In the span of the Memorial Day weekend, Jason Keen became a veteran of scaling Cascades lava-belchers and snowboarding down their icy slopes.
A few days earlier, he’d never climbed a volcano.
Keen, a Spokane firefighter who lives in Coeur d’Alene, has trekked in his boots, pedaled his mountain bike and ridden his splitboard into some of the most remote niches and slopes of his beloved Idaho Selkirks, where he’s training to be a heliskiing guide.
After moving to this area 10 years ago, he was game for higher achievement during a holiday weekend.
“We had only three days, so we set our sights on three peaks,” he said on Tuesday, describing his status as “still living high off the excitement and adrenaline.”
In three consecutive days, without previously setting foot on the volcanoes, Keen, 36, and his buddy Matt Brill of San Francisco reached the summits of Mounts St. Helens, Adams and Hood.
“All the stars had to align perfectly,” Keen said. “We put in for a permit for St. Helens a month ago and drew Thursday. That would be our first peak and everything had to flow from there, including the weather, avalanche conditions, route-finding, equipment, the works.”
Planning included draining information and route details from friends who’d climbed the Cascade peaks. They checked websites and used Gaia online map and GPS tracking software to look at variations. They previewed approaches and potential ski-snowboard descents on Google Earth.
“It wasn’t like we were going into this completely blind, but in a way we were,” Keen said. We had both done our Avalanche Level 2 training this year and we were aching for a good last ski trip. We wanted to do something epic.”
The plan required cramming all their gear into a Subaru and making every hour count, especially when unexpected challenges surfaced, such as the current conditions and snow-clogged roads Google Earth failed to show.
“We had to park four miles down from the Mount St. Helens trailhead, which added eight miles to our first climb,” Keen said.
Brill’s flight didn’t arrive until afternoon so they got a late start and car-camped at 10 p.m. at snowline. At 3 a.m. they were up and boot hiking and skinning toward the summit.
“St. Helens is a beautiful volcano and perfect for skiing,” Keen said. But they didn’t hang around and enjoy the perfect day on the top at 8,366 feet. “We had to get back down to the car and get to Mount Adams.”
The most direct roads between the two mountains were still blocked by snow, so they had to drive back almost to Hood River and head north again. “We got to the Forest Service office to check in for our permits just before the 4:30 closing time,” Keen said.
They grabbed some food for the drive and backpacked in to a campsite about 9 p.m. after driving a total of 100 miles from St. Helens. They dug a tent pad in the snow in the afterglow of the sunset and hit the sack for another five-hour shot at a snooze.
“We were pretty pumped up, so it was hard to go to sleep,” Keen said. “Once we did, we slept like rocks, but there was minimal time for recovery.”
Keen and Brill enjoy active lifestyles full of backcountry skiing, mountain biking, trail running and backpacking. “We both keep moving – we stay in shape,” Keen said. “But I think we had an edge in being able to do this safely because we were coming off a kick-butt backcountry ski season. We had the legs.”
They bagged Adams’ summit with little trouble the second morning, but had to make decisions for the descent. Although the weather was clear, a cold wind was keeping the slopes boiler-plate hard.
“The downhilling was a big attraction to this expedition,” Keen said. “But being safe was a big factor, too.”
They met another climber on the 12,276-foot summit who had been skiing down Adams for years. “He had planned to ski the chutes, too, but he decided against it in those conditions,” Keen said.
After waiting an hour for snow conditions to change, the clock ticking, Keen and Brill bagged their goal of plunging into the steep chutes.
“We followed the other climber’s educated decision. Then he led us down on a wild ride through great terrain back to camp.”
On the way down they could see Mount Hood across the Columbia River in the distance. “It looked so far away, yet so possible,” Keen said.
Sorting out the logistics as they hiked and drove out of the mountains, they called ahead for take-out pizza and, instead of car camping, they crashed in a Hood River motel that night shortly before 10 a.m. They barely got their money’s worth as they were up at 2 a.m. to get on the road to Mount Hood.
Steve Harms, another Spokane firefighter, met them in the Timberline Lodge parking lot with his young, lean Labrador retriever. “They added new life to the party,” Keen said. “And since Steve had driven over after working a busy shift in Spokane, he was short on sleep, too.”
As they drove up to the parking lot at 3:30 a.m., they could see a line of headlamps already lining out to Hood’s 11,250-foot summit.
“I can only imagine that the summit at sunrise on Memorial Day weekend was packed with climbers,” Keen said. “We didn’t mind being a little later because we wanted the snow to soften a bit for our ski descent.”
As they began to climb in the gathering light, it dawned on Keen and Brill that they might actually pull if off.
“I was a little cautious, wondering if we’d used up all of our luck,” Keen said, “But the excitement of knowing the plan was coming to fruition eliminated the effects from lack of sleep and any aches in our legs and bodies. We were tired, but ‘Holy crap!’ I thought, we might actually pull this off.”
By the time they reached the Hogsback, most Hood climbers had summited and descended. “We just had to get up through the Pearly Gates while they were still in the shade and the ice and rock was solid to be as safe as possible,” he said. “We had our crampons on, skis on our backs and an ice ax in each hand.”
Scout, who was leashed to Harms, marched up the stair-like tracks left by the earlier climbers.
“We reached the summit and had it almost to ourselves,” Keen said. “It was warm with no wind. We stood there simply high on life.
“It was so perfect to stand on top of Hood and look back into Washington to see where we had been –Adams and St. Helens – in the distance. I got goosebumps of euphoria.”
After watching one other skier plunge down from the summit and another climber launch off the top with his paraglider, Keen, Brill and Harms prepared to put a wrap on their epic weekend.
“We waited about an hour for the snow conditions to soften enough to get some edges,” Keen said. “The first steep pitch was still hard. Everyone had to enter it the same way, so it was scraped to bare ice. That was the crux.
“I was the first to drop. If I could do it on a snowboard, the others could do it on skis.
“After the first 20 feet, things were edgeable and I made turns all the way down to Crater Rock. I had the fun of watching the others come, with Scout right behind them. I don’t think she liked that first 20 feet of ice, but after that, Scout did just fine in the corn snow.”
They regrouped and then let it rip down toward Timberline Resort. “The ride was the definition of spring skiing – smooth, planer fast, carvable corn,” Keen said.
They’d done their epic journey in style, finishing with an exhilarating, sunny decent and high fives all around.
“We were happy and tired and it seemed really crazy, but we realized that after all of those miles in three days we’d just had some of the most perfect spring skiing we could imagine.”
It was Brill who posed the silly question: “Should we do it again?”
Indeed, they skinned up, climbed 1,500 feet higher on the slopes and made a second lap.
“Icing on the cake,” Keen said.