Mount Hood’s Pint-sized Glaciers

Two of Mount Hood’s pint-sized glaciers are hidden in plain sight in this sunset view from the Mazama Trail

Officially, Mount Hood has twelve glaciers, though two — the Langille on the north side and Palmer on the south side — seem to have slowed to permanent snowfield status. The distinction comes from downward movement, which typically results in cracks, or crevasses, in the moving ice. Crevasses are the telltale sign of a living glacier.

Living glaciers are conveyor belts for mountain ice, capturing and compacting snowfall into ice at the top of the glacier, which then begins to flow downhill from the sheer weight of the accumulation. This downward movement becomes river of ice that carries immense amounts of rock and debris captured in the ice, eventually carving U-shaped valleys in the mountain.

Mount Hood’s largest glaciers carved the huge canyons we see radiating in all directions from the mountain today. These canyons were made when the glaciers were much larger, during the Pleistocene ice age that ended several thousand years ago. The ice on Mount Hood has since retreated, though today’s much smaller glaciers continue their excavating high on the mountain.

The dramatic retreat of the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood over the past century is captured in these photo comparisons from 1901 and 2012 (Glacier Rephoto Database)

The smallest glaciers on Mount Hood are the Coalman Glacier, located high in the volcano’s crater, and the Glisan Glacier, located on the northwest shoulder of the mountain. They are tiny compared to the impressive Eliot, Ladd, Coe and Sandy glaciers, but these tiny glaciers are still moving, have well-developed crevasses and both are clearly separate from the larger glaciers. Thus, they were recognized as living glaciers in their own right when Mount Hood was being mapped more than a century ago.

Another tiny glacier is without a formal name, and would have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth glacier had it been mapped with the others in the early 1900s. Known informally as the Little Sandy Glacier, this small body of ice is perched on the rocky shoulder of Cathedral Ridge, near the Glisan Glacier. The Little Sandy hangs on cliffs high above the sprawling Sandy Glacier, which it drains into.

The map below shows each of Mount Hood’s glaciers, from the tiny Glisan to the massive Eliot, largest on the mountain:

[click here for a larger version of the map]

This article takes a closer look at these lesser-known, tiny glaciers. While small, all three have been surprisingly resilient in the era of climate change, when our glaciers are rapidly shrinking. Their tiny size and survival (so far) makes them helpful indicators of the long-term effects of global warming on Mount Hood, and a visual reminder of just how fragile our alpine ecosystems are as the planet continues to heat up.

The Coalman Glacier

The Coalman Glacier is located in Mount Hood’s crater, high above the White River Glacier

This glacier is known to few, and yet is probably the most visited on Mount Hood. The Coalman Glacier fills the crater of Mount Hood, extending from below the summit to Crater Rock, and is crossed by thousands of climbers following the popular south side route to the summit each year. Along their climb, they follow a ridge of ice along the glacier called “The Hogsback” to the Coalman Glacier’s “bergschrund”, the name given to a crevasse that typically forms near the top of most glaciers, and a common feature to many glaciers on Mount Hood. For climbers on Mount Hood, the bergschrund on the Coalman Glacier is simply called “The Bergschrund”, and it is the main technical obstacle on the south side route to the summit.

The entire Coalman Glacier lies above 10,000 feet, and as a result, this tiny glacier is well-situated to survive a warming climate. Historic photos (shown later in this article) suggest the Coalman Glacier was once connected to the White River Glacier, located immediately below, as recently as the late 1800s.

Mount Hood’s summit lookout in the 1920s

The Coalman Glacier was named for Elijah “Lige” Coalman, the legendary mountain guide who manned the former fire lookout on the summit of Mount Hood from 1915 to 1933. Lige Coalman climbed Mount Hood nearly 600 times in his lifetime, sometimes making multiple climbs in one day to carry 100 pound loads of supplies to the summit lookout. In Jack Grauer’s classic Mount Hood: A Complete History, he describes Lige Coalman’s legendary stamina:

“…The great vitality of Coleman was demonstrated by one day he spent in 1910. He and a climbing client ate breakfast at the hotel in Government Camp. They then climbed to the summit of Mount Hood and down to Cloud Cap Inn where the client wanted to go. After lunch at Cloud Cap, Lige climbed back over the summit and arrived for dinner at Government Camp at 5:00 p.m.”

The Coalman Glacier was formally recognized as a separate body of ice from the nearby White River and Zigzag glaciers in the 1930s. However, this tiny glacier went unnamed until Lige Coalman died in 1970, and the Oregon Geographic Names Board named the small glacier he had navigated hundreds of times in his memory. Fittingly, Lige Coalman’s ashes were spread on Mount Hood’s summit.

Lige Coalman at the summit lookout (with his cat!) in the 1920s (USFS)

Though the south side route is considered the easiest way to the summit of Mount Hood, every route on the mountain is dangerous. Many tragedies have unfolded over the decades on the Coalman Glacier, when climbers have fallen into The Bergschrund crevasse or slid into the steaming volcanic vents in the crater. Perhaps most notorious was the May 2002 climbing disaster, when three climbers were killed and four injured by a disastrous fall into The Bergschrund.

1920s climbers on the Hogsback on the Coalman Glacier. The wide crevasse known as The Bergschrund lies ahead as they make their way toward the summit (USFS)

While the 2002 accident was tragic enough, it was the rescue operation that made the incident infamous when an Air Force helicopter suddenly crashed onto the Coalman Glacier, rolling several times before coming to a rest below the Hogsback. News cameras hovering above the scene broadcast the event in real-time, and the sensational footage was seen around the world. Though several Air Force crew were injured, nobody was killed in the helicopter crash.

The Glisan Glacier

The Glisan is Mount Hood’s smallest named glacier, tucked against Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain. This tiny glacier is hidden in plain sight, located directly above popular Cairn Basin and McNeil Point, where thousands of hikers pass by on the Timberline Trail every year. It was named for Rodney Lawrence Glisan Jr. by the Oregon Geographic Names Board in 1938. The name was proposed by the Mazamas, Mount Hood’s iconic climbing club, following an expedition to the northwest side of the mountain in 1937.

Rodney Glisan Jr. in the late 1800s (Wikipedia)

Glisan was a prominent Portland lawyer and civic leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and son of one of the founding fathers of the city. He served on the Portland City Council and in the Oregon Legislature, as well as other civic roles. But his passion was for the outdoors, and as a Mazama, Rodney Glisan climbed most of the major Cascade and Sierra peaks during his eventful life.

The glacier that carries Rodney Glisan’s name was once much larger, and its outflow carved a steep canyon lined with vertical cliffs that now form the shoulder of the lower ramparts of Cathedral Ridge. Today, this rugged canyon is without trails and unknown to most who visit the mountain.

Most hikers visiting McNeil Ridge wouldn’t know they’re looking at the Glisan Glacier as they make the final climb above the tree line, but the glacier’s outflow is a popular stop along the way. This beautiful stream flows through some of the finest wildflower meadows on the mountain (pictured above).

Oddly enough, this glacial stream is unnamed, though it’s much larger than many named streams on the mountain. In fact, it’s the only glacial outflow on the mountain that is unnamed. Thus, on my growing list of planned submissions to the Oregon Geographic Names Board is to simply name this pretty stream “Glisan Creek”, since it’s a prominent and helpful landmark along the Timberline Trail. Naming the creek might bring a bit more awareness and appreciation for the tiny Glisan Glacier, too!

As Mount Hood’s glaciers go, the Glisan isn’t much to look at today. The glacier is much smaller than when it was named in the 1930s, judging by topographic maps (below) that show a lower portion of the glacier that has since become a series of permanent snowfields that are no longer part of the glacier.

The Glisan Glacier also has an odd shape, wider than it is long. Presumably, this is due to both shrinking over the past century and possibly winter wind patterns affecting snow accumulation on this little body of ice. But it is moving, with a prominent series of crevasses opening up every summer on its crest. It’s also surprisingly resilient in its modern, shortened state, bucking the trend (for now) of shrinking glaciers throughout the Cascades.

Topographic maps created in the mid-1900s show the former extent of the Glisan Glacier

Topographic maps still show the former extent of the Glisan Glacier in the mid-1900s, when it extended to nearly 6,000 feet in elevation. Today, the glacier has retreated to about the 7,000-foot level.

The position of the Glisan Glacier on northwest side of the mountain could also be part of the explanation for its resilience. The glacier flows from the north side of Cathedral Ridge, where it is protected from the hottest late summer sun, and it also benefits from being in the direct path of winter storms that slam the west face of the mountain with heavy snowfall. Will the Glisan Glacier continue to survive? Possibly, thanks to its protected position and having already retreated to the 7,000-foot elevation. Time will tell.

The Little Sandy Glacier

This little glacier should have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth named glacier, but it has the misfortune of lying very close to the much larger Sandy Glacier and was passed over when the first topographic maps were created in the early 1900s. And yet, it was called out in Forest Conditions in the Cascade Range, the seminal 1902 original survey of the (then) “Cascade Forest Reserve”, the precursor to the national forests that now stretch the length of the Oregon Cascades:

It was tiny then, at just 80 acres. But at the time of the 1902 survey, the Reid, Langille, Palmer and Coalman glaciers had yet to be named, so this will be my argument in adding the Little Sandy Glacier to my (still!) growing list of name proposals for the Oregon Board of Geographic Names to consider.

Why is a name important for this tiny glacier? In part, because without names we tend to not pay attention to important features on our public lands, usually to their detriment. But in the case of the Little Sandy Glacier, there are some good public safety arguments, since the glacier is adjacent to a couple of the climbing routes used on the mountain. Formalizing its name could help search and rescue efforts compared to the informal use of the name today.

The Little Sandy Glacier is a heavily-crevassed body of ice perched on the cliffs of Cathedral Ridge, high above the much larger Sandy Glacier

Like the nearby Glisan Glacier, the Little Sandy is oddly shaped. Wider than it is long, it hangs seemingly precariously on a massive cliff and is heavily fractured with crevasses. In summer, meltwater from the Little Sandy cascades over long cliff and down a talus slope where it then flows under the Sandy Glacier, joining other meltwater streams there.

What does the future hold for the Little Sandy Glacier? Like the Glisan Glacier, it benefits from heavy snow accumulation where winter storms pound the west face of the mountain. Yet, unlike the Glisan, the Little Sandy Glacier hangs on a southwest-facing wall and is exposed to direct afternoon sun in summer.

Surprisngly, this doesn’t seem to have dramatically affected the size of the glacier over the years, perhaps because it sits so high on the mountain. The base of the glacier is at an elevation of about 8,400 feet (higher than Mt. St. Helens) and the upper extent of the glacier begins just above 9,000 feet. This combination of high elevation and heavy winter snowpack suggest the Little Sandy Glacier will continue to survive for some time to come, even as global warming continues to shrink Mount Hood’s glaciers.

Tracking Mount Hood’s Changing Glaciers

Mount Hood’s Eliot Glacier is impressive, but in truth is a fraction of its size just a few decades ago.

Who is tracking the changes in Mount Hood’s glaciers? The answer is a collection of federal and state agencies, university researchers and non-profits concerned with the rapid changes unfolding on the mountain.

The U.S. Geological Survey has the most comprehensive monitoring program for Mount Hood, though it is mainly focused on volcanic hazards presented by the mountain. From this perspective, the glaciers and permanent snowfields on Mount Hood represent a disaster risk in the event of renewed volcanic activity, as past eruptions have triggered massive mudflows when snow and ice were abruptly melted by steam and hot ash.

Mount Hood’s glaciers, as recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

The late 1700s eruptions that created today’s Crater Rock and the smooth south side that Timberline Lodge sits on also sent mudflows down the Sandy River to its confluence with the Columbia River. The delta of mud and volcanic ash at the confluence gave the river its name, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the scene just a few years after the event, calling it the “quick sand river”. The potential reach of future mudflows is why the USGS continues to monitor Mount Hood’s glaciers.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other water resource and fisheries agencies are also tracking the glaciers from the perspective of downstream water supplies and quality. Mount Hood’s glaciers not only provide critical irrigation and drinking water for those who live and farm around the mountain, they also ensure cool water temperatures in summer that are critical for endangered salmon and steelhead survival.

In academia, Portland State University geologist Andrew Fountain has been a leading local voice in tracking change in our glaciers, collaborating with federal agencies to monitor glaciers across the American West. Several PSU students have completed graduate theses on Mount Hood’s glaciers under Dr. Fountain, including glaciologist Keith Jackson’s excellent research on the Eliot Glacier.

The once-mighty White River Glacier on Mount Hood has receded dramatically over the past century (Glacier RePhoto Databse)

Dr. Fountain’s research features photo pairing where historic images of Mount Hood’s glaciers have been recreated to show a century of change on the mountain. These images (above and at the top of the article) of the White River and Eliot glaciers are examples, and show the power of these comparisons in understanding the scale and pace of change.

The following is a shorter-term comparison of my own images of the Eliot Glacier, taken in 2002 and 2019 at about the same time of year (in late summer). Look closely, and the changes are profound even in this 17-year timeframe. Geologists call the boundary on a glacier where melting exceeds accumulation the “firn line”. Typically, glaciers appear as mostly ice and snow above the firn line compared to much more rock and glacial till below the firn line, where the ice is melting away and leaving debris behind.

In 2002, the firn line on the Eliot Glacier had risen the lower icefall as the glacier receded, as shown in the image pair, above. The 2002 firn line is indicated by the white and blue ice still dominating the lower icefall. But by 2019, the firn line had moved partway up the lower icefall, as shown in the second image. Over time, scientists expect the glaciers on Mount continue to gradually retreat in this way as they increasingly losing more ice than they gain each year in our warming climate.

What Lies Ahead?

Will Mount Hood’s glaciers completely disappear? Perhaps, someday, if global warming goes unchecked. If climate change can be slowed, we may see the glaciers stabilize as smaller versions of what we see today. While the few remaining glaciers in the Rockies are already very small and on the brink of disappearing, glaciers on the big volcanoes of the Cascades of Oregon and Washington are still large and active. They have advantage of a very wet and cool winter climate that ensures heavy snowfall at the highest elevations, even as the climate warms.

One way to preview the future of Mount Hood’s glaciers is to look south to California’s Mount Shasta, at the lower end of the Cascade Range. At just over 14,000 feet, Shasta is tall enough to have seven named glaciers, even in a much warmer climate — though only four seem to still be active. Compare that to Mount Rainier, in Washington, which is also a 14,000-foot volcano, but has 26 glaciers, with several very large, active glaciers that dwarf anything found on Mount Shasta or Mount Hood.

Despite its height, Mount Shasta’s glaciers only survive above 10,000 feet due to the mountain’s southern latitude in the Cascade Range

The difference is latitude, of course. Climate change is having the effect if sliding us gradually toward the warmer climate we see to the south today, at Mount Shasta, where glaciers are smaller, but still survive above the 10,000-foot level. If Shasta is an indicator, then glaciers will continue to flow for some time at the upper elevations of Mount Hood and the other big volcanoes in northern Oregon and Washington for some time to come, perhaps even surviving if climate change remains unchecked.

In the meantime, the changes on Mount Hood are just one more reminder of how climate change is impacting almost every aspect of our lives and our natural legacy, and why changing the human behavior that is driving climate change is the existential challenge of our time. Though time is short, we can still ensure that future generations will see spectacular glaciers flowing down Mount Hood’s slopes in the next century.

Kohnstamm Memorial Trail?

Entering the Kohnstamm Memorial Wilderness

When President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law on March 30, 2009, more than a dozen new pocket wilderness areas and additions to existing wilderness were created around Mount Hood and in the Clackamas watershed. 

Among these, the Richard L. Kohnstamm Memorial Area expanded the Mount Hood Wilderness to the east of Timberline Lodge to encompass the White River canyon, extending from Mount Hood’s crater to about the 5,000 foot level, including a segment of the Timberline Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that traverses the canyon. This wilderness addition was created to “recognize the balance between wild and developed areas in the national public lands system and to create a tribute to the man who saved Timberline Lodge.”

The wilder side of the Timberline area is now the Kohnstamm Memorial Area, an extension of the Mount Hood Wilderness just east of the lodge

Richard Kohnstamm was the longtime force behind the RLK Company, operators of the Timberline Resort, which has a permit to operate the historic Timberline Lodge, which in turn is owned by the American public. 

After his duty as a gunner during World War II, Kohnstamm returned home to earn his masters degree in social work from Columbia University. After college, he moved to Portland to take a job at a local social services non-profit. Soon after arriving here, he made a visit to Timberline Lodge, where he was immediately taken with the beauty of the massive building. 

Richard Kohnstamm at Timberline in 1957 (Oregon Encyclopedia)

But Kohnstamm saw a tarnished jewel, as the lodge had quickly fallen into disrepair following its construction by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. The Forest Service had revoked the operating permit for the lodge and was looking for a new operator, and so began the Kohnstamm era at Timberline. By all accounts, he did, indeed, save the lodge. 

Kohnstamm soon teamed with John Mills to found the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit dedicated to preservation of the history, art and architecture of the remarkable building. The unique partnership between the Forest Service, Friends of Timberline and the RLK Company to preserve the lodge in perpetuity continues to this day, and is known as the Timberline Triumvirate. 

Today, the lodge continues to thrive, and summer resort operations have now expanded to include a controversial bike park centered on the Jeff Flood chairlift. After years of legal challenges, the RLK Company build miles of bicycle trails descending from main lodge to the base of the lift, where cyclists can load themselves and their bikes for a quick ride back to the top. 

The Timberline Resort’s new bike park opened this summer (photo: Timberline)

It’s a high-adrenaline activity made easy, with no hills to climb. But the development of this new attraction underscored the fact that the Timberline resort operators and Forest Service have done little over the decades to enhance the hiking experience around the lodge, despite plenty of demand. 

The reason is pretty obvious: hikers don’t buy lift tickets. Yes, some hikers help fill the hotel rooms in summer, and still more stop by to support the restaurants in the lodge, but filling ski lifts continues to the focus at Timberline.

Bikes riding the Jeff Flood lift back to the lodge (photo: Timberline)

Today, hikers at Timberline are limited to walking along the Timberline Trail or hiking the Mountaineer Trail, a semi-loop that climbs to a lift terminal, where it dead-ends at a dirt service road. Hikers usually follow the steep, dusty road back to lodge to complete a loop.

But perhaps the Richard L Kohnstamm Memorial Area could be inspiration for the Forest Service and RLK Company to bring new trails to the area, and a create a more welcoming trailhead for visitors who aren’t staying at the lodging or paying to ride the resort lifts? In that spirit, the following is a concept for a new trail that would be an instant classic on the mountain, rivaled only by the popular Cooper Spur Trail on Mount Hood’s north side for elevation and close-up looks into an active glacier.

Proposal: Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail

The proposed Glacier View Trail would climb the broad ridge that separates the White River and Salmon River canyons, just east of Timberline Lodge. The new trail would begin just across the Salmon River from the lodge, at a junction along the Timberline Trail, and end at Glacier View, a scenic high point on the ridge between the Palmer and White River glaciers. 

This viewpoint is already visited by a few intrepid explorers each year for its spectacular views into Mount Hood’s crater and the rugged crevasses of the White River Glacier. The schematic below shows how the new route would appear from Timberline Lodge:

(click image to enlarge)

Another perspective (below) of the proposed trail shows the route as it would appear from further east along the Timberline Trail, where it travels along the rim of White River canyon. This angle also shows the tumbling descent of the White River Glacier and the steep west wall of the canyon that would provide several overlooks from the new trail:

(click image to enlarge)

Thanks to the gentle, open terrain, the new trail would climb in broad, graded switchbacks, eventually reaching an elevation of 8,200 feet. This is just shy of the elevation of Cooper Spur, and would make the Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail the second-highest trail on the mountain.

The viewpoint at Glacier View (below) is already marked by a stone windbreak built by hikers that complements several handy boulders (below) to make this a fine spot for relaxing and taking in the view.

End of the trail at Glacier View (photo: Google)

From the Glacier View viewpoint, Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reaches of the White River Glacier (below) are surprisingly rugged and impressive, given the generally gentle terrain of Mount Hood’s south side. From this perspective, the Steel Cliffs and Crater Rock dominate the view as they tower over the glacier.

Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reach of the White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)
White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)

But the scene-stealer is the White River Glacier, which stair-steps down a series of icefalls directly in front of Glacier View (below), providing a close-up look into the workings of an active glacier. Lucky hikers might even hear the glacier occasionally moving from this close-up perspective as it grinds its way down the mountain.

Crevasses in the White River Glacier below Glacier View (photo: Google)

The view to the south from Glacier View (below) features the long, crevasse-fractured lower reaches of the White River Glacier, and below, the maze of sandy ravines which make up the sprawling White River Canyon. The deserts of Eastern Oregon are on the east (left) horizon from this perspective, and the Oregon Cascades spread out to the south.

The view down the White River Canyon from Glacier View (photo: Google)

The hike to Glacier View from Timberilne Lodge on the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be about 2.5 miles long, climbing about 2,300 feet along the way, and would undoubtedly become a marquee hike on the mountain, if similar trails like Cooper Spur and McNeil Point are any gauge. But the backlog of trail needs at Timberline extend beyond having a marquee viewpoint hike like this. 

The Kohnstamm trail concept therefore includes other trail improvements in the Timberline area that would round out the trail system here. The following schematic (below) include building a new 1.4 mile trail from the upper stub of the Mountaineer Trail to Timberline Lodge, allowing hikers to complete the popular loop without walking the dusty, somewhat miserable service road below Silcox hut, often dodging resort vehicles along the way.

(click image to enlarge)

The broader Kohnstamm trail concept also calls for using the east parking area as a day-hiking hub in the summer months, with clearly marked trailheads that would consolidate the maze of confusing user trails that are increasingly carving up the wildflower meadows here. The new hub would also include restrooms, interpretive displays, picnic tables and other hiker amenities that would make for a better hiking experience.

Time for a makeover? Abandoned lift terminal at the proposed trail hub

A more ambitious element of the concept is to convert the neglected bones of an abandoned lodge structure (above) at the east parking area to become a hiker’s hut where visitors could relax after a hike, fill water bottles or learn about hiking options from Mount Hood’s volunteer trail ambassadors. 

This element might even tempt the Timberline resort operators to help make these trail concepts a reality if it offered an opportunity to provide concessions to hikers. After all, hiking is the fastest growing activity on the mountain (and on public lands), not skiing (or even mountain biking). Creating a hiking hub could be an opportunity for the Timberline operators to evolve their future vision for the resort to better match what people are coming to the mountain for.

What would it take?

Trail building is typically heavy work that involves clearing vegetation and building a smooth tread where rocks and roots are the rule. But the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be very different, as the entire route is above the tree line and would be on the loose volcanic debris that makes up the smooth south side of Mount Hood. Trail building here would be much simpler, from the ease of surveying without trees and vegetation to get in the way, to actual trail construction in the soft soil surface. For these reasons, much of this work would be ideal for volunteers to help with.

In reality, the greatest obstacles to realizing this concept would likely be regulatory. Convincing the Forest Service to permit a new trail would be a tall hurdle, in itself. But if the Timberline resort operators were behind the idea, it would almost certainly be approved, especially if the resort embraced building and maintaining the trail hub improvements. Who knows, maybe they will even spot this article..?

Author’s Confessions…

As a postscript, I thought I’d post a few confessions from days of yore. I grew up in Portland and began skiing at Timberline Lodge as a tiny tot. I continued to avidly ski at the Mount Hood resorts for many years until giving up alpine skiing in the early 90s, largely in response to the expansion of the Meadows resort into lovely Heather Canyon, a deal-breaker for me. I loved the sport, but saw the beauty of the mountain under continual threat from the resort operations — and still do. Today, I make due with snow shoes and occasional trips on Nordic skis, though I do miss the thrill of alpine skiing!

The author skiing Timberline in 1978

An earlier awakening for me came in 1978, with the construction of the Palmer Lift at Timberline. This lift completed Richard Kohnstamm’s vision for year-round skiing on the mountain. But it was the first lift on Mount Hood to climb that far above the tree line, and was an immediate eyesore. Sadly, the conversion of the Palmer Glacier to become plowed rectangle of salted snow (see “Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!”) that can be seen for miles completed the travesty.

That Palmer Lift debacle was soon followed by an even more egregious lift at Mount Bachelor, one that I wrote about 37 years ago in this (ahem!) riveting bit of self-righteous student journalism! (below)

(click image to enlarge)

When I stumbled across this old clipping from my days as a columnist at the Oregon State University student newspaper, I initially winced at the creative flourishes (…hey, I was 20 years old!). But my sentiments about these lifts — and the Heather Canyon lift at Meadows — remain unchanged. They were a step too far, and represented a real failure of the Forest Service to protect the mountain from over-development.

That said, I do believe the ski resorts can be managed in a more sustainable way that doesn’t harm the mountain. We’re certainly not there yet, and because all three of the major resorts (Timberline, Ski Bowl and Meadows) all sit on public land, I believe we all have a right to help determine that more sustainable future. 

In this article, I’ve made a case for accommodating more than just lift ticket purchasers in the recreation vision at Timberline Lodge. In future articles I’ll make the case for rounding out the mission for the other resorts in a way that meets the broader interests of those of us who own the land.

White River Buried Forest

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood area, as much of the north side is still smoldering from a lightning-caused wildfire that ignited on August 26. Though a calamity to those who loved the verdant forests on Mount Hood’s northern slopes, the fire is a blip on the screen when compared to the many explosive events that have rearranged the mountain’s forests and topography over the millennia.

Among the most recent and fascinating of these events are the Old Maid eruptions. These explosions knocked over entire forests on the mountain’s south side like matchsticks, burying them under a deep layer of ash and volcanic debris. This article describes the Old Maid events, and how to see traces of their aftermath today.

The Old Maid Eruptions

While most tourists at Timberline Lodge on a given day are blissfully unaware that Mount Hood is living volcano, the occasional, heady odor of sulfur fumes blowing down from the crater are a reminder the “quiet” spell we are enjoying is only temporary.

[click here for a larger version]

In geologic terms, the Old Maid eruptions are incredibly recent, finally winding down in our recorded history of the early 1800s. The events are named for Old Maid Flats, the debris plain created by the eruptions in the Sandy River canyon, though the impact on the mountain was much broader.

Scientists have determined the Old Maid eruptive period to have occurred within from about 1760 to 1810 A.D. In fact, when Lewis & Clark described the shallow “quicksand” delta of the Sandy River in 1804-05, they were looking at volcanic sediments that had only recently flooded down the river from the active slopes Mount Hood.

The former floor of the White River canyon is visible as a thin layer of oxidized soil, dotted with mummified trees.

The scientific accuracy of these dates is made possible by thousands of mummified trees swept over by the Old Maid debris flows, and later exposed by streams cutting into the sediments. The White River buried forest is one of the more prominent locations where these flattened forests and the former valley floor can plainly be seen.

The Old Maid eruptions originated in the modern crater of Mount Hood, where sulfur fumes still rise from the vents known as the Devils Kitchen. The massive, 800-foot volcanic dome of Crater Rock, itself, is just 200 years old and formed during these eruptions. The heat of rising magma in the crater eventually sent pyroclastic flows down the Sandy and White River canyons — rolling clouds of super-heated ash and debris that buried the entire landscape.

A closer look at the buried valley floor reveals mummified trees.

The Old Maid eruptions deposited about one hundred feet of debris throughout the upper White River canyon, filling the formerly U-shaped glacial valley with a flat fan of volcanic boulders, cobbles and fine ash. The outflow from the White River Glacier has since carved deeply into the debris flow, revealing the old valley floor and some of the thousands of mummified trees knocked over by the Old Maid event.

A flat-topped ridge in the middle of the White River canyon known as Mesa Terrace (see earlier schematic) is a remnant of the debris flow that shows the original depth of the debris above the valley floor.

Close-up of an entire tree, tipped over and buried where it fell on the former valley floor.

Two types of debris flow swept down the southern slopes of Mount Hood during the Old Maid eruptions. The most destructive were the pyroclastic flows, which many of us are familiar with from the colossal Mount St. Helens eruption of May 18, 1980.

In addition to the hot pyroclastic flows, cooler mudflows from flash-melted glaciers and snowfields also swept down Mount Hood’s south slopes during the Old Maid events. We know the buried forests at the bottom of White River Canyon fell victim to these mudflows, as pyroclastic flows would have instantly incinerated the standing timber. Instead, the cooler debris flows simply knocked the forests over, and buried them under layers of mud and debris.

Scientists believe these trees were partially buried, then broken off by subsequent flows.

Scientists believe the old valley floor now being revealed by erosion was of glacial origin, dating back to the last major glacial advance of the White River Glacier some 10,000 years ago. Thus, forests grew undisturbed along the former valley floor of the White River for a very long time.

Hiking to the Overlook

Hiking to the White River buried forest overlook is easy and scenic, as well as historic and iconic: it follows Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for 0.7 miles to the impressive rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail also serves as the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000-mile epic trek from Mexico to Canada.

To find the trailhead, park in the lower, overflow lot located to the east of Timberline Lodge. Park near a gated dirt on the west side of the parking area. Follow this old road steeply uphill for about 200 yards to an obvious junction with the Timberline Trail, and turn right (or, if you’re coming from the lodge, follow any of the trails beyond the lodge uphill to the Timberline Trail and turn right). The Timberline Trail quickly traverses into a side-canyon, crossing the headwaters of the Salmon River.

Next, the Timberline Trail rambles across pumice-covered slopes and soon reaches a sign marking the Richard L. Kohnstamm Wilderness, created in 2009 as an addition to the wilderness complex that encircles Mount Hood. Kohnstamm was the resort operator responsible for resurrecting a struggling Timberline Lodge in the 1950s, and setting the resort on the successful path that it continues to enjoy today.

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Beyond the wilderness boundary, the trail descends across another pumice slope, then drops more steeply on a surface of loose glacial till as it traces the west moraine of the White River canyon. Soon, you will reach the overlook where the Timberline Trail follows the moraine crest, and arrives at a stand of trees. This is a good spot to stop and take in the scenery, and especially to pick out the signs of the buried forest, at the bottom of the canyon, below.

The south-facing slopes and open terrain can make this a hot, dusty hike in late summer, so be sure to carry water. You will also want a pair of binoculars to view the buried forest details more closely. If you have the time and energy after visiting the buried forest overlook, you can retrace your step to the dirt access road, then turn right and follow it to Silcox Hut, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. The hut was the original upper terminal for the first Magic Mile ski lift in the late 1930s, and today is maintained as an historic structure.

New Glaciers on Mount Hood?

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It seems implausible, but climate change may be creating new glaciers on Mount Hood — but not in the usual way that glaciers are created. A close look at the retreating White River Glacier on the sunny south flank of Mount Hood reveals two stranded arms that are now separate glacier. As marked by (1) and (2) on the photo, above, a pair of truncated mini-glaciers have been cut off from the main flow of the White River Glacier by a previously hidden moraine that is now being exposed by the rapidly retreating ice.

Until fairly recently in geologic time, the White River Glacier extended far beyond its current extent, flowing down the rugged canyon shown in the photo for several miles to a terminus far beyond where Highway 35 now crosses the glacial outwash plain. But the glacier is retreating rapidly, destabilizing the canyon and changing its shape as it shrinks.

A closer look at two mini-glaciers on Mount Hood

A closer look at two mini-glaciers on Mount Hood

A closer look at the two mini-glaciers reveals why a glacier is different from a static field of ice. Glaciers flow under their own weight, sending waves of ice sliding downward as more snow is added, above. Huge cracks known as crevasses form at stress points in the river of ice, and these are a defining feature in identifying a glacier. Both of these sheets of ice have crevasses, and thus are moving glaciers.

A look at the topographic map shows how the extent of the White River Glacier has changed as recently as the 1960s, when the map was surveyed. The mini-glacier marked as (1) was clearly an arm of the White River Glacier until very recently, but surprisingly, the second mini-glacier (2) appears to already have separated from the main glacier before the surveys were done — though it is clearly a truncated lobe of the main glacier, as well.

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Another defining feature for this pair of mini-glaciers is that the emerging moraine that divides them from the main glacier also divides their outflow. They feed a separate branch of the White River from the main stem – another argument for recognizing these glaciers as discrete, perhaps?

It is logical to assume that these little glaciers are doomed by the same forces of climate change that created them, but there is a twist that just might keep them flowing — and perhaps thriving — as a result of climate change. While scientists believe that snow levels will rise in the Cascades over the next century, they also believe that precipitation will increase.

That could mean that in the highest elevation areas where winter precipitation still falls mainly as snow could actually see glaciers grow in depth, but perhaps not in length, since freezing levels would be higher. Therefore, if these mini-glaciers are high enough on the mountain, they may well survive, or possibly even grow, thanks to increased snowfall at this elevation.

If these glaciers are new, and independent of the White River Glacier, they deserve some respect, since all known glaciers in Oregon have been formally named. And that brings us to a bit of history surrounding this flank of the mountain. For here, on the upper slopes above these little glaciers, the first attempts on Mount Hood’s summit were made by early white settlers.

A close-up view of the mini-glaciers reveals classic crevasses

A close-up view of the mini-glaciers reveals classic crevasses

The first man in this story is Thomas Jefferson Dryer, the colorful publisher of the Weekly Oregonian in the mid-1800s (pictured below, on the left). Dryer claims to have been the first white man to climb the mountain, in August 1854. Dryer’s description of the climb makes it clear that he did not reach the true summit, though he may well have reached the top of the Steel Cliffs, only a few hundred feet below the summit — and an amazing achievement for the day.

Dryer complicated his case by embellishing the story with outrageous exaggerations — being able to see Mount Shasta (not possible) and peaks in the Rockies (definitely not possible), and his climbing companion bleeding form his skin from the extreme altitude (not very likely). But Dryer was also the first white man to climb Mount St. Helens, so his story must be taken with some degree of faith.

Dryer’s account wasn’t challenged until three years later, when one of his employees, Henry Lewis Pittock, made the first documented ascent of Mount Hood on August 6, 1857. The Pittock party made the climb along what is now the traditional southern route, skirting the west edge of the White River Glacier, and climbing through the crater. When Pittock’s party made claim to being the “first” to summit the mountain, it set off a dispute with Dryer over the veracity of his own account that continues to this day.

Thomas Jefferson Dryer (left) and Henry Lewis PIttock

Thomas Jefferson Dryer (left) and Henry Lewis PIttock

In 1861, Dryer was tapped to serve in the Lincoln administration, and turned the Weekly Oregonian over to Pittock, to whom he owed a significant debt in the form of back pay. Pittock, in turn, converted the weekly into a daily and was soon publishing the predominant newspaper in the region, today’s daily Oregonian.

Pittock is now recognized as the first white man to summit Mount Hood, but like Dryer, doesn’t have a landmark in his name to record his place in history (though Portlanders are quite familiar with the iconic mansion he built atop the West Hills).

So I offer a modest proposal: honor both men for their historic climbs, with the western mini-glacier (1) named for Pittock, representing his more westerly approach, and the eastern mini-glacier named for Dryer, who may have even walked on this ice sheet in his own attempt at the summit. Both men deserve to be remembered for their part in Mount Hood’s history, and these little glaciers deserve some respect, too.