“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.
The part of the North Cascades I’ve spent the most time in is Glacier Peak Wilderness, having knocked out long loops on both the west and east sides of the crest. A special place for me, its eponymous volcano has long held a magnetic pull, not only in its beauty and setting, but in its remoteness. Glacier Peak is the only volcano in the Washington Cascades with no road reaching its flanks, and even the most straightforward route to the summit is 33 miles and nearly 13,000′ of climbing round trip. It remains, per Volken, the volcano for “those of who would rather tour across wolverine tracks than other human tracks.” Prior to 2011’s improbable Cascade Pass photo, it was also the site of the most recent confirmed grizzly sighting in the North Cascades ecoregion. Climbing Glacier was a not-if-but-then proposition. I suppose I was waiting for an excuse.
In a high pressure spell earlier this winter, North Bend, WA skier / runner Will Thomas provided one, attempting to climb and ski the mountain in a single push. I had an abstract sense of the effort involved — a gee whiz, that’s a long day! understanding of his trip — but, as it turns out, no real feel for how hard just reaching the mountain can be. Nonetheless, the idea started percolating again, and seeing yet another weather window open, I asked around to see who was interested. Regular partner Peter and new friend Richard ended up joining. Peter is the kind of guy who picks up running on a whim and 6 months later wins his first race, and Richard has bettered my Wonderland Trail record and been up Denali. It was, if you’ll permit me, a strong team.
We left Seattle Friday evening, and were on the move up the north fork of the Sauk by 12:30. There was a giddy elation to those early miles. Richard lead out the gate jogging, 24-lb skis on his back, which had me laughing, at least until it became clear he wasn’t joking. We alternated hiking and running as the terrain dictated until the base of the first major climb, 6 miles and 1:40 into the day, our world a surreal vision of illuminated slivers of the buttresses of old grow cedars. And then it was endless switchbacks up the slide path, in and out of the margins of forest. We struck snow around 4300’, fresh and low density, and cutting our headlamps marveled for a few perfect still moments at the glimmer of frost on its surface, the moon, the piercing starlight above the opposing ridge. We marveled at the novelty of winter in a year marked by its apparent absence.
Eventually, we stashed our shoes and began skinning, hoping they’d be left alone by any well-meaning hikers following in our footsteps. We weren’t far above above treeline before making our first navigational error of the day, misjudging the route east in the dark. To regain a clear line of travel, we were forced to climb several hundred feet of steep snow up the fall line. My light, bellowed boots failed to seat a kick in the icy crust, making for some tense moments as I switched to crampons and spidered my way to where Peter and Richard waited. Relieved to be clear of cliffs and slide alder, we then skinned up to the col east of White Peak, noting and avoiding reactive windslab on concave southerly aspects. There, at 6500’, the day’s first light began to silhouette the peaks to the east, and as we stripped skins and ate, turned pink, gold, and violet.
We descended into the basin, painting one small corner of its endless white canvas with our tracks. Angling right, we struck a second patch of worrying stability, a northwest slope with a 5 inch storm slab that sheared cleanly on a buried crust, though not propagating much. Dropping to the basin, we avoided the aspect for the remainder of the day, which wasn’t particularly difficult given the route’s bearing.
The climbing traverse to Glacier Gap was perhaps the day’s highlight, the sort of high, horizontal ski mountaineering anyone who has Lowell Skoog’s website bookmarked dreams of. It struck me more than once, glancing behind me at our skin track snaking away for miles and at the looming summit ahead, that the privilege of falling asleep and waking up here was an end in an of itself.
We cleared Glacier Gap, and, 9 hours after leaving the car, finally felt to be on the mountain itself. The wind picked up, and we climbed, slower and slower. Reaching the base of Disappointment Peak, we struck east towards the base of Cool Glacier. Skirting an obvious crevasse, we regrouped at 9200’. There wasn’t much discussion before we reached a consensus that pushing on to the summit in current conditions would be using up too much of our safety buffer of time and energy, with 15 miles of skiing and hiking and several climbs between us and the car. Content, and already feeling gassed, we stripped skins and soared away down the Gerdine Glacier.
Retracing our tracks took more transitions than we’d hoped, but was relatively straightforward until we once again stood on the saddle below White Mountain, looking down into the Sauk River Valley. Intending to avoid the navigational snafus of the morning, we stayed high and traversed west. But this too proved a poor choice, as the steep, exposed slope rolled over into oblivion, offering no evidence of safe passage. Richard scouted here and there for a line that would drop us into the meadow where the trail emerged from the trees, Peter and I jumping from island of safety to island of safety behind him. It was a bit of a nightmare — hop turns, debris-filled chutes, worrying roller balls, a botched kick-turn and timely self-arrest — but then we were through, and all too soon back at our shoes. A relief and a shame, all at once.
Somehow, we ran almost the entire trail out. Peter, stoically trotting at my heels as he closed out his first all-night adventure and longest day ever, would whimper a little now and then (okay, not really). I kept seeing imaginary cars through the trees and would say nonsensical things. We would sing the refrain from “Bad Blood” in raspy, off key voices.
Richard, for his part, beat us out by a solid 15 minutes despite hauling the heaviest equipment by a long shot. We met him at the car, boots off and generic lite beer in hand, after almost 17 hours on the move. Our only decision left was where to inhale 1000 calories of fat and protein.
The Burger Barn in Darrington did the honors.
This weekend, my window of availability did not align with the window of ideal weather (that would be this morning, as I’m deep in the specimen collections). Clear skies were promised, along with a bit of a blow as the weak low-pressure system that gloomed up the Puget Sound for what felt like the first time in months was sent packing.
It wasn’t bad, at first, hopping across the Easton’s subglacial stream in ski boots, climbing by switchbacks on loam and remnant patches of snow through beautiful old lichen-draped woods. At treeline, we switched to skis, the glory of first light on the volcano as transfixing as ever. We stuck left of a guiding moraine, in and out of gullies as terrain dictated. It was in these gullies that we first noticed the wind, which before long had whipped itself into a frenzy, stinging our cheeks and numbing our eyes. We held out hope it was an artifact of topography, a funneling of an otherwise moderate breeze into something more concentrated. At the edge of the glacier, though, it remained strong, and persisted as we roped up and wove our way through a few major, obvious cracks towards Roman Wall.
45 minutes later, we had had enough, the wind roaring and our edges screeching on ice like some cacophonous tone poem of retreat. By noon, back in subalpine meadows, Colfax, Grant, and Sherman peaks no longer gave off plumes of spindrift, tranquility coming two hours two late.
We headed home. But what is “failure” on days like these?
The intriguing Twin Sisters subrange: upthrust olivine rock and pocket glaciers rising to 7000′ a mere 26 miles from Bellingham Bay.
Word came from the mechanic this morning that it was time to take my world-weary Volvo wagon — known, loved, and cursed by all who knew her as “Eggplant” — off life support. Eggplant is, shall we say, baba ghanoush. But in the way that our material belongings often seem to mediate our lives, it can’t help but feel like the end of an era.
I bought Eggplant from parents in Vermont in 2011, and immediately headed back across the country in her, driving solo through northern New York and Ontario to the Upper Peninsula, to Minneapolis, the Badlands, the Absarokas in Montana, Spokane, and then home to the Rose City. Seeing Mt. Hood gleaming on the skyline 90 miles out from the sagebrush steppe of the Columbia Plateau, five days of driving behind me, is one of those exhilarating memories I’ll always link with the uniquely American rite — and great privilege — of the long distance road-trip. Eggplant was with me for the next four years, putting in hard miles across the West, quietly resting between trips. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say Kate and I owe our relationship in some part to that car, with endless hours of conversation in her, both en route to the mountains and as angsty Reed students listening to Elliott Smith at midnight in some rainy Portland warehouse lot.
To paraphrase Taylor Swift: like any great love, she had her flaws. Her doors didn’t lock. Her undercarriage was mostly rust, birthright of any northern New England vehicle. She was home to several generations of mice. While sound in engine, her circuitry and brakes left much to be desired, often leaving those of us who loved her in the lurch. One particularly notable failing occurred last September, when, as I ran Pine to Palm 100 in southern Oregon, her alternator gave out on Kate at 3AM, high up a narrow dirt road on Mount Ashland. It necessitated a lengthy and implausible extraction, something I probably won’t live down for the next decade. For my part, I was not always the best owner. I once lost her sole key on a run high in the Elkhorn Mountains outside of Baker City, Oregon, prompting a 3+ hour tow to the nearest dealer in Boise. I accidently cut her brakelines with ill-fitting chains in a panicked attempt to extract her from 2 feet of unexpected, unplowed snow. Last winter, I unceremoniously abandoned her for 6 months on a dirt lot in Gunnison, Colorado, frequently the coldest town in the lower 48. But that’s love — you give what you can give, and take what you can in return.
So rest well, dear one. May your roads always provide obstacles that exceed your limited clearance, your interior always be messy enough to suggest there’s nothing worth stealing inside, and your radio always be tuned to generic country. Go gently into that good night.
Sunday had me back in God’s own country. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the North Cascades.
Much has been made of our crappy winter this year, so I was surprised at how quick the transition to snow was around 4500′, and how decent the above-treeline coverage. More to the point, the skiing wildly exceeded expectations, other than an obligatory avalanche-debris-chute exit. I swear there was even snow you might call powder. Not much of it. But enough.
At any rate, it was a solid vertical mile of ski touring in my favorite range on earth. Luckily, I still have Monday to get my act together for the coming week.
Eldorado, the Triad, and Forbidden Peak, from left to right.
This was blissful.
Backbone Ridge and Eldorado. The Sibley High Route beckons.
Johannesburg Mountain and a gorgeous mellow ridge we didn’t have time to ski.
Steep trees and the Skagit Valley beyond.
Nisqually Chute is the obvious dog-legged line to the right of the mountain.
Three day weekends give me enough time to both follow my muse and be a dutiful grad student. Not that the latter doesn’t sometimes also involve following my muse, but it’s less of a sure bet than climbing up things and skiing down them.
This Saturday involved a long tour on Mount Rainier up from Paradise through Cathedral Gap to Ingraham Flats, then down with a detour to Nisqually Chute. It was my first extensive exploration of the great mountain (on skis), and one of those rare weather gambles that paid off: socked in at the parking lot, and subject to some impressive atmospherics in the late afternoon, but otherwise treated to brilliant sun and blue skies, with Mts. Hood, Adams, and St. Helens looming behind the shrouded Tatoosh Range to dramatic effect.
After soaking in the upper mountain and its more variable conditions, Nisqually Chute was a real treat, and easily the best turns I’ve had all season. 2000′ of 40 degree corn is hard to top.
The Wy’east Face of Mt. Hood is unique among Oregon ski mountaineering objectives in its sheer size, spectacular position, and sustained 40 degree pitch, combining for a total descent of well over 5000′. It looms over Mt. Hood Meadows, impossible for any skier or climber to ignore. I’ve been dreaming about the the line since first seeing it in 2009, but the magical nexus of fitness, skill, weather, psychology, and partners failed to align while I lived in Portland.
Luckily, I still have friends in Portland, and they think of me, now and then. Late Thursday, P. Innes got in touch and proposed the route for Saturday’s continuing high-pressure window. I scrambled to make it happen, and despite brake failure on I-5, we were bivying in his car at Bennett’s Pass by 11 that evening.
I don’t have a huge amount to say about the outing itself. We were skinning up the left side of the resort boundary by 5:45, clearing ski area development for good just as dawn was beginning to glow on the eastern horizon. It was one of those surreal, vivid, alpine dawns, etched into memory by the gleam of glaciers against the sky’s fantastic gradient and endless ridges of dark forest beyond. We were treated to near-total solitude, passing a single party of two early on, and from our high lonely vantage it was easy to fall in desperate love with the Pacific Northwest all over again.
It was icy, slow skinning, and before long we decided to simply boot up the exposed moraine comprising Vista Ridge. At its terminus, we switched to crampons, and then climbed up the left side of the face. It was not so icy as to pose problems, but icy enough to require focus. We topped out around 3:45 into the day, and after peering over the ridge at what seemed to be hundreds of climbers on the Hogsback, clipped in to our bindings and made our first, cautious turns over the roll.
It didn’t really soften up, or even feel as soft under our edges as it did on the ascent. But after a few nervous stem Christies it was easy to find a rhythm and enjoy steep fall line skiing of a sort where a single long moment stretched into eternity. Below 7000′, the snow softened into beautiful corn, and then it was over and we were having breakfast Rainiers in the parking lot.
In the middle of what’s been a climactically trying winter, it was exactly what I needed.
It was a long day on my feet with Luke and Ben yesterday, connecting up the Yakima skyline route with Umtanum Creek Canyon via Old Durr Road, the original wagon route between Yakima and Ellensburg. 27-odd miles and about 6K’ of climbing, but slow going: we had 10 miles of unrunnable, relentless clay mud that somehow lay conjugally with water ice; cross country travel that included a steep descent to the canyon requiring veggie belays, and two miles of bushwhacking in pricker bushes while incessantly fording a frigid creek. Fun! I tried to imagine William Douglas doing similar rambles in his Yakima boyhood, and that helped, a little.
What really helped was that it was magnitudes less miserable than racing Capitol Peak 50K(+) Mega Fatass the week prior. It’s a great community event, and one of the oldest ultras in Washington, but I’m hard pressed to imagine a more unpleasant bit of running given the conditions. Torrential rain, temperatures in the mid-30s and low 40s, 15-foot mud puddles of uncertain depth. I chased an imaginary front runner unnecessarily hard for 3 hours before Max Ferguson caught up and told me I was in the lead, then ceded it to him and ground out a 2nd-place, 4:26 finish, thinking only of the end. I’m running low on base this time of year, and felt pretty thrashed as a result, but that was pretty predictable.
I’m overdue for some low-impact training, but this ominously warm winter is wreaking havoc on my seasonal rhythms. I tried to follow up the suffering with some schussing, heading out Sunday to meet my brother at a snowbound yurt up Icicle Creek, only to then watch it downpour all day on the previous night’s 15 inches of fresh snow. Better luck this weekend, I hope. I’ll just pretend it’s June.
Mighty Mt. Stuart and the Enchantments.
It was certainly a treat to break above the inversion and into brilliant sunlight. Less so to descend back into it a few miles later; the sensation was akin to walking into a meat locker.
Complaints aside, any time I make it to the sagebrush sea — here at its northernmost extent — I am content.