May 30-June 1, 2022
Never was a plan so simple: go over a mountain, then another and so forth until the Canadian border was at hand.
Shifting my RV into park, I stepped from its entryway onto the shores of Nooksack River. The waters grumbling like a mountain with a tummy ache, the rain casting about like sheep being rounded up, the forest shaking rain out like a wet dog. Atop a great boulder, I sat on the shore and listened. The melody was as Washington to my ears as any tune could be.
Here's a link to all the stories: https://www.jasonhummelphotography.com/the-washington-traverse/ This one continues below.
Going back twenty one years, and hundreds of miles southward, a younger me climbed to the top of Mt. Curtiss Gilbert, so dedicated by the longest serving Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas; although misspelled on maps today with one ‘s’ instead of two. Curtiss Rickey Gilbert (1894–1947) was a boyhood friend of Douglas’. He was also a youth leader and mountain climber. Many years ago I ran into his family climbing Curtiss Gilbert, some half century since his passing!
A 1949 article about todays Mt. Curtis Gilbert being dedicated as Curtiss Gilbert Peak.
Unlike Gilbert’s family, I was going beyond his namesake and traversing the Goat Rocks, unknowingly completing the first link in a grand traverse, one that I eventually conceived of stretching across the full length of Washington State, from Oregon to Canada. In 2003 I’d add two more links, the Mineral High Route and White Pass to Goat Rocks. In years to come, the chain would grow with the addition of the Ptarmigan, Isolation, Forbidden, Pickets, 14 Lakes, and Columbia Traverses, etc., 19 links in total, many overlapping one another.
I get asked, “So did you follow the Pacific Crest Trail?”
The short answer is rarely, but that doesn’t entirely quantify the difference. One is a trail and beautiful, but a trail all the same. The other is glaciers and peaks, passes and slopes where any one path can be evolved to weather and snowpack, whim and fancy. Unlike predetermined trails, ski routes in the high country benefit as much from poetry as technique and discipline. They are trails made, rather than trails followed.
The combined route I called the Washington Traverse. A simple name, given more as a placeholder, yet survives as I lack a better term for it.
My route from the Columbia River to Canadian Border Peak
Back at my RV in the North Cascades, I cracked my door for a weather report, parroting all local weatherman’s favorite forecast by saying, “Today will be mostly cloudy with a chance of scattered showers.”
Over the next hour, I stashed my mountain bike on Twin Lakes Road and drove to Goat Mountain trailhead. Both ways I was white-knuckled. My home-on-wheels wasn’t built for such a wet, tree strewn and potentially snowed-in road.
A half an hour later, shoulders heavy with gear, I set out, alone. On every other leg of my journey, I’d had partners along. Given that another dreary week of weather was bookended by similarly weather-challenged weeks, which summed together stretched into months, I can’t fault the fact that no one wanted to join me on yet another wet adventure.
Going solo always takes a moment to get used to. With snow line a few miles distant, it was up to the forest and memory to wrap me up in thoughts. These reminders stretched southward through space and time, back to when ghosts of fog on Fortress Mountain broke apart only to have a Brocken Spectre appear. Or when the northeast face of Mount Fury glowed in a beams of starlight like some ancient spaceship preparing to take flight. Or when, further south, thunderclouds spilled over the horizon atop Glacier Peak and the ambient power in the air sizzled and buzzed across our metal equipment and stood our hair on end. Or the quaint moments, such as when a rainbow framed the McAllister Glacier, or when my friend Kyle Miller argued with a marmot. Or the savagely funny, such as when my brothers followed me through two days bushwhacking only to reach Bridge Creek, a short way from to road and read a sign that says, “The bridge is out, bushwhack at least one day to reach the road.” Or that time on Mt. Challenger during a long nap on Perfect Pass when I sunburned my feet so bad that they tore completely open, scabbing over from toe to ankle. This was all the more regretful since I’d lost my shoes on Mineral Mountain and was forced to walk 20 miles back to my car on dirt in my ski boots!
Rainbow with the McAllister Glacier (left) in 2013 and sans shoes climbing the last section of Mt. Challenger in 2003
Stars on the NE Face of Mt. Fury during the first winter traverse of the range in 2009
That compass spun in circles as I returned to my first ski traverse. In the late 80s my father, Kurt Hummel, became the founding president of the Mt. Tahoma Trails Association (MTTA). It was during a series of adventures that my father, in order to get government funding, needed to prove the feasibility of creating a trail. As such, he conceived a weeklong ski traverse from Golden Lakes to the end of West Side Road where it meets the Paradise Road.
In searching the web I found this blurb my father wrote about this adventure. He said, “In April of 1990 we [Kurt and Linda, my parents, and Jessy–9 years old, Josh and I–11 years old] skied the western circumference of Mt. Rainier to locate the best route for a ski trail system. Perhaps the most memorable for true Telemark backcountry was the Colonnade area above Golden Lakes cabin in Mount Rainier National Park. Large open bowls in a silver forest of sparsely spaced trees beckoned any Telemark skier with 2-3000 ft. of vertical paradise. Unfortunately, the Park Service would not allow any structures to be built within their boundaries so this area remains open only to the hearty.”
My dad would later manage to add a yurt to the northwest side of Mt. Rainier National Park, just outside the park boundary, only a mile from Golden Lakes! We spent many weekends skiing (and building) in this spectacular area, often going as high as the Puyallup Glacier.
Sadly, due to a lack of use, Champion (a logging company) who charges for access onto their land, only saw our family and a few others visiting. With no money being made, they forced us to remove the yurt. Thus ended an era, however short, for what was the best hut accessed skiing to ever exist in Washington State.
With the other huts primarily focused on snowshoeing and cross country skiing, my dad left the organization.
There are many stories from that first ski traverse. Deep new snow. Wide open country. Heavy packs. Family friends who brought in supplies becoming lost and having to be rescued. A massive search dog showing up and licking my brothers face, and my dad leaving with the SAR team to try and help them find our missing friends. The altimeter, compass and map work my dad used to try and find his way. I loved it! Not the rescue, but the out there. Snow, forest and trees. Frozen lakes. Sharp blue skies that only winter shapes. The endless everything coated in white. This all, the paths blazed on this first trip, planted a seed.
And the seed bore fruit.
Back in the present, I reached continuous snow on Goat Mountain and as unlikely as likely, I sighted goat tracks and followed them to the summit. Now I could see the end, the Canadian border. Right there! Sure, a mountain or two stood in the way, but there it was. I could reach out with the palm of my hand and nearly touch it. With my 200-400mm lens, I could see the tinniest features. Just then, sunlight broke through. Like a top hat, I swung this way and that way, snapping photos like a fish does flies.
Cloudcap (also known as Seapho) on the left, with Ragged Ridge and a sliver of the Price Glacier on the far right.
Mt. Baker and the Park Headwall, first ascended solo, by Joe Morovits in 1892
My skis on, the slurry of snow before me swung out from every turn, slowly avalanching. At the base of Winchester Mountain, I went to shelter under a tree from a constant rain, but soon realized there was no escape. Hood pulled up, I contemplated my next move. Usually I climb a couloir to the top of Winchester Mountain, but the soupy snow gave me pause, so instead I turned up valley to Twin Lakes.
When I arrived at the lakes, a big tree presented me with wonderful cover! My overall mood was at a daytime low. Each time I went to leave, the rain pushed me back. “It’ll get better,” I thought. Two more times I walked and was repelled. Finally, my bet on the next days forecast convinced me to throw my arms up and growl, “To hell with it.” I was depending on the weatherman to have gotten it right just this once (because didn’t you know that weatherman are the unsung heroes . . . like accountants, lawyers, cops and insurance agents . . . at least when they are on your side).
Fresh bear tracks took me to the top of Winchester and the old fire lookout. Broken boards and torn out nails greeted me. I’d like to say it was the bear, but this looked like humans had torn the storm door apart, so they could gain entry. The actual door was open, and snow filled the entire structure.
A handful of years ago, the Winchester lookout was closed in winter. The paint and wood became damaged by shovels and axes. I was contacted prior to closure, since I’m tied to the community, and agreed I would tell everyone I knew to take care of it. Despite my efforts, that stewardship didn’t come to pass. A year later it was closed to winter enthusiasts. With the age of social media and growing popularity of the outdoors, the others will be faced with new and growing challenges.
(I accidentally deleted my RAW files from this adventure. Only 20 edited images from this trip were saved. The pictures of the hut, sunrise, sunset, bear tracks, peaks, waterfalls and more from this trip are lost, thousands of images now interred in a digital grave. Heartbreaking to say the least. Video did survive so there's that).
Photos of Tomyhoi Lake, the Canadian border and Tomyhoi Peak.
Come morning, a bright smile from a long lost friend grew and shone. “Hello Sun. Kick your shoes off. Stay awhile.”
My camp atop Winchester Mountain
Since I was going to day trip to the border and back, I broke camp and moved everything down the mountain to a lower pass, where I stashed it in a snow hole. Suddenly lighter and gravity at my back, I pointed to the valley and, suddenly, found myself laughing. Why? Because the snow was so bad. I’ve skied bad snow. I know what bad is and, this, (in all directions) was so very bad. Like a rocket on a retrograde trajectory, I somehow avoided disaster by curving my tracks up the southern wall of a vale, skis barely breaking from the frozen crust.
In half an hour of climbing I gazed up at the south wall of Mt. Larrabee. On its north side is a glacier I could get for my Washington Glacier Ski Project. Should I go? Can I go? Always a balancing beam between these two questions, a fluidity in reasoning that is constant, I debated my path forward. My gut told me the snow was too dangerous. My heart told me it was good enough. My legs passed it by. Decision made.
Another rise and descent brought me to another good view point. That days snow wasn’t as unstable as I expected. Incoming haze and clouds, along with a breeze helped. Better yet, I saw a low route I could take on my return that mitigated my risk of slides. Even though an earlier shed had brought much of the snow down two days earlier, there was still hang fire on those slopes that survived.
The compass was pointed due north. Any magnetic disturbances had ceased: avalanches, snow conditions, route finding, etc., were all a go.
A long way in a short paragraph. Hours of slogging with a capital S. Every single step felt like I was dragging the entirety of my grand traverse along for the ride.
But, at last, an exclamation mark at the end of my path. A corniced ridge line gave way to a gentle slope and descending traverse. No force field was in evidence. Just a loneliness as real on one side of the boundary as the other. A moment to me celebrated with a quiet smile, big and bright, as happy as a snow flake on Christmas Eve. “Hello Canada, what a long strange trip it’s been.”
Back over the ridge, the the wind picked up, the valley forest ooo’d and ahhh’d. Washington’s spring quartet in concert just for me. Now snow felt light and fluffy, legs of jelly grew strong, and it felt like the wind was at my back, pushing me forward.
The inevitable regress suddenly flew by. One climb after another, bowls and cirques, slopes and forests were behind me in a mere 4 hours.
As clouds closed in around me, I packed my overnight gear at the col on Winchester Mountain. Once done, I stood and cast my eyes northward. I’ve collected moments that to me are slivers of time carved out from reality, preserved in an instant, like a photograph, but with emotion and soul attached. I snapped one here, added it to my album, and turned my skis downslope.
The last big descent of my trip was a 2000 foot couloir. Another laugh escaped me when my line dirted-out at a waterfall. That’d been my day, thus far. Skis in hand, I reached snow again, only bringing down about half my weight in rocks, a successful effort I don’t mind saying. Although, the ptex I left behind suggested that I shouldn’t have bothered; there were more rocks than snow showing on the lower portion of the couloir.
At Twin Lakes Road miles passed on snow that at times felt like it was impersonating gravel. There was enough pollen to coat my skis in a thickened tar-like consistency that I’d hardly have needed skins to climb at all! Not so good for the way down, sadly.
After three or four miles, at snows end, I popped my skis off and walked 100 meters. After bashing my way through the woods to where my bike was hidden, I drug it out. With a ski-endowed pack, I raced down the road like a galloping elk. Wind in my face, speed faster than any skiing I’d had in days, and then there it was–that smile. That thrill engaged. Most excellent the finish line is when you’ve the wings of success to carry you forward.
Way too fast and far too reckless, I reached Highway 542. Cars driving by must’ve taken a few looks at me and wondered “Why?” I’m a skier and I would’ve asked myself as much. Taking a left after a quarter mile was a relief; I was back on gravel and out of eye sight.
Out in my peripheral vision a movement caught my eye. As tired as I’d become, I didn’t stop right away. When I did notice what I was seeing, a bear and I were mere feet apart, facing off. Suddenly my elk comparison earlier . . . of how I appeared riding with skis and boots . . . was a little too close to the truth. I quickly stopped, cast my eyes downward, got off my bike and slowly backed around the corner. Two thinking creatures, only one of us a king of the forest; I’ll stick to the glaciers and we’ll be square, right?
While I was standing there, miles from snow or my RV, I pulled out that proverbial compass that had taken me through decades and miles, and wondered where I’d point it next. There are a few constants in life. Among them are these: happiness is made, life’s speedometer has no governor, and adventure is contrived. And the constant among each of these is now. You have to get out there and start walking to wherever your compass points. When I opened my fridge and cracked a beer at my RV, I found that my easy chair was the last bearing I’d take on this day.
My bike and gear stagged for lift off
Thanks for reading. Here’s a smattering of past imagery from this adventure over the last 21 years:
Mineral High Route, 2003 Photos: Ben Manfredi
Goat Rocks, 2001-2002. Photos: Ben Manfredi
Pickets Traverse, February 2010.
Ptarmigan Traverse, 2008
American Alps Traverse, 2013
Isolation Traverse, 2011
A few rare photos of myself
…and thousands more images…
Thanks for posting the story.