After last weekend’s bout of intense sunshine, the snow returned! Thursday night and into Friday the freezing level dipped and the first storm cell released heavy snow in the mountains. Light snow persisted into the weekend with the next large release of snow predicted to occur Saturday evening into Sunday morning. Damien and I had to be flexible with our objectives and plans. Fresh snow in this amount could bring avalanche danger and, with no base layer, walking through talus presents dangerous hidden voids. We took into account that snowshoes do little to help with floatation in the absence of a base. However, there is always an adventure to be found no matter what the conditions! We set our sights on the Monte Cristo Group. After all our years climbing in the Cascades we have never visited this particular set of summits or even seen the Ghost Town of Monte Cristo! We decided that we would journey to Glacier Basin and set up camp. If conditions were safe, Damien and I could also attempt Cadet and Foggy Peaks.

The trail to Glacier Basin must be reached by walking the 4.2-mile old road to Monte Cristo. When we arrived Saturday, there was only a faint dusting on the road with sections of more coverage. Clouds hung low in the sky concealing the lofty peaks we knew surrounded us. The old road is easy to follow until reaching the banks of the river at one mile. Here we were faced with crossing a wide log dusted with slick, fresh powder. We safely crossed the log over the first branch of the river. Damien and I then dropped down to the gravel and crossed the second branch on a partially submerged, but less sketch log just to the left where the water was shallower.

From the river we easily followed the road into the abandoned ghost town of Monte Cristo. I was surprised at how much of the town is still standing. There are several small buildings, a train turntable and a few artifacts scattered about. After a brief break we continued past the trailhead sign and crossed the bridge on the left following the old Dumas Street. Along the road snow coverage became increasing consistent as we passed various signs notating where structures of importance once stood in the old town. The road petered into an actual trail beyond the sign for Glacier Basin (2.5 miles away).

We continued up the trail breaking free from the forest into an open valley enveloped in clouds and falling snow. Massive, craggy summits rose around us and we caught glimpses of the higher reaches as the winds intermittently brushed away the clouds. The trail gained elevation gradually at first, but near Glacier Falls the track suddenly reared upward. Damien and I climbed up steep trail and rocky blocks sometimes using the trees to assist the ascent. The blocks turned into slabs which were extremely slippery in the increasing powder. One of the gnarlist sections of slabs was protected by a permanent, rope handline which we very much appreciated.

After the high angle, tedious climbing following the valley around the back of misery hill, the grade finally eased. Instead, we now contended with 2 feet of soft, fluffy snow! Damien and I pushed through the snow with caution. There were sections of talus we needed to pass, and we fell into hidden voids abruptly on several occasions. Progress was exceedingly slow and tedious. The open basin we could vaguely make out through the thick snow and mist seemed to never grow closer as we followed the creek up-valley.

After what felt like ages of plowing through snow, the terrain opened into Glacier Basin. Through the low clouds and swirling snow, we could see Cadet, Monte Cristo and Wilman’s Spire engulfing the borders of the wintery basin. We crossed the running creek in a shallow spot and set up camp in the glorious amphitheater of craggy peaks.  The freezing level dropped and we hurried to put on more layers, breaking out our Feathered Friends Frontpoint jackets for the first time this season. Damien and I live for winter camping and alpine weather extremes! The first time we use the frontpoint jackets is always a splendid occasion for us!

Darkness never truly fell that night. The nearly fully moon reflected off the snow and mist giving the effect of mild dimming rather than true darkness. The clouds even lifted a bit and when we peaked out of the tent door at 9:30pm. We were able to make out some of the summits. But when we looked out again at 1:00 snow was falling fiercely and visibility had decreased to less than we had experienced all of Saturday. We wondered what would remain of our tracks. Some hours later we were awoken by the sound of avalanches on Wilman.

The snow still fell with vigor when we woke on Sunday morning and the temperature had decreased further. Damien and I plowed through over a foot of fresh powder to a large rock where we could get a better view of the route up Cadet. There was talus with hidden voids to negotiate, at least 2-3 feet of deep powder and avalanche potential in the gullies. Climbing seemed like a recipe for injury so we decided that we would return. Besides, getting down the Glacier Basin trail would probably provide plenty of technical travel! Damien and I even discussed the possibility of rappelling the steeper section of slabs.

Damien and I were in no hurry to leave the winter storm. The weather was just too beautiful for us to hurry out of the backcountry. Instead, we settled down outside, sitting on our packs and watching he snow whirl around us. Nothing could be more tranquil and perfect.

We did manage to finally rise to our feet and break down camp mid-morning. Both of us dreaded going down the Glacier Basin Trail, however, it wasn’t as horrific as we had anticipated. After Damien and I both slipped and fell hard on the first concealed slab, we discovered that we could simply glissade down the slick, smooth rock. Our tracks were, indeed, completely obliterated so we ended up plowing a new trail again, but it was easier descending and we made descent time getting back to Monte Cristo. The road was no longer snow free. The freezing level had dropped significantly overnight!

When we reached the river, Damien and I took the bridge over the first branch. We had missed the side trail leading to the dilapidated bridge on the way in. On the second branch we resorted to jumping rocks and crossing a small log (which Damien put in place for me as a courteous husband).  The snow-covered ground continued to the Trailhead (the snow line is at 1500 feet). A weekend of winter wonderland bliss! Ski and ice climbing season is nearing!

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