This is section 16 of the Washington Traverse. See section 17.
When I was 5, I snapped on a pair backcountry skis for the first time. In the years to come every single turn was earned for 8-10 months a year. I remember the bliss of being airborne and too often the topsy turvy face plant that was bound to follow; I remember high ridge lines fat with snow and fierce alpine sunshine that shone upon frozen landscapes; I remember going to school sunburnt in the middle of winter full of stories and visions of mountains I’d draw on every page of notes. Some things never change, while the rest of the world keeps moving forward. I’m still deeply in love with mountains. Instead of drawing pictures of them, I take photographs.
Team Hummel brothers on Mt. Rainier circa 1980s
It was only as a teenager that my walking took the occasional break at White Pass Ski area, my second love. For my entire life this home away from home has always been the little family resort with a heart of gold.
White Pass, and the next generation
A second resort entered my life after I left college and moved to Tacoma. This resort, Crystal Mountain, is the largest ski area in Washington, boasting more terrain and lifts than any other. With its proximity to Seattle comes the crowds, especially since our population has seen an atmospheric rise in the past decade. Setting that aside, some of my most memorable powder days have been found here.
Because of Crystal and White’s proximity and my resort time being split between them, I’ve always been fascinated that, up until 1974, you could ski both ski areas in the same day! Since Cayuse has remained closed in winter ever since then, a Jason-esque solution is to ski between the two resorts.
Frozen rain runnels
January 14-16, 2022
I arrived at Crystal Mountain well before opening. Ahead was ~30 miles fraught with a mixture of frozen rain runnels. Both of my partners, Matt Leitzinger and Jarek Stanley, were White Pass kids, so for them, this was a way to see more of their childhood backyard, just as it was for me. We hadn’t come for any sort of good skiing; although we weren’t against its unlikely appearance. Yet optimism is a powerful force. When it came to deciding on skis, it’s gotta be the powder boards, right?
Our actual route and camps
On day one we chattered our way from Crystal Mountain to Dewey Lake, some 8.5 miles. Up high we found honest-to-God fun turns, buttery snow on smooth crust. Howls rang from mountain walls. The long way ahead, compressed by excitement, seemed short now. How far is far, when one mountain fell away and another lay ahead, destined to the same fate?
What good snow we milked from our descent vanished as we arrived to Highway 410. What was to greet us instead, was a frozen landscape much like that which greeted me this past autumn in Capitol Reef National Park. Like the rock there, it was wavy and cracked, cast in shadow and light. How much I love Mother Nature in spite of her ideas being mirrored across mediums.
Tipsoo Lake and Capitol Reef
Hours later, after we’d pitched camp on Dewey Lake, we took in the stars. Looking up at the big sky, I thought of how much big skies always seem bigger in winter to me. Maybe it’s because nights are long in January, with approximately 8 hours of daylight and 16 hours of darkness. While time doesn’t equate to size, maybe familiarity does. Even with time awake and the stars and friends for company, staying up late is as much a chore as a necessity. Only dead men and vampires can lay horizontal for so long!
Camp at night on Dewey Lake
By morning we awoke to sun rays splitting the cold fog. Plans for gaining higher ground earlier rather than later wasn’t going to happen. With such easy terrain, it’s hard to justify rushing through a pretty morning still flush with cold. Plus, waiting for the sun is a time honored tradition, and no one wants to break tradition.
Bt the time we crossed Dewey Lake, we settled into our stride. A strip of clouds was crowding the horizon, but we hoped it’d vanish to the east. Ahead was thick forest, but enough room for moving was found between the trunks; although the ice was especially prevalent there. I have a game I play on many trips, the one who falls the most, and this happens as much on the downhill as the uphill, buys the beer. It becomes a fun game; and don’t fret, there’s honor among ski mountaineers. Tellings of our wrecks and shenanigans are fodder for the skin track. Matt’s double ejection from a pass that day was the trips current record holder for ‘most impressive’. My face plant was a close second, also a double ejection caused when my skis bent so much in walk mode that I rocketed 10 feet from my skis! Yet, Matt’s wreck was the team favorite, since Jerek witnessed his athletic performance.
Mt. Rainier with the Emmons Glacier on the right and the Nisqually Glacier on the left
Matt on the right and Cougar Lake, his view, on the right
Instead of pulling up early, as we’d done the first day, we pushed on into darkness. There’s a long ridge from which the headwaters of Bumping River are gathered and pour into Fish Lake. A steep stream bed full of thick wet snow, holes into boulders and water alike, and tight trees offered the trifecta of obstacles for us. Pushing the fun to the next level, though, was frozen avalanche debris.
Somehow we all arrived unscathed. Obvious difficulties rarely present trouble. It’s usually the hidden ones that get you.
A repeat of the night before happened on our second evening, just on Cougar Lake this time. For posterity, it goes like this: tea, recounting of the best wrecks of the day, hot chocolate, dinner, more stories, hot cider, then bed. Yes, profound it isn’t, but friends and cold make great company.
The last day we rose earlier than our previous two days, so as to reach White Pass in time for Jarek’s parents to pick us up and still arrive back home at a reasonable hour. In the plotting stage of this trip I’d tried to find a better exit to the trip that’d avoid the long stretch of flat uplands. Given the snow conditions and time, we couldn’t enjoy any detours from the quickest path. That being said, adding in Mt. Aix and area via Goose Prairie may be a worthy alternate?
I love the forest in all seasons. What strikes me about the forest near White Pass is the moss that covers the trees north sides. The moss rises from ground to high branches, up perfect trunks, so uniform as to appear a plantation, and perfectly parted on every trees, as if these green beards were one and the same, twined on every trunk.
We finally crossed our first tracks at Deer Lake, soon reaching the small hill above Leech Lake after 12 miles. Across from that hill I could see White Pass. Turning around, while I couldn’t see Crystal Mountain, the terrain between here and there were linking, two familiar places forever connected.
As we skied onto the cross country track, I reached Highway 12. Deep down, I really wanted to keep going, and nearly set out solo to the Columbia River the next week, but life got in the way. Just a few weeks after that, though, everything came together, and the final great link in my traverse across Washington State was a success (The Columbia Traverse)!
At the lodge, Jarek, who’d wrecked the most of anyone, adding at least four wrecks on our final day, bought us all beers. In between sips, I thought of my connection to this region of the planet and how it’s more home than anywhere else. While adventures can be satisfying no matter where they are, for some reason those in my backyard are among my fondest and most recalled.
Thanks for reading.