Climbing Mt Jefferson via SW Ridge Route

I have always found Mt Jefferson (Oregon's second tallest peak) to be one of the best looking of the cascade volcanoes when it is snow covered. This weekend I decided to take an exploratory trip up the SW Ridge climbing route. My goal was not to summit, but possibly get as high as the "Red Saddle" a couple hundred feet below the summit pinnacle. The weather was forecast to be warm with winds around 45 mph. I hate wind, but decided to go anyway. It has been a while since I last climbed and I have been eager to get out again.

The Mt Jefferson Southwest Ridge route starts from the Pamelia trailhead which is approximately 62 miles East of Salem on Hwy 22 past Detroit Lake. The trailhead is off Forest Service road 2246 just past milepost 62 on the left. The parking lot is about 3.7 miles down the road (paved most of the way, but also bumpy). There is an outhouse at the trailhead.

Mt Jefferson SW Ridge Route from Google Earth     Mt Jefferson SW Ridge Climbing Route as seen from Grizzly Peak

The SW Ridge route first follows the Pamelia Lake trail # 3439 which is a very popular 2.2 mile hike (one-way) into the Jefferson Wilderness. It only gains about 800 feet in elevation and is a relatively easy hike. A special limited entry permit is required from the Friday before Memorial Day weekend through October 31st to combat overcrowding of the area. From Pamelia Lake, the route continues on a short connector trail to Hunts Creek trail # 3440 and then to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). After about 30 minutes on the PCT, the route leaves the trail and is a bushwhack up to the SW ridge. It's about 2 miles from Pamelia Lake to the exit from the PCT. The rest of the route simply follows the ridgecrest up to the "Red Saddle" and then up the summit pinnacle. The total route is about 6.75 miles one-way with an elevation gain of just under 7,400 feet.

Mt Jefferson SW Ridge Route Elevation Profile

I left town after work Friday evening and arrived at the Pamelia Lake trailhead just before 7 PM. There was one other vehicle in the parking lot, but they appeared to be spending the night at the trailhead.

Pamelia Lake Trail No. 3439     Pamelia Creek

The trail looked almost exactly like it did this same time last year when Katie and I hiked it on our way to Grizzly Peak. There was the exact same amount of snow and in the exact same places. Déjà vu. I had hoped the trail would be snow free instead of snow covered the second half of the way.

Mt Jefferson Wilderness Boundary     Snow on the Pamelia Lake Trail

I backpacked into Pamelia Lake in under an hour and setup camp for the night. I filtered water and packed my backpack for my climb the following morning.

Pamelia Lake with SW side of Mt Jefferson in the Background     Pamelia Lake at Sunset

I woke to my alarm at 4 AM. I slowly got ready and heated water for oatmeal while eating a muffin. I like to carb load before I start climbing. By 5 AM I was on the trail with the aid of my headlamp.

Mt Jefferson Before Sunrise from the PCT Junction     Climbing Early in the Morning

I started bushwhacking my way up the SW ridge as it was getting light. It would have been less than ideal trying to make my way in the dark. I soon gained the ridge and consistent snow. The snow was soft, but firmed up higher on the ridge where I donned my crampons.

Clouds Forming over the Summit of Mt Jefferson     SW Ridge on Mt Jefferson

Mt Jefferson was creating its own clouds directly over the summit most of the day. The video below shows a couple short clips from the morning and afternoon.

The views from the SW ridge of Mt Jefferson were as fantastic as I had hoped. I could see several of the Central Oregon volcanoes (Three Fingered Jack, Mt Washington, Three Sisters, Broken Top, and Mt Bachelor).

Three Fingered Jack from SW Ridge of Mt Jefferson     Climbing Higher on the SW Ridge of Mt Jefferson

I had a great view of Pamelia Lake and Grizzly Peak. They looked so far away as I climbed higher up Mt Jefferson.

Pamelia Lake and Grizzly Peak from the SW Ridge of Mt Jefferson     Closeup of Pamelia Lake

The wind was howling my entire climb but became more intense as I gained elevation. By the time I was at about 7,000 feet it was too much for me. I don't enjoy being blown over and it can become dangerous, even more so on solo climbs. I decided to turn around which was unfortunate as the route looked like it would become more and more enjoyable above 7,000 feet. There is always next time.

About 7,000' Elevation on SW Ridge of Mt Jefferson     Central Oregon Cascades
Staying Warm on Mt Jefferson's SW Ridge     Looking Down the SW Ridge Towards Pamelia Lake

I started working my way back down the SW ridge in the increasingly soft snow. I punched through to my crotch several times where the snow had melted away from the boulders underneath, creating dangerous hidden pockets for unsuspecting climbers like me to fall through. One time I fell through on my left leg where I have a torn medial meniscus in my knee (still not fixed) and for a brief moment I thought I was done for. Luckily the pain subsided after a short rest and I was back on my way.

My Boot Track on the SW Ridge of Mt Jefferson     Three Fingered Jack from the SW Ridge of Mt Jefferson

Clouds continued to form over the summit of Mt Jefferson, changing shape and intensity as time went on. It was fun to watch.

Clouds over Mt Jefferson Summit     More Clouds over Mt Jefferson Summit
Mt Jefferson, Oregon     Closeup of Mt Jefferson Summit

I took a break down lower in the trees where the wind was less fierce. The sun was now shining intensely overhead and I welcomed the shade of the trees.

Mt Jefferson     Brewed in the Rockies, Chilled in the Cascades

The bushwhack off the SW ridge was much quicker going down. I heard a grouse on my way down and finally saw it when it flew a few feet between branches. I hit the PCT about 100 feet from where I had left it in the morning. Not bad at all.

Bushwhacking Down the SW Ridge to the PCT     Grouse up in a Tree

On the way back I took a short side trip up the PCT to Milk Creek for another view of Mt Jefferson. There are a couple other climbing routes that head up near Milk Creek, so I wanted to see what it looked like. There was a dust cloud blowing down the Milk Creek Canyon every few minutes, making me glad I hadn't climbed up that way.

Mt Jefferson from the PCT near Milk Creek     Closeup of Mt Jefferson

Back at my base camp at Pamelia Lake, I was still the only one there. The wind was still howling and there was no real way to escape it. I tried to fish, but was soon angry with the wind and gave up. I had enough supplies to stay the night, but decided to pack up early and leave instead of continue to fight the wind. On my way out I met two skiers that were planning on camping at treeline for the night and then climbing higher Sunday. I wished them luck and started hiking back to the trailhead. I met another couple who were day hiking to Pamelia Lake and were not prepared for the snow. I let them know how much further they had and they decided to continue on. Back at the trailhead I met a father and his two children who were planning on backpacking to Pamelia Lake for the night. We chatted about the conditions while he contemplated if the snow on the trail would be too much for his daughter. I wished them luck, packed up my car and headed back to Portland. Despite the wind, I still had a fun time exploring the SW ridge of Mt Jefferson. I wish I could have gone higher, but at least I have something to look forward to next time.

Gear List

High Peak Phantom 45+10 Backpack
Petzl Elios Climbing Helmet
La Sportiva Trango S EVO GTX Mountaineering Boots
Timberland Radler Trail Camp Shoes
Grivel G12 Crampons
Komperdell Powerlock Trekking Poles
Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe
CAMP Corsa Nanotech Ice Axe
Alpinizmo Swiftlite Tent by High Peak USA
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir All Season Mattress
REI Sub Kilo +20 Sleeping Bag
Exped Air Pillow
MSR Reactor Stove System
Platypus Big Zip SL 2.0L
Saywer Gravity Filter
Foam Sit Pad
Hillsound Armadillo Gaiters
GoLite Kenai Pertex 2.5L Jacket
Mountain Hardwear Transition Jacket
Columbia Powerfly Down Puff Jacket
Columbia Head Wall Soft Shell Pants
Head Digital Sport Liner Gloves
Marmot Big Mountain Gloves
Columbia Men's Fast Trek Fleece Hat
Petzl TIKKA XP 2 Headlamp
Olympus Tough TG-1 Camera
Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15
First Aid Kit
HighGear ATF8 Altimeter
iPhone w/NeoTreksGPS
Suunto A-10 Compass


Chris Morris, Sun, 08/17/2014 - 00:16

I climbed almost the exact same route on Jefferson when I was 19 in 1974. I was with three others although only one made it to the top of the peak. We had a great time.

Justin, Tue, 03/03/2015 - 23:04

i climbed the south ridge trail back sept.8th 2014 with a buddy from the beginning of pamelia lake TH all the way to the top of the summit & back down in 9hrs 15mins. it was an excellent day. our legs were pretty tore up for about 5 days. Fast, light& loose is the way i love to climb. had an amazing day that day =) i wanna go back this summer & do the SW ridge trail thou & try & make it faster if possible.

Sydney, Sat, 03/28/2015 - 22:05

Looking for a hiking partner to do it this summer? I wouldn't mind trying this route!

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