In many parts of the country, the words “summer” and “snowboarding” don’t really go together. In fact, they might even seem mutually exclusive. But in the Pacific Northwest, nothing could be further from the truth. Summer snowboarding is a regular occurrence. A dense and deep maritime snowpack fueled by the Pacific Ocean, relatively cool summers, and the abundance of easily accessible glaciers afford the possibility endless winter if you’re willing to climb higher and work harder than your typical winter backcountry excursion.
There is no better place to experience this than on Mount Rainier (14, 410ft), the crown jewel of the Cascades. During the late summer, after the south facing slopes were all played out, we headed to the north side of Rainier and onto the Flett Glacier for some August turns.
The Flett Glacier—a glacier in name only—is a permanent snowfield dangling off Observation Rock (8,364 ft), a sub peak of Mount Rainier that offers marvelous views of the Liberty Cap and the Mowich Face of Rainier above, and the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountain Range below to the west.
The trail begins at Mowich Lake at an elevation of 4900 ft. While the approach to the Flett Glacier is a dry approach of about 4.5 miles and 2000 vertical feet (to the base of the glacier), the trail is one of the prettiest in the Pacific Northwest: The lower portion of the trail consists of deep forests and the spectacular Spray Falls Waterfall. Above the tree line, the trail enters Spay Park, a verdant grassy paradise filled with glorious white, yellow, purple and red flowers, babbling brooks, and incredible views of Mount Rainier.
For this trip, Kelly Steele, Jesse Hambley, and I backpacked into upper Spray Park and set up camp near the base of the glacier. Due to permit issues, we ended up camping a bit lower than planned in a mosquito infested swamp, instead of on the glacier itself. After a short nap, we donned crampons and much lighter packs and ventured up toward the Flett Glacier Headwall—a 50 degree glacial face plastered to the side of Observation Rock.
At the base of the headwall, we climbed “looker’s right” around it, gaining Ptarmigan Ridge, which offers a mellower approach to the summit of Observation Rock and the ability to drop the steep glacial headwall without having to climb it directly. Kelly and I dropped the headwall in less than optimal conditions: we figured that the warm afternoon temps would soften the sun-cups on the precipitous slope, making the descent manageable and even fun. Unfortunately, the wind halted the softening of the snow, making the descent on the steepest portions of the headwall quite precarious. We descended without incident, meeting Jesse at the bottom. From there, we took lots of fun turns on softer snow at sunset on our way back to camp.
In the morning, amidst an assault from marauding mosquitos, we packed up camp and headed back to the parking lot. All in all, it was a great trip the epitome of our summer: backpacking andsnowboarding every weekend all over Mount Rainier—the only thing that changed was exact location. If you want an endless winter, no need to buy that pricy plane ticket to South America—the Pacific Northwest is where it’s at! That’s where you’ll find us, ever on the hunt for the best snow, the finest views, and our quest for an endless winter!