mini-guide: mount hood ski circumnav
There’s something magical about dropping over Illumination Saddle. The crossing separates Mt Hood’s south side from its west and places the wall of the crater between you and the hordes ascending the mountain’s standard route. The bright sun rising in the eastern sky is blocked by the mountain, and you’re confronted with the steep and icy upper reaches of the Reid Glacier. I love dropping over that saddle, onto that dark side and into an area where you usually don’t see more than another party or two.
If you’re circumnavigating Mount Hood, crossing Illumination Saddle is the entry point to a side of the mountain that feels much bigger and more remote. It’s the start of a long day of movement and a whole lot of transitions. This is a tour that draws on a variety of mountain skills, requiring you to move efficiently and quickly switch between skinning, skiing, and climbing. The big terrain of the north side makes you feel like you’re on a completely different mountain, and being able to evaluate and navigate glaciated terrain is a critical skill. Be prepared to take care of yourself in the event of an emergency, the back side of the mounain isn’t easily accessible in the winter and emergency response times are likely to be long. All that to say - be careful and tour at your own risk!
In this mini-guide I’ll describe a ski around the mountain and lay out some tips to help you plan your trip. This is the first guide I’ve written for the website, and I’m experimenting with the layout and presentation of information, so bear with me as I work out the kinks.
All right already! With that out of the way let’s get on with the trip.
Note that the following will vary substantially based on route taken, conditions, and fitness
trip date: May 5, 2019
distance: 10.5 miles
vertical gain: 7k feet
time: 9 hours moving at a steady, slow pace
start/end: Timberline Lodge
permits: free self-issue wilderness permit, OR Sno-Park permit Nov-May
Ski mountaineering and glacier travel equipment including:
glacier rescue kit and harness
whippet and second ice tool
ski and boot crampons
‘Mt Hood Climbers Guide’ by Bill Mullee, 2014, Sharp End Publishing - excellent resource for the route
Cruxes for the route will vary depending on time of year and snowpack, and you’ll need to evaluate conditions as you go. The following map shows the locations of weaknesses we used to climb and descend ridges. In general, we opted for a lower line to allow for more skiing and skinning and more mellow climbing. Choose your own route according to conditions and your goals for the day.
Other than crevasse risk, this was the most dangerous part of the route. Since the trip takes most of the day, it’s impossible to time ideal snow conditions for the whole route. If you opt for a clockwise circumnavigation as we did, you’ll drop into the Reid and the steepest skiing of the route long before the snow’s had a chance to soften. You can get some idea of the condition of the crevasses on the Reid Glacier by looking down on it from illumination saddle, but because of the steepness of the glacier it’s impossible to completely understand what’s ahead until you quest out onto it. We opted to ski the center of the Reid, trending right as we descended and continuously evaluating our line.
Several crossings of Yokum ridge are possible from the lower Reid Glacier. We opted to ski down the glacier to a point where we could gain the ridge on skis and transition at a flat section. Those looking for a shorter line can find it with some steeper climbing.
We skinned the Sandy Glacier and gained Cathedral Ridge at 7300’
We booted exposed rock and skinned when possible, climbing to 7700’ to get some good skiing onto the the Ladd Glacier.
From our low point at 7500 we transitioned to skins and climbed above Barrett Spur. We could see crevasses on the Coe Glacier and roped up for a climbing traverse of it, aiming for an obvious snow ramp, which we booted to gain the ridge at 8300 feet.
From the ridge, we skinned toward the Elliot Glacier, climbing towards Snow Dome. We climbed to 9,000 feet to enable us to ski across the Elliot Glacier rather than skin it.
We climbed Cooper Spur and continued ascending the ridge to 9400 feet and the Newton-Clark Glacier. Climbing to here allowed us to ski the entire rest of the way to Timberline Lodge, with a couple of small boot sections across rock ridges.
The ski-circumnavigation of Mount Hood offers some unique rewards for a tour so close to Portland. You get the challenge of working your way through varied terrain that requires a variety of skills, a big mountain feel, and a fairly long ski traverse. For Ryan and I, it was a fun opportunity to practice working and problem solving together, and spend a full day taking in our home mountain.