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Toasting Mom from the Top of the Cascades

If you're going to ski a big angry volcano, you might as well do it in style

This story originally published in the October 2016 of POWDER (Vol. 45 No. 2). PHOTO: Zach Doleac

The Who: As misty daylight creeps into the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, a soggy parade of men and women in lace, spaghetti straps, and floral print marches out of the parking lot and past the trailhead. Pack straps rub on ball gowns and A-frames loom over tiaras as the skiers awkwardly adjust their new threads like a stumbling tower of baby giraffes. This alpine walk of shame becomes a growing spectacle as climbing parties merge into one Technicolor herd, all eyes on the top of Washington's most infamous volcano, Mount St. Helens.

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Somewhere in the clouds, the summit is marked by a man in a sequined jumper passing a flask of Jim Beam. Boeing engineers, university ski clubbers, Portland hipsterettes, and even a dog in a tutu rally toward the crater rim, at 8,366 feet, to toast the most important woman in their lives. Tighten up the corset, swallow your pride, and climb that mountain. This one is for Mom.

The What: Featuring the largest collection of outdated women's wear in the history of skiing, Ski Like A Mother began innocently enough. When Mount St. Helens reopened to the public after blowing her lid in 1980, Washington mountaineer Kathy Phibbs decided to honor everyone's favorite Hallmark holiday by rocking a red chiffon number as she hiked to the summit on Mother's Day, 1987.

This alpine walk of shame becomes a growing spectacle as climbing parties merge into one Technicolor herd, all eyes on the top of Washington's most infamous volcano, Mount St. Helens.

Skiers got hold of the tradition soon after, climbing 5,500 feet to click-in and throw their skimpy offerings to the wind every Mom's Day since. Each year, Pacific Northwesterners end their season on the Cascades' most explosive volcano, with over a thousand skiers and boarders showing up to show some leg in 2014. The U.S. Forest Service has since capped the number of uphill permits at 500 a day and it sells out every year, but that just adds an air of exclusivity to this mountain-top masquerade. Some score permits just hours before sunrise, or, in my case, trade out for a bottle of Oregon Pinot Gris.

The Why: "Because having a baby shouldn't slow you down," says Menno Sennesael, a University of Washington ski club president whose physiology, it should be noted, prevents him from having any actual experience—and thus knowledge—in this area. His get-up consists of an off-color 1950s housewife frock and a life-size baby doll draped from his avalanche beacon.

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Pure and simple: Ski Like A Mother is a party, but you're going to have to climb a friggin' active volcano to get there. This is Type 2 fun at its finest—part corn harvest, part suffer-fest, a healthy dose of Vitamin R(ainier beer), and enough potassium pills to keep Señor Lactic Acid at bay.

The WTF: Skiing in a dress is an art form. Too long an outfit and risk catching a binding, ski pole, or tip. Too short and risk exposure for delicate hardware. Too tight? Well, you get the picture.

But St. Helens skiers bring their own dash of ingenuity to the dress game. Does it have shoulder pads? That'll come in handy hauling a 25-pound pack uphill. Billowy bra line? Stick some barley pops in there. Be garish, be loud, but keep it classy like the guy in the pink cocktail dress with a summit flute of champagne.

Though there isn't a keg at the top (it's been done), endorphins at altitude are a different drug. Two guys fly off the summit on a massive inflatable turtle and a stingray. A group of women pose next to a sign that not-so-tastefully thanks their mothers for the physical sacrifice of childbirth.

The descent may be a little drafty, but in the end the tribute extends beyond personal comfort. As Sennesael puts it, "What's better than slipping on a dress and drinking a beer on top of a volcano for your mama?"