For the first time in three and a half years, in the never ending search for optimal snow conditions, I found myself venturing outside the state of Oregon looking for corn snow in the middle of January. I’d been eyeballing the weather forecast all week, and conditions appeared right to try and tackle the Worm Flows on the south side of Mt St Helens.
I woke up just before my alarm at 3:30, and was on the road by 4:00, heading north on Interstate 5 towards Portland to pickup Ron. After a brief stop to pickup a climbing permit in Cougar, we pulled into the Marble Mountain trailhead a few minutes before 7:30 and found Joe, who’d spent the night there and was planning on skiing with us for the day. After donning ski boots and packs, we started skinning through the snow covered forest roads towards the mountain over an incredible mid-January base of 72 inches at 2600 feet. Soon, we popped out near the treeline and the mountain was in full view in the sunshine. Remarkably, the temperature was pushing 50 degrees – a stark contrast to the valley fog and freezing temperatures at home. Stripped down to nothing but my baselayer, I still found myself sweating as we started climbing the steeper pitches of the 5500 vertical foot climb to the summit rim.
I was digging the traction provided by my nylon/mohair mix Black Diamond skins I received as a Christmas gift, but was happier with the glide, which allowed me to keep up with the skiers with less effort than normal. After a quick break for lunch around 6000 feet, Ron and I resumed skinning while Joe booted. The views from the upper mountain were excellent, with Mt Adams looming large to the west and Mt Hood visible to the south. The snow was starting to corn nicely, and a couple of splitboarders descended down from above us around 11:30. Their turns looked good, but I figured another couple of hours would be primo. For the last 1000 feet, both Ron and I switched to crampons and booted the final pitch to the summit rim.
From the summit rim, the views were incredible. Not a wisp of wind was detectable on the summit, and looking down into the steaming crater was such a treat. Spirit Lake was incredibly blue, and looking north Mt Rainier dominated the skyline, with Goat Rocks and the Olympics also in full view. We crept up to the edge of the cornice on the rim as close as we dared and snapped several photos. Below is a picture of Ron looking to the east with the summit rim and Mt Adams in the background….
Travel time to the summit rim from the parking lot took about 5 hours, so we lounged around a bit soaking in the sun’s rays and enjoying the views. Looking down into the massive crater, I could only imagine how much destruction took place back in 1980 when the mountain erupted. The amount of material moved in a matter of minutes was ridiculous….
A few minutes before 2:00, conditions looked prime to begin making turns. After putting the split back in board mode. and repacking our gear, it was time to ride. We elected to drop the main bowl off the summit rim with the thought of riding Swift Creek all the way down if conditions looked good in the canyon. I dropped in first, and the snow was excellent. I could tell after several turns that it was going to be one long ride back to the car! Ron and Joe followed, and I snapped a few photos as they cruised down.
The snowfields seemed to go on and on, as we linked turn after turn in the warm sunshine. After a few thousand feet or so, we made the decision to cruise into the Swift Creek drainage and made that our descent line down the rest of the mountain. Swift Creek is nice in that you can cruise down into the canyon and then back out to the larger snowfields on the east side pretty easily.
Lower down in Swift Creek, the snow remained firm on the shady east facing side of the canyon wall, but started to turn from corn to mush on the sunnier west facing slopes. I snapped a few photos of Joe cruising through the canyon, including the two shots below. The first image is looking south with Mt Hood in the background and the second is a bit more abstract….
After about 30minutes, several thousand feet of corn turns and plenty of big grins, we finally exited the canyon at a point back down near the gentler slopes above treeline. At this point, our legs were starting to grow a bit weary after a full day of climbing and riding, so we took a quick break, drank some water, snapped a few photos and continued down for more turns.
The runout from Chocolate Falls to the car was pretty taxing on the legs due to the sticky snow and long day. The upper section was really mushy due to the warm temps while the snow on the lower section on the road below treeline had started to refreeze and was a mixture of skin, snowshoe and foot tracks, requiring us to pay attention or risk taking a digger. We passed a few people on snowshoes on the way out, and were able to ride right to the parking lot without taking the boards off, making for a great descent of nearly 5500 feet on the day! Celebratory brews from Deschutes hit the spot at the parking lot as we changed out of sweat soaked clothes.
Ron and I bid farewell to Joe, who was heading north for a day of lift skiing with family in Washington the next day, and headed south to Portland for a well earned burger and Terminator Stout at McMenamin’s. Portland traffic was congested as usual, but I missed the majority of rush hour at the pub, and was able to make great time back to the southern Willamette Valley. After such a great day, I’m pretty sure it won’t be another three and a half years before I head out of state again in search of good turns…….it may not even be three and a half months! Here’s a parting shot of the mountain from the drive home….