If you’re looking to ride your first PNW volcano, there’s more to it than just having the will to do it. The right gear, training, prep and knowledge are key to getting out there safely for some incredible experiences.
Sponsored Article by Matthew Sklar
The Pacific Northwest (PNW) is the land of volcanoes. It’s littered with them, stark peaks that jut out from the verdant foothills, beckoning to any snowboarder who sees them. This abundance of volcanoes makes the PNW a great place to dip your toes into human-powered skiing, snowboarding and mountaineering. They offer straightforward objectives, routes for all abilities, and all fitness levels.
If for nothing else, the views and experiences are like no other and worth the trip. But there’s a lot that goes into climbing and riding a volcano, so we’ve put together this guide to getting started and slashing turns on your first peak.
Training & Preparation
The most important piece of this puzzle is your own training and experience. While some of the PNW peaks are easily accessible for beginners, it’s still very important to have the right information before you head out to ride. A Level 1 avalanche course and basic First Aid equipment are highly recommended as a baseline before you head out.
In addition, for some bigger objectives, you’ll need to have glacier travel skills and the accompanying crevasse rescue knowledge. These books can help get acquainted with these aspects of preparation.
Beyond this experience, you’ll also want to have a good grasp of the current avalanche situation and the weather forecast. Be aware! Both of these can change very quickly, so it’s a good idea to check them at least once per day so that you have a good grasp of what’s going on with the weather and snowpack.
Finally, you’ll need to be reasonably fit. Climbing and riding any of these mountains involves carrying a heavy pack up several thousand feet of very challenging terrain. If you’ve been sitting on the couch all winter, start hitting the gym a month or so before you plan on climbing. You don’t need to be some triathlete, but it’s important to have a baseline level of fitness.
Also, you may think the best thing that will keep you from getting into trouble is having good gear. But it’s not. It’s your personal ethic regarding your capabilities. Have a good grasp of your limits so that you don’t put yourself or others in danger.
Many PNW volcanoes require permits to climb them, they’re pretty affordable, so check around and make sure you’ve got the right paperwork. You will also need to check which volcanoes are open to the public at the time you’re planning on climbing.
So, if you’ve got the training, and you’re in shape, you can just grab your snowboard and a backpack and start hiking, right? Wrong! You and your team need to have the right gear and know how to use it before you start bagging peaks.
The most obvious piece of equipment to have is a backcountry ski setup or a splitboard and skins. Sure, you can hike some of the smaller peaks with your alpine gear on your back, but your life is going to be a lot easier with dedicated touring gear. Look for a universal shape that you’re comfortable on.
Mountains, like Mt. Adams for example, are tall enough for their terrain to have drastically different snow conditions at opposite elevations simultaneously. Make sure to wax your skins before you use them, too. Sunny days will lead to frustrating glopping otherwise.
Poles and Packs
Beyond that, you’ll need your ski poles, or collapsible ski poles that will fit in your pack if you’re a splitboarder, and some other essentials. Speaking of packs, you’ll need a bigger one than you’d usually ride with, usually somewhere in the 35-50L range. It’s a good idea to take all your gear into the shop and make sure it will fit into whatever pack you choose.
You’ll also need some pointy things. At a minimum, you should bring an ice axe on any volcano expedition/trip. Look for something lightweight, designed for skiers or snowboarders. A Whippet, for example, is a special ski pole with a built-in axe in the handle, this gives you the extra insurance of allowing you to have an axe in each hand, without having to carry extra weight.
While many of the PNW volcanoes are best ridden in the spring when things are warm and sunny, you’ll still want a good down jacket from a brand like The North Face or Patagonia. If bad weather rolls in, you’ll want something warm and reliable. If you usually ride in a shell jacket and snowboard pants, you’ll be fine using those, but it’s not a bad idea to shop for softshell options that are lighter and will breathe better.
You can use your normal inbounds helmet, or you can opt for a climbing helmet that’s lighter and will keep your head cooler. Just make sure you bring good sunglasses or snow goggles. Sunny days on the snow can be really hard on your eyes, and in many cases can lead to snow blindness if you’re not wearing the proper gear. Make sure you’ve got something polarized like Smith sunglasses.
Hand and Footwear
Some volcanoes will require that you use crampons on your boots. Practice getting them on and off of your boots at home; it’s not fun to learn how to use them in the cold. Finally, some of the longer missions, like Mt Baker or Glacier Peak, require glacier travel with ropes, harnesses and more. If you’re looking at climbing and riding one of those more technical peaks, it’s worth talking to a guide service about tour options.
Finally, make sure you’ve got good gloves, a multitool, plenty of food and water, wax, wool base layers, a spare hat and good socks.
Navigation Tools and Apps
While most volcanoes are pretty straightforward, clouds can roll in and kill visibility and leave you wandering far from the car. Make sure you’ve got a topo map and a compass at all times. We also recommend using the GAIA GPS app. It’s affordable, works without service, and makes navigating very easy. And while you’re on your phone, download the free Backcountry SOS app. It’s a free app with the capabilities to text rescuers your exact GPS coordinates if you run into trouble. This will speed up a rescue and give you an extra margin of safety.
Picking a Peak for Beginners
So you’ve got your gear, you’ve got your knowledge, and you’re in shape, chomping at the bit. But you’re asking yourself, which peak should I climb and ride first? We’d recommend starting on Mt Saint Hellens. It’s straightforward, not technical, and not too long. It’s a good start to human-powered volcano riding and will give you a taste of the challenges and rewards.
From there, Mt Hood is an obvious choice. You can either ride the lifts partway up or hike from the bottom. Either way, you’ve got a bunch of different route choices that are all at least a little more technical than Hellens. Hood offers a great opportunity to get comfortable with your axe and crampons and ride some fun, steep terrain.
Mt Adams is one of the classics for a reason. It’s beautiful, long, and just the right amount of challenging with options to ski several lines. Many people take two days to climb and ride it, which gives you the opportunity to experience a night high on the mountain, and ride back down when you’re completely fresh. Adams might be too big of an objective to attempt right away, but it’s definitely worth working up to.
So what are you waiting for? Stop staring wistfully at those volcanoes from the car and go climb one. There’s nothing quite like dropping into that first sweeping toe-side turn on one of the PNW’s majestic peaks.
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