A three day weekend resulting from Christmas being on a Friday this year=3 day xc backpack! High avalanche danger again in the forecast due to heavy and constant snow accumulation over the past week, but the weekend showed promise of some sun on the west side. Thus, our destination was Sunrise Point via the closed road from the White River Entrance of Mt Rainier National park. The point is 17 miles away from the entrance and the plan was to xc ski for two days to Sunrise Point and then all the way down on day 3. We expected that snowmobiles had broken track at least to the Sunrise Turnoff at the the White River Campground Junction.

As per every winter excursion things didn’t exactly pan out as expected, but this didn’t change the fun of our adventure! The snowmobile tracks ended about .25 miles into our journey and we were left to cut track through 3 feet of untouched powder on our own. This slowed us down rather significantly and tested our endurance. We used elk tracks when available, but mostly we just cut through the powder own taking turns in the lead every 30-45 minutes. We did well considering. A big hurdle proved to be climbing over some large trees that had fallen completely across the rd. These trees required some finesse to scamper over with our long skis. I didn’t want to take my skis off at all costs for fear of sinking waist deep into the soft powder… Damien decided to take his skis off when crossing a particularly branchy large tree and that is exactly what happened to him! Another hazard was that the trees were so heavy with snow many were leaning very precariously over the trail looking like they might topple at any moment.

We made it past the Ranger Station and continued to push on in hopes of reaching the White River Campground Junction. Darkness fell and we turned out our new Petzl NAO headlamps (Christmas gift from Damien to us). We reached Shaw Creek and looked at a map to see how far were were from the Junction. At least two miles which translated to about 3 more hours of skiing (we were beginning to slow down)… we’d get there at 8:00. We looked around at the trees and decided to set up camp on the road out the the fall-line of some leaning trees. It was a beautiful camp. The snow twinkled in the moonlight and the air grew bitter cold as we sat outside eating our Christmas meals. A beautiful night to end an endurance test of a day.

We broke camp at about 8:30am the next morning. No new snow had fallen overnight, but there was a nice layer of hoarfrost. We reached the White River Bridge and Junction with the road to Sunrise a little before noon as predicted. We stopped about .25 into the rd to filter water from a running drainage as we were getting concerned about our low fuel. The cold night had sapped more of it than we expected when making dinner and water. As it turned out our filter frozen so we ended up using iodine tablets.

We continued up the steepening road. The slopes on the right side opened up revealing small cliffs. Snow had fallen down these cliffs in small avalanches. They did now spill beyond the side of the road. But we still leap-frogged our travel here watching each other cross under the slopes just in case. We kept thinking this section of avy slopes would go away, but the slopes and cliffs get taller and bigger the higher we traveled. We reached a high slope that had not yet avalanched and stopped there to have a discussion. We decided we would cross under this slope and look around the corner one last time to and make a decision. We crossed leap-frog style. The next slope was taller and partially avalanched. At 2:30 our chances of reaching Sunrise Point were not very good with all this uphill trail breaking and the avalanche danger seemed to be increasing with turn around the corner. We opted to turn back at camp on the White River Bridge.

Getting down took much less time on the downhill broken trail. We were able to glide easily and made it to the bridge at about 3:30. We passed a group of snowshoers just before the bridge. They had started the previous afternoon. But they were camping down the White River Campground Rd about another mile away. We began putting up out tent on the bridge as the temperature dropped. A large male elk plunged through snow up to his chest near the river giving the evening a true wilderness feel. He paused by the river for a few minutes and looked at us as though deciding if it was a good idea to cross the icy water. He ended up turning around bounding into the forest. Darkness settled as we cooked dinner and made water. We had just enough fuel. That night it was colder and it snowed.

We awoke to 2 more inches of snow. The going was extremely faster ont he way down. We reached snowmobile tracks about 1.5 miles into our trip and the trees has massive holds sawed into them providing less precarious passage. The winds picked up at one point blowing down massive amount of snow from the treetops. This created momentary whiteouts on the trails. Damien would be there and then suddenly vanish! We stayed in the middle of the road as best we could to avoid a direct hit of falling powder! The closer we got to the White River Entrance the more folks we ran into and the easier the track became. We made it out in 4.5 hours! Cutting trail definitely takes up a a lot of time, but it tested our endurance and persistence in the backcountry… and the solitude of the winter wonderland was more than worth the effort.

We could only swing a Saturday trip this weekend due to some important engagements on Monday which required recovery from the mountains. This we decided to drive out to Leavenworth. The snow level had dropped to 1000ft and we were hoping to find some ice in the Icicle Canyon. We brought our XC skis as a backup though as Washington isn’t known for reliable ice.

We drove over Stevens Pass through the winter weather warning. Once again snow was falling heavily in the mountains, quite the contrast from last winter’s dry forecast. We were surprised to find that snow level was so low that there was snow in the town of Leavenworth as we turned onto Icicle Rd. I had heard of snow being in the town, but it took 4 years for me to actually see it!

We drove down the road looking at the rock walls for ice or mixed climbing opportunities. The ice we saw was either very thin or little icicles and the rock walls for mixed were covered in fresh powder.  We packed at the road closure at Bridge Creek Campground and decided to put on our snowshoes haul our ice gear up the snow cover Eightmile Rd. (closed to vehicles in winter). There was supposed to be some good ice areas by the Mountaineer Creek Drainage. However, after walking up the Rd for over an hour it was clear that all the ice below was us way to thin to climb. We opted to turn back and get our xc skis.

The xc ski up Eightmile Rd. was rather lovely. The snowy skis cleared to reveal a bluebird day. The first bluebird day we experienced in the mountains this season. Snowshoers and AT skiers ahead of us had broken trail so the good was smooth as we glided over the fresh tracks. It the perfect grade Rd for xc skis as well. Just borderline of needing to herringbone in some stretches and almost flat in others. We climbed to the Stuart Lake Trailhead and then had a very enjoyable ride back down to Icicle Creek Rd. The slope is perfect for a fast but still controllable ski down. It was Damien’s first time on what was essentially a groomed track and he did splendidly!

We reached the road just as darkness fell. We were going to try to drive through Leavenworth to see the Christmas lights quick but the backup was so bad we turned around and went home. Always better to stay in the Canyon!

With another winter storm blowing in and high avy we decided to stick to a closed road and xc ski up The White River Entrance Rd to Mt. Rainier. It seemed like there should be snow at 2700ft. However, when we arrived at the gate the snow line was at least 1000ft above us. We made the quick decision to drive back to Smithbrook instead of walking with our skis up the rd for several hours to the snowline.

A few hours later a Smithbrook Rd we were greeted with a very snowy road and a winter storm as promised by the forecast. Damien was surprised at how slick xc skis are. It was his first time on the skinny skis! After an initial fall we caught on easily. Its very strange going from fat skis with skins to slippery, think xc skis!

Smithbrook had been well groomed by snowmobiles as usual. We climbed pretty easily through the wintry storm. Snowmobile tracks that were just created seemed to fill in extremely fast with the heavy, thick snowfall. Accumulation was pretty mind-blowing! At the high point a grey jay with a distinctive short trail followed Damien down the slope for at least 45 minutes. It did not follow me. I never saw it unless Damien was close by.

We descended from the high point of Smithbrook Rd. (about 4550ft) to junction where a sign indicated that 15 miles left was Lake Wenatchee and 4 miles right was Something (the name was covered with snow) Creek TH. The Creek TH rd seemed to have gotten less snowmobile use so we decided to head that way. We stopped at 3:00pm knowing that it would take at least an hour to set up camp in the deep snow drifts. Plus, we were sure when we would find another suitable place to camp. There section had a flat area away from any slopes a few yards away from the road not under trees. We wanted to avoid being under trees after hearing the previous weekend’s snow falling out of the pines like bombs.

After some sinking up to our hips as we tried to get camp together we managed to flatten out a stable place for the tent. Damien dug a 3 feet hold for the vestibule as he feared leaving our packs outside overnight. We might now find them in the morning if the thick snowflakes continued to fall! This was definitely the right decision.

Throughout the night we periodically banged on the walls of the tent to knock down the piling snow. At one point the snow on the sides of the walls got so thick the walls of the tent began sinking in and Damien had to go outside and dig us out. In the morning the accumulation was rather impressive. I would day anywhere between 2-2.5 feet fell overnight.

The going was slow but not too difficult as we took turns breaking trail back to Smithbrook Rd and then up to the high point. We were surprised that still no snowmobiles had passed through the area. Damien was greeted by a small flock of Grey Jays that followed him down the hill again for 30 minutes. They even landed on his arm and pole a few times!

At the Lake Valhalla Trailhead we stopped for a quick break. From here there were finally tracks to follow on the road ahead and as we snacked a snowmobile passed. We had a lovely glide down to Highway 2 where we found our car once again concealed in snow. It wasn’t as bad as last week through and we were able to dig out in 30 minutes this time!

Avalanche Danger was considerable and a winter weather advisory was in effect for the weekend. Not going outside is not exactly an option for Damien and I. We planned a conservative ski trip off of Smithbrook Rd. to Lake Valhalla.

We arrived at the pullout along Highway 2 just as snowflakes began to fall from the ski. Luckily we had just missed driving through the winter advisory. I’d rather camp in heavy snow than drive in it! Smithbrook was well groomed back the many snowmobiles that had headed up the road previously and the snow-cover was consistent. We did have get go under a fallen tree which proved very awkward with a heavy pack on skis! The snow grew heavier as we climbed the gradual switchbacks of the roads. We were passed by another skier who was on his way to Jove Mountain. We had discussed this open the previous night and Damien now felt compelled to make that our destination instead. He thought he saw the turnoff for it on the map soon after the Lake Valhalla Trail.

We passed the turnoff for Valhalla and continued up an endless switchback. After an hour of not hitting a turnoff we looked at the map again. It appeared we had gone way to far. We decided that we would go back and looked for the turnoff. If we missed it again we would just go to Valhalla as originally planned.

We ended up back at the Trailhead for Valhalla. The heavy snow was causing avy concern for Jove anyway so we weren’t feeling as strongly about going up the peak. There was a trail already broken and we began to follow it through the forested switchbacks. The forest is always amazingly gorgeous in falling snow and we reveled in the beauty of the winter wonderland.

We reached a Junction labeled with a sign that simple said “Smithbrook trail” and pointed in the direction we had come. To get to Vallalla we needed to turn left onto unbroken trail. If we headed straight o the broken trail we would arrive at lake Janis. We turned left and began to break trail through deep powder often above our knees. We fought drifts of snow where our skis got hopelessly buried and  sank to our hips at times. After 45-60 minutes of struggle we decided that we would turn back and head toward Janis instead. As it turned out, that broken trail dead ended at the downward switchbacks. It was getting late now and we opted to ski back to the sign at Union Gap. The snow was falling heavily and we wanted to be at a distinct destination we could find on a map since we expected the broken trail to be gone in the morning.

As expected the trail was gone in the morning. About two feet of snow fell overnight! We had bangs on the walls at night, but a far amount had piled up around us anyway. Every now and then we hear a giant “boom” sound (and feel the vibration too. It was snow dumping out of trees. This caused some concern,  but there wasn’t much we could do other than out on our helmets, travel with distance between us and wear our avy trackers.

We packed up camp did our best break a new trail in the right direction. We could follow a faint hint of the old track in section, but other times we just had to go where we thought the trail might be by examining the terrain. We had a few missteps, but ended up finding our way down the Smithbrook Rd without too much difficulty.

The road grade is very gradual and with only a few snowmobile tracks in the fresh powder it was difficult to gather speed to glide all the way down. Damien left one heel free which worked well for him. I’m a xc skier so i just left both heels free. When we arrived back at Highway 2 we discovered that our car was plowed in a concealed under a very thick layer of snow. It took about an hour to dig the whole thing out, but to be honest it was kind of fun!