If you recall, 2 weeks ago Damien and I attempted to climb Union Peak via the North Ridge in a day. We ended up having to turn back since the complex terrain of the ridge caused some delay and we were running out of daylight. Two years ago, we also attempted the summit, but turned back due to avalanche concerns. Damien and I hoped for better luck this time given we had day days of low/moderate avy conditions to complete the climb.

Damien and I were the first ones on Smithbrook Road on Saturday morning. It was cloudy, and snow fell intermittently from the sky. Before long though, the silence was broken by snowmobilers motoring up the road. Usually, at least 8-10 groups pass us when we ski up Smithbrook, but this time only 2 parties passed us which was a welcome change of pace.

We made descent time skinning the 4.75 miles to Rainy Pass (also known as the Nason Saddle). We paused for a brief snack here which delighted the local grey jays. Damien and I wondered if we would find our old skin track from 2 weeks ago. There hadn’t been much any precipitation since, so it wasn’t out of the question. We didn’t find anything at first when we left the road and began to travel cross country across the North Ridge, but after several yards Damien and I discovered a weathered, old skin track! I cannot describe how stoked we were to find our old path. This would cut down on the route-finding at least up to where we’d turned back!

The first section of the ridge has uneven terrain and many obstacles to navigate (rocks, cliffs, thick trees, etc). This was made easy by following our old track. After traveling through the forest and veering to the left side of the crest, the trees open to an reveal open, high angled slope. Damien and I ventured onto the slope, confident that the snow-pack was plenty stable. Unfortunately, we discovered rather quickly that all the sunshine we’d experienced over the past 2 weeks had created a thick sheet of ice concealed beneath the 1-2 inches of the fresh powder that had fallen the night before.  Our skis had difficulty biting into the slope and we kept sliding on the new fluff. It didn’t take long for us to conclude that kick stepping across the slope and back to the crest was a safer alternative. Damien and I shouldered our skis and began to walk, which proved to be both effective and efficient.

Once on the now broader, and sparsely treed ridge crest, we clicked back into our skis and continued descending slightly to a small saddle just below the final climb up Union. The terrain here is not as complicated, but navigation around a few cliffs was still required to complete the .6 mile traverse to the final climb. Damien and I considered camping at the base of Union when we reached it at 2:45pm. Everything was taking longer than anticipated and we wondered what the final 700 feet of gain would be like. In the end we concluded that we had enough to daylight to reach the summit. Besides, it would be much more fun to camp at the top!

To our delight, the final ascent ended up being the easiest part of the entire day. We even ran into old snowshoe tracks and red blazes on the trees. The slope allowed for gentle switchbacks all the way to the flat, open summit! Finally, we stood at the top of Union on the third attempt! Damien and set up our pyramid tent on the summit using a few trees as wind protection.

Snow fell overnight, but in the morning, there was mix of snow and fine rain as the freezing level went up. Damien and I discussed a few descent options: Skiing down the NE slope was our first choice even though we didn’t have beta for it. Damien got eyes on this aspect the day before and noticed that it seemed to have open trees and moderate steepness all the way down to a side road in the basin that connected with Smithbrook Rd. Our other options if the NE slope didn’t go were to could backtrack along the ridge or descend via the snowshoe route.

Damien and I found a thicker band of trees than expected on the NE Slope, but once we broke through we found delightful, fun open tree skiing… until 300 feet down where we got cliffed out. It seemed like the cliff band ended possibly off to the left, so we traversed the slope only to come to a ravine. We ascended 40 feet to cross over the top of the ravine hoping to reach an open slope. Unfortunately, the open slope we encountered was a one way deal due to how we’d have to drop in. There was no turning back if it didn’t go as we thought. With a storm on the way later that day and no official beta, Damien and I decided it was safer to skin back to the ridge and use one of our other options.

Back on the ridge, Damien and I pondered if we should try to descend our climbing route, or try to follow the snowshoe track which we thought would lead us to the hairpin turn on Smithbrook Road. As we discussed our next move, the murmur of voices interrupted our thoughts and a large group of snowshoers appeared from the trees! They told us the snowshoe route was steep, but was very skiable and would be great fun for us. Neither one of us really wanted to do the ridge again since we’d end up taking our skins on and off the whole time and it seemed like the snowshoe route would be a fun ski descent according to the snowshoers.

The first 700 feet down to the saddle was easy skiing through open trees on the same route we’d taken the day before. At the saddle we turned away from the ridge and descended south. The trees were thicker than expected and the icy layer of snow made turning a challenge. We were able to continue until reaching a sudden increase in the slope angle. Here I opted to remove my skis and walk down the snowshoe track. Damien, being the more experienced skier, decided to try to ski it. He did well, but also took off his skis after about 400 feet to descent.

At about 4900 feet the grade eased enough for us to put our skis back on. It was not exactly a smooth ride, but we did make it back down to the hairpin turn without incident. We arrived just in time as well. The high freezing levels had begun to cause massive snow bombs to fall from tree limbs in puffs! It was an easy coast down the road back to the car on Hwy 20. Finally, success on Union Peak!

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