Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pacific Northwest Volcanoes: Peak Viewing

Do you know how many dormant volcanoes there are in the Cascade Range? (Hint: How old were you when you graduated from high school? Bonus points: Name the peak to the left.)

These stunning and dangerous mountains dominate our landscape throughout much of the Northwest. Want to know where to see as many at once as possible?

Best bet: Book a flight from Seattle to the San Francisco Bay Area during the later summer, when chances are best for clear skies on the Left Coast, and get a window seat. (Hey, then you get to be in San Francisco, too!) I always get excited spotting and naming all the volcanoes up and down the coast on this flight, from Lassen in the south to Baker in the north. Once we flew so close over Mount Shasta it looked like an easy jump down into the creamy white bowl of the summit crater.

Second best bet: Climb a volcano near mid-range (Mount Rainier or Mount Hood) for optimum viewing north and south. This is also great incentive to get in good shape!

More realistic bet: Take the gondola or Rainier Express (REX) chairlift to the top of Crystal Mountain on a clear day for the awesome views of most of the Washington peaks. In Oregon, take the Summit chairlift at Mount Bachelor. They say on an exceptionally clear day you can see all the way to Shasta in northern California, although I wasn’t so lucky when I was there last.

So this is really a roundabout way to talk about another fantastic day spring skiing at Crystal Mountain over the weekend, when Cascade (and Olympic Mountain) viewing was incredible. This cloudless day was so overdue because even us mossbacks need occasional glimpses of sunshine and blue skies. (Oy, what a chilly damp spring we’re having!)

From this vantage point at the top of REX we get the rare treat of being able to see every major peak in the state except Glacier Peak, which is hiding behind the non-volcanic Stuart Range on the northern edge of Alpine Lakes Wilderness to the northeast. We’re far enough east here that the summit of Mount Saint Helens is visible peeking up behind the eastern flank of Rainier. (Look carefully, it's in the shot below.)

To the southeast is Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in Washington at over 12,000 feet. (Adams is a relatively easy, nontechnical climb up the south side. You need to be in good shape, though.)

Way up north we can see the more graceful, conical summit of Mount Baker, one of the youngest volcanoes in the range. And over to the west beyond Puget Sound are the Olympics, formed by uplift as the Juan de Fuca plate subducts under the North American continent.

I snap a few photos—not nearly enough. But I don’t want to keep my ski buddies waiting while I fiddle with the camera. I prefer moving with my viewing.

When You Go
If you’re not a skier, you can still take these chairlifts in the summer, or hike up. I’d love to hear your suggestions for optimum volcano viewing! Just leave a comment below.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Crystal Mountain’s South Back: A sweet taste of backcountry skiing

 I’ve been trying to think of a clever way to start this blog post, but here’s the deal:

Crystal Mountain’s South Backcountry rocks.

Skiing Montana recently was wonderful, but I’ll take fresh tracks under blue skies in the South Back almost any day.

A great day in the South Back offers amazing views of hulking Mount Rainier (not much more than spitting distance away) while hiking/traversing the ridge south of the High Campbell chair. Then there are so many steep and steeper pitches of untracked snow deemed relatively safe by the avalanche control crew. (Of course always proceed with caution.)

That’s the beauty of South Back: Hiking out of the lift-served area for a quasi-backcountry experience while knowing that the avalanche crew has checked the conditions and blasted down especially slide-prone slopes and cornices. (For this and all the other hard work the Crystal Ski Patrol folks do, a huge THANK YOU!)

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to ski Crystal a day after it snowed 8 inches and the South Back was opened for the first time all week. We had plenty of company, but there’s enough terrain out there to go around.

It’s Julie’s first time out in the South Back, and I haven’t been for several years. With mostly blue skies and just light clumps of clouds hovering around some peaks, it’s a stellar day.

We start the first and longest of a few short hikes after traversing as far as we can from the top of Chair 6 (High Campbell), skis off and propped over our shoulders. A trail of skiers and boarders is heading out with us, but everyone is friendly. How can we not be on such a gorgeous day?

After topping out the first hike and traversing above Avalanche Basin, we see several skiers atop Silver King, looking poised to drop into Brain Damage, an hourglass-shaped chute that turns scary steep about halfway down. Not going there today.

Rich points to the spot he shoved off into the basin several weeks ago when he had the place almost to himself. "Eighteen inches of fresh snow, it was amazing," he tells us. (I’m jealous in retrospect, is that possible?)

The traverse is a bit longer than I remember. We pass one poor snowboarder who steps aside to let us pass. He’s been sinking to his knees tromping through the fresh layer of white stuff.

Soon enough, though, we top out above Silver Basin and scope it out. It looks as inviting as a creamy swirl of exquisite Italian gelato, something I'd like to dive into and relish.

An older guy plunges into the basin and proceeds to slice down the slope in even, rhythmic turns. “That’s my dad, he’s 65! Isn’t he awesome!” says a woman standing beside us.

And so it’s time for us to leave our signatures in the snow. Okay,it’s not quite as dreamy fluffy light as the Rocky Mountain pow I just skied in Montana, but it’s still great fun. So much fun that the camera stayed in my pocket. But I did stop at the bottom to capture our tracks. See mine there over to the right? :)

When You Go
Since the day a few weeks ago chronicled in this blog post, Crystal experienced some major slab avalanches. Check the Crystal Ski Patrol blog for the latest. And if you head for the hike-to terrain in the South Backcountry, don’t go alone, especially if you are not familiar with the terrain! A couple years ago two enterprising high school guys prepared a guide to Crystal’s South Backcountry (apparently as part of a high school project).

Crystal will be open into mid-June this year owing to the snowpack, so there's still plenty of time to get out there! And because I was too wrapped up in skiing to film, here's a link to film shots of skiing in the South Backcountry.