The Almost Famous Volcano Tour
24 Peaks, 45 Days, 103,200 Vertical Feet
In the spring of 2015, Maria Debari, Kaitlyn Farrington, Freya Fennwood, and Krissy Fagen embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. In a mere 45 days, they travelled 294 miles on foot and splitboards, ascended 103,200 vertical feet, and snowboarded down 24 volcanoes. From the remarkable highs of cresting summits and celebrating life through snowboarding, to the lows that come with unforeseen obstacles, soggy gear, and shitty weather— this is the story of The Almost Famous Volcano Tour as told by Maria Debari in the order she remembers it.
Words: Maria Debari
Photos: Freya Fennwood
We set out from Bellingham, Washington on April 8 and drove 715 miles straight to Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. It would take us six weeks and 2,400 miles to cover the same stretch of California, Oregon, and Washington by the time we ended our journey back in Bellingham. Crammed into my 1994 Toyota pickup was Kaitlyn Farrington, Freya Fennwood, me and enough gear to climb, camp, and snowboard 25 Cascade volcanoes before we returned home.
My main goal with this project was to have a really fun time, but also to push ourselves. We had 45 days to climb 25 volcanoes, which didn’t really leave too much time for the finicky spring weather habits of the Pacific Northwest. Also, volcano climbing involves waking up early, putting on wet boots, and slogging uphill for many long hours. With this in mind, I wanted to assemble a crew that would not only excel under theses conditions, but have the best time doing it. Kaitlyn is well-known for her impressive halfpipe acrobatics, but I think that’s really all a cover for her being a professional fun-haver. Freya was our photographer, and also our voice of reason. Krissy Fagen, the fourth and most experienced climber in our group, ended up joining us in northern Oregon and brought a fresh shot of lively energy to our existing dynamic. As we set out, expectations be damned—we were headed on an adventure, and we were going to give it our best shot.
Volcano 11, 12, 13: Naysayers Be Damned—The Three Sisters Marathon
“You want to do the Three Sisters marathon? Not to be a jerk or anything, but you guys totally don’t have that.”
Kaitlyn, Freya and I were in the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park across from Mt. Bachelor assessing the situation for heading up Broken Top the following day. The only other person there was a man with skis just returning to his car, so naturally we struck up a conversation and asked about the conditions. The discussion moved from Broken Top to the North Sister, and when Freya revealed our objective minutes into the conversation, this gentleman didn’t hold back his judgments.
“Thank you very much for your information,” I said abruptly and walked away. I have zero patience for naysayers, especially when their unwarranted opinion is founded on nothing more than the fact that we were three female snowboarders and the Three Sisters marathon is a huge day.
I was sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and physically exhausted. A series of unfortunate events had occurred in the last four days that required my presence back home and my way of processing them was to pour all of my focus into something else entirely. It was 1:15 p.m. by the time we started skinning towards the South Sister, the final peak in our trilogy, from the base of our run off the Middle.
It looked really, really far away, and we were all exhausted. My brother, Lucas, who was along for moral support, debated with me about whether we should ascend the north ridge right in front of us that gets quite steep and possibly a little technical, or wrap around to the east face and skin up the entire thing. After changing our minds six or eight times, we ended up wrapping around. It’s not that I ever thought we wouldn’t be able to make it; it’s just that it really sucked. The nice thing about walking, however, is that fundamentally all you’re doing is putting one foot in front of the other. Breaking it down to focusing on one step at a time simplifies the process.
At the top of the South Sister, Kaitlyn, my brother, and I enjoyed a group hug to celebrate, but we knew we still had seven miles to walk out. The run down the east face of the south sister was the best riding we had all day. We hit the reverse corn cycle right as the mush was beginning to refreeze in the late afternoon, and it was glorious.
Fifteen hours, 20 miles, and 10,000 vertical feet after leaving my truck at dawn, we returned. I promptly dug out the business card of the man we met in the parking lot earlier that week and dialed his number.
“Hi, this is Maria. We met at Dutchman Flat the other day and you told us we didn’t have what it took to do the marathon. Well, I wanted to call and let you know we just completed the Three Sisters traverse. Have a nice day!”
For the most part, everyone we met was really excited, and perhaps a little envious, about our adventure. But I have to admit that the few people who didn’t take us seriously or told us we couldn’t do it really stuck on our minds as a driving force. We taped that business card from the man we met in the parking lot to my dash and talked to his picture all of the time. When we were so exhausted it seemed we couldn’t take another step, or camping in the rain warding off pessimistic attitudes, we’d ask ourselves, “What would Greg the guide have to say about us in this situation?” and it would keep us determined to persevere. Honestly, I bet he’d be flattered if he knew how often we talked about him.
In the two different worlds of my life, snowboarding and commercial fishing, being female instantly makes me the underdog. I don’t consider myself a feminist, and I find gender dynamics a yawn to discuss, but give me a chance to disprove the gender stereotype and I will take it on proudly. And this project allowed us to do that. No one expects to run into a gaggle of chatty female snowboarders wearing pink in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain. But that’s exactly what several parties came upon throughout the Cascade Range this summer. There is a time and place to be serious in the mountains, but we never took ourselves too seriously, which allowed us to reap maximum enjoyment from our situation.
Volcano 6: Our Worst, Favorite Volcano—Mt. Bailey
This one sucked. Like, really, really, sucked. There were puddles in my snowboard boots that squished every time I took a step and my heels were raw with blisters. It was really hot out, and the sticky wet snow made for unwelcome friction between our skins and the snow surface. We were getting nowhere fast. We’d already gotten lost twice in one day and didn’t know exactly how far away we were from my truck. Eventually we passed a sign that indicated we still had four miles of flat sticky skinning on this damn cat road before it was over. That’s several more miles than we thought we had. No one was talking because we were all wallowing in our own misery. Earlier that morning, we’d taken a roundabout line of ascent through patchy snow and dirt, only to realize on the top that Mt.Bailey was not that cool and we only had a few hundred feet of decent snow before we encountered the same patchy, manky mess that we’d already trekked up through. From the top, we pointed it towards the cat road before descending into the trees without much of a view. After bushwhacking for an hour or so, we finally popped out onto the cat road only to find we were not as close to ending our day as we’d hoped.
I am a big proponent of type II fun—situations that involve a bit of suffering and might not always be fun in the moment, but are always worth it in retrospect. Volcano snowboarding is a lot of type II fun—uphill suffering for downhill shredding. Mt. Bailey did not fit into this category at all because when we looked back on it later, we all agreed that it sucked. That’s why we dubbed it our “worst, favorite volcano”.
Volcano 3: We Finally Found Winter! — Pelican Butte
We were camping out ten miles up a logging road and it was snowing hard. Kaitlyn, Freya, and I were super excited because we knew we’d be riding powder in the morning. Pelican Butte barely crests 8,000 feet tall, and has a service road we could follow all the way to the top, which we knew would make this trek doable, even as the snow continued to pile up.
We stumbled upon the perfect campsite, complete with a three-walled shelter just big enough to set our two tents up in, which kept us out the snow.
The next morning we awoke to fresh, and set out. The skin up the windy road through the fresh snow brought up the giddiness of early season adventures, and reminded me of what fresh snow looks and feels like. At this point in our mission, it honestly had been a while since I’d seen this much fresh. At the top of the road, the summit of Pelican Butte is a radio tower. We took refuge near the bottom of it and made our transition.
Millions of moons ago, a glacier carved out a nice cirque on the northeast side of the mountain, and conditions were stacking up nicely for us. We stood and looked down into the unexpected, and terrain that didn’t look like anything we experienced thus far, fanned out beneath us. Chutes, gullies,fins and wind waves extended down to a lake about 1500 feet below where we strapped in. From this, there was a short skin back up to one of the switch backs of the road.
On April 14, I rode the best snow I’d seen in the Cascades all winter, and the best snow of the entire journey. After slaying lines of untouched, it was an easy decision to go back up to the top for another lap. Thus, we managed to summit Pelican Butte twice, and indulged in untouched laps twice.
Volcano 10: Mt. Bachelor— False Summits
“Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, please with a cherry on top!!? This really means the world to me.”
We were 10 minutes from the top of Mt. Bachelor, and I was arguing with a ski patrolller doing a sweep and refusing to let us go any farther. Skinning up Mt. Bachelor was more of a formality since we’d been able to follow a cat track the entire way and this was our “rest day.” Kaitlyn and I were nursing karaoke hangovers and Freya joked with us about jumping on the chairlift instead of skinning up. But Mt. Bachelor would be our tenth volcano, a nice even number breaking us into the double digits. And I wanted to go to the top, but this ski patroller was not budging an inch. I tried every angle I could think of, begging for a solid 10 minutes. There were no safety patrollers left on the mountain and we couldn’t go up, regardless of how capable we may have been navigating our way down the slopes of Mt. Bachelor on our snowboards. Finally, I submitted to going down. Though fuming, I transitioned in record time and b-lined straight for the truck where cold Tecates in the cooler were waiting.
Full disclosure: We didn’t make it to the tippy top of every single volcano. There were a few that would have required protection, rock climbing, and a general disregard for crumbly Cascade rock. Others, like Mt. Bachelor, we were at the mercy of an external variable. Although I’m well aware the lines were blurred, I remain adamant that I am a snowboarder, not a mountaineer, and the point of this trip for me was to go snowboarding, not get wrapped up in summit fever. That being said, we went as far as we could and in most of the instances where we weren’t standing on the true summit, we were only a few hundred feet away.
Volcano #24: In Honor of Liz Daley—Mt. Baker
A thunderstorm was coming, and everyone knew it. We had beaten the clouds, but they were still encroaching, and the thunder that had lurked every afternoon, wouldn’t be far behind. We were at the top of Mt. Baker, our twenty-fourth and final volcano. After some exciting crevasse hopping on the way up, we finally made it to the top, and it was time to celebrate.
Kaitlyn and I immediately cracked open a bottle of champagne as we waited for everyone else to join us and applauded each person’s arrival with fireworks.
Liz Daley was in our thoughts. I thought of her and smile in knowing that she would have been so stoked on our champagne and fireworks party on the summit of Mt. Baker, a mountain she had been up many, many times. I could feel that she had been with us every step of the way and I hoped we made her proud.
Suddenly, the clouds were sinking onto us; it was time to go down. We decided to forgo the second bottle of champagne until we reached our shoes, as we still needed to snowboard down the crevassed glacier before us. Everything at this moment seemed bittersweet. I was nowhere near feeling ready for our adventure to be over, but at the same time, I felt proud for what we accomplished. At the beginning of this journey, I hoped we’d make it this far, but I was cautious—I didn’t know if we could do it. But, to have actually lived the in-betweens and experienced the hard work it took actually make it, was (and is) of the best feelings in the world.
Undertaking such a grand plan with a group of girls from entirely different backgrounds that had never been into the mountains together before seemed like kind of stupid idea. But I couldn’t be happier about the way it turned out….
By the time all was said and done, we climbed 103,200 vertical feet and traveled 294 miles on foot/skis/snowboards on 24 volcanoes. Over the course of our journey, nine different female splitboarders participated in one volcano or another. I am more than satisfied with that result. We have our 25th and final volcano, Mt. Rainier, still on the docket, and it gives us a great excuse to reassemble this spring to continue the adventure….