Of all the magical places in the North Cascades, a few particularly spellbinding out-of-the-way locations have escaped my attempts to visit them. Among these is a spear of mountains thrusting itself beyond the Eldorado massif and laying claim to the country that rises above the blue-blooded glacier waters of Thunder Creek. There is no particular name for the region, but it includes Klawatti, Austera, Primus and Tricouni. Mayhap, since glaciologist Dick Hubley originally named Klawatti Glacier by the Chinook name ‘Kahloke’, meaning ‘swan’ we can call this region the Land of the Swan. I know, it’s corny, but names make places more than they are only as long as you believe it. Even if reality may mar that belief, I needed to cross the divide beyond the slopes of Eldorado to see this place for myself. Who knows, perhaps it would live up to expectation?
May 19, 2021: Cascade River Road to Eldorado Glacier
With Carl Simpson, ski-lover extraordinaire that he is, happily joined me as we set off from the closed Cascade River Road to the Eldorado trailhead, traveling that first two miles like it was the longest way ever. Only when we reached the forest and trailhead did the packs feel lighter. I was reminded that among my family we joke about mall back. It’s when you are traveling through a mall and your back just kills you (it especially affects males while shopping with spouses/girlfriends). This, vice versa, doesn’t affect me when I’m climbing steep trails carrying nearly 70 pounds. There’s no logical reason for why this occurs. My best guess for this phenomena is that it’s a function of mind over matter and it just breaks down in such a place as a mall.
On our hike up it rained, that misty kind of rain that hemmed and hawed between actually going full rain to vanishing altogether and becoming sunny. Whenever the forest broke during one of those clear moments, I saw Johannesburg. Such cliffs and glaciers never ceases to get my heart a-fluttering. Of course a thundering avalanche or two flung from her cliffs, never hurts in the stoking-fear department, either. “Bombs away,” echoes more often here than almost anywhere else in the Cascades.
After 2000 feet of climbing, we reached the infamous boulder field, which was snow-covered just as it should be. Some booting, then skis and skins. Some slipping and sliding then suddenly we are over Roush Creek Pass and onto the Eldorado Glacier. Up and up didn’t bring us from the clouds into blue sky as we’d hoped. Instead, piling thicker and thicker were clouds. Eventually the sight distance was measured in thrown snowballs. Since we couldn’t move forward at any reasonable pace, we turned out our packs and pitched camp, melted water and food and relaxed. Sleep, I’ve found, is always more promising than wondering around like blind mountain goats on a glacier. Which makes me wander, do goats get snow blind? More importantly, do they get lost on a glacier?
May 20, 2021: Eldorado Glacier to Bandana Spire, Austera Peak and McAllister Descents
Morning rose to cleared skies, which are the best kind of days in the mountains. Even better, though, is when such days come on the heels of those especially wet and dreary days. It’s as if our eyes were opened and the Holy Land was being presented for the very first time. Mountains are to us, at least, our Holy Land, which explains why my attraction to them and to the beauties they represent.
The ebb and flow of the white clouds bursting against the shores of gathered peaks makes me feel a spectator. Similarly, there’s something heavenly about seeing clouds beneath. The awe and wonder is compulsory, a default function of seeing such wilds. Whenever I see a bird or other creature, I often wander if they, too, know the beauty they live within, if it is compulsory as well? Maybe I’ll find out when I become a Raven in my next life.
We turned our packs right side up and filled them to the brim with plans to make camp closer to our objectives. A quick skirt around Eldorado Peak and there, below Bandana Spire, we found a spot that felt like home.
After camp was arranged, we set off for Austera Peak by first skiing below Klawatti Peak, then circling around its western side to a pass. From there, we skied full tilt onto the Klawatti Glacier. For the first time I put ski to snow in the Land of the Swan. Not even the wind could wipe the smile off my face (leave that to the heat!). Three other attempts to come to this area on various traverses had all come up short. This time, though, my excitement was soaring, because, there I was in a new corner of the Cascades! Yes, the same mountains stared back at me, but they did so with different expressions. Some meaner and scarier. Others in more solidarity and serene. Whatever the case, each allowed me to get to know each of them just a little bit better than I had before.
A quick skin brought us as close to the summit of Austera as we dared. A small pinnacle may have been a few feet higher, but it didn’t look promising with new snow dangling all around. Turning back, we instead danced around this high point taking in future days objectives. Once done, we flipped our skis onto the snow, snapped them on and raced thousands of vertical feet down the Klawatti Glacier, wings spread and soaring! No longer were we blind goats in the fog. Instead we were asses honking out our satisfaction for all to hear. You see, no matter how much blue sky swam above us or how much white snow was laid below, we had more descents and ascents ahead of us, more flights to come. And so we deserved an outlet for our efforts thus far. Besides not a soul was around to hear us, except one another–and Carl knows I’m an ass, so we’re square.
We climbed back up the Klawatti Glacier to the col we’d crossed earlier. Instead of returning to camp, we skied the eastern lobe of the McAllister Glacier, which is really, a glacier unto itself. My reason for going there was that I needed to visit the Austera Glacier, otherwise called the Slippery Glacier by Austin Post back in 1960.
After we skied the eastern lobe of the McAllister Glacier, with some fishing for a way through the icefall, we saw that the western side would’ve made a much easier descent. Nevertheless, we were in position to continue on to the Austera (Slippery) Glacier. Once upon this much ignored glacier, I thought about how few folks get here. If every route of every climber to these parts was shown on a map, this would be a white spot, a no mans land. Of course that’s just the sort of place I love most, more than any. We all should visit some bygone corner of the mountains whenever we can. Don’t stay long, though. These places are shy and if we overstay our welcome, they won’t be there for others.
Back at camp I tried to rest, but Carl kept convincing me that the sunset was just a bit nicer than it was only a moment before. Each time I escaped the tent, it was worth it. Carl, you must understand, isn’t one for exaggeration. It was always a bit nicer. Of course I was always a bit more tired, too. But, as goes the saying, “You can sleep when you’re dead!”
May 21, 2021: Bandana Spire to Tricouni (Triceratops) and Primus
This was to be our big day, a round up of the northern-most peaks on the massif. To begin, we retraced our path from the previous day to reach the Klawatti Glacier. When we arrived below the toe of the east ridge of Austera, we shuffled down and descended below the icefall in a hurry, as the snow was already turning to mush at the lower altitudes. Chased by wet sluff, we flew into the massive basin that, just a few hundred vertical below was no longer glacier, but Klawatti Lake, whose waters I must visit in the summer someday if for no other reason than to swim there.
On the climb toward the Primus-Tricouni saddle, Carl and I became distracted by a series of snow patches and couloirs that led down the southwest face of Tricouni. After some thought, I proposed a plan to Carl, “How about we go up the West Couloir of Tricouni, ski the southwest face, then climb back to the pass, ascend the East Ridge of Primus to the summit and ski down the south face of Primus?” He was game. Plus, neither of us were interested in climbing back up the North Klawatti Icefall after so much warming! That and it was a kick ass plan. Sheesh. My plans always kick ass (one way or another, for any lucky gal/fella).
When I reached the pass, I continued on a solo detour to the Borealis Glacier, named by Fred Becky (or Austin Post) for being the “Northernmost glacier in the extensive Eldorado Glacier complex.” Below was another terminal moraine lake (proglacial lake) and much further below was the green valley. It is that clash of green and white that I love as much as anything else about the Cascades. It makes you feel above it all, in another very different world, much like the earlier clouds on day two. If the low country were all snow or glacier, there wouldn’t be that otherworldliness I was feeling right then and that would be a thing I’d miss. Plus, who doesn’t like the roaring waterfalls echoing from miles away, like great beasts if such creatures bellowed so loud, to hint at the dangers in the wilds below.
Back at Tricouni I joined Carl Simpson once again. Another Carl, Carl Skoog, first skied the west couloir we were ascending in 1991. My too few adventures with this other Carl came much later, the most memorable of which was a descent of the North Face of Sinister Peak in 2005. Along the way, I so much enjoyed his stories and his life as a photographer that I consider him today to be among my biggest inspirations for becoming a professional photographer.
It was those thoughts that floated around in my head as I ascended this beautiful, way out there in the middle of nowhere couloir. Once at the top, Carl and I traversed rock and boulders to a bench of snow just below the final climb to the summit. Of course, we went to the wrong summit! It’s amazing how confusing the ‘highest point’ can be on a peak. Recalibrated we arrived at the ‘actual summit’ where we took our packs off, rested and took in the surrounding views. They have to be among the most beautiful of any in the Cascades. Although, to be fair, I love all views from all places in the Cascades. So the best is hard to pinpoint, but I’ve found it rather convenient to think of those most recent summits as the best deserving of the label, best.
With our skis on just below the summit rocks, Carl and I traced turns down the first few hundred vertical feet to the rollover and enjoyed perfect snow. We found our key points that we observed earlier, the first a jutting rock between couloirs. At it, we went right. At a cliff we traversed to another couloir, before descending to the valley. The simple thrill of seeing a line, no matter their size, and drawing your tracks down it, well, it’s some kind of selfish indulgence. For that reason, I can’t help but dance around even as we prepped our skis for the return climb.
Back at the Tricouni-Primus col for the second time, we turned our heads toward Primus Peak, named for the Primus Stove, of all things. Alternatively, Tricouni was named for the Tricouni nail, which was put on early boots in lieu of crampons.
After we melted water, we climbed up on skis until it became too steep, at which point we booted the last 100 feet. Before we knew it, there we were atop Primus Peak and instead of looking at it from Tricouni Peak, roles were reversed. Our attention was also snatched up by the two great lobes of the Klawatti Glacier, not to mention Eldorado Peak, which poked its head up between ridge lines.
Altogether, this region doesn’t fail to escape anyones notice how much punch this view packs into every degree of view. If you aren’t careful, it will knock you on your butt and there you’ll be, dazed and confused about where you are. Time in your head climbing, skiing and exploring every facet can be a time warp.
Our descent of Primus Peak was fast and furious. I really should’ve taken a few images, as it was unreal terrain to capture, but I have been trying to be more in tune to the moment and the whims of personal enjoyment over the continuous search for the shot. There has to be a line and I’m trying to figure out where to draw it, as I really do, let’s not forget, LOVE taking photos. But in everything, there is a balance.
On the North Klawatti Glacier, we soared at breakneck speeds to the toe of the southeast ridge of Austera. There was no reason to dally here as the snow was slop and we didn’t want to be served up to the surrounding glacier when the evening dinner bell rang.
We stayed away from the steeper slopes and quickly returned to the upper Klawatti Glacier and crossed back to the McAllister Glacier. Behind me again lay the Land of the Swan. We’d flown into it and returned. Did I find what I was looking for? I certainly did. Moreover, all the glaciers I’d set out to visit on this trip for my Washington Glacier Ski Project had been reached.
When Carl and I arrived at camp, friends who’d crossed the Forbidden Tour had arrived, adding Alexa Cathcart, Jack Kornfeld and Jeff Rich to our team. After we’d settled, just as Carl had done the previous night, they kept telling me that the sunset was better and better, so I never sat for long, only eating as the sun went down, just as any good day should end, milking the best moments until the lights go out.
May 22, 2021: Bandana Spire to Klawatti Glacier/Peak (Swan Song Couloir) and McAllister Glacier
This was to be a bonus day and now that my glaciers were done, it was hard to motivate myself. The guys (gal) called me on it too, so I couldn’t let them be right now could I?
First destination was the Klawatti Glacier, this time for a descent through the icefall, if possible. After following our tracks from the day before, we jumped over the pass and traversed to the beginning of the ski. Together we charged downward until, at last, I found myself alone negotiating my way through that icefall and accompanying crevasses. What appeared easy, wasn’t. The dangers were magnified by the too-soft snow I swam though. While the others avoided my line entirely and arrived at a point below me, I put on a show of trying to not win the idiot of the day award. I’ve had my share of challenging spring snow conditions to deal with so it was par for the course. Nevertheless, it probably wasn’t a good idea, either. My twig skis aren’t made for launching over ice bulges! I hate to admit it,too, but I’m pretty sure I’d face plant in the process. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pull the launch chord and I arrived to a round of applause from my friendly neighborhood hoodlums.
The next destination was a climb and ski of Klawatti Peak, a descent I’d done two other times before. Only as we were mid-way up the route, Jeff and friends mentioned an alternate route they’d seen, a narrow couloir Jeff predicted was “..three ski widths wide.” Before we could prove its validity, lunch and cell reception distracted us on the summit. A few calls and then back down the ridge and (thankfully) cell coverage be-gone took reign over everything in sight once more. Even without it, that couloir I’d mentioned earlier took unwavering control of our thoughts like that icefall had done to me earlier, just 2 hours before when I’d promised myself not to be scared again.
Jeff went first, then myself. I found the couloir to be soft snow an inch or two deep, but punchy in places, which made the skiing unpredictable. Along the way, each turn threw my heart in the air like a basketball and it took me two or three breaths to take control myself afterward. Once I’d done that a few dozen times, the couloir opened up and so did my turns. After watching the others come down, none of us skied the route like rock stars. Of the group, our east coast friend, Jack took home gold and Jeff the silver for going first. Corralled together at the base, we all agreed to call Jeff on his shit talking. The couloir was not three ski lengths wide!
I named the couloir Swan Song Couloir after the original glacier name, Kahloke.
The couloir marked the end of the most exciting part of the day. Other descents into McAllister Glacier, the western lobe this time, proved exciting, but only insofar as great snow and skiing. For the first time in days, I returned to camp early and enjoyed the oh so spectacularly pleasant sun rays, a thanked for occurrence when you aren’t trudging up thousands of feet of reflective sun-baked snow, let me tell you. Before too long, much too early, dusk arrived again and this time, no great sunset swept me out of bed. Only sleep and plotting for my last day filled my thoughts.
May 23, 2021: Bandana Spire to Moraine Lake Col to Taboo Glacier (fail) and car
Early morning came too soon and with it a plan to set off for the Taboo Glacier before breakfast and the heat of the day roasted the snowpack. Regretfully, I waved goodbye to my crew, but fortunately the nights frozen snow I’d bet on was there to aid me. Boosted by it, I quickly rounded Eldorado Peak and rocketed toward Mount Torment.
The bench above moraine lake is heavy terrain. I was perched over 1500 foot cliffs. As if that weren’t bad enough, cornices loomed over me. I was given the distinct impression that I was cannon fodder being sent to the slaughter. If ever I needed encouragement to keep moving, all I’d have to do is look up or down and I’d have it. Moreover, there’s nothing like crossing icy avalanche chutes to wake you up in the morning! Either way, my timing couldn’t have been better.
Just above Moraine Lake Couloir, I ascended and crossed the pass to the south side of the range. Soon, I found a pleasant heather bench where I stashed my overnight gear. After a short break, descended a chute to the lower basin before I ascended to another col, the one I hoped would lead to the Taboo Glacier. Sadly, as I arrived, the hoped for route was out of condition. With the spring slush feet deep in places and rock slabs leading to schrunds I’d have to recross on my return, I decided against continuing. So close, yet so far away, but no matter, failure is part of the adventure! My glacier project isn’t about being there so much as the getting there. In this case, that meant another adventure for another day. I turned away with a growing smile. There was skiing ahead!
After the down was over, I climbed back up to my overnight gear and all along I enjoyed my solo time. A few ups and downs around rock cliffs eventually brought me to a final pass. From there, my escape to the valley was in sight. After so much good snow in the days previous, it came as a shock to find terrible skiing. That horrible snow, so sticky I could barely move, led to further shenanigans that allowed me to ski through the entire boulder field to the trail.
After 2000 feet of descent, I reached the fallen log across Cascade River where I enjoyed the cold, chilled waters for a time before taking on the road walking. Unlike the way in, the road was peaceful and relaxing. On those final miles, I concluded that the Land of the Swan had lived up to all expectations. New pages had been added to my knowledge of the Cascades, as well as cherished memories from the journey. While time may seem to crawl in the mountains, life is really too short not to take on new experiences whenever you can, whether in the mountains or elsewhere. Perhaps that is why I don’t outgrow the mountains and escape their very real dangers? I still have stories I want to live out in these high places. And, of course, more pictures to take.
Thanks for reading!