Feat. Joe O’Brien, Martin Cermak, Mirko Moeller, Elliott Skierszkan
Executive Summary: A ~10-day trip by bicycle to climb and ski some of the Cascade Volcanoes. We ended up getting well-acquainted with Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood, and a lot of up and down under human power. Get ready for a long trip report!
1. On the Origins of Cycle-Ski-Touring [Joe O’Brien]
In 2017 Martin, Elliott, and Mirko hatched a hare-brained scheme to ski Kulshan (Mt. Baker) by strapping skis, ice axes, and the rest to their bicycles and cycling there (see Martin’s great video and the VOC trip report). While they did this I was off pounding trees in the East Kootenays.
At some point in the height of winter Martin began pining for the days of yore (summer) when bike-accessed trips would again be possible. I was not entirely unfamiliar with his penchant for
suffering bike-accessed mountaineering, having previously met him after he completed a 2-day bicycle approach from Surrey Mt. Matier for a summit attempt.
As Martin talked more and more about a bike-accessed Cascades Volcano ski extravaganza I expressed interest in joining in—despite having never bike toured before, nor owning a bike suited for such an endeavour.
A few months and much faff later we had hatched a plan—bus to Portland with 4 bikes, 8 skis, plenty of overnight gear, and assorted point mountaineering accoutrement. From Portland we would head to Lawetlat’la (Mt. Saint Helens), then Pahto (Mt. Adams), and return to Portland. We had originally hoped to string together a few more volcanoes, but the thing about volcanoes is that they tend to be quite far apart, and the thing about bicycling with all of that gear is, well, that it is pretty slow.
Carefully laid plans in place we all went to work figuring out how to strap everything to out poor, beleaguered bikes (An enormous thanks to Lucy and Alberto for loaning me a bike—I would likely still be somewhere between Portland and Trout Lake without you).
Finally the day came and we headed for Portland, bags packed, plans laid, and bikes ready. The plan we had crafted over the preceding weeks lasted until just after the bus reached Seattle, at which point we tossed it out.
2. Escape from the City [ Elliott Skierszkan]
Two days before our scheduled departure, I submitted my Ph.D thesis, breathed a sigh of relief, and also wondered how the heck we would fit four humans, and their bicycles, and their skis, and their multiple panniers each, and their backpacks, onto a single Bolt Bus at the Vancouver bus station.
After spending the last days tinkering with my bike to make sure it was up to snuff, I rolled out of the house with the fully loaded bicycle under a torrential downpour for Leg 1 of the ride, i.e., to the Vancouver bus station. Martin, Mirko, and Joe all arrived at the bus terminal shortly thereafter where we joined in some nervous laughter, presumably all feeling like this idea was a bit silly and potentially embarrassing if it all failed at the bus-boarding step due to the driver potentially laughing at our ridiculous amount of “luggage”. Joe and I mused about turning the ‘bike-and-ski’ trip into a road trip if we failed to get on the bus, but don’t tell Martin—he would have certainly objected on the moral grounds of our supposed commitment to self-propelled access.
As we approached the bus, the driver looked at us and exclaimed loudly in a strong American accent “Ain’t no way I can fit four bicycles on this bus!” We ignored him and frantically disassembled our kits and chucked them in the bus’s bowels while he looked on, somewhat indifferently. So the first crux was passed.
After an uneventful bus ride and an overnight at a Portland hostel, the adventure began in earnest on Sunday (May 6). The bike ride out of Portland turned out to be a breeze as we followed residential neighbourhood streets with designated bikeways all the way out of town, gawking at the amazing display of spring flowers that seemed to surpass even those of Vancouver.
Once outside of Portland, we began our long trek up the Columbia River, which we would follow until its confluence with the White Salmon River that would take us to Mt. Adams. On the upside, cycling along Hwy 14 on the Columbia river gorge was scenic as we admired the steep canyons and we flew along with strong tailwinds. On the downside, it was some of the worst bike touring I’ve experienced. A twisty, winding highway with constant traffic and absolutely no shoulder. I was pretty terrified the entire way. This was Joe’s first long-distance multi-day bike tour. When he incredulously asked “is bike touring always like this!?”, I hoped we would have better offerings for his maiden cycle tour later on the trip.
Fortunately, on our first evening we benefited from the amazing hospitality that seems to follow bicycle tourists: The owners of an RV park we stopped at offered us a spot to pitch tents for the night, access to the heated washrooms with warm showers, and started a waterfront bonfire for us with a ginormous stack of wood, only asking for a measly $20 in return!
Luckily, on Monday (May 7) a short ride up the highway had us on the much quieter road from White Salmon to the town of Trout Lake, WA. This cycling was lovely: we steadily climbed the 2,000 ft to Trout Lake admiring incredible rivers and countryside scenery. I seemed to fall into a state of meditation and reflection upon the big questions in life. There was no stress, no fear of getting lost or buried in an avalanche, or falling off a mountain (typical concerns on your average VOC mountain outing)—just exercise and contemplation on the meaning of life. Zen.
We arrived at Trout Lake just in time to buy climbing passes and raid the local corner store of its stock of peanut butter, nutella, granola bars, and jerky. We planned for three days “on the mountain”. It turns out much more time is required for what is a simple daytrip for most fit ski-tourers, when you also approach it by bicycle and need to haul food and camping gear 1,000 m up the approach road.
Anyways, we enjoyed a restful night under clear skies at the municipal campground. I observed the lovely and dry Ponderosa Pine forest: it was clear we had cycled a ways from Portland’s rainforest towards the drier slopes east of the crest of the Cascades. We had a nice night under the stars, getting ready for our approach to snowline the following day.
3. Approach to Adams [Joe]
The thing about a trip report about biking and skiing volcanoes is that it takes two or three days of saying “we went uphill” in different ways before you reach the summit.
However, the uphill today was of a slightly different nature: after good few hundred vertical meters up a paved logging road, and some of the most beautiful and secluded riding we’d experienced so far (huh, maybe bike touring can be nice!), we swapped asphalt for gravel and continued up to THE SNOWLINE.
Finally we remembered the reason we’d strapped planks and poles to our frames *que gear explosion*. The transition from ‘bike mode’ to ‘ski mode’ involved stripping down and stashing the bikes in the woods, tooling up our packs for overnight touring, and eating an entire pack of bagels, peanut butter, and nutella.
After sating (however temporarily) our hunger, we set off on skis for the south climb trailhead. By the time we’d finished setting up camp that night, various parties we’d met along the way/at camp had gifted us the equivalent of a six pack of free beer! However, the duty of consuming would fall almost exclusively to Martin and Mirko—it would take them nearly three days.
That night we all pretended to sleep until 2:30 am at which point we popped out of bed and set off uphill (see a theme here?). As the sun crept over the horizon we slipped out of the hallucinogenic haze of alpine starts and skinning in the dark, finding ourselves above the Black Butte. Another couple hours of firm and chunky travel saw us between Lunch Counter and Pikers Peak and beginning to feel the effects of a) an early start after days of cycling, b) an insurmountable lack of water, c) altitude, or d) a bit of all of the above. In midst of skinning, breathing, eating, and drinking the true crux of the trip began to crystalize for me—there was nothing technical, nor anything that required too much strength or extreme endurance. The crux really was psychological—just keep plodding upwards, for days.
Cresting Piker’s Peak we were treated to a cooling breeze, and took the opportunity to snack before the final, comparatively small, climb to the true summit, finishing approximately 8 hrs after leaving camp. Bluebird conditions treated us to expansive views in all directions: we could see Rainier, St. Helens, the Washington desert to the East and Cascades to the West.
4. Escape from Adams [Mirko Moeller]
After a quick summit photo we briefly debated whether to wait a bit longer for the snow to soften up or descend right away. Personally I was torn between the prospect of the terrible skiing down the icy slopes and wanting to leave the summit as soon as possible due to a blinding headache. In the end we decided that it was not unlikely that the snow would not soften up at all at this elevation and started our descent. Skiing down to the false summit was awful rime/ice, but on the lower portion of the slope immediately below the false summit the snow started to soften up and we got some fun turns in. The 2,100m run down proved to be the descent of the season for some! After some traversing through the woods, Elliott’s great skill with his GPS proved very useful to get us back to camp without putting skins on once.
We had one of the donated beers and napped in the warm afternoon sun before backing up and making our way back down the bikes. On the way down we ran into several other parties asking us for beta on the mountain. Mt Adams does see quite a bit of traffic.
Once at the bikes we started the repacking faff. With regards to ski boots people took different strategies. Joe and I took ours off and strapped them to our bike racks, while Elliott and Martin kept theirs on. Joe also devised a method to dry his liners by taking them out of the boots and trailing them in the wind behind his bike attached to the bottoms of his skies. The bike ride down the logging road was an epic cruise, all downhill, through incredible forest under glowing evening light. We arrived back in Trout Lake just after 7pm and found that both the only grocery store and restaurant had closed, so we settled for leftovers and camped at the municipal campground. To Martin’s dismay his new pot was burned for a second time (Tools, not jewels, Martin!).
Next morning, we enjoyed a much-needed sleep-in before making our way to Trout Lake’s restaurant to gorge on a delicious breakfast of eggs, hashbrowns, and bacon. I had got my fix of coffee (and more—Yay free refills!), and then we saddled the bikes once again for a ride back to White Salmon.
Once in White Salmon we headed straight to the supermarket. It had been decided on the way that in addition to groceries we would have ice cream. I decided to try a cucumber-chilli flavored popsicle which turned out to be a huge mistake. It sounds awful and does actually taste awful as well. I made it about halfway through the popsicle before giving up. Luckily Joe and Martin let me have some of their more conservatively flavored ice-cream.
After stocking up on groceries a long embattled discussion ensued on what to do next. We knew that we would barely have time to make it to Mt. St. Helens, and that we would arrive there on a busy weekend without the required permits, which were sold out.
At this point we will introduce Susan, a lovely lady out shopping who approached us and asked about our trip, and whether we intended on skiing at Mt. Hood. When we told her that we were separated from Mt. Hood by the Hood River Bridge which is not accessible to bicycles she immediately offered to drive us over the bridge in her truck. This kind offer opened up a whole new realm of opportunities and after some further deliberation we abandoned St Helens and were off to Hood! It actually took two trips across the bridge in Susan’s pickup truck to get all of us and our gear into Oregon. Susan also gave us some beta on backcountry skiing at Hood, where she had been on a few trips with her husband.
Once on the other side, cycling along Highway 281 was very pleasant, but Joe was having some problems with his gears not shifting properly. This was especially unfortunate because this section (from the Hood River Bridge to Parkdale) involved roughly 600 m of elevation gain.
When it was getting close to dusk we arrived in Parkdale, a small town where we stopped at a grocery store to replenish our supplies. Since it was getting dark we also needed a place to stay. Fortunately our streak of good luck continued in the form of Anna. Anna, who lives in a quaint house in one of the orchards surrounding Parkdale, saw us standing at the grocery and asked us flat out if we needed a place to stay. As she had been on several long bike tours herself, up to 1 year and 8 months in Europe and Asia, she immediately realized that we were looking for a place to stay and offered her backyard. We were all blown away by her kindness and gladly accepted her offer.
We arrived at Anna’s place shortly after sunset. She showed us around her house which was full of cool items she had collected during her travels. One of the rooms had wooden floors, walls and ceilings which particularly appealed to Martin. Anna’s stories of travelling around the world for over a year were very inspiring. We all had much-appreciated showers and used an actual kitchen to prepare a hearty dinner of wraps and stir-fried vegetables. We then put up our sleeping bags in Anna’s backyard under the stars.
We woke up at around 7am the next morning, just in time to thank Anna again for her kindness before she left for work. Before leaving she gave us a backcountry map of Mt. Hood which we were allowed to keep and have now donated to the VOC—check it out in the Clubroom library! I must say that for me, not having been on many bike tours before, it was amazing to see with how much kindness random strangers treated us. Elliott mentioned that he had on several occasions found that “bike touring brings out the best in people.”
We enjoyed pleasant riding up Highway 35, although it was also a grunt with 1,000 m of elevation gain to reach Bennett Pass, near Mt. Hood. Joe and Martin charged ahead while Elliott and I took a more leisurely pace in the back. I had been feeling strong the previous day, but now my legs were just not feeling it.
The elevation gain from Parkdale to Bennett pass is very gradual. Sometimes it looks as if the road is going downhill, when in fact it is going uphill. There was a particularly funny spot on the road were it looked as if a small stream of water was flowing uphill. Elliott pointed out to me that the French term for this behavior is a “faux plat”, meaning “fake flat. Very appropriate.
Eventually, we reached Bennett Pass, knackered, and hungry. Lunch at the pass was a sad affair: we were running on fumes and devoured what was left of our bagels and cream cheese. Any cream cheese that was dropped on the roadside gravel was promptly recuperated and salvaged as we discovered you could suck on the gravel/cream cheese mix, which would melt the cheese of the rock, and spit out the gravel (like cherry pits) while ingesting the much-needed calories that were the very last of our supply.
5. Approach to Hood [Elliott]
After scraping every last of our bagel crumbs and specks of cream cheese at Bennett Pass, we finally set off again, coasting downhill into Government Camp. If you ever want to see a weird town, Govy Camp in May is the place to be! With tourists all gone, we were surrounded by long-haired unshaven ball-cap sporting, torn-jean wearing, skateboard-riding, joint-smoking (mostly) male ski bum dudes rocking out, 1990s-style. We stuck out like a sore thumb! With the funky vibes of the town, we decided to get the hell out of there after raiding the grocery store, aiming for the nearby National Forest campground.
Unfortunately, the campground was mostly still under snow. Now wanting to drag our 100-pound bikes through the mush to camp on snow, we ended up finding the only snow-free patch in the forest, less than 50 meters from the highway. Setting up camp on the moist, recently-melted out forest floor in between giant trees and a thick, dark, canopy, we quickly dubbed our spot “Camp Misery”. Over dinner, crouched among the twigs and stumps, we commiserated and recalled our other bad camping experiences, and concluded that although Camp Misery sucked, we had all seen worse. Somehow the noisy highway didn’t stop us from falling a sleep.
The following morning, we awoke not too early to unexpectedly clear skies! That seemed to fuel us up a little bit and we set off for the 800-m climb up to Timberline Ski Resort with daypacks and skis on our bikes. The climb, without overnight gear, was actually not too bad and took us less than two hours, but our timing was poor as we were cycling up while cars were constantly gunning past us and kicking up dust en route to first lifts at the ski resort. Joe somehow forgot his skins, so he had to double-back partyway up the climb to retrieve them.
At Timberline, we transitioned to ski mode and started skinning alongside the resort, just as hordes of climbers were descending from the mountain after their alpine start and summit. It’s a funny place: 2-hours of skinning up 15 to 20 degree open slopes, right beside the resort. As we approached we actually began to wonder if the summit might not be a possibility! We decided it was worth a shot, even if all of the climbers were already long gone from the mountain as most people try and summit at first light.
After much slogging we eventually reached the summit crater, where there was the first bits of actual technical climbing (albeit easy) ahead of us. The summit crater was pretty interesting: steep 3-side walls of volcanic choss and rime rose a couple hundred meters above while the 4th side was open and left views down to the southern Oregon volcanic giants, Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters hundreds of km away. In the middle of the crater lay a sulphurous mount whose heat was enjoyed by two playful ravens. Melting from the hot sulphurous had undercut the snow in parts, with a sketchy-looking snowbridge on top of hazardous (toxic) hydrogen-sulfide holes. Higher up we saw the only real crevasse on the route, a bergschrund below the summit which was still reasonably filled in.
However, we also quickly realized that the summit was out of the question: it was 2 PM and the route went straight below the vertical volcanic choss and rime that was baking in full sun. The ski down for me was very mediocre as the snow was super slushy and grabby, having baked in the sun all day. There wasn’t too much disappointment with not having summitted Mt. Hood seeing as it was never really in our plans, and we did get a great second day of ski touring with lots of vertical, great weather, and great views. Nevertheless, it did feel a bit funny knowing that it would very easy at this peak to wake up at 8:30 AM, drive to the resort and buy a lift ticket, be on the summit after a couple easy hours of plodding and back at the bottom by 12 PM, while we had done a gruelling slog from 8 AM to 2 PM only to arrive within a couple hundred meters to the summit and be turned around due to unsafe conditions in the afternoon sun.
Ahead of us now lay another thrilling bike ride ahead of us! We flew down the 800 m back to Camp Misery, and keen to get down to lower elevations for a warmer night we packed our gear and dropped several hundred meters further down the highway towards Portland, setting up camp in a mossy rainforest just at the boundary of National Forest land.
It was now Sunday (May 6) and all that was left to do was a fairly casual ride into Portland for the final leg of our trip. We avoided the highway by taking scenic country roads past cut cottages in the forest, which gradually gave way to farmland and countryside. The ride was quite hilly, but there was little traffic and it was very enjoyable. It was so funny to look back and see Mt. Hood, tens of km away and thousands of meters higher than us, where we had been just the afternoon prior!
Signs of the city approaching included seeing pelotons of road cyclists blitzing past us with their 20-pound bikes while we turtled on with our loaded beasts of burden. However, the real shock came upon entering the first suburb east of Portland, Gresham, where we were confronted with heavy traffic, endless strip malls and parking lots, and some of seedy-looking characters. We had a “lovely” picknic in the Safeway parking lot, wolfing down our favorite food of the trip: wraps stuffed with cheese, hummus, and crunch fresh vegetables. Yum!
In Gresham, we also stopped for coffee and spent a couple of hours on the Internet, until Mirko secured an AirBnB host for us in Portland. We eventually reconnected with the cycling routes into Portland, and ended up at an awesome AirBnB which was located on a ⅓ acre plot full of veggie gardens and tiny homes, only 30 minutes out of downtown (by bike). Portland is definitely a hip town! It felt great to end our trip with a subdued return to the city, where we felt like we are on a farm even though we were in the middle of a metropolis.
After a comfortable night, warm showers, and a celebratory stop at a nearby microbrewery, we finally bade farewell to life on the road with our last night on the trip.
6. Conclusion [Joe]
We woke the following morning, had a lazy breakfast, and packed up the bikes for one last ride to the bus. On the way into town we found ourselves on the same route we had been nine days prior, creating a nice finish to our loop. We also decided that Portland is a magical city where it almost always feels like you’re biking downhill.
On the bus ride home Martin began making designs for an extended bike and ski tour which would include almost six months of ski and biking throughout all of the Cascade volcanoes – we all wished him the best of luck. Elliott excitedly pointed out that we had only 7 more months until powder skiing.
7. Epilogue [Elliott]
This was a strenuous trip, no doubt, which involved 400 km by bicycle, probably another 30 on skis, and close to 7,000 m of elevation gain in a little over a week. We had great weather and a great crew. We definitely worked hard for those turns, and it was cool to see that it is possible, but next time I would recommend picking a route that doesn’t involve a river at 100 m above sea level in between the climbing objectives. Even if the bike ride downhill is fun, that’s just way too much elevation gain to sacrifice, only to have to do it all over again! Biking uphill with multiple days of food, and ski gear, and mountaineering gear is not for the faint of heart, but it is not impossible either! Maybe you are inspired to try your own self-propelled odyssey next!