Snow Spelunk - Cave Explorations on Mount Hood

Only fully discovered in 2011, the Sandy Glacier Caves on Mount Hood are the largest and most extensive glacier cave system in the lower 48. Read about the adventures of three of our members who explored them.
Kristina Ciari Tursi Kristina Ciari Tursi
Director of Communications & Membership
February 09, 2016
Snow Spelunk - Cave Explorations on Mount Hood
by Kristina Ciari, Mountaineers Marketing and Membership Director 

As he stood at the mouth of Pure Imagination, a newly discovered ice cave on Mt. Hood’s Sandy Glacier, Tyler Jursain felt apprehension. “I don’t even know if we’re welcome here,” he thought, glancing to his partners Dave Perez and Erik Chelstad. They had been planning this trip for months, and now he stood feet from the final destination.

Countless decisions had been made to get here. Just one more lay ahead. With a deep breath, Tyler cocked his head to the side, pointed his ear toward the back of the cave, and listened for monsters. He heard nothing. He took his first step. 

The Unexplored

Only fully discovered in 2011, the Sandy Glacier Caves are the largest and most extensive glacier cave system in the lower 48. The caves are caused by erosion of the rapidly retreating glacier, creating caverns where ice meets rock. A combined 7,000 linear feet make up these caverns, which are comprised of three main caves: Snow Dragon, Pure Imagination, and Frozen Minotaur. Snow Dragon, the largest and most explored of the caves, collapsed one month before their trip.

The idea for the exploration came from Erik. His friend, skiing near the cave, had posted a few alluring photographs online. Erik was immediately stoked and wanted to see it for himself. He did some research and learned these caves had only been reported in early 2000 and painstakingly mapped by a team of experts in 2011. He knew he had to go.

Erik sent an email to his adventure buddies Dave and Tyler. Initially, their excitement  was underwhelming. So, like any calculating Mountaineer, Erik tactically dropped reminders every few weeks via email. Just as the last photograph was fizzling from memory, he strategically chose another little "nugget" to deliver to their inboxes. He found maps and pictures and articles and videos, sharing relentlessly until everyone mirrored his stoke. They picked a date. 

Brought together by The Mountaineers

Dave, Erik, and Tyler are all members of The Mountaineers and intermediate climbing students. Originally from the East Coast, Dave spent a few years in British Columbia before moving to Olympia in February 2012. He didn't know anyone and wanted to explore his new home with people who loved the outdoors. Dave discovered The Mountaineers by searching for people who meet in the mountains on Google. It was too late for him to get into a basic climbing class in Olympia, so he enrolled in the intense scrambling course in Seattle. 

Much like Dave’s Google search, Erik was looking up a good place to go snowshoeing in the moonlight and found The Mountaineers. "It looked like a cool crew and a good community, so I signed up,” he said. He enrolled in the intense scrambling course too, meeting Dave and kicking off an adventure bromance.

Tyler lives on the Washington coast in an isolated community. "I needed an outlet," he said. Tyler's Uncle Mark — who had taken Basic Climbing with us a few years prior — handed Tyler his old course book and told him to go for it. “It seemed like a fun thing to do," Tyler said. He enrolled in Olympia’s Basic course in early 2013, where Dave was also a student.  

The three finally met in the Tatoosh. Unbeknownst to one another,  Dave was there with some friends, Tyler was on a Mountaineers trip, and Erik was climbing Unicorn on a separate Mountaineers trip. They met randomly in the campground, and the rest, as you say, is history.

Finding the cave

The Cave Boys planned their trip for the first weekend in April. To access the vast cave system, you drive NE-1828 to the Top Spur Trailhead on the northern side of Hood via the Zig Zag Ranger Station. NE-1828 is not maintained in the winter, requiring an additional 7.8 mile approach from Muddy Fork Road. The road is normally snow-covered and impassable in April, but the particularly dry season made conditions drive-able to the trailhead. After a "really comfortable hike" on the trail, they reached McNeil Point Shelter.

From there, a long, exposed off-trail traverse was required to reach the mouth of the caves. Clouds rolled in as they reached the shelter, obscuring their view. They could no longer see their destination. With no tracks to follow – they were officially off the grid. 

Using the navigation skills learned in The Mountaineers, the cave boys did their best to pick a safe spot for camp while considering the recent snowfall and potential avalanche danger/run off zone. While pitching their tent at sun set, the clouds broke. For a fleeting moment the caves were visible. "It was like a beacon of hope, being able to see that we are so close. It totally rejuvenated us," said Dave.

The morning brought hours of slogging through fresh snow to reach the mouth of the cave (snowshoes having been hastily abandoned at the trailhead). Nearing the bottom of the energy reserve, Pure Imagination revealed itself right in front of them.

Prior to the trip, Erik had searched far and wide for beta about the caves. He found an organization of spelunkers with some great info, but relatively speaking this area is still pretty unexplored. This was both exciting and unnerving. “We knew that we had several different sources of information, but conditions are always changing,” Erik said. “Openings close, structures collapse, and for days we had been fighting whiteout conditions. Every little adventure like this is a series of trust exercises, where you stop and evaluate what's going on - using the people around you to help make the right decisions." 

One of the email nuggets Erik had found online was really crucial: “approach the mouth of the glacier cave, peer in, cock your head, and orient your ear towards the back of the cave. If you hear ‘monsters’, do NOT go in.”

What are ‘monsters’ exactly? Rolling boulders or chunks of falling ice. A roaring river so loud you can’t hear anything else. Sounds of instability.

They listened and heard nothing.

Into the cave

 “It’s definitely scary as you take your first steps inside,” said Dave. “But once you're in there and you're doing it, it's incredible. The magnitude was just grand and epic. It makes you feel so small.”

Tyler had a similar experience. “It was humbling. I felt nervous going in but was in absolute awe once I got inside. We get to walk on all these glaciers but we never get to see the underbelly,” he said. 

Once inside, they encountered super-thin ice frozen onto the rock. They rappelled down the steep sections, the ice too sheen for crampons to be effective. While exploring a few feet from each other, the rushing water echoed throughout the chamber making communication impossible. To stay safe, they relied on lessons from The Mountaineers. "We really got to use everything we learned in The Mountaineers on this trip.” Erik said. “We got to do all of it: navigation, trip planning, decision making, snow camping, glacier travel and identifying instabilities in snow, building an anchor and rappelling off of it. We didn't place pro, but we basically used everything we learned.” 

In total, they spent little time in the cave compared to getting there – much like climbing to the summit of a mountain. Yet their memories will last a lifetime. “I'm 35 years old and I've been playing in the mountains since I was 15. I've never seen anything like this," said Dave 

Continuing the legacy of exploration

Like Mountaineers from 100 years ago, these cave boys sought to go off the beaten path. This trip wasn’t an epic into uncharted territory, but covered new ground for each of them and offered a chance to explore for the sake of exploration. The cave boys live in different towns but took time to meet in the mountains. We all have busy lives and busy schedules, but  putting “adventure” on your calendar is always worth it.

I think that's what's cool about this trip, and frankly what’s cool about The Mountaineers: the trip wasn't an 'epic', but that doesn't matter. It was an adventure with friends. Friends made through The Mountaineers. 

Dave first joined The Mountaineers looking to find people to get outside. "I succeeded in my goal with The Mountaineers,” he said. “After meeting Erik, we hit it off with two other people in our scrambling course and together had a full summer of adventure. We get together pretty frequently, and when you add in Tyler, I have my go-to people when I want to go outside."

I asked if any of them would have considered the Sandy Glacier Caves without The Mountaineers. They all said no. Without our Mountaineers community, Dave, Erik, and Tyler wouldn't know each other. They wouldn't think it was a good idea to go camping in a hillside in the middle winter. They wouldn't launch a cave exploration trip. They couldn't be the "cave boys".

When I asked if they would recommend this expedition, I heard a resounding yes. But they made sure to emphasize caution. Be educated in the approach. Don't go when there's summertime snow conditions, which could be any time of year with recent weather patterns. Learn safe off-trail and glacier travel skills. Go with a buddy and, most of all, listen for the monsters.

All photos in this article courtesy of Mountaineer, Erik Chelsted.

This article originally appeared in our November/December 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.