It may be the middle of summer, but ski season isn’t over in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, for classic gems like the SW Chutes on Mt. Adams, the real season is just getting started.
The photos that accompany this piece were taken at the end of June when the access road to the south climb on Mt. Adams, the most standard ascent route, was still covered in snow for a solid three miles. A few friends of mine who took advantage of the best window for skiing in the Cascades this spring, which was in mid May, had to hike closer to six miles to reach the normal trailhead at Cold Springs. However, as of the printing of this article the road is now finally open to the trailhead where even in mid July you can skin right from the car.
While the south climb on Mt. Adams isn’t technically difficult it’s still a solid day. You start from the Cold Springs trailhead at elevation 5600′ and climb steadily to 12, 276′. A descent right back down from where you started is worthy enough, and logistically easier than the other featured descents on the mountain, but riding the southwest chutes is the true classic descent on this volcanic beast.
As you drive north from Oregon and cross the Columbia River en route to Adams you’ll see the peak stand out just as the rest of the Cascade volcanoes do when driving through various parts of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. When you get to Tout Lake make sure to stop at the ranger station to pick up your free wilderness permit and pay for your climbing permit. Heading north to the south climb trailhead you’ll get another view of the mountain and a striking vantage of the southwest chutes.
The road to the trailhead is tight and bumpy, and while 4-wheel drive with some clearance is recommended it’s passable with a standard vehicle so long as you take it slow and easy. Once at the trailhead get a good nights sleep and prepare for an early start to time your descent properly. The route is fairly straightforward and while not technical you may want to pull out some hard points at some point or another to play it safe. A whippet, ice axe, and crampons are worth their weight just in case. Some parties break this climb up into a two day adventure, but most ski mountaineers opt for the one day push especially when the road is open as it currently is to the Cold Spring trailhead. If you’re here on a weekend you won’t be alone, and unless there’s been recent precipitation the climbers trail will be plainly visible. Follow the climber’s trail to timberline and continue on to the base of the Crescent Glacier. From here either head straight up or slightly north-northeast. Later in the summer avoid heading to the northwest or you may end up dealing with weak snow bridges that cover up a bergschrund. At the top of the Crescent Glacier continue on to the wide and mostly flat area called “Lunch Counter”. Keep following the obvious ridge until you reach the false summit known as “Pikers Peak” where it’s time to make a call.
If you’ve been on the mountain before and are just there to ski the southwest chutes the descent is right off to your climbers left. However, with good weather and visibility-often the crux of many successful Cascade volcano ski mountaineering missions- it’s just another 600 or so vertical feet to the summit. When Jillian and myself were on the mountain in late June the mountain had just received 6+ inches of new snow so we decided to tag the top and ski a few hundred feet of new snow back to the top of the false summit. Needless to say we made a good call.
Back at the top of Pikers Peak creep to the edge of the southwest chutes and have a look. As your stoke factor rises for the descent take caution as this 4,000 foot run is a consistent mid 30 degree pitch that stays constant all the way to timberline. It’s a true gem and definite classic, but if you’re worried about avalanche danger it might be better to head back down the way you came up. On our recent trip we skied stable powder most of the way down before a few hundred feet of transitional snow lead us to some smooth developing corn. Although I feel Mt. Shasta is the clear standout peak for skiers and riders in this great range the SW Chutes is for surely right up there with the best of the best in terms of long sustained spring/summer descents in North America.
After basking in the glory of your mission the adventure isn’t quite done yet as getting back to your car at Cold Springs can be tricky. Hopefully you can locate and follow the Round-the-Mountain Trail found at timberline as that’s the way to get you back. However, it’s tough to follow and a map and/or compass might be useful so you don’t get drawn too low and miss your traverse back to the trailhead. All in all this is a must for those who enjoy long days and big descents on massive mountains. And with a season like the one that was experienced by the majority of skiers and riders in the lower 48 this year, a trip to Adams this summer might end up being one of the best runs of the season.