Two dimensional lines have a way of growing into three dimensional adventures. A dash of devil’s club, a slope of endless powder, summit views that scatter dreams like snowflakes from horizon to horizon, blue-rimmed lakes emerging in spring, roaring cataracts whose waters leave grown men howling like wounded puppies, and so much more. These ingredients for adventure are only outnumbered by the friends that have joined me. With them, those many lines I have drawn over the decades have coalesced, growing into the American Alps Traverse in 2013 to Lowell Skoog’s Cascade Crest Traverse in 2017. And now, in 2022, to an even greater link-up, the amalgamation of all of these adventures into one. This line, stretching from the Canadian Border to the waters of the Columbia River, is a route I’ve set out to draw across snow, with two skis, from one end of Washington State to the other.
I handed my camera to Chris to capture my bill cap with its nearly 2 inches of snow
Standing in the way of completing this grand traverse are two sections. The first is 7 miles on the Canadian border, which has yet to be completed, but is forthcoming and straightforward. The second is the 100+ miles between White Pass and Dog Mountain.
Between mountain and clouds on Old Snowy.
The challenge of the southernmost extension of the Cascade Crest Traverse, is snow. You need a healthy helping of low level snow in order to realistically complete this route on skis. Not every season is right for this trip, at least at first glance. What changed my mind was when I actually drafted a route and looked at the metrics. What I found was a way to stay, by and large, above 3000 feet.
The proposed routes metrics
With a plan in mind, I was set to accomplish this trip solo, but just a week before I convinced my friend Chris Starling to go. To my surprise, any haranguing was surprisingly brief. As a Forest Service employee in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, he found the idea of skiing across terrain he’s spent the better part of his adult life managing and protecting, all the incentive he needed. Plus, he knows this country, and with his help, we’d be efficient (avoiding densely reforested areas and overgrown roads for instance) and I’d learn about the terrain I traveled through.
Our actual route was ~110 miles. The northern section (pictured here) differed from our intended route.
February 18-25, 2022
With our skis on at White Pass Ski area at just after 9 AM, Chris and I began our adventure at Hogback Mountain. Sun rays warmed our faces as we stared into the distance, our final destination so far away that we couldn’t see it. You’ll find that in winter, the region south of Highway 12 and north of the Columbia River, east of Mt. Saint Helens and west of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, becomes an impromptu wilderness. Seasonal snow essentially creates an area 100 miles long by as much as 50 miles wide that’s inaccessible to cars for half the year. Traversing through this country can quickly become as difficult to retreat from as continuing.
Hours later, we passed Devil’s Digit and continued to the edge of a bluff. Our descent, past cliffs and convoluted terrain led back to where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with our ridge route. Since few people visit the Goat Rocks in winter, it came as a surprise to see ski tracks. While our routes differed, they intersected once again at McCall Basin. We missed one another in the shuffle, but we could see their tracks returning from Old Snowy.
Gathering water below the McCall Glacier
The name McCall was given to this basin by the Mountaineers Club in 1911 for the shepherd, David McCall. He had guided them through a particularly confusing region. His name was later applied to the glacier. Interestingly, though, the McCall Glacier had an even earlier name. In 1906, when the United States Reclamation Services (USRS) sent a small group to study the mountain watersheds, they would call it Old Snowy Glacier (a name later attributed to the peak). One member of the party, Sterling Smith, would create the most compelling early imagery of the Goat Rocks and surrounding glaciers known to exist (see below).
McCall Glacier in 1906. Photography was taken with lantern slides (photography by) Sterling Cyrus Smith (1866–1936).
My thoughts on the regions history retreated as we attained a high ridge of Old Snowy just as a dying sunset bled its last colors onto icy slopes. We both enjoyed the sunset as long as the blustery wind allowed. My plan was to tag the Packwood Glacier (as part of my Washington Glacier Ski Project). Chris was kind enough to forgo the summit of Old Snowy, since like me, he’d been there many times before.
As Chris skittered ahead for camp, I lingered on what remains of the Packwood Glacier, now stagnant and dying. In the 1930s the Packwood Glacier was named for William Packwood (1813–1897) who, along with James Longmire, had searched for a pass to build a mining trail. This pass became known as Packwood Saddle, 2.5 miles north of my present location. Around 1900 the lake below the glacier became known as Packwood Lake. And finally, in 1931, the town of Lewis changed its name to avoid confusion with Fort Lewis and Lewis County, then on becoming known as Packwood.
Chris above the Packwood Glacier
When Chris poked his head out of the tent, he called out that there was a sunrise. Only an hour later, as we began to climb back over the Goat Rocks crest, would the weather begin to change, and quickly. A combination of frozen rain and fog enveloped us, nearly grinding our forward progress to a halt. Since at least a foot of new snow was forecasted in the afternoon/evening, we descended by way of Snowgrass Flats rather than Nannie Ridge. Already, on Snowgrass Flats, there was a growing sheen of glassy ice coating the surface of the snow, growing thicker as the frozen rain continued. It turned to rain as we skied onto the snowbound forest service roads.
That night we found respite at Midway where an old ramshackle building clung to life. Inside there are no windows, doors and much of the shingles are missing, but it’s a 4-star resort for the likes of us.
On our first 2 days we went 29 miles
As we left Midway on the morning of our 3rd day, there was indeed a foot of new snow awaiting us. After one downhill, I found the snow so wet, that I never put my climbing skins back on for more than 10 miles! The going was a grind, somewhat due to the monotony of the terrain we’d been forced into because of the weather. Fortunately Chris told a lot of stories, and for once I held my tongue and listened. Before I knew it, we’d gone 15 miles and I’d learned all about the Gifford Pinchot.
In 1908 the Columbia National Forest was created by a fledgling Forest Service, first established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Prior to that year National Forests were known as Forest Reserves and operated by the Department of Interior rather than the Department of Agriculture. In 1949 the Columbia National Forest was renamed Gifford Pinchot National Forest, commemorating the first head of the Forest Service. It spans 1.3 million acres!
Early maps of the Columbia National Forest and its precursor, the Mt. Rainier Forest Reserve
When we awoke on day 4 at Riley Camp Trailhead, we found another 8 inches of snow!
Since I’d scheduled a food drop via snowmobile, we had a destination we needed to be at. Fortunately, I heard my dad coming up behind us a mile before our prearranged meeting spot. He had come with a friend. While they ate lunch, Chris and I sorted supplies. While we were still tidying our packs, they fired up their machines and disappeared in a plume of powder. By then there was already more than 2 feet! Unlike the day before is was cold and dry snow. We looked like two kids forced to watch the ice cream truck driver disappear around the corner because we had no change.
As the 4th day came to an end, we strode into Steamboat Lake, a wooded area with great protection from the wind.
Later that night, I dried gear next to our fire. Since I decided to walk back to the tent in my liners, I put them on. But, as I’m apt to do, I got wrapped up in a story, and next thing I knew, a silver-dollar sized hole appeared on the bottom of my left liner! While the plastic smell still hung in the air, I laughed, got quiet, then shrugged, and thought, “What can I do?” I’d have 50 miles, and some 100,000 steps to consider that question.
As we entered Indian Heaven Wilderness, an isolated parkland surrounded by working timberlands, I smiled. The idea of skiing across the length of this wilderness was a trip highlight. As it is snow-locked, it sees few if any visitors in winter, which is exactly the kind of loneliness I search for.
After a long day of walking, we found camp above Wood Lake. As I pitched the tent, Chris attempted a fire, which we agreed was the worst fire either of us had ever had. The biting cold gnawed at our toes and fingers. The heat was broken by waves of thick smoke and ice that blew in our faces, as the blustery winds circled us like scavengers. We cycled through this process just long enough to eat a (smoked) dinner before retreating to the tent with a mixture of frost nip and burns.
That night temperatures dropped to 0 and wind chills to -20. Staying warm was a process. Interrupting our sleep was snow bombs. They sporadically fell from the trees and exploded at random on our tent. I find it a wonder that at times like this, resting is the hard part while walking, the easy.
Warm morning drinks were a must for Chris and I, else we’d have transformed into just two more snags in the forest.
Near Blue and Tombstone Lakes we finally warmed up. Occasionally, throughout the day, we’d stand in a spot where the sun speared through tree branches. Whenever the light shifted, we’d move with it.
From the lakes, we followed unusual animal tracks for nearly a mile! From the shape of the track, we could tell that whatever creature this was, glissaded down the mountainside. Only the occasional flat would we see tiny paw prints push off the snow, which made me smile; I could only imagine this creature flying down, its noises of excitement ricocheting off the trees. Our best guess was that it was an otter (which do live here) traveling between lakes.
Up and down gullies, over summits, and past sprawling meadows and thick forest, brought us to Red Mountain (yes, yet another Red Mountain!) at the southern end of Indian Heaven Wilderness. With my feet having worn their nerve endings off, any residual excitement that remained was for an open lookout. Our hopes cratered when we saw that it was boarded up! Cold, tired and standing in the wind, we found refuge by the lower building, an old Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) construction. While we were sad to see the lookout closed, the afterglow of the sunset was well worth the effort of climbing the peak. And finally we could see the Columbia River!
Sunset on Red Mountain with Mt. Hood in the distance
On our 7th day, we skied toward Big Huckleberry Mountain. I’d worried about thick secondary forest. After we were able to skin all the way to the summit, follow the ridge beyond and enjoy very pleasant forest, open ridge tops and more powder I realized my worry was unfounded. Easy travel continued to Grassy Pass and Grassy Knoll, all besides some scrambling around a few cliffs and some thick bushes for a few short stretches.
As darkness arrived, we pushed beyond Triangle Pass in the hopes of finding an open creek for water. Our wishes were granted. We pulled up after 18 miles and enjoyed fresh water, clear skies and warm weather, at least when compared to the previous 3 days.
Morning came early, as we had to once again reach my dad by a certain time. With some 14 miles remaining, it was quite a distance if conditions weren’t on our side. As we flew down to 1800 vertical feet, we expected to walk, but a thread of snow continued. Besides a ford across Little Wind River, we stayed on skis all the way to Augspurger Mountain.
The climb of Augspurger Mountain was incredibly fun (and windy) for such a small peak. The south side involved another 1800′ low point. A thin layer of powder allowed us to ski the peak to 1900′. Mind you, I probably should’ve only skied to 2000′, but my backcountry skis aren’t performance machines; they are tractors. A ding here and there adds to their character.
The climb of Dog Mountain wasn’t necessary, but the idea of finishing our trip on a high point above the Columbia River was how I imagined this trip ending. By the time we climbed to the summit, the weather had calmed, the sun was big and beautiful, and there was the Columbia River snaking into the distance. How great of an obstacle it must’ve been for the natives and pioneers who negotiated it. Not even cars had a bridge across until 1917; although ferries had been used for many decades. Believe it or not, there was actually a land bridge five hundred years ago. At that time, the Bonneville Landslide, 200 feet high and 3.5 miles long, crashed into the Columbia River a few miles west of Dog Mountain.
At the end, this two dimensional line from White Pass to the Columbia River had certainly grown into a three dimensional adventure. While much of this terrain is familiar from summer explorations, winter does more than cover the land in snow, it transforms it into a landscape that’s wild and remote, no different than it was historically.
Standing on the shores of the Columbia River, with my skis having come so far with me, was a powerful feeling. Together with the memories, they pass back through the years and miles. They return all the way to Hannegan Pass. Beyond there, my final 7 miles remain. Only when they are done, will the true measure of this line be complete for me…
LEFT: My Dad and I RIGHT: Chris and I
Three dimensional views. Here I am looking over the Columbia River.
Routes: North to South
????, Hannegan to American Border Peak (TBD) (attempted in January)
2003, June 5-8 Mineral High Route (link) and in 2010 and 2022
2011, June 4-10 The Isolation Traverse (link) and in 2013
2015, March 7-9 The Forbidden Tour (link)
2008, June 29-July 5 The Ptarmigan Traverse (link) and in 2011 and 2013
2013, June 2-17 The American Alps Traverse (book)
2009, June 30-July 5 DaKobed Traverse (link)
2016, April 7-12 Sauk River to Highway 2 (link)
2017, April 9 Stevens to Smithbrook Road (no link)
2016, March 29 to April 1, 14 Lakes Traverse (link)
2010, July 3-8, Alpine Lakes Traverse (link)
2014, February 8, The Patrol Race (no link)
2017, March 30 to April 2, Crystal Mountain to I 90 (link)
2012, February 4-6, Paradise to Crystal Mountain (link)
2022, January 14-16, Crystal Mountain to White Pass Ski Area (link)
2001, July 3-5, The Goat Rocks Traverse (link)
2003, February 8-9, Old Snowy from White Pass (link)
2022, February 18-25, The Columbia Traverse (current story)