This is another example of how what you plan and what occurs are rarely the same thing in the alpine. With another window of sunny clear days and moderate avalanches predicted we decided to do a three day tour near Washington Pass. We developed the idea from what is commonly called the Birthday Tour by AT skier only we made some adjustments for climbing and dealing with the hwy 20 closure. Our itinerary was to ski Hwy 20 5 miles from Silver Star Creek to The Blue Lake TH. From there we would ski as close to the base as possible to South Winter Early Spire and Camp. On Saturday we would ski from camp to the base of SEWS SW Couloir, leave our skis and climb to the summit. Then we would descend to camp, gather our gear and climb Blue Mountain before moving on to camp somewhere near Copper Peak. On Sunday we would ski to the summit of Copper and then down the drainage to the bottom of the hairpin Turn. Then out. This is exactly what did not happen this weekend.

Everything began as planned. We parked at the Hwy 2o road closure at Silver Star Creek and began skiing along the shoulder at about 7:30am. There was a sign warning of road clearing would a cannon setting off avalanches Mon-Thursday… but it was Friday so it was safe. In fact the road was clear as far as we could see. So clear that cyclist passed us! We skied first along the left side of the road before switching to the right after the guard rail skiing got to dicey and narrow for my tastes. By 10:00 the sun was baking us and we were hearing some huge booms echos across the mountains. Moderate avy danger? At 4 miles we were nowhere near the hairpin turn and looking at my GPS revealed the google maps had been very very wrong about it being 5 miles to Blue Lake TH. It appeared to be double that! We realized that it was about to me a very very long day. We thought that carrying out skis instead of breaking trail in the quickly softening snow might save some time. This we shouldered our skis and ambled down the blazing hwy in our ski boots.

This process of walking with 65ish lbs on my back in ski boots down pavement in the heat positively destroyed me. I cannot describe how much pain my shoulders and back were in after 4 miles. We stopped a few times and talked to some folks on their way down from near the Hairpin Turn. One gentleman confirmed that avalanches were going off like bombs off the south slopes. We knew some serious assessment would be in order before we climbed anything going forward.

We cut the switch back that is the hairpin turn and ended up on the upper part of the road were there was tons of avy debris from the cannons. We entered the road right after the thick of it though and were able to skin along a nice flat un-plowed Hwy 20 for the next two miles. It was untouched here by humans for a long time. The snowmobile track were faint and old.  Solitude. No one crazy enough to ski this far!

We saw a few avalanches explodes of the slopes on the mountain across the highway as we finally turned onto the Blue Lake Trail. We skied through the trees following some old ski tracks part of the way to the opening in the forest that is famous for huge avalanches. Sure enough it was a massive debris field… fairly new. We skied below that and then entered the open slopes below the Liberty Bell Group. The sun was low in the sky by now and it wasn’t as warm. But the snow was mushy from the days heat making things a little more challenging as we switch-backed up the steep slope toward South Winter Early Spire. I felt wrecked at this point, but kept note of the landscape around us. There was lots of avalanche debris and camp would have to be planned accordingly.

Luckily, we found a protected area about 1000ft below the base of the SW Couloir. We were able to also examine the route for the rest of our trip from the vantage point. There was a huge cornice on the ridge leading to Blue Lake Peak. We knew it would be there as the peak is known for the cornice, but the scale was indescribable. We scratched climbing that mountain after watching so many cornices collapse all day. The climb wasn’t under the cornice directly, but it was beside it and it looked like a slide woudl easily fan out in the chute. As far as Copper, we saw it from the Hairpin turn and thought we saw it from camp…. but the entire ridge-line and area directly below it to approach was corniced and/or rocky. We scratched that too. We would go out the way we came in.

After enjoying a spectacular color show at sunset we turned in only to be awakened my my alarm it what felt like 5 minutes. We started to ski up the final 1000ft to the base of SEWS at 6am, but the cold night temperatures has made the once mushy snow a solid icy mass. Ski crampons didn’t even work and we ended up adding our skis to our packs. The ascent was rough especially after our long Friday. My shoulders and back felt wretched, but we took turns kicking a staircase up the steep slope making slow progress. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived a  large rock near the base of the route that offered a flattish spot to set up. we roped up here and ditched our skis. We were skill in the shadows and we be for a while. But some of the south facing peaks int he distance had avalanche bombs already exploding down the walls. Damien began to lead and when the rope was extended i began to follow… it was then that a snow slab on the rocks above came into view. if the slab went it would take our skis with it on its way down. I called Damien to come back and we moved our skis to another spot directly at the base of the route by some trees. Again we started up.

Damien placed a picket and slung a tree before disappearing beneath the famous chockstone. He told me that the route seemed out and he could belay be up from the moat. Its hard to describe, but I arrived to the crest of the snow under the huge chockstone and poked my head over the top. the snow sloped down to a huge cave like moat under the chockstone. Damien stood 20 ft below me belaying. Normally there is a way to get around either the left or right side of the chockstone. However, this year had melt in such a fashion that accessing the sides of the stone was impossible without some risk taking and perhaps a pair of climbing shoes. I’m not even sure it would be possible then. The route, as far as we could tell, was out. As a side note, we double checked the beta back at home and some pictures. This is indeed appear to be the case.

I led the down-climb back to the skis. The sun was working its back up the slope softening the icy morning snow. We took out time putting our climbing gear away and switching back to skis. After a few short icy turns and a bumpy ride through avalanche debris we entered the snow and made some spectacular turns on perfect corn snow back to camp!

We promptly feel asleep until early afternoon. The snow was a wonderful consistency still and we considered this as we examined our next move. We could stay put and leave in the morning. The previous night had been so gorgeous under the towering rock. However, the descent through the trees would be much morning fun in corn snow. On the morning ice skiing would be horrendous. Thus we opted to pack up and move camp to Washington Pass.

We enjoyed some more perfect turns on the open slopes to the trees from camp. It was wonderful tree skiing conditions, plus the trees were just far enough apart to take the anxiety of crashing into on out of the equation. I also felt more confident for some reason this time around in general. Finally feeling better about my turns.  At the trailhead we put on our skins and skied the final mile to Washington Pass where we set up camp in the road.

Evening settled over the pass. Mountains surrounded us in every direction and  I thought of the summers when this road is bustling with traffic and tourists. But now the road was a stretch of white snow. There were no engine fumes to stain the fresh air or noisy people pointing at the peaks from the viewpoint. The only sounds were the grey jays begging in the trees and the soft wind touching the pines. Washington Pass and the Liberty Bell Group… we had visited these areas in solitude and seen them in way very few people have. We had seen them in solitude. Undisturbed and beautiful.

The stars were on display with full radiance that night and a lone owl serenaded us at midnight. In fact he get pretty excited with his calls. I think he found a mouse colony. We packed up and skied without skins down the hairpin turn, though we had to take our skis off a few times to get over the piles of avalanche debris. From the hairpin we followed the cat-track/ snowmobile trail on the shoulder bouncing on the hardened morning snow. It did eventually soften up and except for a short mile section were were able to coast heel free back to the car. That was amuch faster and more enjoyable trip than it had been on the way up! VIEW VIDEO

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