Skiing from the summit
Tyler Maddox and Erik Weiseth stood at the top of Southern Oregon with their skis pointing over the edge, surveying a world they had contemplated for decades.
Beneath them was the steep northeast bowl of Mount McLoughlin, with all its winter beauty and dangers. Wind drifts. Layered snow. The specter of avalanches.
Maddox planted his ski poles, pushed off and plunged down the virgin powder, the anxiety that befalls backcountry skiers giving way to euphoria with every carve in the snow.
"We were going into the unknown," Maddox says. "But once we dropped in, we realized how great it was. That's when, all of a sudden, the skiing became amazing. That's when it really became fun."
Maddox and Weiseth conquered a lifetime goal Jan. 16 when they climbed to the top of Mount McLoughlin and skied down the mountain, a 12-mile round-trip journey that took five-and-a-half hours.
"This was the big surprise," Maddox says. "We had always avoided it, thinking it was a 20-mile round-trip, but we were able to ski it and be back in the valley by lunchtime."
From the top of the 9,495-foot lava cone, they spent a glorious 90 minutes hopscotching each other as they shushed their way back to civilization.
"I've been thinking about it my whole life," says Maddox, 39, of Jacksonville. "Everybody who lives in this valley and skis looks up and wonders what it would be like."
Climbing the South Cascades' tallest peak is hard enough in the summer. Doing it on skis raises the bar substantially.
"It's kind of rare, but it's becoming a lot less rare," says Bob Matthews, owner of Medford's Rogue Ski Shop, where Maddox and Weiseth both worked as teenagers.
"I don't think many people make it all the way to the top, but those guys sure could," Matthews says. "They're really good skiers. Pretty wild guys."
It was Weiseth's idea to tackle McLoughlin during a visit to his native Rogue Valley earlier this month from his current home in Salt Lake City. Weiseth, managing partner of Orange Torpedo Trips, broached the subject with Maddox, a photographer and cinematographer who has been backcountry skiing for more than two decades.
They settled on Martin Luther King Day, watched the weather and avalanche reports, and headed out early that Monday morning from the trailhead off Highway 140 near Fish Lake.
"The conditions were good, and I happened to be in town," says Weiseth, 33. "It was just the right time. Everything sort of lined up."
With lanterns on their heads, they "skinned" up the mountain, using nylon skins on the bottom of their skis that allowed them to move forward but not slip backward.
"We were able to ski with skins on all the way to the top," Maddox says.
Weiseth says just the trip to the top offered a "unique mountaineering element" to their journey, ascending what he called "this isolated, iconic mountain."
Relying on their lengthy background in avalanche safety and detection, they realized while looking down from the mountain's pinnacle that it was too dangerous to launch from there, Maddox says. So they traveled about 400 feet down to a place where they could safely drop into the mountain's northeast bowl.
"That's when we pulled the trigger," Maddox says.
The pair took turns skiing, leap-frogging each other from one safe zone to the next while trying to avoid each other, so if an avalanche struck, just one of them would be swept away, Maddox says.
"It's not all that difficult," Maddox says. "But people don't realize how many problems are associated with this kind of skiing."
They took their time, soaking in the experience under bluebird skies and atop 14 inches of pure powder.
"You're really trying to milk every turn," Maddox says. "Those are hard-earned turns. You don't want to make it go too fast."
During the descent, Maddox only occasionally pulled out his camera.
"You're still always in that safety mode," he says. "Photography definitely took a back seat."
They were back at the trailhead in 90 minutes and returned to the valley in time for lunch. It was as magical a 90 minutes as Maddox might see on skis.
"I'd say it was everything I thought it would be and more," Maddox says. "I don't think either of us thought we would ever ski the north side."