I’ve climbed Mt McLoughlin many times and by various routes, but I have never climbed it from the west side. The west side if the you see from the Rogue Valley. I knew this route is nothing but a long scree/talus slog in the summer with no snow, so I wanted to try the west side with snow on it. Besides, if things went well, I could get a long glissade on the way down. I picked a sunny day late in the season for this route. If I do it again, I would go a little earlier and pick a day not quite so warm.
On Saturday, May 15, 2009, I got an early start from my home in Medford and drove up Highway 140 towards Mt McLoughlin. I turned left on the Butte Falls turnoff and went 2.1 miles to a dirt road on my right. I followed this dirt road .5 mile where it tees into another nicer gravel road. I turned right and went another .7 mile where there is another road that goes left. I parked at this intersection because the road to the left is gated and I had to use 4WD to get through some snow patches to get to this intersection. This was the end of the road until more snow melts. Elevation here is 4,922 ft.
I loaded up my pack for an all day adventure on McLoughlin. I included snow shoes and crampons with ice axe. I started hiking up the gated snow covered road without using my snow shoes and followed the road 1.6 miles to its end at about 5,100 ft. The snow was consolidated and easy to walk on. My plan was to hike up right between the North Squaw Tip and South Squaw Tip. So far the entire route had been through a thick forest and I was glad the road made the hiking easy. I had set a waypoint in my GPS to what looked like the end of the scree fields on the topo and this waypoint was about 1.25 miles and 2,000 ft above me.
I left the road and started climbing through the forest towards my waypoint. This wasn’t the easiest hike I’ve taken because the forest was still kind of brushy at the lower elevations. I kept climbing, tried to avoid the brushiest places, and made good progress. At about 6,000 ft in elevation the forest opened up somewhat and the brush was either gone or still buried under the snow. I could now get glimpses of the route ahead and Mt McLoughlin itself. I still had a long way to go to get to the summit. As the sun came up, it started to immediately warm up the snow and it was already getting soft. I put on my snow shoes and kept climbing. I could see South Squaw Tip on my right and North Squaw Tip on my left, so I knew I was in the right place on the mountain.
The higher I climbed, the softer the snow and the hotter the sun. I started falling into holes around small trees that were still buried in the snow at about 7,000 ft. The snow shoes were helping but they weren’t the total solution. Up I went past 8,000 ft struggling in the soft snow. Now when I fell into holes, it was between big rocks or boulders. This was not good. I kept going trying to find icy spots and hoping that they were more solid. Pulling my big butt out of chest deep holes was wearing me out. I kept going. I could hear the ice and snow melting around me. Little pieces of ice would drop and make little tinkle sounds like ice cubes make when you put them in a glass. Some of them were big enough to slide down the mountain past me. They weren’t very big and I was pretty sure no avalanche was going to sweep me down the slope so I kept going. Up past 9,000 ft.
Now I seemed to be falling into holes quite often and the sun was really beating down on me. At about 9,250 ft I reached the north ridge of Mt McLoughlin. I knew it was the north ridge because as I approached I could see through a hole in the snow the steep bowl falling away to the north. Whoa! Stop! I am right on the ridge and another step and I would have dropped into the bowl. I’m sure the remnants of the cornice overhanging the north bowl would not have supported my weight. I looked up to the summit still 250 ft above me on a slope that wasn’t very steep. I have climbed the north ridge before and knew that from where I was sitting to the summit is a big field of large angular boulders. If I continue to the summit, I would probably fall through the snow between the boulders many times. I looked around, knew I was the only person on Mt McLoughlin this day, and decided I would call this effort “good enough” for today.
I ate my lunch, put on my rain pants (good glissading surface) and packed everything else into my pack. I grabbed my ice axe and sat down for a long glissade descent. The snow was very soft now, so it was actually a slow ride, but it was fun. 2,700 ft of glissading fun. After the hours it took me to climb up the west side of Mt McLoughlin, it took only a few minutes to descend. I kept pushing the glissade until the slope and the soft snow brought me to a halt. I hiked back down to the end of the road with the aid of my GPS and then back along the road to my truck at the trailhead. What a great day. I had only covered 7.8 miles, but gained a little over 4,300 ft. It took me a long time to push up through the snow and at 10 ¾ hours I was back at the trailhead. This route is on the complete opposite side of the mountain as the popular Mt McLoughlin Trail and it is unlikely you will ever see anyone else hiking up this side.