15 Dec Into the Snow Dragon: An Expedition into Mt. Hood’s Glacier Caves
About 65 miles from Downtown Portland lies the largest glacier cave system in the lower 48 states. The most shocking part about these caves is that they were only discovered and explored 4 years ago by local cave explorers. Unlike most caves, glacial cave systems are ever changing, living systems of ice and water. This is what makes them so compelling to explore.
Late last year I was browsing Instagram and came across an amazing photographer named Josh Hydeman. His mesmerizing photography of his overnight adventures to the glacier caves dumbfounded me. I did some more research and found OPB’s in depth article about the explorers who first found these caves. I learned there were three caves, the Snow Dragon, Pure Imagination, and Frozen Minotaur. The names seemed appropriate, considering their epic scale. Needless to say, going there was immediately at the top of my bucket list. Despite the proximity to Oregon’s largest urban center, this is by no means an easy feat.
The first challenge is the most nerve racking, safety. Glacier caves are inherently dangerous. They are formed by melt water plummeting through holes in the glacier to the bedrock below where they hollow out massive caverns through decades of old, solidified snow. Trapped in this snow is a myriad of things from bird feathers to boulders the size of a small person. At any moment, these specimens locked in the ice could decide to break loose and fall on your head. For this reason, timing must be decisive. The best time to go is late autumn when the snow hasn’t sealed up the entrance to the cave or made the road to the trailhead impassable and temperatures are cool enough to decrease the risk of ice and rock fall once in the caves. Essentially, you want it to be below freezing when you enter the caves. For me, this was in mid-december. A cold storm had recently blown through, but hadn’t dropped enough snow for there to worry about avalanche risk. With this weather window falling into place, it was time to put the gear together.
What Gear You Will Need to Get To Caves
- Ice Axe
- Climbing Helmet
- Breathable Winter Clothing
- Snow Boots or Mountaineering Boots
- Snow Shoes (Depending on Snow Depth)
Once the gear was loaded and I had watched a dozen youtube videos on how to self arrest and self belay, I was ready. The alarm began to blast at 4:30am, I threw on the gear, consumed some oatmeal, picked up the crew, and we were off to Top Spur (check out the map on the right). The access road was covered in a couple inches of snow, but we reached the trailhead by sunrise.
The trail begins in a stand of old growth hemlock and collides with the PCT before going along a ridge line that provided views of a very sneaky Mt. Hood as she awoke from a foggy slumber. As we hiked, flurries fell on and off and the snow deepened the higher we got. At the base of the mountain we continued on the timberline trail through 5 inches of fresh snow. Trekking resembled walking on a road made of double stacked cotton candy (bubble gum flavored of course). We consulted the topo map regularly and began trail breaking up the ridge toward McNeil point. Going was tough on these parts as we were guessing where the trail was and followed ridge lines up to the shelter.
McNeil Point to The Caves
The McNeil Shelter is a real treat, built by he Civilian Conservation Core in the 1930s. It doesn’t have much shelter, with snow blowing through the open door. Inside there is a small fireplace and chimney, and well not much else, but it is a good place to stop for lunch. While eating some granola bars you get some pretty good views of Hood as the fog flies by. The majority of the hike is at this point, but the most challenging is to come. The hike to McNeil Point is 5.2 miles with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. The remaining distance to the caves is only a mile.
Leaving the rocky hut behind at noon, we headed up the ridge line leaving behind the stunted sub-alpine firs that reside at the tree line. Up here, you are literally in the clouds. They would roll in and out, socking us in one moment and revealing blue skies the next. Going is tough with rockfalls, steep ridges, thinning atmosphere, and no trail, but the one we break. Pushing forward, we crossed over big boulders as we neared the bottom of the Sandy Glacier and the caves. Each rise seemed like the last until finally, there it is. This gaping hole in the side of the mountain fits its name, resembling a massive beast. A dragon spitting not fire, but ice. We quickly put down our packs and got our helmets on, we were running out of daylight. It took almost 6 hours to get here. With about 30 minutes to spare before we had to head down, we climbed in.
In the caves we find meltwater from the massive glacier above was roaring down the center of the cave and shards of ice as big as a motorcycle and rocks the size of a person’s torso littering the floor from a collapse in the roof. There was a huge moulin (a hole where meltwater flows into the cave) 50 feet into the cave that allowed light to pour in from above. Suspended from this, were massive icicles as tall as 2.5 Shaquille O’Neils. We took advantage of the photo opportunity and headed out, before anything fell on us. It was time to get to the car, hopefully before dark. Best. Day Hike. Ever.
The Sandy Glacier Caves are special, not because they are massive and massively accessible, but because they are alive. Each brown line you see engraved in the ice marks a year of snowfall that has been encapsulated and pushed down the mountain by the weight of newer snow. The entire cave system is slowly moving to the warmer slopes at the base of the glacier. With climate change they are also receding quicker up the mountain and causing more water to flow down into the caves. This means the caves will get bigger, but will inevitably completely collapse upon themselves. This is what makes this trip more than just a hike, it makes it a memory you may not get to relive.