Step by step up the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest
All mountains have their majesty, but the home of the mountain kings in the Lower 48 is surely the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest. Beginning in northern California with Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak, and extending north to Mt. Garibaldi in British Columbia, this chain of (mostly) extinct volcanoes makes up some of the most distinctive mountain topography anywhere. These snowy-headed monarchs, crowned with lenticular halos and caped with glacier and rainforest, stand tall above the lowlands, promising wonder and adventure to mountaineers.
Though long used as a training ground by elite alpinists, these big snow-cones also serve up many lifetimes of mountaineering all their own. And any climber living in the Pacific Northwest simply cannot escape seeing them: On a clear day, Mt. Rainier seems to loom over Seattleites’ Interstate 5 commute, though it actually sits many miles to the south. Portlanders may see Hood, Adams, and St. Helens from points in town.
With their deep maritime snowpack, northern location, long, sunny summer days, and volcanic underpinnings, these mountains move and change with the seasons, pulsing underneath their cloaks of green and white. Ridges, sub-peaks, faces, and glaciers form a bewildering topography. Some routes on Mt. Hood can be done car-to-car before lunch by a fast team. Routes on the larger peaks, Rainier and Adams, may take a strong party three days. Some summits are so tiny that you’re just, to quote a friend, “one epileptic fit away from oblivion,” while others could, and have, housed an army encampment. Regardless of objective, you’re going high above the valleys, forests, and towns, above exams and grades, jobs and stress, and everything else. Above the treeline and into the alpine zone, where you make your own path.
Looking back on my years of apprenticeship in the Cascades, I treasure the memories, even as I laugh at my folly. Near misses with avalanches, getting benighted on “shortcuts,” and an altogether random choice of routes—if only I’d had the sense to create a ladder-like progression of alpine objectives on which to gain skill and experience, my progress might have been much more orderly. Here then, is one such list of Cascade volcano routes, presented roughly in ascending order of difficulty. It is by no means the only such path to mountaineering mastery, but it will school you in the tricks of the trade, and frequently take you off the beaten path, high and free.
COOPER SPUR | MT. HOOD, OREGON | 11,239ft | Grade II
While hordes of snow-sloggers hike Hood’s popular southern route, another experience awaits discerning climbers on the north. A long, elegant line sweeping gracefully from forest to summit, the Cooper Spur serves up a solid portion of introductory mountaineering. Heavily weather- and conditions-dependent, the route can be hiked in running shoes during the warm summer months, but by then it’s a gravel pit of loose rock and scree. Better to go in early spring, when snow covers the route. Steep summit slopes necessitate solid nerves and smooth crampon technique; rock-fall potential on the upper ridge makes a predawn alpine start mandatory; and the very real possibility of deteriorating weather and resulting navigation challenges make this north-side route a significant undertaking.
During Cooper’s peak climbing season, the primitive road leading to the start of the climb may still be snow-covered (through July in some years), requiring a three-plus-mile walk up the Cooper Spur ski trail to the Cloud Cap area, jumping-off point for all north-side routes, at about 6,000 feet. From here, the route drives almost straight upward to the summit, after a short dogleg east to a moraine bordering the Eliot Glacier. Above the moraine, the Spur runs skyward, steepening to 50 degrees near the summit and demanding careful footwork, especially on the descent. While climbers of other north-side routes often use the Cooper as a descent route, it’s also possible, and technically easier, to arrange a car shuttle and descend the standard south-side route.
KEY SKILL: Cramponing As with the learning curve of mountaineering itself, the Cooper Spur begins at a benign angle, but gains verticality the higher one climbs. Your ice axe will function mostly for balance; footwork is your make-or-break skill. Duck-walking, sidestepping, and various rest stances will take you to about 45 degrees of slope. Beyond this angle, step-kicking and front-pointing become necessary. On the descent, reversing these moves may provide the most thrilling moments of the climb. Once below the steepest section, except in very hard snow conditions, you’ll want to master the plunge-step. Practice your footwork on an accessible snowfi eld. Focus on the seamless transition between techniques when moving from one angle to another, like shifting gears in a car.
MUST KNOW: Glacier Skills These snowy climbs require a range of skills that will be foreign to the rock-oriented climber. Most routes on this list also involve significant glacier travel, so get a solid introduction to glacier travel and crevasse self-rescue tactics before setting out. A day or two with one of the many excellent guide services in the Northwest will be well worth the investment. For books on glacier techniques, we like: Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue, by Andy Tyson and Mike Clelland, and Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, from the Mountaineers Books.
JEFFERSON PARK GLACIER | MT. JEFFERSON, OREGON | 10,497ft | Grade III 5.2
A popular route—but without the crowds found on Mt. Rainier’s trade routes—the Jefferson Park Glacier provides some of the complexity of a much larger mountain, while still allowing a well-prepared, moderately experienced party a good expectation of success. The route begins with a trail approach through verdant, old-growth forest and past the postcard-perfect lakes of Jefferson Park, and then sweeps upward to the second-highest summit in Oregon, gaining almost 6,400 feet. Leaving the trail just south of Scout Lake, climbers ascend moraines (passing some good bivy sites) to the toe of Jefferson Park Glacier, and from there follow a seasonally dependent line to the obvious bergschrund just below a high saddle. From the saddle, the route goes left, scrambling across a narrow ridgeline (up to 5.2, depending on conditions) to reach the summit pinnacle, which may be be surmounted by fourth-class climbing. Weather, seasonal conditions, the possibility of multiple bergschrund crossings, some steep snow and/or ice, rock scrambling, and exposure all add to the adventure.
KEY SKILL: Bergschrunds A bergschrund is a large crevasse that is neither part of a glacier nor of the upper mountain, but rather the gap between the two. Some ’schrunds present no more challenge than a long stepacross, while others may offer the crux snow or ice climbing of a route. In general, the earlier in the season one climbs Jefferson, the shallower and more snow-filled the ‘schrund will be. You may be able to end-run the thing, as most attempting this route do. (Watch out for rockfall on the left side.) If a crossing has to be made, scope the crack carefully while on belay. If possible, locate a solid-looking snow bridge and belay across. If a bridge can’t be found, you may have to get into the slot and climb out the upper side. Be ready for a rescue if someone falls in—in other words, don’t attempt this route before practicing crevasse rescue.
LAVA GLACIER HEADWALL | MT. ADAMS, WASHINGTON | 12,276ft | Grade III
To reach the rounded top of Adams during a midsummer jaunt up the south side, most mountaineers do nothing more extreme than get an early start and liberally apply SPF 30. But those with a thirst for more commitment might try the Lava Glacier Headwall on the mountain’s northern aspect. The Killen Creek approach begins at around 4,600 feet from the Midway Loop road and climbs about 5.5 miles to lush, alpine meadows that look directly onto the Adams Glacier. Follow moraines and snow slopes toward the foot of the north ridge and bivouac sites at about 8,200 feet. The route traverses east onto the Lava Glacier, which is increasingly crevassed as the season progresses. The state of the obvious bergschrund at about 9,200 feet will dictate your ascent route to the headwall, which rears up to about 50 degrees, with possible ice patches. Above the headwall, you’ll emerge onto a large summit plateau. Turn west to descend the north ridge, or continue about half a mile to the true summit.
KEY SKILL: Snow Anchors Steeper routes on big peaks demand some protection, but of a different sort than rock climbers are used to. Here, where simul-climbing predominates, the goal is to protect against a crevasse fall, and to ensure that a slip on steeper terrain does not sweep the whole roped team off the face. Correct orientation and appropriate snow firmness are key to the proper placement of pickets and flukes. Pickets are either pounded vertically into firm snow or buried horizontally as “dead men” in softer snow. Flukes usually need to be buried—deeper in soft conditions, closer to the surface in harder snow. To ensure the clip-in cable runs directly to the rope, carve a path in the snow with your hands or an axe pick. Practice placing snow anchors in a safe envrionment with a team of friends—you’ll want some manpower for rip-testing your work.
NORTH RIDGE | MT. BAKER, WASHINGTON | 10,781ft | III AI 2/3
Mt. Baker's North Ridge holds broad appeal for its position overlooking the British Columbia border region, its high, steep climbing, and its ease of access and descent. Doable in a long day, the route becomes more technical later in the season, so one of its challenges is timing: Go too early, and you’ll miss out on the fun tool swinging; go too late, and you’ll waste valuable time navigating the Coleman Glacier crevasse labyrinth. The North Ridge shares an approach with the very popular Coleman-Deming route, and descends this trade route back to the trail. Beginning in a subalpine forest at 3,700 feet, the trail leads up and along Heliotrope Ridge. Above timberline, reach the Coleman Glacier and begin a rising traverse at about 6,000 feet. The real climbing begins at the far side of a rock buttress, with snow and ice climbing increasing in angle and exposure until the ridge steepens to a bulge: the crux of the route. Following this section, which can present up to a full rope length or more of steep alpine ice, the route kicks back, ascending to and skirting a bergschrund and crevasses before climbing to the broad, rounded summit.
KEY SKILL: Alpine Ice Formed by the freezing of precipitation, rather than running water, alpine ice may be soft and sticky or the most impenetrable ice you’ll ever encounter—be sure to sharpen your picks and crampon points. As with waterfall ice, you’ll want stiff boots and rigid crampons to take the weight off your calves and minimize vibration when you kick. Alpine ice generally demands long screws for protection due to the layering of the ice—the deeper the screw goes, the more confi dent you can be of its security. As you move along the route, you’ll often need to adjust crampon technique, from flat-footed to front-point; learn to rest with one crampon flat on the ice to ease calf strain. A great place to practice alpine ice climbing is inside a crevasse: Build an anchor, have a belayer lower you in, and then climb back out with a toprope.
LIBERTY RIDGE | MT. RAINIER, WASHINGTON | 14,410ft | IV AI 2/3
A clean, aesthetic, and elegant line up the region’s proudest mountain, Liberty Ridge is a Cascade classic. Though moderate in grade, the route is huge and committing. It’s common to hear of forced turnarounds and stormy ascents requiring one or more days longer than planned. Nonetheless, a fit, skilled team who can capitalize on a window of weather and conditions will be rewarded with interesting steep-snow and ice climbing in a dramatic setting. More than 5,000 feet in length, Liberty Ridge involves at least one bivouac, with a long glacier approach and descent bookending the steepest climbing. Ascending from 4,400 feet at White River Campground to 7,400-foot St. Elmo’s Pass, with its stunted krummholz, climbers gain first the Winthrop Glacier and lower Curtis Ridge, then traverse to the Carbon Glacier and the toe of Liberty Ridge at 8,700 feet. From here to the 10,775- foot saddle at Thumb Rock, the climb winds between rock outcrops, following the right side of the ridge crest. Above Thumb Rock (common bivy site), the route threads a gully, often providing the hardest ice of the climb, then climbs snow and ice slopes to about 12,000 feet, passing a feature known as the Black Pyramid. Continue on broader slopes to pass a final bergschrund at 13,000 feet and emerge onto Liberty Cap, elevation 14,112 feet. From here, either traverse eastward and descend the popular Emmons Glacier route or continue to Rainier’s true summit.
KEY SKILL: Altimeter Navigation On a big route such as Liberty Ridge, which has many notable geographic features of known elevation, an altimeter can help the climbing team check progress and keep up momentum. In stormy conditions, it may provide your only reference points in a sea of white. The key to using an altimeter is to calibrate the instrument locally, before any en-route reading is needed. Weather and conditions can alter the barometric pressure considerably, especially if a storm passes by, so be sure to check accuracy at known points along the route.
GUIDEBOOKS: Cascade Alpine Guide, Vol 1 & III: Fred Beckey’s three-volume masterpiece of geology and mountaineering lore, this is the exhaustive guide to the Washington Cascades. Use it to establish a baseline of information about any peak or route. Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Vol I & II: Jim Nelson and Peter Potterfield’s selection cherry-picks the cream of the crop, but runs a little light on Oregon. Best for helping to select among the vast options in Beckey’s guide, this well-illustrated book is focused on what you should climb. Classic Climbs of the Northwest: Alan Kearney’s ode to alpinism offers first-person narrative along with historical and regional notes. Best for: inspiration. Kearney provides an annotated tick list of alpine routes, along with concise, well-researched logistical info.