With bluebird skies & warm temps on the forecast, I had ambitious aspirations for getting up into the alpine last weekend. The plan was to spend Saturday skiing the Washington Pass area of N. Cascades National Park, sleep in a bit on Sunday, and then head out to the Snoqualmie Pass area for a trail run up to Melakwa Lake, one of the alpine lakes accessible from the I-90 corridor just east of where we live. Andy and some friends skied a route known as the “birthday tour” near Washington Pass about a month ago. I haven’t quite put my finger on what it is, exactly, that makes the N. Cascades so enchanting, but looking at the photos from their trip, I was immediately smitten. It’s the Cascades, but as if through a filter with the contrast turned up.
The route known as the “birthday tour” is an approximately 12 kilometer (8’ish mile) loop that begins northwest of Liberty Bell Peak and the much climbed Early Winters Spires. We found a dark & quiet rest area off Highway 20 to camp at on Friday night, and I had what I think may have been one of my best nights of sleep ever, under an almost full moon, layered up in a down sleeping bag with an extra quilt as a buffer against the frigid air.
We rose to bluebird skies and a bit of a chilly breeze on Sat. morning. One of the nice things about Andy’s truck-top tent is that you can roll back the canvas window covers on all sides, and gaze out at the early morning sky without leaving the warmth of your blankets.
According to my Garmin, we were finally en-route & moving on skins by the crack of 10:06 – a bit later than our original, if informal plan to get going by 8:30. Truth told, this sort of lollygagging is pretty normal for us, and the consequences aren’t typically too serious, especially with later daylight hours now that spring is in full swing. Today, however, we definitely ended up wishing we’d gotten a bit of an earlier start.
The snow was hard and icy as we skinned up slowly through the forest and then out into the open. The narrow skin track felt more like an icy single-track bike trail to me, and it wasn’t all that long before we both had ski crampons on. Unfortunately, most of the time, I’m convinced my skipons aren’t actually doing anything at all. Here’s the problem: you have to use your ski boot to exert downward pressure to force the prongs down into the snow or ice below your ski. But once you raise your binding heels, it’s impossible to produce this necessary downward pressure. And, most likely, the places where you’re going to want to use ski crampons (skinning uphill), are also precisely the places where you’re going to want to use heel lifts. What’s more, Andy recently added shims under my bindings. I actually really like the shims; they’ve reduced some of the pressure on my quads, especially on flatter traverses. But because shims raise the front of the binding, and by extension, also the ski crampons, they seem to aggravate the problem of lacking traction on the uphill. In short, I’ve used my skipons twice, and although I like the concept, and especially the fact that they’re much lighter and more compact than boot crampons, they’ve turned out to be pretty useless. I think I may need to look for some with significantly longer prongs.
The Early Winter Spires were in full view just east (ahead) of us. Squinting, we could spot tiny climbers making their way up the rock.
At the bottom of a rather intimidating looking boot pack to Blue Lake Col, we stopped for a few minutes to eat and put skis on packs. We could see Kangaroo Ridge from this point, and, Andy pointed out the various couloirs (basically just avalanche chutes) along the ridge that he wants to ski. I just shook my head and swallowed back my nausea.
At this point, I realized that I should have brought my ice axe, and that the boot pack was going to be a bit much for me without something stable to hold onto. Andy lent me his whippet and we headed up, just left of an enormous cornice that I prayed wouldn’t decide to break off on this particular morning.
In photos, slopes never look as steep as they really are or seem when you’re up on them, looking back down. The photo below really illustrates this; the bootpack looks like a walk in the park with barely any elevation gain at all. This is not the case. I would not have made it up the final 5-10 meters, nor over that cornice, without Andy’s whippet. Thank you whippet!
Andy at the top of Blue Lake Col. View from Blue Lake Col. At the top of Blue Lake Col, we transitioned, and skied down a long, fun run called Madison Avenue.
Andy in the valley at the bottom of Madison Avenue. Looking back at Madison Avenue
From the bottom of Madison Avenue, we put our skins back on and traversed through a long beautiful valley.
At the end of the second long climb of the day, we came to the top of the final col on the route. Apart from a brief mention that I might find it a little bit spicy, Andy hadn’t said much to me about this feature. Basically, you have to drop into a steep, rock-lined chute that’s about 20 feet wide for about 5 meters before it opens up into an wide slope. The snow in the chute was shaded, hard, and icy, and I decided that the combination of these challenges, each of which I could handle in isolation, would be too much for me to bite off together. Basically, I was terrified of losing control and slamming into the rocks that lined the chute. Andy took this totally in stride. He took my skis, strapped his poles to his pack, and sort of jump turned down the slope. Then he waited – for more than an hour – while I booted down the slope, backward, kicking one step after another into the hard-packed snow. This was exhausting. By the time I’d descended far enough to put skis on, I’d started getting charlie horses in both of my feet, probably from dehydration. We’d been out under the full force of the sun, radiating from all directions all day, and I hadn’t brought or drunk enough water to keep up with the warmer conditions. I desperately wanted nothing more than to drink three liters of Gatorade, and to lie down in the snow for a nap.
Ski conditions from this point on were pretty rough. It was probably close to 5 p.m. by this time, and anything that had softened up under the midday sun had refrozen, hard. Plus an avalanche had run down the center of the last wide slope, rendering it essentially unskiable. We decided to try to go around it by veering off to one side into the trees, but to do this, had to actually cross it. Andy deftly found a narrow ski track through the large ice boulders, but my skiing abilities were almost nil by this time, and I missed it, which meant trying to boot across the slide. That’s as close as I’ve ever been to an actual slide, and I found it pretty intimidating. Moreover, in practical terms, it was tough to hike through, being both hard packed and very icy. Halfway across I lost my balance and dropped my skis, almost losing one down the slope. Nothing about this was anything I wouldn’t be able to handle under normal circumstances, but I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, and probably couldn’t even have skied down a groomed green run without falling.
When I caught up to Andy, he reminded me that the Birthday Tour isn’t a complete loop, and that you have to hitch a ride on Highway 20 to get from the exit point back to the trailhead, about 2 miles down the road. So, even though we could see the road, being the last ones off the mountain meant we were probably nowhere near done. Luckily we happened across a couple of climbers who’d just gotten back to their car as we reached the road, and they were more than happy to shuttle us back to ours.
Never has beer tasted so good.
I loved 75% of the “birthday tour” and overall it was a really fun day. But I need to get some more experience on steep, narrow slopes if I’m going to be comfortable dropping into chutes like the one on this tour. I’ve also become a bit too reliant on Andy to always tell me about the terrain we’ll be on, whether or not I’ll need an ice axe, what level of technical difficulty there’ll be, and so on. I need to start collecting more beta independently, and making my own judgment calls about what’s going to be appropriate for my abilities. This should be obvious, but the dynamic between us as ski partners is contextualized by the fact that Andy basically taught me to ski, and that most of what I know about backcountry skiing I’ve learned from him. So apart being romantic and activity partners, there’s a definite “student-mentor” relationship that comes into play when we ski. Combined, these factors have led me to lean on him when it comes to making judgments about the difficulty-level of terrain. And this has mostly worked out in my favor, as Andy tends to over-estimate my abilities, is very encouraging, and talks me through situations that I would definitely have turned away from if left to my own devices. So I’ve learned more, and much faster, with him, than I would have otherwise. But it’s never wise to rely too much on someone else’s judgment, and this is especially true in the backcountry. So I need to start paying a bit more attention to the plan, in advance.