A 4 am alarm comes around quickly—especially after a few Thursday-evening-celebration pints at Crux. The early start is new to me but old hat to my guide, who regularly rises in the predawn chill (yes, it is chilly in summertime) to guide on Mount Hood. On this particular day, we were in search of corn—the skiable layer of sun-softened snow that late-season skiers lust after, soft ball bearings that skis roll so easily over. By 5 am, we were en route to Mount Hood and summer skiing.
For most of the country, skiing in July is not an option. But in the Pacific Northwest, it is remarkably ordinary, thanks to annual snow totals that often exceed the 500-inch mark. This season Mount Hood received 586 inches and Mount Bachelor rackedup 366 inches. And though we walked across dirt and gravel last Friday to access Timberline's Magic Mile and Palmer ski lifts, we did indeed find plenty of fun snow up high. My guide, Chris Wright, of Timberline Mountain Guides, estimates keen, ambitious skiers probably have another two weeks of high country corn before the rock exposure becomes too much to bear.
"It's getting hard to piece things together, top to bottom, in Central Oregon," Wright says as we walk to the lift, skis in hand and packs loaded with snacks and sunscreen. "But the goods are still there."
Wright would know. He has been skiing a lot this summer, in Central Oregon and beyond. In early summer, he recommends South Sister and Mount Jefferson, which are prime in June. As summer wears on, Wright treks to higher, snowier peaks. Earlier last week Wright skied Mount Shasta, a Northern California peak which offers a sunny 7,000-foot run, accessible with climbing skins to reach the 14,179-foot summit.
The trick to enjoyable corn skiing—so called because true corn snow can mimic corn kernels—is timing. Go too early in the morning, and the snow will still be bullet hard; too late and there will be nothing but grabby slush. Corn is the sweet spot—those precious few hours after the sun's penetrating rays have melted the night's ice layers. This time of year, Mount Hood's magic hours occur between 10 am and noon.
But even that narrow window has exceptions, as we found. By 8:20 am we were stepping off the lifts and into our skis where we found the snow crusty and hard. And scary. As Wright handed me a pair of red ski crampons, which penetrated the icy ground better than climbing skins alone, he explained that the snow would soften considerably over the next two and a half hours—the time it would take us to climb to our chosen skiing height point. He was mostly right. (Because conditions were stellar, and because Wright had brought crampons and ice axes, we opted to run to the 11,249-foot summit, an hourlong detour, and leave our skis behind at 10,000 feet.)
By noon, as we made our first turns from the Illumination Rock saddle, near the 9,500-foot mark, the snow felt a touch hard and variable. But just one day before, Wright and a fellow guide had skied the same zone and found perfect skiing just after 10 am.
"It was sunnier yesterday," Wright explains. Even though we had started out in t -shirts and under blue skies, a few clouds had rolled in as we ascended the mountain. By noon, there were scattered lenticular clouds overhead, which made for firmer snow.
But as we skied lower and as the minutes ticked by, the snow softened as promised. By 12:15 pm we were on perfect corn.
"Isn't this great?!" asked another skier who sprayed a small wave of snow before coming to a stop just to our left. Like us, he had ascended to around 10,000 feet. We all agreed that the snow at that elevation was too sun-cupped and icy-hard to be any fun. After sideslipping down the slope to Illumination Rock and softer, more exposed snow, we had found what we came for. The man who joined us looked to be in his 50s and was on older gear—narrow telemark skis. The bill of his baseball cap stuck out from under his helmet, but it didn't conceal a broad smile.
"This is my eighth day in a row!" he exclaimed. We learned he was visiting from the L.A. area and spends most of June searching for corn in the High Sierras. For the past 10 days, he had been skiing Oregon and Washington volcanoes—and loving it. Surprisingly, other than a handful of climbers working up a snow ramp and toward Mount Hood's summit, he was the only backcountry skier we saw. But by the time we neared the popular Palmer Snowfield—the summer snowrider's summer haven, and home to snowboarder summer camps—it was clear we were not alone.
The mountain's 2,000 vertical feet of groomed summer skiing was crawling with half-pint park skiers, head-phone wearing snowboarders, and well-protected Lindsey Vonn hopefuls who were bashing gates, arcing turns and launching off jumps the size of my house. We entered the fray and casually skied the final length of snow back to the bottom.
By 1:30 pm we were high-fiving and changing out of ski pants and into shorts back in the packed parking lot. Exhaustion, sunburn and 4 am alarms are a fine trade for July corn skiing.