Southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness is the 180,000-acre, “big-W” core of a half-million total roadless acres. This region is (arguably) the wildest and most biodiverse landscape in Oregon, and the largest chunk of undisturbed habitat between the Olympics and Baja California on the Pacific Coast.
It’s also a difficult place to love. The Kalmiopsis is comprised of low elevation mountains lacking much in the way of geologic or aesthetic elegance, and is prone to extremes of weather and climate. It’s filled with scratchy, poisonous brush, scorpions, and snakes. It has a reputation for violent outlaw prospectors, solitary 19th-century holdovers convinced the crystalline waters of the Chetco will cough up enough gold to make their fortunes. On top of this, the Kalmiopsis was almost entirely burned over in 2002’s then-unprecedented Biscuit Fire, making an already somewhat unlovely landscape harsher on the eyes.
Yet the Kalmiopsis took hold of my imagination, and Kate’s. Our first trip here in 2013 only highlighted its paradoxical appeal. There are few places I’ve been that have made me feel as uneasy starting a trip, 20 miles down a heinous forest service road lined with shotgun casings. Or places where backpacking felt as much like tropical fieldwork, replete with heat, thorns, and pit vipers. But there is also nowhere else I’ve been in the US that can replicate its particular brand of solitude: a solitude rooted not in austere rock and ice but in living things piled on living things, a vibrant ecosystem utterly indifferent to your existence.
Part of the reason solitude in the Kalmiopsis is so total (beyond its discomforts) is the complete abandonment of a once-extensive trail network following “the fire.” Over a decade out, regrowth has swallowed nearly everything. As southwest Oregon is already the largest but least-funded unit of the US Forest Service’s PNW region, maintaining trails in a poorly-visited, scabby-looking burn zone has not been a high priority.
Which is where the Siskiyou Mountain Club stepped in, in 2010. Founded by Gabe Howe and Jill Stokes, the SMC’s specialty is primitive backcountry trails in Southern Oregon; restoring lost routes in the Kalmiopsis its labor of love. Two weeks ago, we joined Gabe, Jill, and their longtime volunteer Tom on a three-day backpacking trip crossing the Kalmiopsis from east to west. The route, beginning at the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead above the Illinois River Valley and ending at the Vulcan Lake Trailhead above Brookings, OR on the coast, is 26 hard but manageable miles. Bring a map and good notes, and be prepared for steep, rocky trails.
Kate’s writing about the place for work, so I’ll let her extensive research and narrative notes speak for themselves when published. I’ll only say it was a blast to get to see this fantastic trail in the good company of those who made it a possibility, and share in their enthusiasm for an oft-ignored place. There’s a lot of the greater Kalmiopsis region that remains vulnerable to mining, road-building, and logging, but little momentum towards permanent protection. The SMC makes a strong argument the best way to change hearts and minds can be with clippers and Pulaski.
Looking south towards the origin of the Biscuit fire. The route’s early miles are the bleakest.
Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) is widespread in the Sierra Nevada, but occurs in SW Oregon mainly as a serpentine soil specialist. Serpentine soils (seen here) are a difficult substrate for plants, thanks to their low calcium to magnesium ratio, lack of common nutrients, and high concentrations of nickel and chromium. Their widespread presence in the Kalmiopsis (and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains more generally) is a major reason for the region’s outstanding botanical diversity.
The California Cobra Lily, Darlingtonia californica.
Dawn from our first camp on the banks of the Chetco.
Box Canyon mostly escaped the blaze and retains its verdure, a heavenly oasis after a hot and exposed climb over the ridge from the Chetco drainage.
The trail’s latter miles seemed to have burned with the lowest intensity.
Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus).
Jill, the legendary “Barefoot” Brad Camden (our shuttle driver), and Tom, at the trail’s end.
Scientists often assume species living on oceanic islands have strong dispersal ability, surmising that colonizing these isolated, far-flung land masses in the first place would have required the ability to travel vast distances. Oceanic islands are also often known for their endemic species — organisms that are found nowhere else. Taken together, these two statements constitute a famous paradox in the field of island biogeography, a scientific discipline focused on studying the distributions of island organisms. The paradox goes: If island species are able to cover the great distances required to colonize their homes, shouldn’t this ability also maintain sufficient gene flow (the process of migrants from one population interbreeding with another, which tends to make both more similar) to outweigh the processes of evolution that give rise to unique, endemic species?
In a paper my coauthors (Dr. Sarah Schaack and Dr. Jack Dumbacher) and I published this month in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, we investigated this paradox by examining patterns of genetic variation in a small songbird distributed on offshore islands in Papua New Guinea, the Louisiade White-eye (Zosterops griseotinctus). The Louisiade White-eye is a member of a family of birds (the White-eyes; Zosteropidae) known for their rapid speciation, with a large number of islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans featuring an endemic species. But unusual for the White-eyes as a whole, the Louisiade White-eye is what Jared Diamond termed a “supertramp species:” an organism highly specialized for overwater dispersal.
Diamond’s concept of a supertramp draws mainly on patterns of distribution in South Pacific birds he observed during his extensive fieldwork in the region. Noting that some species were only found on low-lying, resource poor islands, and never on adjacent larger, higher-elevation islands, he hypothesized supertramps were skilled colonists and ecological generalists that competed poorly against more specialized species in richer habitats. He holds that the dispersal ability of supertramps is also an asset in providing the ability to move on to new habitat when resources were overexploited or otherwise became insufficient, and in escaping disturbances from cyclones, sea level rise, and volcanic eruptions. Intriguingly, in the few rare exceptions where supertramps were found on higher-elevation islands, there was evidence of shifts in their ecological niche towards more specialization.
If this change is accompanied by a reduction in dispersal, it might help explain the famous paradox mentioned above. Imagine a scenario in which a supertramp species arrives at a decently-sized, higher-elevation island lacking the kind of competitor species that have previously kept it to lower, smaller islands. On this new island, size and height mean disturbance is less prevalent and resource levels are less prone to catastrophic crashes. Dispersal ability therefore is less advantageous, and more individuals stay put and breed exclusively on their new home. As they more sedentary, gene flow is reduced to the point that populations are sufficiently isolated for long enough that processes such as natural selection and genetic drift become new species.
In our study, we examined the plausibility of this scenario using on a large number of samples of Louisiade White-eye tissue my coauthor Jack Dumbacher and his team collected via sailboat in 2009 and 2011. Jack focused on sampling small, coral atolls that had previously been overlooked by scientists. To represent the rare larger, taller islands where no collections had been made for nearly a century, we sampled tissues from toe-pads on specimens housed the American Museum of Natural History, originating from the seminal Whitney South Seas Expedition. Using a special technique known as ‘ancient’ DNA extraction, we were able to obtain DNA sequence from birds shot in the 1920s, perhaps the greatest “oh-shit-science-is-cool” moment of the research project. Coupled with sequenced DNA from the modern samples, we ran analyses to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of the different island populations of the Louisiade White-eye (building a phylogeny), and assessed relative levels of divergence.
We were particularly interested in learning 1) whether there was genetic evidence for the supertramp idea, e.g., a signature of significant interbreeding among different island populations; and 2) whether there was genetic evidence for the loss-of-dispersal-ability explanation for the ‘famous paradox’, which would show significant divergence on the few high-elevation islands in our sampling. While our data lacked the resolution to come to unequivocal conclusions, our results provide preliminary support for both these hypotheses, which, of course, only lead to more questions. How frequently are migrants exchanged between populations, and where do they go? How do shifts in dispersal ability occur?
Photo credit and (c) Glenn Tachyiama
The White River 50 probably competes only with Chuckanut as the PNW’s quintessential ultra. Held each July since 1993 by Scott McCoubrey and crew, the course features two loops on beautiful singletrack in the foothills of MRNP, and regularly attracts some of the region’s fastest runners, most gunning for a sought-after sub-7 hour finish.
I had signed up over a beer or three sometime in the spring, but in recent weeks had been anticipating a trip to a family reunion in Montana would be keeping me from the start line, and had responded with commensurate focus: relatively low weekly mileage and an opportunistic approach to workouts. When that trip fell through, I decided to do a quick week-long taper and see how things went.
And it went pretty well, all things considered, though the a steady, soaking rain precluded views of The Mountain (good thing I’ve seen it before). A quick start had us through the first aid station (3.9mi) in a bit over 24 minutes, well under Ueli Steidl’s 2004 CR splits. Hanging in 15th place or so during the first few miles, I worked my way up as the trail began to climb in earnest, eventually slotting into a chase pack consisting of old PDX friend Yassine Diboun, Matt Palilla, and Seattle Running Club racers Evan Williams and Olin Berger (Matt Cecil and Lon Freeman were leading a few switchbacks up). We gave some lip service to “taking it easy” this early in the race — the course’s elevation profile is defined by two 4000-foot-plus climbs, with somewhere between 8500 and 10000′ of gain in sum — but honestly, we were pushing it a bit. This was confirmed at the second aid station, Ranger Creek (11.9mi), where we remained 5 minutes under Ueli’s splits.
A bit spooked, we slowed down significantly on the out and back to Corral Pass, and by our return to Ranger, were a solid 10 minutes off our early pace. I found myself in fifth chasing Matt and Yassine, both effortlessly fast runners on gradual descents, as they hammered back down to the river. Slightly over halfway as we passed through the campground, I began to feel some early fatigue take hold, and the first half of the second major climb was the major low point of my race. Easing into a hike whenever the trail pitched upward too sharply, I mostly tried to maintain momentum and make each moment feel as if I were racing, without digging my self too deeply into a loamy Cascadian grave of overexertion. And lo, in a timely reminder of the old ultrarunning adages that it never always gets worse and the winner is the one who slows down the least, I drew up on and passed first Lon and then Matt P., and then was sitting in third with Yassine’s bright orange windbreaker in my sights, the rain continuing to fall and fall.
Which is not to say that winning was ever a possibility! I crested out at the Suntop aid station (mile 37) in a good amount discomfort from chafing, attempting to summon enough focus to run the next 6 downhill road miles (losing over 3000′ to return to the banks of the White River) hard enough to maintain my position. I almost managed it. Averaging about 6:15 a mile on the descent, I was keenly aware that I was riding the ragged edge between a sustainable effort and leg-seizing cramps. Yassine, however, quickly pulled out of sight, and in the final hundred meters before the aid station, Matt Palilla zoomed past with demoralizing pizzazz.
“Save some for the end,” everyone always says about White River, referencing a technical, gradual, grinder-of-an-uphill from mile 43 to the finish. I mostly had, running in discomfort, not particularly fast, but fast enough. Adrenaline kicking in for my customary last-half-mile-sprint, it was over in 7:14:29, about 3 minutes after Yassine and Matt dueled for a second and third place finish, respectively, and a little over 10 minutes after Matt Cecil grabbed the win.
With more self restraint on that first climb and more focused training (particularly in the form of downhill tempo efforts), I think sub-7 is plausibly within my reach. Whether time and motivation will align and get me to the start line again remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a race I can imagine returning to. In the meantime, attention shifts to the last two races of my competitive season: a second stab at the Race to the Top of Vermont, and a second stab at the 100 mile distance.
Is it too early to be dreaming of snow?
A large part of my work as a graduate student — in both research and public outreach — involves specimen collections. For outsiders, the specimen collections of natural history museums are a mostly-invisible feature of institutions like AMNH (or my own Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture) best known for their kitschy dioramas and dramatic taxidermy. Specimen collections are almost always behind locked doors, in back rooms filled with identical cryptic white cabinets, and unless you have a zoologist or evolutionary biologist in the family tree, you probably don’t know they exist.
But these archives are an integral part of research programs into that question of all questions, the origin of species. Specimen collections (and associated tissue / genetic resource collections) serve as a library of biodiversity, recording in perpetuity our knowledge of of all life on earth. This is done through both type specimens (the original individual collected from a newly-discovered species) and through series, or multiple individuals of the same species collected from different locations, serving to capture some of the variation present within a species.
In western North America, at least, our understanding of species-level diversity (“alpha” diversity) is relatively complete. But our understanding of diversity below the species level — how genomes, plumage, size, and other features vary across geographic areas, across climate, along elevational gradients — remains drastically insufficient. This is the focus of the Klicka Lab’s research, and the strength of the Burke Museum, the University of Washington’s longstanding natural history museum, home of one of the most active ornithology departments in the country. To conduct this research requires not only delving into the existing specimen collections, but also expanding them, with particular research goals in mind.
How do we obtain the specimens used in research? Sometimes by salvaging incidental fatalities, when natural-history savvy citizens send birds dead from window collision or feline assault to our office. Sometimes from the Woodland Park Zoo, when a cherished ostrich or lorikeet passes away. But mostly, the specimens at the Burke Museum (known as UWBM in natural history museum acronym-speak) come from targeted collecting. “Collecting” being the euphemism of choice for the dirty job of killing, stuffing, and cataloging wild birds.
For people who love birds, nature, and animals — as I assure you, everyone who decides to pursue ornithology or museum work emphatically does, likely to the detriment of more anthropocentric passions — the idea of collecting is often hard to swallow. How do you justify taking life for science? In the anthropocene and its epidemic of collapsing wildlife populations, how do you justify removing individuals from the breeding pool?
Responding to the first critique is a philosophical issue beyond my pay grade, but it certainly pivots on a belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge, and the power of knowledge of our natural world to inform decisions dedicated to its preservation. A response to the second critique is not dissimilar, but must also encompass the vast balance of evidence that illustrates scientific collecting has no effective detriment on wild populations. It would be intellectually dishonest to say that this is an unquestioned tenet of field biology, but after a recent editorial by three scientists arguing collecting no longer has a place in modern research programs, a forceful response by no less than 123 scientists in defense of collecting demonstrates the degree to which a majority of practicing biologists believe in its continued importance, despite the now-established advent of high definition photography and other new technologies with the potential to supersede some of the utility of physical specimens.
These are debates which others have argued more forcefully and articulately than I, and I’ll leave it to you to pursue them beyond what I’ve briefly cited above.
This year, the Burke’s three week expedition focused on northeastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle before heading south for the Blue Mountains (WA) and the Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness (ID). Otherwise occupied with summer duties as a teaching assistant, I was able to take the time to join Chris (UWBM Ornithology collections manager) and Kevin (UWBM Ornithology jack of all trades and Klicka Lab technician) on the final week of the trip. Beyond being my first exposure to collecting and its nuances — using a shotgun, preparing specimens in a field camp, the upsetting method of euthanasia known as “thoracic compression” — it was also my first trip to these striking corners of the inland Northwest. What follows is an annotated account of those moments when I had my lens on me.
My stint began in the Blue Mountains, a small range spanning NE Oregon and SE Washington between the Cascades and the Rockies. The Blue Mountains are physiogeographically unique in the region in their merger of canyons with high, flat ridges, a sort of vivisected plateau over 6000′ in elevation. We camped off a spur road at 6180′, and hunted the most floristically diverse forest I’ve seen in the inland northwest, replete with Western larch and doug fir and subalpine fir and lodgepole pine and many others. It also boasted the highest bird densities of the trip, perhaps a result of being the apogee of land for a long ways in all directions during a week in which lowland eastern Washington cleared 100 degrees F.
After two mornings, we broke camp and drove many hours southeast to a high valley in Boise National Forest on the border of Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness. The goal was to base ourselves within spitting distance (1.5 hours drive) of the location of the University of Washington Herbarium’s 2015 collecting foray in Yellow Pine, Idaho, who we had arranged to join forces with for the final days of the expedition. At 6800′, we camped alongside a meandering stream in a marshy meadow surrounded by low mountains. Each evening, a family of breeding sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) announced their presence and soared low above our camp. A first for me, their presence was a stirring reminder of the wildness at our doorstep.
Our field camp, amply equipped for eating, skinning, and drinking Rainier.
After a morning in which we all hunted habitats near camp, collecting the usual assortment of montane Western birds (e.g. breeding songbirds such as dark-eyed juncos, chipping sparrows, Western tanagers, American robins, hermit thrushes, Audubon’s warblers, and many others), Chris and I headed north, downstream along Johnson Creek, to collect in mixed forest and meadow (dotted with mariposa lilies) some 800′ lower. Pictured is the .410 bore shotgun used with dust shot for collecting most smaller birds. With sufficient distance, even such delicate species as rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) can seem merely concussed by its blast.
Arrowleaf balsam root (Balsamorhiza sagittata), past its bloom.
A mariposa lily (Calochortus sp.)
Near the airstrip in Yellow Pine, Idaho, site of the 2015 foray and a decidedly unique community. Sheer slopes and slide paths.
My kind of town.
Kevin, Chris, and Dr. Olmstead’s unmistakable vehicle on our rendezvous.
Johnson Creek near its merger with the east fork of the Salmon River.
After collection, an individual bird is prepared to become a specimen suitable for storage in the museum collections. This process, deserving of another post itself at some point, involves stripping the skin, feathers, bill, and legs from the other soft tissues, and stuffing them with cotton in a more or less standard way to enable more or less accurate comparisons with other members of its and other species.
Here, a Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), tagged and awaiting skinning.
After being skinned and stuffed, specimens are pinned into rigid positions to dry for several weeks. No preservatives are needed, although it’s understandably important to keep them out of the rain.
The final morning before Chris and Kevin returned to Seattle, we hunted along a high ridge above Yellow Pine and near the skeletal mining community of Stibnite, a dry backbone of mountain bordering the incomprehensible vastness of the 2.4 million acre Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness. The Frank Church is a mosaic of healthy forest, healthy burns, and apocalyptic burns that ominously portend the future of Western forests. It’s the home to hundreds of wolves and vicious wolf extermination campaigns. It reflects the Kalmiopsis in its pyramidal, labyrinthine heights and v-shaped canyons.
I gazed into its depths, and crossed the border a few times. It was enough to win me over, and made me promise to myself to come back.
In central Idaho, quaking aspen (Populus tremulosa) doesn’t nearly approach the degree of its extent and coverage in the southern Rockies, but occurs with a frequency alien to the Cascades, even on their dry eastern slope.
Nonetheless, where there’s water, the forest is lush, verdant, rich.
At the region’s highest elevations, subalpine meadows merge with groves of dark fir and short crest-like peaks of silvery rock, often clearing 9000′.
I hunted alone the final morning to the trip, with little success. Briefly stopping to preview a section of the IMTUF100 course outside McCall on the way home, I was soon back in Nez Perce territory, the steep prairie and ponderosa country east of Hell’s Canyon bordering Highway 95. Not far beyond, the monotonous driving characterizing the Palouse agricultural belt beckoned, with many hours separating me and home. I lingered for a while at a modest marker at the site of an ambush in the Nez Perce War.
Science can be monotonous, frustrating, and poorly compensated. But after the right kind of week in the field, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.
I’ve been a lazy blogger. Time to start digging myself out of a rapidly-compounding photo backlog.
I spent mid-June back in Colorado, helping Kate close out life in Paonia, and move back to the Northwest to start a new gig as HCN’s Seattle correspondent. It was bittersweet for her, and for me. Home, it seems, is made of many places.
We took two days for a quick backpacking trip into the Raggeds Wilderness, in the northeast corner of the West Elk Range. It’s unusual for Colorado in featuring relatively low elevation habitat, rich riparian zones cloaking the river canyons hewn into the Western Slope.
The striking confluence of Anthracite Creek and Ruby-Anthracite Creek.
The Ruby Range, a defining feature of Crested Butte’s skyline, from its far side.
East and West Beckwith Peaks, with their striking succession of linearly stacked cirques.
Our camp, in a strange and wonderful grove of scrub oak amid sage and stunted aspen, ~8400′.
Not a bad view from the tent. At least until the storm rolled in…
…which happened shortly before dusk. We stayed dry through the night, but after a few hours hunkered down at dawn in a sagging tent, its pitch loosened by wind and wet clay, we broke camp in the gale and fled for the car.
The remaining days in Paonia were clear and hot, with vivid sunsets, beer at dusk, and a pervasive sense of melancholia.
I headed up King County high point Mt. Daniel (7960′) on Sunday with Erik, ignoring a sore throat that had set in over the weekend. Daniel looms large over the western portion of Alpine Lakes Wilderness, solidly in the middle of the Central Cascades. The northern aspects of Daniel (and its lower, more remote neighbor, Hinman) also have the only real glaciers to speak of the immediate region, gleaming and obvious from vantage points much further north. Like most glacier-clad peaks in Washington, it’s gorgeous ski terrain, and the relative inaccessibility of the mountain despite its proximity to Seattle makes it an appealing place to visit.
We spent a casual seven and a half hours on the 15 mile / 5700′ route, wishing time afforded a lap or two on Lynch Glacier, or better yet, a traverse to Hinman. It’s always good to have reasons to return places, though, especially in a state with an embarrassment of riches to otherwise distract you.
Is this the end of the (formal) ski season? I hope not, but it’s getting pretty mushy out there, and the next nine days of sun and warm nights aren’t going to help.
Lynch Glacier above ever-growing Pea Soup Lake, with Glacier Peak and the Dakobed Range prominent on the skyline. A keen eye should be able to pick out Baker and Sloan Peak (“Matterhorn of the Cascades”) as well.
Skinning begins in a gully above Peggy’s pond, at 5700′.
Erik traverses to the west peak of Mt. Daniel above the Lynch Glacier headwall
Cathedral Rock, Mt. Stuart and the Wenatchee Mountains.
Bear’s Breast Mountain and its ridiculously rugged northeast aspect.
On the Daniel Glacier, below the east peak.
Happy to see fields of Veratrum again. (Corn lily or skunk cabbage — take your pick.)
I headed out with Luke to the Methow Valley for the weekend. Luke’s stepdad Steve built a cabin on a tall hill outside Winthrop by hand in the 1970s. It’s the sort of thing we should all aspire to.
We stayed at the cabin two nights and I soaked in my first visit to this extraordinary place. The Methow is a narrow finger of shrub steppe — and of private land — sandwiched by the dry eastern subranges of the North Cascades. To the west, the Chelan-Sawtooth cuts against the horizon, promising gneiss and larches and clear skies when rain lashes Pugetopolis. To the north, the mountain fastness of the Pasayten, with its high plateau, bears, tundra, big sky, and numerous 8000′ peaks. To the east, the last gasp of the Cascades as they merge into the Okanagon highlands, a bridge of forest to the Selkirks and the Rockies. Amidst it all, ranchers, good nordic skiers, hippies, and vacation homes. The local papers debate wolf management in a non-abstract way.
On Saturday, I ran hard and long on hilly forest service roads, the sort of effort you can only put out in training twice a season or so without consequence but live for nonetheless. We then headed across the Chewuch to help out at Rainshadow’s classic Sun Mountain 50m / 50k. Four years into my participation in the sport, I’m ashamed to admit it was my first time volunteering. It certainly won’t be my last.
On Sunday, in an odd inversion of normality, the typically-dry Methow seemed to be the only wet part of the state, with a long night of rain and thunder prompting flash flood warnings and swollen rivers. On the way back over Highway 20 (another first for me, inexplicably, as the road transcends superlatives in its unrelenting drama), we pulled off to head as high up Crater Mountain (8128′) as conditions and time would let us. That turned out to be about 5300′, a 3600′ climb from the highway, but still nearly 3000′ short of the summit. There’s plenty of snow left in the subalpine shade.
I’m back in the city, now, but when I close my eyes I can still see purple skies, green sage and fields of bitterroot glowing against the growing dark.
“For me, the icefields surrounding Eldorado are the spiritual center of ski mountaineering in the North Cascades,” writes emeritus PNW ski historian Lowell Skoog. “One of the grand peaks of the North Cascades…an individual aloofness above the rivalry of adjacent peaks and ridges,” writes Fred Beckey. On whosever authority you take it, the high, wild country near Eldorado Peak (8876′) in NCNP is a special place. Its flanks are adorned with the largest non-volcanic ice sheet in the lower 48. Nearby Cascade Pass was the site of the region’s most recent confirmed grizzly sighting, in spite (or because?) of its summer throngs of day hikers.
As I try to make sense of the endless tangle of valleys and ridges, rivers and glaciers that define the North Cascades — as I try to imbue a map that defies easy comprehension with lived experience, and create a place that means something to my heart and legs and spirit, as well as my mind — Eldorado beckoned as a powerful place to start. Jake and Jonas joined, and on a brilliant May Sunday we climbed and skied the mountain, bushwhacking and schussing, rock-hopping and cramponing. It was a fairly extraordinary day, both in the sheer pleasure of the descent and as a preview for years of exploration.
It was also a glorious referendum on the efficiency of skiing. This stands in contrast to a large part of the allure of ski mountaineering: its defiant pointlessness. The labor and risk associated with what, ultimately, is simply playing can have no convincing justification. “Backcountry skiing is for anarchists and coyote angels,” wrote C.L. Rawlings. Maybe less true than it used to be, in our era of good gear, social media beta, and the endless commodification of experience (I am as guilty as anyone). But the quote continues to sing to me.
At any rate, in the North Cascades, the sport reaches a nice medium between this countercultural sentiment and utilitarianism. Skis really are the best way to travel in the range’s higher reaches, even if you do need to haul them up through 3000 vertical feet of rainforest to reach snow. When, shortly before noon, you clip into your bindings and in minutes soar down miles of snow and ice that took hours to ascend — or point them towards a col on the distant horizon, and effortlessly contour a mile above the valley floor, chasing sun and shadow — you will feel there is no other way to travel.
The sweep of the Eldorado Glacier, with Hidden Lake Peak visible far left, and the Triad center skyline.
Jake ascends Eldorado’s east ridge, on the margins of Inspiration Glacier. Among the endless sea of peaks arrears, Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, and Sahale are prominent, draped with the Quien Sabe, Forbidden, and Boston Glaciers.
Klawatti Peak (center right), lone nunatak of the Cascades, with the Tepeh Towers to its left. My favorite English loan word (borrowed from the Inuit nunataq), nunataks are rocky spires completely surrounded by glacial ice.
Jake demonstrates the ease of packing featherweight Hagan skis at 8K’.
My training isn’t there quite yet, but it’s the time of year when racing starts sounding fun. Two weeks ago I hoofed down to Bend with Peter to kick off the competitive “season” at the Horse Butte 10 miler. The Nike and Brooks elite teams took care of business up front, but I was happy to grab 7th in 1:00:06, just short of my sub-1 hr target. It was a blast, particularly in the welcome sunshine of central Oregon, and on return to Seattle I finally stopped procrastinating and signed up for Yakima Skyline Rim 50K. I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was a race in my wheelhouse — whatever the equivalent of metacognition is for running ability, I don’t have it — but local enthusiasm for the event was contagious, and there were some fast runners signed up, so I took the financial plunge.
And then, a curveball: Peter asked if I would be interested in climbing and skiing Mt. Adams on Sunday. It was a dumb idea to do both. But I couldn’t say no. I recruited Richard, knowing he’d be equally taken with it.
The race was a pretty rough time. After living large in an E-burg motel the night before, the day broke strikingly clear and worryingly warm. Things went well at first. I spent the first 8 miles running near Mike Foote, who seemed to be playing it smart twenty seconds behind the lead pack. On the second major climb, however, he took off, and I found myself pushing hard with Casey Weinman, a grad student from Missoula who happened to be roommates with old PDX friend Nick. We stuck together through the turnaround at 2:28 or so, now four minutes behind Mike.
It was starting to get hot. Our pace up the third climb was noticeably less peppy than it had been on the way out. Part way to the crest, Max Ferguson caught up with us, solving the mystery of where the old course record holder had been hanging out in the pack. After topping out and hitting the rollers along the ridge, Max and I broke off ahead together briefly before I stopped to hit a gel and was gapped. From there things got ugly. Down to the final aid station my legs were cramping sporadically, and I was finding it hard to run at all. I rolled in, somewhat incoherent, and stayed for several minutes trying to get it together as runners came and went. I considered dropping, but then convinced myself it would be unsporting, and began marching up the hill, just as Casey arrived. Looking haggard, he shared only a single word in passing: “Gnarly.”
For the rest of the race, hiking was interspersed with bouts of lying in the sage, helpless to prevent my legs from spasming grotesquely (Max later described this phenomenon, wherein your muscles visibly pulse and undulate of their own accord, as “the guppies.”) I ended up crossing the line in 6:12 and 18th place, having run a 1:45 positive split. C’est la vie. Next time, I hope Washington can have a better showing against the marauding Montana Trail Crew.
Immediately after finishing, I was pretty sure rallying for Adams was out of the picture. But a few hours later, my electrolyte balance was restored to something approaching normal, and Richard’s enthusiasm was predictably high, despite having had a rough day himself. We hopped in the van and headed south, driving some of the prettiest highway in Washington State, and broke out onto high bluffs above the eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge just at sunset. The world can be an absurdly beautiful place.
Peter was lying in a field outside of Trout Lake when we showed up at dusk. From there, we were able to drive all the way to the crowded Cold Springs Campground at 5500′. I slept out for the first time this year, under piercing starlight and widowmakers from 2012’s burn.
The climb was mostly a slog, although I’m never going to get over volcanoes. I was working pretty hard all five hours it took us to summit, the top 2000′ feeling especially bad. Though the Southwest Chute, our original goal, is certainly the prouder line, I didn’t trust my legs to handle chickenheads high in the couloir, and so we stuck to Suksdorf Ridge on the descent as well. Conditions were icy above 10K, corn between 10K and 6K, slush below that. It was generally excellent skiing.
Peter demonstrates whippet use #37: impromptu avocado opener.
It’s been nearly a year since I left the Western Slope. In the interim, Kate left Denver for Seattle, then bounced back to Colorado to take an editorial intern position with the iconic Western environmental magazine High Country News. I first read HCN living in Tucson as a kid, and picked it up again when I moved out to Oregon for college. I can’t think of a publication that panders as nicely to my interests, with its resoundingly place-based coverage of science, environmental issues, culture, and politics, as well as its formidable cadre of regular essayists (anyone who hasn’t read Charles Bowden’s final essay for the magazine needs to do so, now).
Needless to say, I was enthusiastic about her job. Not in the least because it let me schedule a trip to visit her in between winter and spring quarters, right when the humid grey oppression of Seattle’s longest season most strongly demands an antidote of brilliant sunlight and thin air.
While lacking the in-your-face alpine tableau of Colorado’s resort towns, Paonia makes up for it with a subtler — but no less affecting — merging of landscapes. Here, the red sage-spotted vastness of the Colorado Plateau meets the Rockies. Fir and lodgepole meet scrub oak. Snowmelt rages down to the Gunnison, only miles from the shallow branching venation of bone-dry arroyos.
Lacking glamour, or any recreational economy to speak of, Paonia remains a real place. I visited, and while Kate worked, spent a wonderful five days skimming the surface of its many pleasures. And spending long hours on her front porch, watching the sky and the neighborhood kids putter about on scooters, doing nothing at all.
Near McClure Pass, the Western Slope marches southwards. There is a painterly quality to light and line in this part of the world, a fineness quite unlike the contrast-enhancing verdure and jagged peaks of the Pacific Northwest.
Mt. Lamborn (tall, center left) is Paonia’s sentinel, last of the West Elks.
I miss tooling around the aspen groves near Gothic in early winter.
The atmospherics on display every evening were a strong incentive to spend the last of the days light on the winding cattle trails just east of town.
The aptly-named Raggeds from the slopes of Marcellina Mountain. Some summer or autumn yet to come I’ll start walking from the Brick on Elk Ave. in Crested Butte and end up here, spending a week or two loping through this beautiful and lonely country.
I made it to the top of the portion of dog-leg chute visible from this perspective (“The Banana”) before feeling insecure without crampons, but was still a solid 1000′ short of the summit. Skiing down, my boots bust a rivet chattering over slide debris. I can only say that loud powder builds character.