Mt McLoughlin

Although the Sierra Nevada is my home and my favorite range to hike and ski in, I could tell by late March that the normally abundant east side skiing was likely to be a bust so I started considering more creative options for extending my ski season. Ben mentioned that he and some friends were planning a big Cascades ski trip for May and invited me to join. Although I’d only managed to ski with him once before, we’d made and broken lots of plans over the years and I had good respect for his ability as a skier and (perhaps more importantly) his ability as a climber which I’ve found contributes a lot towards fast cross country travel, remarkable route finding skills, and good risk assessment, all crucial components to successful ski touring.

Lassen Peak.

We got together on a video call a week before the planned trip and I met Colin and Luis for the first time. Like Ben, they were both grad students at Berkeley with a laid back demeanor and a no-nonsense attitude. Ben and Colin had done most of the planning up to that point having crafted a serious agenda of summiting a major Cascade peak nearly every day for a week.

Mt Shasta.

With an average vertical ascent of well over 5,000′ and a maximum vertical ascent likely to be over 10,000′ I knew it would be no small feat to pull this trip off. I had done multi day efforts of similar magnitude during the Sierra Challenge and although I knew I was capable I also knew how draining it could be. Considering the extreme effort, I was also skeptical in everyone else’s ability to pull it off and the group admitted that it was a tall order and were uncertain whether they were up to the challenge. Everyone was willing to give it their best effort and equally willing to admit defeat and make a smart decision to turn around if it came to that.

Sunset in Klamath Falls.

My last major concern regarded that potential 10,000′ day which would be on Mt Rainier. All of the Cascade summits are steep and daunting, many of them adorned with permanent snowfields or glaciers but Mt Rainier represented the superlative. Every route up the mountain requires crossing active glaciers which comes with its own set of hazards similar to but different from the normal hazards of ski touring. I didn’t have any experience with glacier travel though Colin and Luis had taken a class several years earlier and Ben had done his own research and was very confident in his rope skills. Beyond the know how and ability, I was also concerned about how well we would gel as a team and whether we would trust each other enough to be functional in this technical and high consequence environment. Since Rainier was more or less the capstone of the trip, I figured that the earlier hikes of the trip would serve as a litmus test and, if it didn’t feel right, I could bail and the others could continue without me ruining their trip.

Sunrise hits Scott Peak, part of the Crater Lake caldera, across Upper Klamath Lake.

We had initially planned for South Sister to be the first hike of the trip but the reports from that area seemed to indicate that the road access was still very difficult and would add several thousand feet of climbing to the ascent. Hoping to start the trip off on a positive note, we instead pivoted to Mt McLoughlin, just outside Klamath Falls, Oregon, which Yelly had climbed a few weeks earlier and recommended that I visit. Therefore we planned to meet up in Klamath Falls Sunday night at Colin’s sister’s house to finalize the plans.

Ben and Colin wait for Luis next to my truck at the Mt McLoughlin trailhead.

This was my first trip driving north on US 395 and although it begins by passing through the dense urban center of Reno I quickly found myself in the very sparsely populated wide open areas of northeastern California. With the help of some audiobooks the drive felt fast and I soon spotted Lassen Peak drifting south across the western horizon. A short time later I spotted another unrecognized volcanic summit looming to the northwest which stayed on the horizon all the way to Klamath Falls — clearly a much larger peak than I first guessed. It wasn’t until I arrived and asked Leah that I realized it was Mt Shasta!

Ben hikes through the dense forest below Mt McLoughlin.

Leah and her dog River kept us company as we planned the next day’s hike and even offered us a place to sleep. Although we decided to stay at her house overnight, I ultimately opted to stay in the truck on account of my dog allergy. Early the next morning we headed out to the McLoughlin trailhead to begin hiking at 7 am. The last quarter mile of road still had some snow covering the entire width but I took my chances and made it all the way to the trailhead parking where piles of beer cans and shards of clay pigeons indicated that it had seen a lot of use through the winter. The others opted to park on a pullout just before the snow and soon joined me at the trailhead to start the hike.

Ben shows off his novel ski touring fashion.

We didn’t see any obvious sign of the trail under the snow but the snow was also intermittent enough that we elected to hike in our ski boots with skis on shoulders. After hiking for a couple hundred feet I made a comment that even if the trail was buried we should try to find it for the sake of making route finding easier. I was really surprised that we hadn’t come across it yet, so I checked my map and was really confused how the GPS could be so inaccurate — it was showing that we were on the wrong side of the road. After orienting myself for a moment I spoke up and announced that we might be going in the wrong direction. Luis was next to speak up, saying “oh yeah, I’m pretty sure we’re going in the wrong direction, because there’s a massive volcano behind us…” Sure enough, turning around we could see Mt McLoughlin rising through the forest behind us. Not the most auspicious start to a trip but everyone took the mistake in stride, chuckling as we adjusted course and headed back to the parking lot.

Luis and Colin put skis on packs now that we’ve located the trail.

Back at the lot, we quickly found the trail leading out the opposite direction from which we had first tried. We crossed a small creek and started up the trail. After a few hundred feet we realized that this side of the road was much more bare on account of its more southerly aspect. We stopped to put skis on our packs, as well as skins on skis and were having second thoughts about deciding to leave our trail runners at the cars in favor of hiking in ski boots.

Ben hikes the snowbound McLoughlin trail.

The trail gradually became more snow covered until we completely lost it around 6,500′. The snow was soft enough to get good purchase and firm enough that we weren’t postholing so we continued ahead on foot.

Colin, Luis, and Ben cross the suncups towards a steep snowfield.

As we breached the tree line the slope angle started to kick up but the pace didn’t slow at all. I tried my best to keep up but eventually had to ask the group to slow down, reminding everyone that we had a whole week ahead of us and making the case for trying to make a sustainable “all week pace.” They gave me an opportunity to catch up but the pace didn’t really change much. I guess their idea of an all week pace was a bit sportier than mine…

Ben, Colin, and Luis climb McLoughlin’s east ridge; Upper Klamath Lake, beyond.

As we approached the east ridge proper, we stopped at one of the last shade trees to have a snack and apply some sunscreen. I commented that this climb might make for a particularly dull trip report — unlike most sierra ascents with complex route finding and complicated terrain, we started hiking up the snow with the summit in sight and would continue without much variation until reaching the top. Come to think about it, all of the summits on the trip were stratovolcanos with fairly constant slope where the summit would be in sight the whole time. Oh well, regardless of how interesting the story would be, I’d continue taking photos and enjoy the hike!

Luis eyes the east cirque.

When Yelly suggested that I should ski McLoughlin, she told me that I should ski the north or east side of the mountain which looked more interesting than the standard southeast slope descent. I’d relayed that beta to the group so as we climbed the ridge we kept our eyes on the east cirque to our right. It was indeed some fascinating terrain, broken up by large volcanic buttresses and consistently steep. The route out of the east cirque however was a bit complex and would require a fairly accurate traverse to avoid unnecessary climbing. We’d also read online that the entrance could be difficult to negotiate.

Luis and Colin climb the southeast slope.

As we neared the summit, we detoured leftwards to avoid the partially exposed rock on the ridge and had a perfect view of the southeast slope. The east cirque had piqued our interested but now that we were looking at the southeast slope I really started to salivate. This slope wasn’t as steep as the cirque but it was perfectly flat for at least 1,000 vertical feet and several hundred feet across. On top of that, the snow conditions were looking phenomenal. Not-quite-ripe corn adorned the slope and I was confident that by the time we were ready to drop it would make for ideal skiing.

Colin and Luis take in the summit view as Ben approaches.

We reached the summit just before 11 am and briefly eyed the north cirque which looked very similar to the east before unanimously deciding that the southeast slope would be the best skiing. Beyond that, the southeast slope would have the easiest exit and we didn’t have much desire to add complexity to our first day of the trip. Since the corn wasn’t quite ripe yet and it was a beautiful day we decided we’d hang out on the summit for a while before descending.

The north cirque drops steeply through ornate volcanic buttresses.

As usual, I spent a few minutes with my telephoto lens trying to identify the peaks on the horizon. Unlike the Sierra Nevada, the major peaks of the Cascades are more prominent and much fewer. In some ways it feels like a less grand mountain range because of that but at the same time each of the peaks has much more charisma and over the course of the week I came to appreciate the unique character of each volcano.

At 11:30 we packed up what was left of our lunches and ambled back over to the southeast slope to check out the conditions.

Luis and Colin head over to the top of the southeast slope.

We poked at the snow a bit before deciding the corn was ripe. Although everyone was eager to ski, the group seemed a bit anxious. I was surprised when they offered to let me ski first but I didn’t question it! I made one cautious turn to assess the snow before opening up the throttle and cruising down the slope!`

I ski McLoughlin’s southeast slope in perfect spring conditions!

The others followed close behind and if it weren’t the first day of a long week of skiing I would have suggested climbing back up for seconds! The snow was better than any groomer I’d ever skied, the weather as good as any spring day, and the views of Shasta on the horizon were unbeatable! What a phenomenal ski descent to start the trip!

Luis admires his turns from the bottom of the southeast slope.

We grouped up at the bottom of the slope before starting the traverse left, back towards our ascent route. Although we could have skied another five hundred to a thousand feet down the slope, it would have made the return to the car much more difficult.

I follow Luis through the woods in fairly typical spring conditions.

The travel was fairly typical of spring conditions, with lots of patches of bare rock or dirt and many trees providing obstacles but I was impressed with the groups ability to move quickly and decisively through this terrain. Luis’ command of the snowboard was especially impressive — skis are much easier to negotiate through complex and rolling terrain.

Luis hikes out along the snow covered trail.

Luis resigned to hiking fairly quickly but the other two skiers and I resisted as long as possible, skiing gingerly across several patches of bare dirt before finally deciding that it was time to hike. Luis had no problem keeping pace with us, indicating that he had probably made the wiser decision.

The group stops to take off skis.

Although we once again found ourselves wishing we’d brought trail runners, the hike back down the trail went quickly, crossing the small creek once again before arriving back at my truck at 1 pm.

Ben and Colin cross a small creek near the McLoughlin trailhead.

I packed up my gear before driving back up the road a ways to where the others and parked and sat in the shade chatting for a bit while everyone finished packing. Once we were ready to go we agreed to head to nearby Lake of the Woods for a bath before starting the five hour drive to Mt Hood. I missed the turn, however, and when I doubled back I couldn’t find the others. I had the lake and the view of the mountain all to myself.

Mt McLoughlin above Lake of the Woods; southeast slope, left.
(I found that with the right photo editing I could see our tracks, though it made the rest of the photo look quite odd.)

The drive up US 97 was spectacular, with vistas of volcanos rising up to the west along the whole route. Unfortunately, several prescribed burns were taking place in and around Bend, obscuring much of the view. We met up at Deschuttes Brewing in Bend for lunch before continuing north to Timberline Lodge at Mt Hood.

We parked at the base of tomorrow’s climb with Mt Hood towering above us, filled with anticipation and excitement!

Sunset at Mt Hood.

Although we’d driven in three separate cars, all of us had fallen in love with Mt Jefferson along the way and the peak put on a spectacular show in the setting sun.

Alpenglow illuminates Mt Jefferson far to the south.

Snow Observations

  • Intermittent snow coverage 5,400 – 6,200 ft.
  • Nearly complete coverage above 6,200 ft.
  • Perfectly ripe corn on sunny south aspects at 11:30 am.

GPS Data

Total distance: 9.52 mi

Elevation Gain: 4,100 ft