Jason Hummel and Alex Kollar, March 9-12, 2021
As snows fall and winter winds march across the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, this mecca so many hikers tread and trod from one end to the other reverts back to a no-mans land, winter bound and silent except, that is, for the occasional backcountry skier, like myself. For us, winter isn’t a barrier but a means to an end. Snowbound valley’s become canvases to cut fresh trails across and snow-coated mountains become playgrounds to summit and descend from.
When it comes to winter wonderlands, few places curl up in my soul and become a part of me through and through, as much as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness has. A direct result of not only my fascination with its sharpened pinnacles and bejeweled valley’s full of sparkling lakes, but because I get to visit this region over and again, year after year, and see the shift and shuffle of change in the world without, while time remains frozen in the wilderness within.
Variations of the Alpine Lakes Traverse have long interested me, but inspiration to tackle this particular version, which goes from Mount Daniel to Big Snow Mountain, came from my need to visit glaciers for my Washington Glacier Ski Project. These glaciers included the Dip Top, Iron Cap and Pendant glaciers.
When it comes to partners, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find anyone at the last second. But I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve found that I have an innate ability to convince snowboarders (and skiers) to march across mountain ranges in a form of bipedal locomotion that goes against their very nature; it’s my superpower. For that reason, I wouldn’t be alone on this adventure. Alex Kollar, a splitboarder, would join me and find that traveling through mountains is as least as compelling as descending them, if not more so (Okay, I may be a bit biased).
March 9: Deception Pass Trailhead to Pea Soup Lake, Mt. Daniel Summit
Under the heels of an angry snowmobile, eleven miles of road swept by in a spray of ice that thwapped by head. The praying sort would ask not to be keeled under sled tracks or dragged hogtied by a heavy pack across the icy road, but I like danger, it turns out, for about 10 miles. Only 11 miles of road later, Jake and Matt, who piloted Alex and I to the trailhead on their stallions, finally pulled up at the end of the road. I whooped weakly, but even a powerful hoot couldn’t have compared with the whoops we’d just endured on the road behind us.
Our inflictors, Jake and Matt, would join Alex and I on the ascent of Mount Daniel. While there are many approaches to the summit, for expediencies sake, we bypassed Cathedral Peak and made a direct ascent of the mountain by touring past Hyas Lake (Hyas means ‘big’ or ‘great’ in Chinook Jargon) and ascending a couloir I dubbed Killer Cornice Couloir because, of course, it’s as much a killer place to have lunch as standing under a crane that’s moving a piano to the top story of a city apartment.
Some few hours later, in a cold huddle near the top of Mount Daniel, Alex and I split ways with Jake and Matt who were returning to their stallions and town, to cold beers and warm beds. While they vanished into wind and fog, Alex and I continued upward, soon becoming lost in the white miasma. Still, having been to the summit of Daniel a dozen or more times, I set out confident that I knew the way. Only, in reality, I didn’t. When we reached a summit it was’t the actually summit at all, but the top of the East Peak.
Left: Climbing a couloir to access the upper slopes of Mt. Daniel Right: Climbing Mt. Daniel
The couloir I sent Jake and Matt into
With the help of the ‘of course you’re right’ GPS, we made our way to the actual summit. Bruised dignity aside, the slow shuffle around the summit towers brought me back to the present. A distracted mind could, say, be unknowingly walking the plank, since cliffs abounded above and below, appearing in and out of the fog like ghouls.
All day (even with evidence to the contrary) our expectation was that the sun would grace us with her light. Instead reality provided a face full of graupel and the omnipresent buzzing of metal that comes with a charged atmosphere. A sure sign that it’s time to not be standing on the highest point around. Even so, I yelled to Alex, “Look at those beautiful lakes and how about that Lynch Glacier? What a view!” We laughed and retreated to a small pass just above the aforementioned glacier and from there dropped toward Pea Soup Lake, which at .56 miles across was in 1963, mostly covered by a glacier (and prior to that entirely covered by the Lynch glacier. See image below).
The above photo is taken by Tom Lyon in 1963. It shows the Lynch Glacier over Pea Soup Lake. On the right top is an image from the same perspective. The final image shows melting ice in Pea Soup Lake. Tom Likely named this still unofficially named lake for the 'then' color of its water.
Like two sea captains, we piloted our skis through the fog and somehow remained standing. By the time we arrived at the lake, I canonized the moment by saying to Alex, “How appropriate to arrive at Pea Soup lake in a pea soup fog.”
Midway across the Pea Soup Lake, fog retreated and revealed our descent tracks. They were as if two children were given a white wall and markers to scribble with. Alex quelled my embarrassment over our ski signatures when he assured me, “The snow will cover them by morning.”
We pitched camp at the outlet of Pea Soup Lake, falling asleep to the patter of more graupel and the thunder of water we couldn’t reach beneath the ice. In the night, clouds scattered like so much smoke and revealed stars and, invariably, our ski tracks.
March 10: Pea Soup Lake to Pea Soup Lake to Iron Cap Pass, Mt Hinman Summit
Calm winter mornings are as silent as they come. Attempting to not break that peace and quiet, I crept out from the tent like a child from his room on Christmas morning. My present was a solo side trip to Dip Top Glacier. On my way there, the slopes unwrapped from behind ridges. As I crept up powder-filled slopes, I felt the kind of thrill only the unexpected fulfills.
Atop Dip Top Gap I skied onto the now-stagnant north facing Dip Top Glacier toward Jade Lake. In the midst, alone among all that disappearing ice, looking out onto an horizon of peaks, I felt that I was among friends, however non-corporeal they may be. Friends are always there for you, as are these peaks.
Photos of camp, Pea Soup Lake and descending to the Lower Foss Glacier
Back at camp, I rejoined Alex and we herded our gear into packs and descended from Pea Soup lake to the valley below in a daze. For, there it was, that sunny powder we’d been jiffed of the day before! Our surging thill came in waves, like the snow that was sent flying with each turn.
Left photo: ski tracks below Pea Soup Lake. Top Right: Alex getting the powder we were spurned of the day before. Bottom Right: Pea Soup Lake and the Lynch Glacier.
Hearts quieted after a short but earned for descent. After which we climbed the Lower Foss Glacier and the gentle slopes of Mount Hinman whose slopes I’ve found unusual. Glaciers tend to create steeper north faces than south faces, in general. Hinman bucks the trend, though and has an oddly flat north flank and a steeper south flank.
When we arrived to the crest of the ridge, the views assaulted us like scantily dressed ladies at a ball.
Views of and from the summit of Mt. Hinman
We tore ourselves from the views and traversed Hinman Peak until we descended to La Bon Lakes. As I skied toward a blind rollover, I thought Alex waved me on. Just a few feet before the edge, I hockey stopped on icy snow, the worst we had the entire trip, and only then learned from Alex that his wave was telling me to stop, not go. Because I couldn’t help myself, I did some quick and dirty math and my former trajectory didn’t add up to anything pretty.
RIGHT: lower slopes and long shadows LEFT: Peaks to the south including Little Big Chief and Overcoat Mountains
With my excitement sufficiently checked, we descended the remaining slopes to Necklace Valley and from 4900′ we climbed onto the Pendant Glacier, so-named for being at the head of Necklace Valley (such as a pendant on the end of a necklace). Cloud shadows chased us across my 2nd un-skied glacier of the trip. While I’d hiked through this terrain often, I find the skiing through it so very different. All that trafficking of humans across this country in the summer months is hidden by that snow; the high country reverts to its natural self, wild and untrammeled.
Across Upper Tank Lakes was only recognized as a lake as I’d been there in summer. About halfway to Iron Cap, along a gentle bench, the views of the mountains grabbed us up and steered our skis to the rim of the valley. By the time the glamour was broke, dusk and sunset were upon us, so we decided to drop packs and camp. Sometimes stopping is worth hurrying into, the only distance worth gaining. When going further doesn’t get you anywhere that matters.
March 10: Iron Cap Pass to Gold Lake, Iron Cap Summit
A lazy and tranquil morning drew out the hours and before we knew it, noon was fast approaching. Since a warm day was bad for a crossing beneath Iron Cap our tardiness was a regrettable oversight. Fortunately conditions remained stable, but by then worry had already lit a fire under our asses, so we made short work of the mile-long traverse and boot pack to the crest of the north ridge. Slower, though, was the serpentine ridge to the summit; we couldn’t help but stop every ten feet to take in the views ahead and behind.
Immediately below us was the Iron Cap Glacier, which is stagnant ice today. The lake at the bottom is one of those newly formed in recent decades, a left over from glacier retreat much as the lower altitude lakes were leftovers from the last glacial surge of the Puget Arm of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet ~16,900 years ago.
In a rush to capture the light, I merely tagged the summit and descended. My plan was to click an image of Alex skiing toward the Iron Cap Glacier with Overcoat Peak standing behind. It’s not often I have time to post up for a shot like this, so I was thrilled when the clouds parted and everything came together.
Click! Click, click, click and click (just a few clicks).
Top and bottom left: Alex on Iron Cap - Right: Little Big Chief
Instead of wrapping around the shoulder of Iron Cap Peak, we decided to ascend five hundred vertical feet over a ridge for a direct descent to Chetwoot Lake. At the top once more, another field of powder lay below, just as drool-worthy as the last, and after we ate up the vertical like starving shipwrecked survivors, we coasted onto the lake. All along the way sun speared through clouds, snow blasted around skis and we found ourselves suddenly stopped, feeling lighter no matter our heavy packs.
Progress could either go over Wild Goat Peak or around it. We choose the more conservative route due to time. In hindsight, it worked out since we found terrible snow on our ski to Gold Lake. We pitched camp on the lake ice and after the sun went down, I watched the starlight glint on snow crystals as I cooked a mountain feast fit for only hungry climbers.
March 11: Gold Lake to Dingford Creek Trailhead, Big Snow Summit
Morning awoke to light spreading across Big Snow Mountain and Gold Lake. Alex and I didn’t budge a muscle until it rolled over us like a slow rising tide. Eventually, resigned to our last day, we gathered gear and skinned across the lake toward a serpentine stream bed. This led us from the flat, frozen lake toward gently rising and rolling terrain, which offered easy access to the uppermost slopes of Big Snow Mountain.
I’d like to say that a summit doesn’t attract me, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. What’s more is that the best traverses in my mind are those that add summits and descents in conjunction with horizontal movement across or along mountain ranges. That’s why going over the summit of Big Snow was part of this adventure. And what a summit. It shows how much work there is to do out here in this tiny corner of the Cascade Mountains. These (big) little peaks that surrounded us have character; different moods and faces that keep all of us guessing as to their true nature.
Once our boards were snapped on, our reward besides the views, which were kid in a candy store kind of ‘google-eyed’ awesomeness we never get enough of, was the descent. Striking down the west shoulder of the mountain was a beauty of a line that would be the gobstopper of the trip. Usually I would take photos of such a descent, at least a few, but this time I put my camera away. Even a few shots can distract me from having fun of my own. Besides, soul turns mean soul turns.
And on the descent my ‘soul’ sang. Sadly, what also sang, except out of tune, was my legs. Not wanting to stop, I careened down the slope like a runaway train. Somehow I didn’t yard sale. Neither did Alex. After our final turn, we pointed our skis back up at the line. As it came into view, smiles grew, and I silently promised to get more ‘soul turns’ in the near future.
Every valley in Washington begins in the Cascade Mountains and every mountain in the Cascades Mountains ends in a valley. So it was that we descended into the forest. Between losing the trail and for the fact that there wasn’t quite enough snow to cover logs, rocks and debris, we were like a ski ballet troupe doing never ending practice rounds where we ducked and stepped, bent and danced, tripped and fell and, well, you get the point. The weird thing is, I LOVE it. I really do. There was a point when Alex, caught up in the rhythm of our race down trail, when he was swept up by the rocks and cast sidelong into a creek. Swimming and skiing don’t usually go hand in hand, so when it happens there’s a full helping of laughing, moaning and, after which, the race goes on.
A few hundred yards before the end of our trip, I laid down my skis after going far too long on too little snow (something I’m more proud of than I should be), and waited for Alex. I think it’s important to take a moment to look over any adventure you’re on and take it all in, to give it its due in the moment, not after when you’re home. It’s been a crazy year with COVID and ski-adventures took a back seat for the first time in my life. That is why this adventure felt rejuvenating for me, a reminder of why I still push myself to go to these places. Yet, it also reminded me how much they mean to me, not in that I can’t exist without it kinda way, but in that I feel at home out here kinda way.
When Alex arrived, we walked the final yards to the truck and to beers of our very own.
Later, as we were helping a stuck father and son duo pull their rig from their proposed camping spot above the Middle Fork Snoqualmie, sans shoes and in ski cloths (the rest was at our shuttle car several hours drive away), I had to laugh when our kindness led us to also become stuck. “At least we have our camping gear,” I told Alex. Fortune was with us, though. A couple with a wench drove by just as dusk was falling. With their help we were once again on our way, mud splattered and thankful. It just goes to show, the adventure isn’t over even after you’ve returned to civilization.