Just Go Skiing

Biking to ski Oregon's Cascades, even when the odds are against you

In my experience, it takes one week of skiing, camping, and bike touring in the rain to lose enthusiasm. Tents are pitched wet and put away wetter. Soggy shirts never really dry but move from clammy to damp over the course of the day. Early in a trip, adverse weather increases the sense of adventure, but after seven days of traveling and living outside in the rain, the novelty wears off. I hit this tipping point last spring in a campsite on the south flank of Mount Jefferson, Oregon. And yet, I pedaled on toward the mountains, rain or shine, my skis strapped to my bike.

This May, four of us rode touring bikes with heavy panniers and trailers full of ski gear from Portland to Bend, connecting the dots of Oregon’s central Cascades along the spine of the state. We aimed to ski Hood, Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, North Sister, South Sister, and Broken Top over the course of two weeks. While our objectives were based on snow, we spent most of the trip pedaling heavy bikes. Our pace was slow and the bicycles, loaded with 200 pounds of gear, were difficult to ride, no matter if we were climbing or descending. Standing to pedal was a balancing act; if the bike leaned more than a few degrees it would tip over. The challenge, however, was central to the adventure, and the learning curve was quick at the start of our trip, under blue skies and warm weather as we pedaled east out of Portland toward our first destination: Mount Hood.

This was not a great year to ski in Oregon, which, for much of the state, just experienced the worst winter on record, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “You know there’s no snow up there, right?” a rosy-cheeked and ill-shaven man asked me at a gas station in the town of Sisters. He had pulled over in a rusted F-250 when he saw our bikes loaded with skis. “We skipped winter this year.” The season wasn’t any drier than normal, just warmer, and the precipitation had come as rain. But the high alpine is the high alpine, and winter still waited for those who were willing to look. The snowline may be higher, we reasoned, but in turn, that also meant the miles of paved, single lane forest roads across Oregon were clear and dry. The bike touring would be fantastic. We’d just have to work a little harder for the skiing.

Ben Horan prefers his ski tours sunny side up. Location: Mount Hood. PHOTO: Tom Robertson
Ben Horan prefers his ski tours sunny side up. Location: Mount Hood. PHOTO: Tom Robertson

On Mount Hood, the first summit of the trip, the skiing came easily. We enjoyed a perfect, sunny Saturday. We snapped a few summit photos with the next peaks on our itinerary dotting the horizon to the south, and we skied several thousand feet of velvety corn all the way down to beers in the lodge. Then we coasted on bikes to Government Camp.

We felt triumphant after Hood, but the mood of the trip changed as we rode south toward Jefferson. That is also when it began to rain.

We welcomed the moisture at first. We descended the bare flanks of Mount Hood and rode into a lush temperate rainforest. The small roads that transect Oregon’s backcountry felt woven into the landscape. The rain made the colors more vibrant, the smells more intense. Misty clouds lended an air of mysteriousness to the valleys, and our memories of clear skies on Hood were still fresh enough to offset the discomfort of being wet all day.

The 90-mile ride to Mount Jefferson took us two days. After we arrived, we spent a couple of nights on the north, and then the south side of Jefferson, waiting for a weather window, or even just a glimpse of the mountain. None of us had been there before and we were relying on visibility to keep us away from crevasse and avalanche exposure. So we mostly ate, napped, and read in our tents. On our third day in the area, we had enough of a break in weather to pick our way to the snowline, and then to the treeline, and finally, another thousand feet to the summit ridge. A technical rock pinnacle guards the top of Mount Jefferson, and we didn’t seriously consider climbing it without ropes and ice tools. Deteriorating weather never gave us the chance. We retreated 500 feet from the base of the spire and skied down to the forest canopy. On the ridge, rime formed on our clothes and gear, and in camp, water fell from the trees onto our tents.

Ben Horan, Mike Wolfe, and Phil Grove pedal down an Oregon road, skis in tow. PHOTO: Tom Robertson
Ben Horan, Mike Wolfe, and Phil Grove pedal down an Oregon road, skis in tow. PHOTO: Tom Robertson

While breaking down camp to move on from Jefferson, I realized that only one of my drybags still contained anything actually dry. We rode south 50 miles past a snowless Three Fingered Jack and the stormy Mount Washington and then to Sisters, where we found a hot shower and a brewery. Our first day in the Sisters Wilderness started with alarms at 5 a.m. An hour later, we pedaled the 10-mile dirt approach road hauling only ski gear. We pushed on at the trailhead, despite the mass of clouds that held the mountains in the west.

The weather never fully cooperated, but it didn’t rain on us. We walked for a few hours on dry trail before we put on skis, and then skinned and booted up the southeast ridge to the top of Middle Sister. Clouds whipped over us, only giving us glimpses of the view beyond, toward the craggy North Sister and the void that fell away behind it. But we were standing on the summit. After a week of squatting in the rain, we found a small slice of redemption.

By the time we summited, it was early afternoon. The forecast predicted electrical storms, but the wind parted the clouds and a bit of blue sky poked through. The tenor of the day began to change. The improved visibility meant that we could actually open up our turns, and we leapfrogged through holes in the clouds down 2,000 feet of the springtime corn we’d been looking for.

Mike Wolfe savors the blue sky on Mount Hood. PHOTO: Tom Robertson
Mike Wolfe savors the blue sky on Mount Hood. PHOTO: Tom Robertson

The Sisters are a tightly packed trio of summits that run south to north. They are beautifully scarred and pockmarked by low-hanging glaciers and couloirs. The weather continued to improve, and the lightning never came, so we kept on, booting up a chute and then a ridge on North Sister. The wind that had been howling all day calmed to a whisper. At 6 p.m., we stood at the summit spire in silence, looking over the other peaks that jutted through a sea of clouds. The sun was getting low in the sky when we pointed our skis downhill and enjoyed a 3,000-foot fall line all the way back down to the trail.

It was the end to a snowless winter. Gray skies and rain dashed most of our spring skiing goals. But in times like this, there’s only one thing to do: Just go skiing. We pedaled back to Bend after one of the finest days of skiing of the year.

Marquee photo: Tom Robertson