Summer Skiing on Washington’s Volcanoes

Washington’s volcanoes offer a wide variety of ski mountaineering options, from expert death defying descents to leisurely ski descents for the intermediate skier. Two mountains in particular offer fun ski descents that are reasonable and accessible: Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.

Mount Adams, located in the Cascade Range 75 miles northeast of Portland, is the third highest of the Cascade volcanoes and the second highest mountain in Washington State (sitting at 12,276 feet above sea level). The summit of Adams is centrally located along the main north-south axis of the giant massif. Five glaciers drop off from the summit dome: the Klickitat, White Salmon, Wilson, Lyman, and Adams.

The standard South Spur route can be climbed well into fall, with September usually offering good ski descent conditions. One can ski the South Spur directly from the summit, although the skiing is a little steeper and more interesting from the false summit at 11,700 feet. An even more interesting descent from the false summit drops into the Southwest Chutes. Expert skiers can choose the North Face of the Northwest Ridge.

The standard South Spur route is accessed from Cold Springs Campground. From there hike on trail #183 up an old road trace which eventually emerges as a trail on the left skyline ridge after approximately 1.5 miles. The ridge trail will take you to a large flat area at approximately 9,000 feet, known affectionately as Lunch Counter. Although Adams can easily be climbed in a day, Lunch Counter is a common camping location.

From Lunch Counter continue up the south ridge. At approximately 9,700 feet the route steepens, and crampons and an ice axe are often needed. Follow the ridge up snow or talus slopes to the false summit. Cross the divide to access the true summit, approximately 600 feet higher in elevation. The entire climb from car to summit can be done in five to eight hours.

The easiest Washington State volcano ski descent is also located on the most famous active volcano in the continental United States: Mount St. Helens. With an elevation of 8,365 feet, it is located in the Cascade Range 50 miles northeast of Portland.

The best time for a ski descent on Mount St. Helens is spring to early summer. Early in the season plan on using alpine touring or tele skis and skins, while later in the season the ascent becomes an easy climb on steep pumice slopes. Climbing is limited to the south side by the U.S. Forest Service. Trailheads for an ascent vary by season, as State Highway 503 is open year round, while Forest Roads 83, 81, and 90 are usually open from Memorial Day until snow blocks the road. You have the option to camp at the Climbers Bivouac Trailhead, or at Climbers Bivouac via the Ptarmigan Trail. From there, it is a relatively easy ascent along Monitor Ridge. The ski descent is a mellow, enjoyable jaunt back down the south side.

When You Go: Information concerning Wilderness Permits and Cascades Volcano Passes are available at The distance from Spokane to Mount Adams is 330 miles; it’s 360 miles to Mount St. Helens. Weather on the volcanoes can change rapidly. Sudden snowstorms can occur above 6,000 feet any month of the year. //

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