Volcano Hopping: The Cascades

Touch the Sky: Ascending the Emmons-Winthrop route on Rainier. Photo: Chris Kassar

Some would call us crazy for trading 70-degree days, sunny skies and bursting flowers for the perpetually damp mountains and dank forests of the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, last winter, after months of freezing our assess off on 14er after 14er, my guy and I hopped in our truck and headed toward the ocean.

Undeterred by the fact that Nature had unleashed record amounts of snow on the land of Lewis and Clark, we set out to tackle as many peaks as possible, hone our winter mountaineering skills and take a break from technology. What we found was a beautiful and severe winter wonderland that pushed our boundaries and captured our hearts.

Because of crazy avy conditions, funky weather and epic snowfall that tripled our approach distances, we spent four weeks on five different mountains and topped out on only one. We “failed,” but we did not deem our trip a failure. Instead, we returned home psyched and inspired by what the mountains taught us this time.

Of course, there’s nothing like standing atop a tiny piece of Earth that rises higher than anything else around. But as we slogged down Mt. Adams in the dark—the last mountain to chew us up and spit us out—I realized that although climbing mountains is life changing, the change doesn’t happen during the three minutes you spend getting your head kicked in on the summit. It happens as you push your limits in training, as you search your soul in a white out, as you toil and turn around without summiting and as you choose to alter your picture of success.

Kassar_AdamsMount Adams lords over the Columbia River Valley. Photo: Chris Kassar

In the course of a month, these wild volcanoes captured our imaginations and sparked our spirits.  So much so that we returned in the summer to explore their flanks in a somewhat kinder, gentler season. Whether you are seeking adventure, beauty, a challenging experience or just a change—head to the land of moss and explore these magical mountains. Here’s how to do it:

The Volcano Hit List

Mount Rainier  (14,410 feet)

This towering volcano, dappled with bubbling fumaroles and covered with more than 35 square miles of ice, will leave you breathless. Regardless of route, getting to the top requires a climb of 9,000 feet over eight or more miles.

Standard Route: Disappointment Cleaver (moderate snow). First timers usually choose Rainier’s least technical and most popular path. From Paradise, begin the steady four-mile, 4,600-foot huff up to Camp Muir at 10,080 feet. Enjoy the breathtaking views and rest up. Start well before dawn, traverse the Cowlitz Glacier by headlamp, navigate the Ingraham Glacier and ascend the steep ice-covered rocks of the Cleaver to reach the Columbia Crest by midday.

Push the Edge: Liberty Ridge (Grade IV, WI2-3). Although somewhat popular, this north-side approach sees much less traffic than Disappointment Cleaver. Spend the night at White River campground and begin your approach via the Glacier Basin Trail. After a scramble over St. Elmo’s Pass, work your way across Curtis Ridge and the Carbon Glacier—known for gnarly crevasses in late season—to reach the toe of Liberty Ridge. From here, you’ll have to navigate through icy gullies, steep snow, a daunting bergschrund and possibly pitches of technical ice. This is a committing route with little opportunity for retreat.

Don’t Miss: For a little extra credit, bag craggy 11,318-foot Little Tahoma (Grade II+, steep snow and ice). Expect tricky climbing, slick slopes and plan to rope up on Frying Pan and Whitman Glaciers.

Details: Going above 10,000 feet? Grab a climbing pass (adults $44; youth $31) at a ranger station. Reserve campsites by fax or mail starting March 1—a good idea during peak season. nps.gov/mora/index.htm

Mt. Adams (12, 276 feet)

The second highest crag in Washington and third highest of all the Cascade volcanoes, Adams provides a quieter, less crowded alternative to Rainier and Hood. It’s ideal for a long day or two mellow ones.

Standard Route: South Spur (easy snow). From Cold Springs Campground (5,600 feet), start early and hoof it through the forest on the South Climb Trail. You’ve got 6,676 feet to gain in just 5.7 miles. Skirt the small Crescent Glacier to reach the “Lunch Counter,” a shelf at 9,000 feet (that makes a good spot for spending the night). Ascend Skusdorf Ridge to reach Piker’s Peak (11,657 feet), but don’t be fooled by this false summit. Push on over the final slopes and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular vistas. Early season this climb is all snow, making glissading and ski descents extremely enjoyable.

Push the Edge: Adams Glacier (Grade III, WI2-3). Best tackled in early season, when roads are often snowed-in, this route is a complex, classic climb that requires a long approach and multiple days (three or more). Travel along the Killen Creek Trail (#113) followed by cross-country exploration to the glacier’s lower edge (at about 7,000 feet) where you’ll need to navigate through an extremely steep (35-50 degrees), heavily-crevassed glacier.  This north side route is best for experienced alpinists.

Don’t Miss: Trout Lake. This tiny town of less than 900 people is worth the stop. Heavenly Grounds Espresso, located at the Chevron Station, boasts incredible huckleberry shakes, smoothies and ice cream while the Station Café right next door cranks out burgers and sandwiches perfect for a post-climb meal. Don’t miss the homemade sweet potato fries and huckleberry pie.

Details: A Cascades Volcano Pass is required between June 1 and Sep. 30 ($15pp/weekend; $10 pp/weekday). Available at the Mt. Adams Ranger Station in Trout Lake. Trip lengths vary greatly depending on road conditions. Forest Service roads to trailheads may be impassable in winter, early season or even summer, which can mean you may need to hike more miles (from two to 15).  fs.usda.gov/activity/giffordpinchot/recreation/climbing

Mount St. Helens  (8,365 feet)

Unmatched vistas from the top of this infamous volcano are worth the effort. As you climb, Adams, Hood and Jefferson loom large. If you push onto the crescent shaped crater rim, you’ll be rewarded with an astounding and dramatic view of St. Helens smoking and burping caldera, Spirit Lake and Rainier in the distance.

Standard Route: Monitor Ridge (easy snow). This strenuous, non-technical trail gains 4,500 feet over five miles. Beginning from Climbers Bivouac, you’ll follow a gradual path through the forest. Above timberline, enjoy scrambling over chunky lava flows and traversing ashy slopes to reach the rim.

Push the Edge: Worms Flow (easy snow). Named for the rivers of rocky lava that the path traverses, Worms Flow climbs 5,600 feet over six miles. Leave the Marble Mountain Sno-park via the Swift Ski Trail and once above tree line, follow ridges and open slopes to the top. Necessary gear will vary with conditions, but skis with skins or snowshoes are often helpful, while crampons and ice axes are recommended.

Don’t Miss: Immerse yourself in the heart of the Blast Zone by driving to Windy Ridge and visiting Johnston Ridge Observatory and Forest Learning Center.

Details: Permits are required for all travel above timberline (4,800 feet). Fees vary by season. Available at mshinstitute.org. Lone Fir Resort (lonefirresort.com) or camp at the trailhead, but be prepared to share the parking lot with snowmobilers and tons of other hikers. fs.usda.gov/detail/mountsthelens/home/ 

Bonus: Mt. Olympus (7,965 feet)

It’s not a Cascade, not a volcano, but definitely one of the coolest mountains in the lower 48. If the volcanoes didn’t tire you out, head west to the Olympic Peninsula for a truly unique epic adventure that begins by climbing 3,600 feet over 17.5 miles through the rainforest just to reach the alpine environs of Glacier Meadows (4,200 feet). From here, you can choose from numerous glacial routes full of crevasses and steep, icy, snowy traverses depending on your goal (Middle, West or East Peak). nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/climbing-mount-olympus.htm

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