April 7 – 12, 2016
Jason Hummel, Kyle Miller and Ben Starkey
In April 2016, Kyle Miller and I finished skiing the northern section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington State to Highway 2 (story here). A week later, in early April, Kyle and I were joined by Ben Starkey to complete a section of the Cascade Crest south of Glacier Peak to Highway 2. This was one of two remaining sections I had yet to complete in Lowell Skoog’s route between Mount Baker and Rainier, a 362 mile high route he tackled in sections over 25 years. My own quest began on the Mineral High Route, 13 years ago.
When you get a chance, be sure to browse Skoog’s website and immerse yourself in his Skiing the the Cascade Crest reports. If you are unfamiliar with the history of skiing in the Cascades, this is a great place to learn about it.
My brother Josh’s wife, Sally nicknamed their couch, the White Whale. I can relate. After finishing the 14 Lakes Traverse and an attempt on the NW face of Mt. Torment, I sunk into a vast expanse of cushions and forgot about everything, but sleep and a few scoops (or the entire half gallon) of ice cream. All my escapism is a double-edged sword, though, since with rest comes dreaming and in my dreams my impetus for ‘getting it’ is primed with [mis]adventures already lived and yet to come.
No one tidied up this scenario better than my dearly departed friend, Ben Manfredi, who once flatly pronounced as my excuses to be lazy formed and reformed to no avail, “You can rest when you’re dead!”
DAY 1: Sauk River Road to White Pass
Like a bystander watching a crime unfold, Kyle’s mom Joy looked on while Kyle negotiated the first washout on the Sauk River Road. She bemoaned more than once, when catastrophe appeared inevitable, “I’m not sure I can drive back through this!” In unison, we all assured her she could, inwardly knowing that we were baldfaced liars.
Our cumulative guilt of pushing Joy’s car to its 2×4 limits climaxed at a large washout a few miles before the Sauk River trailhead. At first, we joked to her, “I think we can get through it?” She wasn’t impressed and we all laughed because, for a moment, she believed we would try.
Kyle, Ben and I lumbered like cattle, each of us eating up the road and the tree-filtered sunshine like grass. We were hungry to get into the alpine, back to Glacier Peak, and be reminded of why we love this place as much as air.
Two miles of road and at least six miles of trail went by before we’d arrive at snow, then dirt, then snow, then dirt, then…well you get the point. Eventually there was continuous snow and we finally skinned. For me, the lone skier, traversing from below Red Pass to White Pass would be an easy affair. This wasn’t the case for Kyle and Ben, their splitboards groaning with each continuation of the track I’d cut into the slope. Turning my ear into the wind, I swore I heard cussing, so I stopped in a tree well to wait. When they caught me, they proceeded up the slope, adding at least a thousand vertical feet.
Near the top of White Mountain, with Glacier Peak swimming in pink hues, we transitioned for a descent to White Pass, and there in a swale of snow below alpine fir trees, we dug in camp for the night.
DAY 2-3: WHITE PASS to Poe Mountain
Unlike Kyle and Ben or most humans for that matter, I’m not a coffee drinker or in need of breakfast. By the time the others were ready to go, I was amped to leave for Indian Head Peak (7410 feet). I figured we’d be to the top in a few hours. This wasn’t the case. As in our last adventure, rotten snow made the effort laborious. My earlier analogy of us being cattle seemed appropriate once more. It was as if we were being driven through thigh-deep mud, uphill, to the slaughterhouse.
After scrambling easy rock, we arrived at the summit. Below us was nearly 4000 feet of skiing to Papoose Creek!
Two thousand feet lower, we traversed a few hundred yards east to avoid cliff bands. This worked brilliantly and we rallied all the way to the valley bottom, assured we’d have no other troubles that day since the valley looked fat with snow and this was our main concern. We were wrong. Half our day was wasted trying to find a creek crossing. Eventually, doggedly, we climbed back up valley to where we’d descended from Indian Head Peak. There, conveniently waiting all along, was a snow bridge over a log, bowed above the stream like our backs bent under our heavy loads.
Next to Papoose Creek, we flattened a camp, made a quick meal and passed out. Our lack of progress was any number of adjectives I’d as yet thought of, but with it done all I could think about was what the next day had to offer and whether it’d live up to expectation.
That morning we arose from our jungle camp and turned out from our bags like turnips.
With gear gathered we picked up our pace and shot toward Whittier Peak, whose south facing couloir beckoned (and taunted) us. Before we could hope to ski it, I found myself on weakened snow with a broiling creek that quaked under my feet and instead of continuing, I backed off, afraid to punch through into a waterfall. The only detour I could find was one of those options that looked possible, but could be entirely not possible. Better that than falling into a frozen hole filled with freezing water, but not by much.
I worked my way up a tree, then monkeyed my way onto another tree trunk before swimming up steep snow to a vertical step which I dug out, only to roll into a tree well with a groan and then a laugh.
The others soon followed suit after some cajoling, making it up with effort. They eventually passed me by and continued onto the upper slopes of Whittier Peak, which we ascended to a notch 200 feet below the summit.
At first the route down the south face looked perfect. After a few turns I realized all wasn’t as it first appeared; there was gnar below and whether it would be possible to bypass was hard to say. Since I’m the lone skier and more mobile, Ben and Kyle preferred to send me fishing. If it’s all good, they’d cut the line and I’m out of there. If it’s not any good, they’d haul me back up squirming and fighting gravity and fear.
As I inched down, each turn knocked off massive wet slides that roared over the rocky brim and into the void beyond. The snow was two or three feet of rot that slipped off the slope like shit into a shitter. Not a pleasant way to go, to be flushed, no doubt. Kicking off the excess snow, I pressed on, thinking I could traverse over a ridge and bypass the cliff below me, but I realized it wasn’t a good idea. Boarders can’t manage sluff like I can and, for that matter, why should any of us risk the chance of a wet slide taking us out? I made the call and the others climbed out and disappeared over the notch before I’d even gotten my skis loaded onto my pack. With my weeks worth of gear, I hauled my ass back up the fifty degree slope until it eased up and without pause, I rallied to the col and to the others.
Finding a detour was much easier than we expected. At 6800 feet, we skied across the ridge to find a broad face ripe for the picking. After a few turns, my heart rate rose and yelps escaped. I knew then, we had made the right call.
On the descent, massive wet slides broke away and roared 2500 feet to the valley bottom. I was amazed by the sight of them, especially when they cascaded over a roll and exploded 10-15 feet into the air! The slides continued like that for several minutes, the mountain speaking to us, saying in no uncertain terms that we’d better get the hell outta there. We didn’t begrudge his solitude.
After refilling our water, we climbed the remaining 2000 feet to the summit of Poe Peak. By the time we neared the top, we moved as slow as the sun slid under the Earthly covers, only summitting when the last rays winked out and blue-grey darkness spilled into the valley’s. Beauty has a way of taking the gas out of your legs and firing it all into the mind in one fantastic explosion of happiness. You can merely move in spits and starts afterward, your eyes glued into the great yonder, searching for one-more-spark.
DAY 4-5: POE MOUNTAIN to Lake Janus
The descent from Poe Mountain (6015 feet) appeared to be a cinch, but that wasn’t the case. Skis raked against ice and skittered every turn over frozen avalanche debris. Whenever we thought it was over, a cliff or stream or more avalanche debris would slow our descent to a crawl. Tight trees with just enough snow to ski, but not enough room to get through without channeling my inner yoga and ballerina laid before me. Toward the end, I needlessly hung from a branch over a small cliff. In a mess of arms, legs, skis and poles, I catastrophically tipped over and landed upside down on a bed of branches. I felt like I’d been transported into the body of a space alien and was just then learning how to work all eight appendages.
At the Little Wenatchee River, we intersected a snow covered road at ~2800 feet. This led a few miles to a trailhead and onto a snow covered bridge across the river. More than five feet of snow was stacked on the planks! Near the top it was only two feet wide, which was enough to carefully ski across.
Massive trees awed us on the way up Cady Creek, many times rising up from trunks as big around as a truck. It’s all we spoke about besides when a creek got in our way. There were many of those, so many in fact, I felt like screaming, but then I submitted to our slow pace and forgot about progressing at any reasonable speed. Overall, it was becoming a theme for this adventure, so I’d better get used to it sooner rather than later.
As if Mother Nature were listening, we arrived at Cady Creek and of course there was no log. “Time for a dip boys!” After taking my boots off, I rolled up my ski pants and set off. My feet needed a washing, but even more enjoyable that the cold creek water was the six foot snowbank I had to burrow up on the opposite side! By then, the cold had numbed my feet to painless oblivion.
Kyle and Ben followed in their snowboard boots, which surprised me, but any arguments I had for not doing so fell on deaf ears. Plus, I can’t imagine their boots getting much wetter than they already were.
When twilight lingered longer than expected, we pushed through our exhaustion and eventually mounted Saddle Pass. Such a name that included “Saddle” was oddly appropriate. I felt like I’d been ridden hard, all day.
We left Saddle Pass the next morning. Our hope was to reach Janus Lake, but inwardly I was hoping to make it all the way out.
Throughout the day, we skied by Fortune Ponds, Pear Lake, Grass Lake, Grizzly Lake, Heather Lake, Glasses Lake and Janus Lake. It was gorgeous, but we never rose above tree line. The prettiest zone we passed was Glasses Lake. If we weren’t rushed, I would’ve camped here. On the way to Janus Lake, I was once more sent fishing through cliffs, this time I found a way through and beckoned the others to safety.
The night before, I gave Kyle and Ben my tent. I did so on the final night and dug a pit in a tree well next to the lake, hoping I dug enough to protect myself from the rain and wind.
DAY 6: Lake Janus to Highway 2
Two remaining ascents were ahead of us. Our first climb was to a pass between Union (5696 feet) and Jove (6007 feet) Mountains. As we arrived the skies greyed, snow pellets pecked the trees and mist swelled from the valleys and over us like a great wave.
The 1500 foot descent was a blast and we rushed to Smithbrook road to what felt like an ending, even though we still had miles ahead of us. While Kyle and Ben rested, I continued up the snow covered road to a pass where I sat and wrote in my journal until they arrived. Without waiting, I skied the several miles to the end of the road and onto Highway 2. There, the expected ride (and beers) from Ben’s girlfriend, Stefanie was nowhere in sight and just then, on cue, the rain danced across the pavement, propelled by wind and tires of passing cars.
When Ben and Kyle arrived, we escaped the wind and rain, and hitchhiked to Stevens Pass where our godsend, Stefanie arrived a bit late, but thanked for.
Between climbing 30,000 vertical feet and crossing 50 miles, a mixture of adventure and misadventure was found. While this was my least favorite section of the Cascade Crest, I’m sure I’d think differently if the portion between Indian Head and Poe Peaks were separated from the portion south of the Little Wenatchee River or if I’d skied the most direct route to highway 2 and avoided the Poet Range altogether.
Either way, my friend Ben Manfredi was onto something when he said, “You can rest when you’re dead.” Life in the grip of doing is so much more satisfying than life in the grip of not doing. There’s no better way to gain new experiences, test your limits and immerse yourself into wild places than by feeling the cold taste of a snow-fueled creek, the raw fear of hanging over a cliffed-out couloir or the fine accouterment of color basking the horizon and peaks in spectrums of color you often doubt exist until being reminded that they most certainly do.
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Thanks for reading!
Wow, what a trip! I was wondering about the route taken. So very well described and documented. Thanks for sharing.