Winter Alpine Climbs in the CascadesWinter is my favorite season to climb in the Cascades, in fact I feel that winter is when alpinism really happens here. What are trifling peaks in summer become true Nordwands in the winter; objectives that are already large in the summer take on a near Alaskan scale when attempted in the cold, dark winter months. The short days, terrible weather, huge snow pack, thin ice, and lack of plowed roads all tip the scales against the winter alpinist. These conditions, however, create a hot crucible through which hard alpinists are forged; success in the Cascades in winter is a good predictor of success in the greater ranges. At any rate, after a long winter of throwing one's self against Cascades' north faces, that spring trip to Alaska, the Andes, or Asia will seem like a tropical vacation.
How's Your Safety?
All of these routes should be considered potentially dangerous during periods of moderate and high avalanche forecasts. Check the forecast before you go and insist on good conditions. Folks have died in avalanches on or nearby most of these peaks. Take an AIARE class and outfit yourself appropriately. Climbers have lost fingers and toes to frostbite on some of these mountains so, know how to dress yourself.
A Note on Clothing and Gear
The Cascades have nasty weather, especially in the winter. In the wet maritime environment synthetic insulated clothing shines and more than makes up for its weight and bulk penalty when the s#%t hits the fan. If your planned route requires more than one or two bivouacs, a synthetic sleeping bag is also golden.
Insulated single leather boots mountaineering will get you through most climbs during most weather with the exception of Mt. Rainier. I recommend a double plastic or the modern 6000 meter boots for Rainier or other committing routes that require more than one bivouac. Also, during periods of Artic high pressure systems, conditions can be extremely cold and single leather boots won't cut it even on the lower peaks.
The typically low elevation of the Cascades plus cold weather means bad news for butane canister stoves. Call me once burnt, twice shy, but I like white gas stoves in the winter. They are worth the extra weight and hassle to me, although some climbers have reported good success using the newer butane stove systems like the MSR Reactor. Some climbers use a hanging butane canister stove inside a tent, but be mindful this practice is NOT recommended or considered safe as carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious threat and one must vent the tent properly. Bring multiple pairs of gloves and mittens. A pair of Dachenstein boiled wool mittens will keep your digits pink long after Primaloft or fleece has soaked through. To improve circulation to your extremities, take one aspirin and one garlic tablet a day. Aspirin thins the blood and garlic makes the platelets less sticky. Beware you will bleed like a hemophiliac if cut.
This blog post has great information on clothing systems.
A Cascades winter alpine rack will typically consist of:
2 KB/Bugaboo pitons
#1, #2 angle pitons
6 medium to large nuts
.5, .75, 1, 2 cams
8 single slings, configured as alpine draws
2 double slings with locking biners
6 ice screws, mostly short with one long one for v-threads
2 24" pickets
Abalakov V-Thread hooker
20 meters tat for building rappel anchors
This is a general list and should be tweaked for each individual route.
For Traveling Climbers
I would never suggest to another climber to travel to the Cascades to climb in winter. The weather is simply too fickle. If you can't resist the lure of a winter ascent of Mt. Rainier or a run up the classic Triple Couloirs and must travel here to climb in winter I would recommend one of two strategies:
1)Watch the weather and avalanche forecasts and keep your ear to the ground and drop everything and go for it when you find favorable conditions. Cascades locals may not have invented the "Smash and Grab", but they seem to have perfected it.
2)Time your trip for the most reliable weather window; Presidents' Day weekend in Februrary. The Cascades typically enjoy a high pressure system around the Presidents' Day weekend, sometimes for a few days and some times for a couple of weeks.
In either case have backup plans. East side routes can have better weather than Mt Rainier. Bring skis if that is your thing. Be flexible and you can probably make something of a bad weather vacation.
The Baker's Dozen
This list I am proposing is what I see as being essential winter routes for the aspiring Cascades based alpinists. Rather than compiling a list of the biggest and hardest winter routes completed to date, I selected routes that represent the range of commitment and difficulty experienced here in the winter. This selection is arbitrary and is based primarily on my own experiences climbing these and other winter routes and my own thoughts on what makes a 'good' winter route. Furthermore, this list is compiled with an eye towards accessibility. Most of these routes offer good to reasonable access at some time of the 'winter'.
One should note the quotes in winter. I include the shoulder seasons as being fair game for winter ascents as many of these routes are best done either before or after the winter solstice and spring equinox. The list is organized by difficulty and commitment with the easier ticks appearing first. Again, this is arbitrary, based on my own personal and subjective ratings.
North Twin Sister, West Ridge
Excellent page on the Twin Sisters
Chair Peak, North Face, NE Buttress
Chair Peak page
Mt Shuksan, North Face, NW Couloir, White Salmon Glacier
Excellent Mount Shuksan page
Mt Stuart, North FaceExcellent Mt Stuart page
Dragontail, North FaceDragontail Peak page
Colfax Peak, North FaceMt Baker Coleman-Demming approach
Photos from Ade Miller's ascent of the Cosley-Houston route
Mt Hood, North Face
http://www.summitpost.org/mount-hood/150189>Mount Hood page
Eldorado Peak, NW Ice Couloir
[Eldorado Peak page
Mt Graybeard, North FaceGraybeard Peak page
Mt Rainier, North Face
Mount Rainier page
Big Four, North Face
Trip report on Cascadeclimbers.com
Mt Index, North Face, East Face
Mount Index page
Photos of the F.A. of Murphy's Law on the east face of the North Peak