This weekend’s activity ended up being different then what was originally intended once again. We were going to climb Cave Ridge and then Snoqualmie Peak. We first parked in the Alpental lot and went inside to ask if we could park there overnight. Three employees uncertainly told us maybe the upper lot. We drove to the very top upper lot and tried to verify that we could park overnight there with another employee. They said no and told us to drive back down to visitor services at Alpental and ask the service desk to call security to find out. We did so and still no one knew the answer. We were also told we could not park in the RV Overnight Fee lot since we drive a regular SUV. Instead we were directed to drive to the Forest Service Ranger Station to get an answer. We again did as suggested but no one there could tell us where to park overnight once again. Very frustrated at this point we gave up and drove to Smithbrook Rd (just beyond Stevens Pass). As an update I will say that  staff as The Summit at Snoqualmie has thus far responded to my emails regarding this matter and have been very helpful in planning future trips. I am still awaiting answers to some additional questions, but thus far I am happy with how promptly they addressed this issue. We will see how it goes with my followup inquiries.

As things would turn out we decided to head to Stevens Pass instead. We had our AT skis and decided to climb Union Peak since we would have enough time to get on the ridge before sundown even with the delayed noon start. We made good time up skinning up Smithbrook Rd. It was plowed through my snowmobiles so no need to cut trail. We were very aware of avalanche potential and kept an eye on distance slopes looking for recent activity. The forecast for all of the cascades was considerable except for below treeline which was moderate. We had a major rain event early in the week followed by a major so event so it was expected for there to be a weak layer of new snow on top of a stable, saturated layer.

After we passed the Lake Valhalla Trailhead an began to traverse along the lower slope of Union Peak along Smithbrook Rd we began to see lots of avalanche debris. In fact the debris was on the road. There was a snowshoe track through a large section of this debris. It seemed that snowmobiles though turned around. We stayed on the compacted trail. Most debris was older, but some new crowns very visible. About 2/3 of the way into the traverse the snowmobile tracks reappeared on the road. They had come straight up from the lower road switchback on the slope. The avalanche debris disappeared from the road after that.

From the Nason Ridge Saddle we turned off of Smithbrook Road and headed left up Union Ridge cutting our own track. The snow was thick and heavy so we didn’t sink much. The terrain is forested with lots of snow drifts. No avalanche concerns since we were still below treeline and on a ridge.  It was getting on into the evening hours as we get to the 1/3 point along the ridge to the summit. In front of us the ridge seems to descent. Then there was a massive hump that rose at treeline. It appeared that we might have to traverse around that feature. Since were were in a nice open flat area with great views we decided to call it a day at 5:00pm and set up camp. The avalanche danger was supposed to go own to moderate at tree level on Sunday and it made more sense to do the more treacherous climbing with lighter loads since we could leave a lot of gear at camp.

It snowed on and off as it had been all day. But there was no major accumulation overnight. Were were able to see the lights from Stevens Pass Ski Area. They were so bright they lit up the clouds on that side of the ridge!

The next morning we broke camp at about 7:30am and continued to break track along the ridge. The ridge descended for some time and then evened out until we hit the hump we had seen the previous evening. We traverse around the hump left (going right was not an option due to terrain) until we broke out of the tree and onto an open slope of 35-45 degrees. Supposedly the forecast was now avalanches moderate at treeline, but this terrain looked like to could slide due to the angle. From the edge of the trees we turned and looked upward. Instead of crossing the slope we decided to go directly up it to regain the ridge. There were a few more trees that way offering safe places to stop and evaluate. Plus, taking off our skis and going up seemed safer. Thus we put out skis on our packs and headed up. Damien broke the trail by half tunneling and half crawling up what ended up being a very steep slope. We  leapfrogged up going from tree clump to tree clump. I attempted to take a turn breaking trail, but my 5’5″ frame wasn’t built for efficient tunneling. I made tediously slow progress so Damien broke/tunneled the way up the slope from them on.

As we neared the top of the ridge we came across the huge wind slab which was slightly cornices. Damien found himself hip deep in the slab and it was deemed risky to continue around it to the ridge-top. The slightly safer option was to climb over the top of the cornice and onto the slope. However, this idea did not give us the warm fuzzies either. We opted to descend which was must faster than going up!

Back at the slope we had originally stopped at Damien mentioned that the snow was more stable than be had expected to to be as he tunneled up. Maybe could cross safely after all. But we weren’t entirely convinced So we decided to dig a snow pit. It was very clear that there was about 1 foot of fresh loose snow on top of a saturated, compressed stable layer. We performed the tap test first. It took 17 tapes of collapse. We began to dig a second pillar to do the shear test… it collapse almost on its open when Damien tap it by mistake when it was almost done. We performed both tests again. The shear test being the test that convinced us both to turn back. The unstable upper layer of snow sheared off the compressed layer with almost no effort.

We returned to camp and packed up. On the traverse along the lower slopes of Union Peak along Smithbrook Rd Damien thought it was safer to drop down to the lower switchback the way the snowmobiles had instead of crossing the old avy debris. The way down looked sketch to me as far as steepness and I didn’t feel comfortable side-hilling it in skis. Damien began to drop down while i put my skis on my pack figuring on could plunge step down. However, when I was all set up and ready to take my first step I saw that the snow was way more compressed than I anticipated, Too compressed to plunge step. I could go on the untouched snow, but the point was to stay in a compressed area to avoid avalanche danger.  Damien was already 1/4 of the way down so I told him to continue (he couldn’t get back up if he wanted to). I put my skins back on and climbed over the old avy debris along the road. It was stable on the track so there were no concerns although separating wasn’t our first option for sure.

Damien and I met up again 15 or so minutes later and continued our journey back to the trailhead. The ski down was excellent. I had my heels free since last time on this road earlier in the winter i didn’t get much glide. This time i definitely could have locked my heels. Damien had one heel locked and the other free.

So another fun trip and our first summit attempt of 2016… many more to come!



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