With all the ski resorts opening, Damien and I felt particularly compelled to brush the dust off our skis as well. Our first choice was Camp Muir. Unfortunately, there was a storm moving in Sunday afternoon and high winds were predicted to sweep over the mountain all day. Thus, we opted to give Surprise Mountain a try. We predicted the North face ascent would have plenty of snow on it. Also, the approach along Surprise Lake TH is commonly used in the winter. Damien and I figured we’d good boot pack at least part way along the 5.5 mile approach to Glacier Lake. If not, how bad could breaking trail be?
Damien and I started on the trail (2200 ft) at about 8:30am hauling our skis on our packs. This was anticipated for part of the journey as we knew the snow would not be thick enough for about 800 or so feet. However, we were surprised to discover that there were no tracks whatsoever. We would be cutting trail the entire way! The snow cover was mostly solid, but not consistent or thick enough until reaching about 3200 feet. Here we found a decent enough base and about 1 foot of coverage. Eagerly we unloaded our skis. After several months off it took a few tries to negotiate our boots into our tech bindings! Cutting a ski track went smoothly and we were happy to be floating as opposed to pushing through over a foot of powder with our boots. We could see bluebird skies above us and the sun’s radiation quickly began softening the snow covering branches of the pine trees. Large chunk of snow kept plopping abruptly out of the trees creating mini-whiteouts of powdery fluff. After getting bombed a few times I finally conceded to putting my hood up!
Damien and I navigated the snow concealed trail without issue until about the fourth switchbback. In the talus field we began to lose the path and our GPS seemed to be jumping everywhere. We knew the direction to travel in and were not concerned about simply making our own track. However, the treacherous terrain familiar with early season skiing slowed us down immensely. Voids, wells, stream crossings, large talus blocks and 3+ feet of very soft snow with only a subtle base continued to redirect our path and make the route considerably more difficult and less straight forward. By the time we regained the true trail on top of the plateau we were fatigued and surprised at the amount of time the ascent had taken. Following the trail once more, we made descent time to the junction with Trap Pass. It didn’t seem like we would make it to Glacier Lake or Surprise Mountain. Daylight hours were drawing to a close. Furthermore, assumed that climbing Surprise would have been dangerous in these early season conditions we had experienced so far. Still we wanted to at least get to Surprise Lake.
We continued into the open talus field, once again losing the trail. Around this time, I discovered that one of my skins had completely de-laminated from the ski. It caused me to slip everywhere when I side-hilled. I thought maybe I could remedy the problem by securing the skin a bit with a ski strap. Of course, when I stepped out of the ski I plunged into a void in the talus nearly reaping my knee. Luckily, Damien was there to release me from my predicament. Somehow, I am always getting stuck! With the skin secured we continued gingerly through the talus to the creek.
At the creek we encountered our next dilemma. The log bridge we first came across looked questionable. Damien and I weren’t sure if the snow was resting fully on the two logs coming across the creek. Since the logs were angled and not straight across the center of the bridge appeared like it might be a cornice of sorts giving the illusion of a solid crossing. Damien attempted the bridge first and sure enough the center collapsed. Luckily, he fell on the solid portion of the bridge. After some careful maneuvering he was able to take off his skis and toss them to me on the shore. Then he stepped over the running water were the bridge had collapsed and crossed the creek. Damien’s original plan was for me to throw his skis to him and then for me to cross somewhere else. He forgot that I can’t throw anything for my life. I attempted to get closer on the part of the bridge that was stable, but I could get close enough and when I tried to stand in the collapsed snow near the shore my feet got a little wet. We bailed on the plan and Damien very carefully crossed back to my side. After some exploration we found a large stable log to cross.
Following the treacherous creek fiasco, we carefully broke track through more talus that had some water flowing beneath it in places to the forest. A few minutes later we finally stood on the shore of Surprise Lake. In the fading light Damien and I skied along the flat shoreline to a small peninsula. Here, overlooking the frozen lake and snow adorned evergreena, we set up our Pyramid tent. It takes more work than our other winter tents. There is no floor, so a proper platform needs to be stamped down. But it allows for a raised bed and plenty of gear storage within the walls. You can almost stand up too!
By the time we finished setting up our sleeping bag the sun had dipped below the horizon and dark blue tones of a winter evening colored the landscape. Damien and I began the process of melting snow and cooking in the tranquil winter night. Nothing stirred in the darkness. All is silent, and serene on these cold, clear nights. It is unique to snow camping.
Damien and I procrastinated the next morning, taking out time with breakfast and heating water for beverages. I think neither one of us felt eager to make out way down the steep slope where we’d lost the trail the previous day. Our first turns of the year ended up being “survival skiing”. Poor coverage, terrain traps and tight conditions made for very tedious and slow downward progress. After about 400 ft of descent we resorted to plunge stepping back down to the trail. But we got to ski!
You never know what conditions you’ll find this early in the season. I think the important thing is to be flexible and make the most out of whatever you encounter. I know we still had a spectacular time playing in the mountains even though we didn’t do exactly what we planned!

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