Climbing Volcanoes 101

Posted on 20 September 2021

As we mention in our Anatomy of a Volcano post, the idea of skiing on a volcano feels like a foreign concept to our team of mostly East Coast locals. What is the draw to skiing on an active volcano, and is it inherently dangerous?

We called up Mallory Duncan, former Vermont resident and current Bend, Oregon local, skier and literary enthusiast, for some insight on skiing volcanoes. 

Mallory Duncan skins up Mt. Adams
What's up with skiing volcanoes? Why ski a volcano?
"Volcanoes hold snow for so long that you can ski them late into June and July. There are not many places in the lower 48 that you can ski so late in the season as in Oregon and Washington. I feel like that's the number one reason to ski them. I think maybe another reason is that there are long lines. You can ski top to bottom, especially if you are hitting it on a good weather window. You can ski like 5,000 feet all the way from the top of Mt. Adams down to the parking lot. Also, you get incredible views on top of a volcano. It's a stand-alone mountain, so when you get up there, you can see for miles."

Photo by Mallory Duncan.
Views for miles. Mallory snaps a photo of sunset from up high on Mt. Adams.

How did you get into skiing on volcanoes? Do you have a first memory or a feeling you remember from your first time?
"I moved to Bend initially to become a raft guide, and on my way to get on the river, my friend from college who also lived in Burlington was like, "Hey man, you should come out for a backcountry ski with me." I had never really done anything like that before, so my first time was on Tumalo Mountain, which I feel is the tradition. So I did that, and I remember I had a pair of really heavy bindings, and it was pretty miserable because of that, but when we got to the top the snow was fantastic and we got to ski corn. That made it pretty worthwhile. I was still just dabbling in it at that point. A couple of weeks later, I came back down to hang out with my buddy and some other friends again and we slept at Todd Lake and planned to go all the way out to Broken Top. 

So I got into it through him, he was kind of like my mentor, I guess, the first person to take me under their wing and show me the ways. I remember specifically that first time it was a really beautiful bluebird day in the middle of May. I distinctly remember looking up at Broken Top and thinking it was so gorgeous. I was looking at it for a while as I was approaching. You can see it way out in the distance, and then you slowly get closer and closer. It's like a seven mile approach to get to the base of it. I remember it being stunning and having great conditions. It was super rewarding to start so far away from something and then finish up on top. We didn't summit, but we skied this line called 1:00 Couloir, and I remember we popped over the top of the ridge and looked over and could see all the way down The Three Sisters to Mt. Jefferson and then all the way out to Mt. Hood. We had total views out across Oregon, so that was a very distinct memory for me."

Photo by Mallory Duncan. Unpredictable weather! Clouds move in on Mt. Adams.
How is skiing a volcano different than skiing a mountain? 
"One of the most significant differences is how insane the weather can be on a volcano and how fast it can come in. They are stand-alone mountains, so they generally just get pounded with storms. You can get this crazy rime ice on certain aspects which can cause problems, but it can also be a good thing because you can get loading in certain aspect, which you can ski all the way down as long as it is stable."

What is your favorite volcano to backcountry ski on?
"I think it would have to be Mt. Jefferson. That is an incredible volcano. We did a circumnavigation of it last June, and that was one of the best trips of my life. I also just like the way it looks. You know, it's really, really pointy and super big, and it's really close to Bend, so you get to look at it a lot."
Photo by Mallory Duncan.Packed up for a volcano mission.

What's in your pack when you ski a volcano?
"If it's a spring trip, I usually bring crampons, an ice axe, a walkie-talkie; obviously, your skis and all that stuff, helmet, glasses, goggles, and I bring Cheez-It's for snacks. Cheez-It's are a big one. I am also a big meat stick guy, and I bring cheddar – Vermont cheddar, of course – some Cabot! I also always bring a repair kit. I always carry one when I go into the backcountry, so I usually have zip ties, some cord, multitool, and medical items."

Tell us a little about skiing Mt. Adams last summer!
"That trip was insane. I loved it. What I liked about that trip was where we camped on the volcano. We camped on this sandy shoulder, maybe 800 feet from the summit, and it felt like we were camping on a beach. I had my shoes kicked off, it was pretty good weather for most of the trip, and it was a very relaxing experience. That first night we camped on the volcano definitely sticks in my mind as one of those experiences that you don't get to have often, where you are out in the middle of nowhere, but you are also very comfortable. On top of that, we had a fantastic crew."
Photo by Mallory Duncan.
An alpine beach? Scene from camp, just under the summit of Mt. Adams.

You can follow along with all of Mallory's adventures in the Pacific Northwest on Instagram.

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