09 Jun Mount Jefferson Trip Report
Appreciation for the journey: the Jefferson Park Glacier Route
June 5-7, 2015
Submitted by Frank Florence
Mountaineering aspirations can be stated in terms of summits (I want to do Hood) and in terms of routes (I want to do the Leuthold Couloir.) In the latter case, the focus is on the character of the climbing experience we hope to have. That’s what appeals to me about the Jefferson Park Glacier route on the north side of Mount Jefferson. If you hike in to Jefferson Park, or ski at Timberline and look south, you view the imposing north face of the peak and the steep glacier that drapes down that side. It’s complex topography. Rock pinnacles line the summit ridges and the glacier drops away first between, then beneath them. The weight of all that ice tears the glacier apart and large crevasses form at its top. The highest of these, the bergschrund, is a huge moat that spans nearly the full width of the ice sheet between two prominent horns. Gaining the summit ridge from this side requires navigating through this terrain. A blunt, direct line approach won’t get you up; the climber needs to read the glacier’s condition and puzzle out the twists and turns of safe passage to the top.
Four of us set out to do that on the first weekend of June this year, Brian Risch, Steve Huffman, Brian Tryba, and me. Our approach hike took us up to about 6,700’ on a glacial moraine. The last snow fields we crossed before making camp were thick slush. A warm air mass, the start of what turned out to be a heat wave, had moved in, causing a steady breeze and rising temperatures. Those are tough conditions for an icy route. We thought we’d head off problems by rising at 3 AM and taking advantage of cool night time conditions.
We were overly optimistic. When we got up temperatures had not cooled anywhere close to freezing and the snow was still soft. We took off in the dark, anticipating that higher up we’d find firm snow. But as the skies lightened and we continued our steady march up the lower glacier, temperatures rose with us and we never found firm conditions. We roped up as we transitioned from peripheral snowfields to the glacier proper. The center of the ice field had open crevasses and we made our way up climber’s left until high on the face. Then we cut right, weaving through snow ramps separated by crevasses. Brian Tryba and I swapped leads as we crossed snow bridges and climbed up over icy steps we made our way up to the bergschrund. On its left side an avalanche cone had formed, composed of ice that had been peeling off the rime-covered Molar’s Tooth, the large pinnacle above. I led up this gift into a scoured runnel, then out right onto the steep upper face. Alternating between kicking steps and front pointing, we worked our way up onto the top of the ridge. Brian led the final pitch and as I followed, I was glad with our success so far. We’d been challenged to get up the glacier safely and we’d done it.
We were now on the “knife-edged ridge,” a technical traverse that heads over to the North Ridge route. We could see the way from there to the summit, but the problem was to get to onto that ridge. Blocking our way, and covering portions of the traverse, were vertical masses of rotten rime, now all thawing. I went a short way out on our ridge to get a better view of any options. It was clear the standard route was out of condition. Ice covered some of the rocky faces we’d intended to move across but the ice itself was weak and breaking apart. We needed to go another way or else go down. Reversing our ascent route was dangerous; it was now late morning and the warm conditions meant rock and ice would be falling from the pinnacles we’d passed under. Descent down the drainage to the right would entail an arduous cross-country effort to return to camp, likely involving a bivouac. We decided to cross the upper west face snow to get to the summit and the safe descent along the Southeast Ridge on its opposite side.
That turned out to be more of a problem than we’d anticipated. It took three rappels followed by climbing across steep snowfields before we stood under the summit pinnacle. It was now late, well into the afternoon. We were kicking into high-angle slush and rock fall and ice blocks tumbled down across the line of the traverse we’d avoided. We still needed to work our way around the summit to get onto our descent line. With only a couple of hundred feet between us and the top of the mountain, we let it go and put our effort into finishing the day safely and getting back to camp before dark.
Our descent was laborious, but less of a problem than what we’d dealt with so far. Our route brought us down onto the broad Whitewater Glacier, where only a few, easily avoided crevasses had begun to open. We made the long walk back north, tired but entertained by views of Hood, Adams, St. Helens and, in the distance, Rainier. By the time we dropped over the last crest and went down to camp we had made a complete circumnavigation of the mountain.
Did we climb Jefferson? Well, we didn’t stand on the summit, so, no, we didn’t. But was the trip a failure? The answer to that is no as well. We did ascend the Jefferson Park Glacier, in itself a respectable goal. We had the chance to complete a good deal of technical snow and ice climbing under demanding alpine conditions. We had to adjust to rapidly deteriorating conditions as a record-breaking heat wave moved in. And we all got back to camp in one piece and before dark. The trip tested us and we all found the determination to push through. There’s ample success in that.
Photos courtesy of Steve Huffman and Brian Risch