruits of your labor and keep to the left, traversing back to the Snowpark. If time permits, don't miss the Marble Mountain warming hut, where skiers huddle around the wood-burning stove to swap war stories.

To reach Marble Mountain Snowpark, take I-5 north to exit 21, follow highway 503 east to Jack's Restaurant, five miles this side of Cougar (where everyone should sign into the forest service ledger), and follow signs up the mountain. Bring a guidebook if you've never made the trip, and carry a map, compass, telemark skis, and skins for the uphill climb. For more information on permits (required after May 15), and prevailing conditions call the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (360-891-5000). Cross Country Ski Routes in Oregon, by Klindt Vielbig (The Mountaineers Books, 1994), offers hundreds of trails within a few hours of Portland. Oregon Mountain Community has topo maps and rents telemark gear, and crampons. Wy'east Nordic Center (503-622-4841; www.wyeastnordic.com) rents skis and has groomed trails for skating and a set track. A good spot to learn telemark technique is the Mount Hood Meadows Nordic Center, just past all that high-tech ski lift machinery at the Meadows base camp.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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