The Stuart Range lies between dry desert and verdant forests. The topography of its mountains is steep, an assortment of weather-worn granite towers that dominate the glacial carved valleys. Among the 100 highest peaks in Washington State (The Bulger list) there are ten of them here.
Below and astride these summits, cupped in nearly every low spot, are lakes that have taken up residence where once mighty glaciers ruled. These melted fragments remain as a fading memory of those glaciers’ ancient glory.
Tangible and more immediate reminders of those glaciers persist in the alpine, sheltered in the dark recesses between cliff, ridge or buttress. Within those sanctuary’s are found five named glaciers within the bounds of the Stuart Range. They are the Stuart, Ice Cliff, Sherpa, Colchuck and Snow Creek Glaciers. In my ongoing quest to ski all the named glaciers of Washington State, only one glacier remains in this region, the Snow Creek Glacier. Today it’s merely a cluster of small glacierettes that are, like their predecessors, quickly bleeding out, feeding their life’s blood into the lakes found in their wake.
Officially known as Isolation Lake, yet has the unofficial name of Lake Brynhild.
The Snow Creek Glacier is located in a place Albert H. Sylvester, an early surveyor and forest supervisor in the region, named. In his own words, “There I found five or six most beautiful small lakes, grouped in a wonderful little glacial valley, all ringed with alpine larch. From the highest up [Talisman Lake], over an entrancing fall, tumbled the water it received from a small glacier [Snow Creek Glacier]. It was an enchanting scene. I named the group Enchantment Lakes.” Later the name was applied to the entire plateau.
April 22-24, 2022
There are 3 glaciers peeking through here: the Sherpa, Ice Cliff and Stuart glaciers
Leaving Bridge Creek Campground at ~8 in the morning, I set off with Carl Simpson and Matt Leitzinger up the closed road, which continues for four or five miles to Colchuck Trailhead. Beyond there, we found a poorly made skin track (of which we are all guilty of at times) made worse by boot-packers who’d post-holed up it. Instead of cursing the Gods, curses rang in the air and were directed at these evil conjurers of our wrath and annoyance.
Peace and prosperity once again reigned as we left all tracks and people behind at Colchuck Lake (8.5 miles in). Last in line, I was swept over Aasgard Pass [officially called Colchuck Pass, 7841′] and found my partners sheltered behind a boulder. No matter how often I’ve been to the Enchantments, they always take my breath away. As it turns out, in winter, the cold wind is equally happy to take your breath away, so take note–whether or not you are blessed with a view, breath stealing is sure to occur atop this wind scoured plateau.
Aasgard Pass and McClellan Peak
Skiing toward Snow Creek Glacier
As I huddled with the others, clouds rolled over the sky and their shadows over the land, a reflection of the world above. With daylight to spare we continued toward Little Annapurna, and as we crossed Isolation Lake, I came to my destination, the ultimate goal of the trip. While I’d been to Snow Creek Glacier on foot, I’d never skied it. As always, whenever I tag a new glacier, I take a moment to reflect on its place in the world. How a sea of mountains descends into a chain lakes, each fed by the waters of this glacier; how the cold so impacted those who came before, that they named this river Snow Creek and the greater river that it runs into, Icicle Creek; and how water is, if anything, transitory, and ice is, if anything, as equally impermanent given time.
After a quick summit of West Annapurna, we skied to the rim of the valley overlooking Inspiration Lake. The cold wind hadn’t given pause, but spears of light escaped and splashed my face almost as often as the powder.
Camp was spectacular. A 10×15 foot porch of solid granite was our centerpiece. “Hell yeahs,” rang in the air. We were amped cause as we all know, good camps are food for the soul.
After I readied gear on day two, we skied back toward Dragontail under perfectly blue skies. That biting wind of the day (and night) before had been chased far to the east, so far gone now that its memory was replaced with calm serenity and an abiding happiness that couldn’t be ruffled, even when we ran into three other skiers. What complaints could we have, there was plenty of room and lines abounded. If anything, I feel bad for the other skiers; we’re a handful of screams, a bucket of stoke and a ton of hellfire when there’s powder to burn through!
Atop Dragontail is a view I never knew I missed. My only other time to the summit was in 2003 after descending NBC and NE Couloirs (Sonar Couloir) on Colchuck Peak, and in between adding a ski of the SW Couloir on Dragontail (link an entertaining TR by a 20ish year old me and another by the nuclear physicist whose split atomic skiing blew my mind: Sky Sjue: link).
The remainder of the day was spent tagging every line we could think of. We were only convinced to return to camp to enjoy that aforementioned porch while the sun shone.
On our final day, the plan was to pick up camp and return to the valley. The question was, what’s the best way to do that? Given enough snow, there’s a plethora of options that are only limited by imagination, but for us, the Cannon Mountain exit seemed appropriate for the day. It’s north facing and it returns us back to the road we ascended.
Routes: NE Face and Sherpa Glacier Couloir
Mt. Stuart, Stuart Glacier terminal moraine, a few cords of boulders stacked by nature
Matt had prepped this portion of the trip, so he took the lead and brought us to the summit of Cannon Mountain. With shaky legs I stood on the summit rock and howled (cause that’s what you do, right) at the valley and mountains around me. The others did the same, ‘cept their screams weren’t as high pitched as my own.
Cannon Mountain Summit
There are 3 main couloirs that drop from the summit of Cannon Mountain. These aren’t, in fact, the Cannon Mountain Couloir, which is nowhere near the actual peak, but rather on a sub-summit more than a mile away! That being said, this bonus couloir was killer.
The descent from the summit of Cannon Mountain (not Cannon Couloir)
The actual couloir was found to have been slayed by a previous party. We’d had it so good that after skiing the top 2000 feet, I felt like this line, while good, was just an appetizer while the rest of the three days of skiing we’d just had was the main course and various desserts all wrapped up into an amazing last hurrah of winter.
Couloirs on the summit of Cannon
As any who have heard of the Cannon Couloir know, the price of entry is the cost of the exit. Even by my standards, it’s a miserable time, but only for an hour or so. We decided to ski directly to the river after traversing part of the way across one of the old road switchbacks. Don’t be fooled, my use of the word, road, is a loose definition only qualified because of a long ago former status, not a present condition.
Sorry no pics of skiing the couloir...cause I skied it! Here's a shot looking up
Dancing through slide alder and trees is a talent of mine, or at least I thought it was. What excitement I had for the tree-dance was lost when I took a fall. To be clear, it was the tree I was clinging to that took the fall, but semantics aside, I ended up down hard and as I collected myself, cursed at the tree Gods and drug myself up after a 10 minute exercise in my bid to be a contortionist, I screamed at the sky, not in anger, but in triumph.
Somehow, by magic or some higher power, we skied to Mountaineers Creek. Destination beer was so high on the list by then that destination log was forgotten and a ford across the creek was undertaken by yours truly. When I was at the opposite side, my feet slipped on the last rock and I face planted into the shore. This was adding insult to injury!
A short ski on the snow covered road in sloshy ski boots was mercilessly ended in a few minutes. Shoes replaced boots, and dirt the snow. A race to the car was rewarded with cheers. Looking up at the mountains, a corporeal enchantment remained–life fulfilling! Although, this could be looked at a different way, more like a curse. Now I’m compelled to return!
Until next time!
Thanks Carl for taking my Camera for an image of myself. And praise the Mountain Gods for another amazing trip!