Volcano Season in the PNW is a special time for backcountry skiers. This magical season from April-July is full of opportunity and the prospect of sunshine, summit celebrations, and slaying corn. It's our annual harvest, with each trip promising a rich bounty for 5,000 continuous vertical feet (or more).
The challenge of volcano season – aside from the fitness reality check – is volcanoes. They're massive. Big and tall, the ones around here are so grand they create their own weather patterns. Washington volcanoes house 376 glaciers, the second most after Alaska. These badass miracles of frozen H20 are the reason we can ski here year-round.
As I've become more seasoned in Turns All Year, I've come to learn the cadence of the local stratovolcanoes. You want to start at Mt. St. Helens, as it's the lowest and melts out quickly. It also doesn't have glaciers which can be easily accessed. Next you want to go for the big lines on Mt. Rainier, like the Fuhrer Finger or Kautz, before they pass their prime. It's a good idea to get the Pearly Gates on Mt. Hood early too. Then comes the SW Chutes season on Mt Adams, te Squak/Easton season on Mt. Baker, and the Emmons Route on Mt. Rainier. From there, the world is your oyster.... burly, bumpy, and requiring a lot of effort for a small, slimy piece of adventure which may or may not be good by the time you taste it.
When you're covering 5-10k of vert in a day, you experience a wide variety of conditions. You often start out on dirt with your skis on your back. Then you ascend through snow conditions including, but not limited to: slush, mush, schmoo, glop, chunder, chunk, sugar, breakable crust, unbreakable crust, ice, rime ice, penitentes, and frozen pinwheels - all of which present their own unique hell. As you climb, the conditions below you change, and nothing will ever be the same on the way down as you remember from the climb.
By the time you get to the top, or to the point where you decide to turn around for the day, many hours have gone by. The crust you saw on the way up may very well be schmoo by the time you get back to it. Trying to time your descent for primo conditions is the ultimate goal. So how do you make a decision when you have the glory of a summit ahead and a harvest below that will bring a perma-grin to your face?
On a recent trip to Mt. Baker - where we ultimately picked skiing - we used these parameters to help with our decision:
When to pick summiting:
- The weather is clear.
- Climbing conditions are primo.
- The view will be stunning.
- Everyone is feeling strong and motivated.
- The skiing will be shit no matter what, so you might as well summit.
When to pick skiing:
- The weather is unfavorable.
- Climbing conditions are sub-optimal.
- The corn will be epic and potentially worth lapping.
- The group is full of unmotivated weaklings.
- The skiing will be shit no matter what, so you might as well get it over with so you can get back to the beer at the car.
We made our choice for the "skiing" reasons #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.1 (beer). It was absolutely the right call. Thanks to Ian Dryg for all the great photos in this post!