Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves

Mount Hood Wilderness

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Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves

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  • Old-growth forest of noble fir and western hemlock.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250') from Bald Mountain's southern slope.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Sunrise through the forest en route to McNeil Point.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250') en route to McNeil Point.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Contributor Eric Guth looking out from the McNeil Point Ridge just below the shelter.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250') and the McNeil Point Shelter.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • McNeil Point Shelter.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250') and the McNeil Point Shelter.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Climbing above the McNeil Point Shelter.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Muddy Fork Canyon illuminated.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Beginning of the off-trail traverse en route to the Sandy Glacier Caves.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250').- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood's Sandy Glacier Caves in view.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood's Sandy Glacier Caves in view.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • A view of the caves from McNeil Point- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Off-trail traverse en route to the Sandy Glacier Caves.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • En route to the Sandy Glacier Caves.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • View of Snow Dragon's main entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • View of Snow Dragon's main entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Snow Dragon's main entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Panoramic view of Snow Dragon's entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Snow Dragon ice.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Snow Dragon ice.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Snow Dragon. - Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: main entry to Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: main entry to Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: icy stalagmite formations in Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Sunrise from Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Sunrise view of Mount St. Helens (8,365') from Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Morning view from Snow Dragon.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • View of Snow Dragon's main entrance and the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Pure Imagination's lower entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Pure Imagination's lower entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Inside Pure Imagination: rock debris hazards from the ceiling are present throughout the cave.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: inside Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Brent McGregor explores Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Brent McGregor explores Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: ice formations in Pure Imagination.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Team photo inside Pure Imagination- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Grylloblattid (Grylloblatta) also commonly called "ice crawlers".- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Grylloblattid (Grylloblatta) also commonly called "ice crawlers".- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Caves: Snow Dragon's main entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Snow camping equipment.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250') and Snow Dragon's entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • View of Frozen Minotaur's entrance.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250') from the Sandy Glacier.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • View of Mount St. Helens (8,365'), Mount Rainier (14,411'), and Mount Adams (12,281') from just above McNeil Point.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Departing and passing the McNeil Point Shelter.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Descending the "climber's route" just below McNeil Point.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Mount Hood (11,250').- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Sunset through the forest just above the Top Spur Trailhead.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
  • Sunset through the forest just above the Top Spur Trailhead.- Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
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Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Largest known glacier cave system in lower 48 states.
Cons: 
Technical traverse across McNeil Point Ridge. Rock fall inside caves.
Alerts: 
Unusually warm weather in 2015 has made summer explorations to these ice caves extremely dangerous. Unstable conditions can lead to serious and even fatal injuries such as recent incidents in Big Four Ice Caves. Spring and summer explorations are strongly discouraged.
Region:
Mt. Hood + Clackamas River Area, OR
Congestion: 
Low
Preferable Season(s):
Winter, Fall
Day-Use/Parking Pass Required:
NW Forest Pass
Total Distance: 
8.80 mi (14.16 km)
Trailhead Elev.: 
4,000 ft (1,219 m)
Net Elev. Gain: 
2,500 ft (762 m)
Trail Uses:
Hiking
Trail type: 
There-and-back
Dogs allowed: 
No
Recommended Equipment:
Ice Ax, Crampons, Other
Most technical pitch: 
Class I

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Adventure Description

Adventure Description

Team

Only fully discovered and documented in 2011, Mount Hood's Sandy Glacier is home to the largest and most extensive glacier cave system in the contiguous United States.

The caves begin a mile uphill from McNeil Point, where erosion from the rapidly-retreating glacier on Mount Hood's western face has created a combined 7,000 linear feet of caverns, caves and narrow passages. Known today as the Sandy Glacier Caves, this extensive network is comprised of three main caves: Snow Dragon, which has recently experienced a collapse, Pure Imagination, and Frozen Minotaur.

Though initial cave sightings were reported as early as 2000, their existence was only officially confirmed via a YouTube video by Gregory Fowler in 2010. Based on the video, mountaineers, cavers, and close friends Eddy Cartaya and Brent McGregor enlisted help from friends and several local mountain rescue teams and embarked on a series of painstaking expeditions to fully map and document the cave...one that they would later name Snow Dragon. While on the expedition in 2011, they further discovered Pure Imagination and Frozen Minotaur.

The Science

Mount Hood's Sandy Glacier Caves in January of 2014. Photo by Tyson Gillard.

Scientists have documented the recent and widespread retreat of glaciers due to climate change for a number of years. Using surface-scanning technologies such as lidar, scientists can fairly easily track the changing volume of glaciers. Tracking this change from inside the glacier is a new approach, however, and teams like Cartaya and McGregor's and photographers like Eric Guth hope to better understand this interior deterioration and to share this information with the world.

Glaciologists have found that large glacial caves such as these only occur in thin, dying glaciers, whereas caves that form in larger and thicker glaciers quickly collapse under their own weight. Because the peaks of the Cascade Range lie in relatively warm climates (as opposed to Alaska, for instance), surface friction alone is often enough to introduce some melting. Once a channel of water is formed, its size will only increase over time as more water passes through. Additionally, the caves allow warm air to enter deep into the glacier, ensuring an even quicker melting process.

The Sandy Glacier Caves in January of 2015, notice the collapse of Snow Dragon. Photo by Shane Kucera.
The caves seen from McNeil Point in November of 2015. Photo by Andrew Stohner.

The process is not without precedent: The Paradise Glacier Caves on Mount Rainier's south side were once a major attraction to the national park. By the 1970s, however, the ceiling began to collapse. Today, the caves are long gone, and the lower portion of the glacier no longer exists.

 

Safety + Getting There

From the McNeil Point Shelter, it is a long and exposed off-trail traverse to the cave entrances at roughly 6,500 feet. In late summer, the field of steep talus is only intermittently held together by ground juniper, pink mountain heather, and the occasional mountain hemlock or whitebark pine. The spring and summer seasons are also when the majority of melting occurs and when the caves pose the greatest danger, as large boulders constantly drop from the ceiling and sheets of ice break away from the entrances. SPRING AND SUMMER TRAVEL IS NOT ADVISED.

Relatively speaking, winter is the safest time to be inside the caves, although falling debris is still common. The off-trail traverse from the McNeil Point Shelter is steep and requires crampons and ice axes at the minimum. Adventurers should give themselves at least 7 hours to reach the caves from the Top Spur Trailhead. NF-1828, which leads to the Top Spur Trailhead, is not maintained during the winter months, however. If you are unable to reach the Top Spur Trailhead due to snowpack, you may have to park 7.8 miles further down the road at at Muddy Fork Road.

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