Spring on the Ring of Fire: Backcountry Skiing in Washington
“Seattle? But where are you going to ski?” This question was posed to me countless times by my Utah shred acquaintances while I was in the process of leaving the Wasatch for ever-greener hills.
After years of thought on this subject, I’ve determined that the mere threat of imminent rain is enough to keep even the most adventurous individuals from recognizing that Washington’s Cascade Mountains are an untapped ski mecca—parts of their vast expanse frequently sport the deepest snowpack in the world. To the people who light up my Facebook feed with hysterically hyperbolic end-of-days dialogue anytime there are more than three consecutive hours of rainfall along the Wasatch Front: I’m talking about you.
2 Louie Dawson near the summit of the North Twin Sister. Photo: Tabke
On the other hand, I don’t want to convince you, dear reader, to drop everything and move to the Northwest. For despite the absurd powder days, lack of crowds, and triumphant backcountry missions, the difficulties of being a skier anywhere in Washington aren’t trivial. I picked Seattle—this means I often drive two and a half hours to ski, fight brutal traffic, and occasionally get my bike stolen. Those choosing to live in a Washington “ski town” (e.g. Glacier, Greenwater, or Leavenworth) still drive nearly an hour to ski, and are forced to either a) surgically attach their computers to their arms if they’re “smart” enough to telecommute or b) become indentured servants in a bar/restaurant/ski shop.
But regardless of the lifestyle required to be a skier in this green state, we do go skiing, and the skiing can be really good. The backcountry skiing in the months after the ski resorts close can be particularly mind-blowing, offering big, vertical, stable snow and as much adventure as you can handle. This shoulder season also offers two things that everyone from bearded northwestern hermit-poets to tan, shaven-legged XC bikers can appreciate: exercise and sunshine.
Before coming home to Washington this spring, I’d been following the Freeride World Tour in Europe for ten weeks. Skiing in the Western Alps this year was particularly memorable, with parts of the mountain range buried in the deepest snowpack ever recorded, allowing top ski mountaineers to pull off descents that hadn’t been executed for 30 years. But it was also stressful, in a uniquely European way: a vast mountain range with virtually no square inch left untrammeled, constant danger from serac fall and crevasses, days out in Chamonix with 20 people climbing the same steep face at once, and afternoons in the valley when the rescue helicopter never shuts off its engines between missions to and from accident sites.
Finally back in Washington, away from that edgy Chamonix circus, I was free to pursue the kinds of goals in the mountains that prize safety, stoke, and suntans: time for some maximum-fun spring shredding.
Twin Sisters (With a Colorado Transplant as My Wingman)
1 Couloir on the North Twin Sister. Photo: John Scurlock
I met Louie Dawson (son of Lou Dawson, founder/editor of WildSnow.com) near Bellingham early one morning, and we headed up towards the Twin Sisters Range. Our goal was a couloir I’d picked out of an aerial photo of the North Sister, taken by Washington photographer John Scurlock. Louie and I had no idea if it had ever been or could be skied, but we thought we’d check it out. With skis, avy gear, helmets, aluminum crampons, one ice axe each, full water bladders, and headlamps on our backs, we pushed our bikes a few miles up a labyrinth of logging roads to make our exit easier, gained snowline, and started skinning. We kept a brisk pace—Louie freshly back from a fly-in glacier trip in Alaska, myself from the Alps—and were soon on the summit of the peak, with gorgeous views of Bellingham and the waters of the Puget Sound just 20 miles west.
We’d brought minimal gear (a few stoppers, two carabiners, 12ft of webbing, and two 30m ropes) to set up a rappel in case the entrance wasn’t skiable. To investigate before dropping in, we down-climbed steep snow slopes off the back of the peak to look for an entrance to the couloir. Our hunch proved correct, with steep, serpentine snow ramps connecting to the gut of the line. With the day threatening to warm quickly, we hurried to drop in and make our fleeting mark upon the mountain. Steep skiing and excellent snow and ambience—the line was a winner. Though exiting out the bottom of the basin and around the perimeter of the peak was an option, we decided to climb back up the couloir and descend the north face, giving us a more direct (and more fun) exit.
4 Louie Dawson in the Dunite Couloir. Photo: Tabke
East Success – A Mt. Rainier Bar and Grill
After such a great trip with Louie, I was hungry for another mission. I had to wait a couple weeks for the weather to stabilize, but when it did, I and a group of five friends set our sights upon The Great One: Mt. Rainier. Six is a big group on such a big mountain. The possibility of altitude sickness, equipment problems, and the sheer scale of the peak can cause all kinds of problems for groups whose members are not finely tuned to each other, and we devised our strategy accordingly.
5 Looking south to Mt. Adams from a low camp on Mt. Rainier. Photo: Tabke
Day one was easy, bringing us to a low camp. Here, two people stayed behind to dig out a camp and rest, while four of us ascended to and skied from the 12,300ft level in the Fuhrer Finger to get a feel for the snow and acclimatize a bit. Camp was spectacular, with sheltered platforms for our three tents and a cook tent/sun shelter set up under my trusty Black Diamond Mega Light. We equipped the tent with my GoalZero Rock-Out speaker, sipped one of my favorite mountain drinks, coffee Patron, and rotated DJ duties as the sun went down, casting pink light upon Mt. Adams to the south.
The next morning we took off as a group and made quick time to the southwest side of the mountain and the Success Glacier. We had no designs on reaching the summit. The goal was to ski what was, in our opinion, the most aesthetic and fun part of the East Success Couloir from the 12,600ft level—a 5,000ft vertical run that holds approximately 40° the entire way. Above that point the line wanders through exposed, windswept cliff bands, surmounts a rock step, and then continues in an endless convex rollover to Point Success, the second highest of Rainier’s three summits—in other words, terrain that did not qualify for my “max fun” program.
The group moved exceedingly well together, and upon reaching our predetermined high point, it seemed our timing was perfect to ensure great corn skiing for several thousand feet and a safe return to camp before the lower slopes became dangerously sun-softened. At this point, however, some group members exhibited signs of summit fever, discussing a summit push despite obviously poor snow conditions higher and the hours of climbing required to reach Point Success if we could locate a suitable passage through the rock step. Thankfully, the urge to ski the best possible conditions prevailed, and we dropped into one of the longest sustained ski slopes I’ve ever found.
8 Taking lunch halfway up the East Success Couloir. Photo: Tabke
The Rainier trip with our gorgeous campsite and five friends was awesome, but I wanted to get back and try another strategy. I was looking for an objective appropriate for a solo day trip—something with minimal travel on glaciated terrain, minimal avalanche danger, and terrain conducive to climbing and skiing as fast as I could. Again I ruled out the summit, since the upper slopes of the mountain pose substantial risk to unroped travelers. I decided on Gibraltar Ledges to Gibraltar Chute—a classic link-up that climbs the mountain’s historic original line of ascent before descending a wild, steep chute under the teetering edge of the mighty Nisqually Ice Cliff.
10 Tracks down Gibraltar Chute. Photo Tabke.
It was liberating to move at my own pace up the mountain’s lower snowfields, higher and higher, then through the moderately technical ice, rock, and snow sections of Gibraltar Ledges, before standing atop the incredible perch of Gibraltar Rock. I prepared to ski. My timing was good as I dropped in, with the snow in good shape. Soon I was at the crux of the descent: the passage through the choke beneath the ice cliff. The first few turns were truly, terrifyingly exposed to ice fall, but the snow was rippable, and I passed this section in less than ten seconds. I barely stopped the rest of the way to the car, skiing in just over ten minutes the 7200 feet that took me five hours to climb. It was such a good run that when I got back to the car I thought I might cry with happiness. But I held it together and clicked a picture for some tourists visiting from Tennessee.
Two weeks later, I skied Mount Adams by the Southwest Chutes, but to relate the entire story at this point would seem repetitive. A good friend, an absurdly beautiful campsite, and an awesome high-speed ski line in the sun—you get the idea. Before deciding on Adams, I’d considered taking a trip to the north side of Rainier for a substantially steeper, more dangerous, and more suffering-prone objective, but since my “max fun” approach had treated me so well all spring, I decided not to mess with a good thing. As we summited Adams and looked north to Mt. Rainier, the mountain was cloaked in a threatening, gray lenticular cloud that screamed “failure” (or at least “uncertainty and discomfort”), confirming my hunch that “fun” should be my guiding principal in the mountains. We skied down, loaded up the car, drove to the Oregon coast, and went surfing.