Damien and I were feeling a bit drained from driving the long commute back and forth to Canada for the past few weekends. Although the avalanche danger seemed decent in Duffy Lake, we opted this weekend to take a “rest” and go for a more local objective. After some discussion we settled on an enchainment of Granite Mountain, Tusk O’Granite (aka West Granite) and Pratt Mountain. There is very little ski beta for Granite and no ski information on the other two peaks, let alone a ski enchainment. However, all the summits are winter scrambles, how difficult could it be in skis? Ah famous last words.

We expected cloudy skies on Saturday morning and a few raindrops here and there. However, when we pulled into the Pratt Lake TH parking lot the pitter patter of water on the sunroof was rather consistent. Armed with full Gore-Tex coverage, Damien and I shouldered our packs weighed down by out skis and began up the well-used trail. We expected to reach the snow line within the first mile as we had in Dec 2016. However, instead of snow, we found dirt gleefully decorated with long sheets of ice. Dancing around on slippery ground while lugging skis with no traction resulted in some very fancy footwork.

Damien and I were unable to convert to skinning until about 4300 feet, just above the tree line. By then I felt fatigued from the long journey uphill carting my skis and, on top of that, wearing new boots. In whiteout, stormy conditions Damien and I pressed upward, following a recent snowshoe track that was already getting concealed by the powerful winds. Following the East Ridge, Damien and I summited Granite Mountain mid-afternoon. After admiring a marvelous, close up view of the clouds we began to contemplate our descent to the saddle.

We continued along the windblown ridge, digging our edges into the icy slope. The gentle ridge, dropped off aggressively after several meters. Again, Damien and I strapped our skis to our packs. We faced inward to the slope, using our whippets to slowly descend the steep, icy slope and navigate through some protruding rocks. We even saw blue ice in places!

Once again on soft snow near the low point of the saddle back in the trees, Damien and I put our skis back on and searched for a suitable campsite. We found a small flat area, protected from the fierce winds. For good measure we dug a giant hole for the tent and constructed a fort. We had a three-season tent with us this trip and, thus, didn’t want to take any chances.

Damien and I had a difficult time emerging from the tent the next morning. It’s always a taxing event to get out of your sleeping bag in the winter when you’re so warm and cozy! Eventually, we scampered out of the tent to have breakfast and pack up our home. Due our unhurried pace, we weren’t in our skis until 8:50am, but there was no need to rush.

Damien and I continued along the saddle until it slowly began to rear upward toward the summit of Tusk O’Granite. To our delight, we were able to keep our skis on for the ascent and encountered no ice on the open slopes just before the top. Again, we were granted with mostly a closeup look of the clouds on the summit, but this time we could also see the faded outline of nearby peaks like Katleen and the ridge of Granite Mountain. We descend a few yards down the other side before ripped our skins off in the shelter a small stand of evergreens. Finally, it was time for some turns. The snow was extremely stable and, although it was not powder, it skied well. In fact, Damien and I experienced some very enjoyable turns through open trees and then down a steep, open slope leading to the saddle between Pratt and Tusk O’Granite. I was super stoked with my new ski boots and the stiffness gave me confidence in my turns. Maybe too confident as I crossed my skis on the black diamond hill and took a long, high speed fall somehow missing every protruding rock in my path. My whippet wouldn’t bite, but I managed to stop myself with my ski. After that I was a bit less bold!

We continued down until we reaching the stamped out trail above Olallie Lake on the saddle at 4200 feet. Damien and I took our skis off here. Even though there was snow at this elevation it was extremely hard and iced out. Instead we adhered our climbing skins back to our skis and strapped them to our packs. It was a simple, mostly flat walk along the well-traveled trail to the base of the ridge leading to Pratt. It appeared that the winter scramble route had seen lots of visitation lately good boot pack led right up the ridge. We followed the first few hundred feet in our boots, but converted to skis when we felt the terrain would allow for descent skinning. We had to carry them a few times to get over extremely steep areas near boulders and dense trees just before the tree line. However, once the trees parted Damien and I had a wonderful, easy skin up a gradual incline to the summit. Another view of clouds!

The ski descent from Pratt back to the trail was once again excellent, but short-lived. Once we entered the forest and tried to ski the trail things got a bit spicy with icy snow, steep terrain and dense trees. Basically, it was survival skiing and once again the skis came back off. Luckily, the terrain mellowed out once we returned to the saddle and were able to ski a bit more before we hit a series of creeks forcing us to shoulder our boards again. They stayed on backs for the rest of our long, five mile march out.

There is a reason no one does this enchainment by ski. I don’t think many folks are willing to spend so much time carting their skis on their back! We thought it was fun though… maybe type 2 fun, but we like that kind!

After having to bail on Cassiope & Saxifrage, Damien and I ventured back out into the wilderness on our quest to summit a Duffy Lake Rd. peak on New Year’s Day. After we returned to the car from our attempt of Cassiope/Saxifrage, we drove 3km down the road and parked at the Joffre Lakes Trailhead. Our plan was to complete the approach for Tszil Mountain. Then we would set up camp and continue as far as we could up the mountain to get a lay of the land and, perhaps, break trail if need be. On New Year Day we would wake early for a summit bid.

Damien and I departed the parking lot at 9:00am. After bushwhacking and battling the day before, having a well-traveled trail to skin on felt like quite the luxury! The sign at the trailhead claims that it is 3km to the edge of Upper Joffre Lake and our book described it as a gentle stroll through the valley. It does not mention that all 1300 feet of gain is done more or less in only 1.5km! In other words, the track was aggressively steep in many sections. Still, it was comparably tame related to the day before, and Damien and I were distracted by the excellent views.

In late morning, Damien and I reached the edge of Upper Joffre Lake in the shadow of massive Joffre Peak and it’s many hanging glaciers. The blue ice of the seracs beckoned and I wished there was a safe way to climb them! Instead, we continued on crossing the frozen lake aiming for the continuation of the valley and Tszil Mountain which could be see at the far end alongside Taylor.

On the other side of the lake, Damien and I touched land again, but found that the track did not continue into the valley to the mountain. We began breaking track through a talus field to a large bench above the lake. We opted to set up camp here using some boulders as shelter. As were we preparing to continue our exploration and telemark skier appeared from behind the boulder. He inquired as to if there was where the track ended which we verified. He said that he was heading for the saddle between Tszil and Taylor and sped off. Damien and I could not believe how swiftly he broke trail!

With lighter packs Damien and I continued down the valley, grateful for the telemark skier’s skin track. Although we were going to a different saddle (between Tszil & Slolak), we were happy to save some energy on the final approach to the base.

The valley gently ascends with rolling bumps to an upper, open bowl. Here the bumps increase in angle. At the end of the valley is the slope leading to the saddle between Tszil and Taylor. We would need to turn left to ascend the glacier on the left side of Tszil. From a distance the slope to the saddle looked violently steep and it seemed that in order to access the summit slope we would need to cross a sketchy, exposed ramp. Damien and I hoped it was an illusion and just the angle we were looked at the mountain from that made it appear intimidating. Indeed, once directly under the saddle at the bottom of the moraine pile, we could see that the slope was a series of gentle humps and not a straight up shot. Damien and I left the telemark track and began to break trail up Tszil. After 48 minutes we reached the toe of the glacier. It was 3:00pm and we opted to call it for the day. In the morning we would only have 900 more feet of track to break.

Damien and I ripped off our skins. The slope was pristine with only our own skin track to mark it. Fresh pow! The ride down to camp was by far the best backcountry ski run we’d ever experienced in our lives. Soft powder that wasn’t too deep over a firm base. The best of both worlds! We were stoked to top out and do the full ski run the next morning!

 

Damien and I started off from camp at 7:00am by headlamp the next morning, the first day of 2018. In two hours we reached our high point at the toe of the glacier from the previous day. Damien and stepped onto the glacier and began to break track once again. White clouds hung low in the sky as we ascended, and we wondered if they would burn off in time for our descent. Skiing in flat light is never fun. Luckily, as we continued up a tiny patch of blue appeared on the horizon and it slowly expanded!

Damien rounded the glacier trending left, away from the steepest of the slopes keeping them track free and also avoiding prolonged exposure to some cornices hanging off of neighboring Slalok Mountain. As we ascended we could see that the sketch ramp that appeared to lead to the summit from the base was worse that it appeared, but also not the way to the top. From the ground you cannot see the true summit, nor can you see the wide-open slopes that lead to the summit dome! It looked fantastic!

Damien and I paused for a bit at the saddle to eat and put on some layers as the winds were picking up at this attitude. Then I broke trail up through the gentle, boulder slopes to the ridge of the summit dome on the far right. From here it was a simple, straight ascent up the snow slope to the wide open and flat summit.

Our first 2018 summit! Damien and I felt that we’d started the year off appropriately! After taking some time to admire the 360-degree views, Damien and I ripped off our skins and prepared to descend. This was our first time skiing down an untracked mountain and our first time skiing on the glacier. I hope we do this more often. It was epic with snow conditions just as pristine as the day before! Damien and I didn’t want to journey down to end we and were tempted to skin back to the summit! Unfortunately, it was time to return to camp and then to The States.

The ski down Joffre Lakes Trail resembled skiing down a steep and narrow toboggan. I don’t think I have ever used the “pizza” stop so much in my life! Somehow it was also enjoyable, and we reached the the car with huge smiles and on the massive high from the weekend adventure. Bring on the 2018 escapades!

Last year Damien and I attempted Cassiope and Saxifrage in the Duffy Lake area of British Columbia. We ended up turning back while trying to bushwhack through the forest to the “swamp.” Too many hazards and not enough snow coverage. We knew that this year we could expect more snow on the ground so we decided to try again. Damien and I dug a parking spot out at km 10 on Duffy Lake Road and started out on the old logging road following the beta and staying left at the junction. At the end of the road we cut right into the forest, once again heading for the swamp. The extra snow on the ground this year did not make the terrain any less hazardous. The short section of forest is a maze of blow downs, tree wells, dense thicket and moats. I’m not sure it was any less dangerous than last year. I think our risk tolerance is higher.

It took a a good 2 hours to battle our way through this pathetically short, but tedious section to the flat swamp. I lost count of how many times I fell into moats, voids and wells and had to be dragged out by Damien! Luckily, skiing the swamp was straight forward. We took a quick break in which Damien noted a road on the other side of the swamp. It appeared that it would not require a bushwhack to get to and this logging road led back to our car! Wished we’d noticed that sooner or the beta had suggested that route instead!

Never the less, Damien and I continued following the small river through the swamp until it led us away into a small valley. At this point our beta suggested crossing the river (which wouldn’t have been an issue) and traversing the open slope on the opposite side. From the high point on the slope we could enter the trees and continue on to the basin and camp at the lake. As an alternative, in questionable avalanche danger one could stay on the same side of the river and travel up the forested slope to gain the lake. Since it was considerable avy danger that day, Damien and I opted against the open slope and began to ascend the trees.

At first we were easily able to skin through open forest and small open areas, but once the trees grew denser and the angle steepened everything changed. Suddenly the bushwhack down to the swamp seemed like a mere saunter down the PCT. The icy ground beneath the layer of fresh snow forced us to remove our skis and begin boot-packing up. We found ourselves in another maze of blow-downs and as we ascended the powder grew so deep that at times we swam through waist level snow! To top that off, we encountered waterfall ice that required us to carefully negotiate just along side it without crampons on icy or mixed terrain. We kept going hoping it would ease and spurred on by the fact that we had worked so hard to get this far!

However, at 3:30 and still 1,000 feet away Damien and I conceded to the mountains. We did not want to be bumbling around in the sketchy forest in the dark. Damien and I half plunge stepped, half fell down back to the swamp. Switching on our headlamps we crossed the open expanse hoping the road we’d discovered on the map existed.

Luckily, we arrived on the map promised road without incident and without battling terrain! In the darkness Damien and I began the process of setting up our tent and melting water. Only, darkness is perhaps the incorrect word. The nearly full moon shown so magnificently bright that the wilderness around us looked like a black and white picture! Everything was illuminated in full detail under the astoundingly brilliant moonlight! It was 10:00pm, by the time we turned in; definitely later than normal for us in the winter!

Damien and I were packed up and moving down the road  to the car guided by moonlight at 6:30am. We wanted to return to the TH with plenty of time to begin the approach of our new objective. Tszil!

 

Damien and I only had a half day to ski on Christmas since we needed to drive 8 hours pack to The States. We opted for a short tour through the Teddy Bear Trees not too far from the parking lot. Who doesn’t want to ski something with that name?! We did not have a picture of the route or a great description, except for a small line on our map. Luckily, finding the junction off the main track wasn’t difficult. Basically we took a right when we reached the first main gully.

Damien and I followed the track though mostly open slopes with some slide alder for several hundred feet before the trail curved into the forest. The Teddy Bear Trees were supposed to be more left than we were headed, but we assumed the trail would curve back over. It didn’t. Instead, Damien and I ascended aggressive switchbacks through the trees aiming more and more right. Finally we stopped to locate ourselves on the map and discovered we were not in the Teddy Bears Trees, but on the restricted Grizzly Shoulder. With avalanche danger moderate we weren’t too worried about the slopes being bombed. All the same, we did not have a permit to be in the area and we prepared to descend. It was getting late in the morning anyway so we didn’t miss much tour time.

The descent from the shoulder was steep, deep and tight tree skiing. Probably the most difficult I’ve done in my life. But it was my type if fun (type 2)! Damien loved it too and made some impressive turns through the forest. It would have been nice if I didn’t need to be rescued from a tree well, but things happen!

We arrived back down at the main trail and skied back to the visitor center. A great end to a perfect backcountry ski Christmas!

On our third day at Rogers Pass Damien and I decided to leave the well traveled Connaught Drainage and explore the Asulkan. Last year we skied down Glacier Crest via the moraines making for the spiciest ski descent we’ve ever experienced. A mess of cliffs, blue ice, terrain traps and glacial junk to navigate! This time we planned to skin up the moraines and make an attempt to reach Pearly Rock. For some stange reason we just had to visit this maze of a moraine again! Damien and I began our journey in the dark skinning up the well traveled main trail from the Asulkan parking Lot. Temperatures were easily around -11 Fahrenheit,; the coldest it had been on our Rogers Pass trip. My nose hairs frozen instantaneously and I feared my eyeballs might freeze solid if I didn’t blink enough!

Damien and I reached the turnoff for the Great Glacier Trail just as darkness began to fade. We switched off our headlamps and crossed the small bridge. The skin track here hadn’t been used since the last snowfall. We could see the tracks vaguely in the forest enough to follow. However, as the track entered the rocky creek-side marking the beginning of the moraine maze, the track transformed to only a whisper that often vanished at times. The creek-bed was snow/ice covered, but we could hear water flowing beneath it. I did out best to break trail along the side where it was open, but terrain forced us into the trees and first large boulders of the moraines. We found ourselves in a labyrinth of massive rocks, cliffs and voids. High above us we could see the familiar upper moraine field filled with ominous terrain traps. Pearly Rock seemed like and unattainable destination. In addition, Damien observed storm slab issues as be took his turn breaking trail and I observed that iI could no longer feel my fingers and toes!

I experienced my worst bout of frost bite in the moraines. I’ve had ‘frost nip’ before, but the searing pain of frost bite brought me to tears. Damien helped me undo my pack as my fingers were useless. We located my hand warmers and I shoved my hands deep into my mittens. There was nothing I could do for my feet, but with my hands warming up the pain in my lower extremities became more tolerable. Damien and I reconsidered our route choice and decided that in extreme cold, no skin track, sketchy terrain and a possible wind slab issue did not fix into our acceptable risk margin.

Damien and I retraced our steps back to the main skin track and followed it further into the Asulkan Valley. Often this route is called A-slog-in because it is a long and endless approach to reach the towering peaks with epic skiing. It is also mostly flat requiring a skier to put their skins back on after a descent. Most people stay in one of the backcountry huts since the approach is long enough to warrant an overnight stay. We knew we wouldn’t get far with only 4 hours of daylight remaining, but we wanted to see the famous valley for future reference.

The lofty, snow covered peaks, were indeed epic as they reared high above us glowing in the afternoon sun… but only for a moment. Damien and I sat down to bask in the pleasant warmth and in ten minutes the sun dripped behind the mountains casting the valley back into shadows! In the winter this far north the sunshine is short lived indeed!

Damien and I turned around just before entering The Tree Triangle and skinned (or slogged) back to the [parking lot). When we returned to the Roger Pass Discovery Center I finally had the chance to look at me feet. The tips of my toes were purple. Definitely frostbite! I’ll have to be cautious for the rest of the season.

On our second day at Roger Pass in Glacier National Park Canada, Damien and I set our sights on a summit. In January we’d climbed Video Peak in the Ursus area and we’d heard that it was in great shape the day before. However, we also wanted to go for a different summit if possible. Therefore, we decided to go prepared for two options. Our main objective was Ursus Minor, a larger peak with the same approach as Video. However, the ascent would be more in an avalanche prone area and require several meters of class 4 scrambling on the ridge to attain the summit. For this reason we packed crampons and an ice axe. If Ursus Minor conditions looked sketch from Hospital Bowl we could easily change course and climb Video again.

We set our from the Rogers Pass Discovery Center along the main trail, turning right at the first junction to cross the bridge as we had the day before. The route to Hospital Bowl follows the Connaught Drainage. In the open area just before the last band of trees we turned right and followed a side skin track through the forest. There are some steep kick turns on this track, but is is well worn and manageable. In seemed much easier than the skin track we first used to attain Hospital Bowl nearly a year ago. After perhaps 1000 feet of gain the trees begin to open up and the grade becomes gentle gaining the last few hundred feet to the tree line and Hospital Bowl entrance.  Gazing up a Ursus Minor to our right and seeing what appeared to be a gnarly ridge and avalanche debris in the chute next door to the ascent route, we quickly turned our attention to Video Peak.

Damien and I continued up the skin track, ascending gradually up the rolls and bumps of Hospital Bowl in long, sweeping switchbacks. This is perhaps the most time consuming part of climbing Video: ascending the bowl to finally reach the base of the mountain. It is pleasant going through and the views of MacDonald and Sir Donald are incredible to behold, especially as a clear day like the one we experienced. Of course clear means cold, and I wore a light puffy the entire time. It was easily -5 Fahrenheit.

Finally we reached the rock band that marks the base of the Video Peak. Here we followed switchbacks up the right side of the mountain. The track is  exposed and we had our whippets ready. To gain the ridge near the upper rocks we needed to remove our skis and boot about 10 feet straight up. From here we followed the ridge and traversed under the summit to reach the broad slope open slope the other side. Damien and I tried to skin to the top, but the area was skied out and our edges wouldn’t bite. Instead, we carried our skis the final few meters to the top. Summit # 40 for the year!

After taking in the 360 degree views, Damien and I prepared for the descent. We were very excited since this time we wouldn’t have to contend with flat light as we had during our January tour of this mountain. To top it off, the route was about half as skied our as last time! Indeed, Damien and I enjoyed rad turns in deep pow all the way back down to the treeline. Descending Ursus Trees was a bit tricky with all the bumps and obstacles on the route, but we managed to descend back to the main skin track and avoid the crummy gully we ended up skiing down last time.We arrived back at the parking lot just before headlamps would have become necessary. Another epic pow day at Rogers Pass!

 

Damien and I originally planned to backcountry ski in Duffy Lake Providential Park for the long Christmas weekend. However, on Thursday evening when the latest avalanche forecast was released it seemed that the snow pack was not settling as well as originally predicted. We checked the status of some other regions and, drawn by memories of epic powder, Damien and I decided to commit to the 8 hour drive to Glacier National Park Canada.

Damien and first visited the Rogers Pass area of Glacier National Park in BC about a year ago en route to Canmore, Alberta. The park is riddled with impressively large and rugged peaks, vast glaciers and epic powder. It is a ski mountaineering mecca! Unfortunately, camping is very restricted during the winter months in the park, so we would have to resort to camping in our CRV along side some nice sprinter van build-outs. At least we learned from last season and brought 4x as many blankets!

After picking up our overnight parking permit from the Rogers Pass Discovery Center, Damien and I headed out on the main skin track into the Ursus Area. It snowed 5 inches overnight and avalanche danger was considerable above treeline. This suited us well as we didn’t want to take on anything too significant after driving through the night with minimal sleep. We set our sights on a simple tour up Balu Pass with a side trip up the Balu shoulder.

The powder was as perfect as we remembered. Once again I immediately fell in love with how my climbing skins glided over the track like a hot knife through butter. Rogers Pass spoils me and Cascade concrete just cannot compare on the up-track. The clouds cleared above and the sun illuminated the majestic lofty summits the towering above us as we skinned up the Connaught Drainage. The peaks here look Himalayan and I am spellbound every time I journey into the valley.

The route to Balu Pass is straight forward. After less than a kilometer there is a fork in the main trail. Damien and I turned right and crossed a small bridge over the creek. Then we continued on through the valley staying on the main trail throughout. Turning left at this junction is also applicable as this trail ends up linking back up with the one we followed, but it is better suited for a down track in our experience. In any case, the main trail leads all the way to the drainage’s end and up to Balu Pass which is nearly always visible throughout the journey. The skin track is well worn in and easy switchbacks lead easily to the pass after 2611 feet of gain.

The temperature was notably frigid as we skinned through the valley, the the wind that blasted us as we crested the pass knocked the temperature down further well in to negative degrees! We tried to find some shelter in the spruce trees that dotted the ridge, but they seemed to have  funnel effect on the wind making things feel even more arctic! Fortunately, the views of distant white mountains and expansive glaciers made all the cold worth it. I continued to wear my puffy as we followed the skin track up the shoulder in the direction of Balu Peak!

The gusts settled as we climbed the shoulder. I think the pass has a wind tunnel effect. Damien and I continued on until about 1:45pm. We decided that with sunset being at 3:25 this far North we ought to begin our descent. Damien and I ripped off our skins… so nice to actually be able to rip off the skins. In the PNW the saturated snow makes it so “ripping the skins off”  can better be describe as detaching the 2 inches of the skin that is just barely hanging on for dear life.

Goggles and helmets on, Damien and I began our descent. Instead skiing off the shoulder and into the valley directly, she skied back to the pass and then into the valley. This allowed for a longer tour and more fresh turns. There we no down tracks from the pass yet! The pow was thick and deep under our boards. Such a strange texture compared to concrete I’m used to. I’m still learning to ski in fluffy, rocky mountain powder, so my turns are cautious and slow. I love it though! Nothing compares to touring Rogers Pass. When we reached the main trail we followed it down until we reached a turn off on the right. This leads to the trail we had skipped earlier. After crossing the bridge we released our heels for a flat section and then removed our skis altogether and carried them up a small incline.  There the terrain again heads downwards and we skied swiftly back to the Discovery Center. Perfect warm up for the long weekend!

 

 

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!

Hail? Snow? Clouds? Pea Soup fog? A touch of sun? Of course this is the best time to go out climbing! Damien and parked at the bottom of snowbound Smithbrook Road near Stevens Pass Saturday morning. Huge, fluffy, Christmas flakes fell heavily from the sky as we began to AT ski up the road. Our goal was to ski Lichtenberg Mountain and Mount McCausland; and break in our new Helios 88 skis.

At the firsy switchback we cut left directly into the forest. We crossed a creek shortly thereafter using a questionable snow bridge (it had some old tracks on it) and then broke trail uphill in the general direction of Lichtenwasser Lake. Most of the route was general switchbacks though the forest, but we did boot-pack a particularly steep section of trail for about 10-15 minutes. Upon reach the frozen lake the beta describes to choices. The first option is to the  skier to go directly to the base of the Saddle between West Summit and True Lichtenberg and ascent straight up to the saddle. However, if this saddle is shrouded in cornices the best alternative is to climb up to the ridge a few feet to the right of the lake an ascend gradually to the summit block. A clear view of the saddle was blocked by the trees so we opted to follow the ridge. The ridge is pretty forested at first but begins to open as was elevation is gained. The snow stopped and clouds lifted from time to time affording us views of the summits around us and all the way down to Smithbrook Road. We were also eventually able to get a view of the saddle, which did, indeed, have a huge overhanging cornice on it. We were able to easily switch back up most of the ridge, however, the first half of it did have about 3 head-walls what required us to remove our skis and kick-step up.

As we neared the rocky summit block on the end of the ridge we were able to make out that this way up was unfeasible due to cornices. We decided to traverse to the right about 100 feet below the summit. We found that the ridge on the other side directly next to the peak did not have a cornice. We removed our skis and began to kick step up the slope. Unfortunately, as Damien above me neared the summit the slope angle increased and snow began to sluff off down the slope to a concerning degree. We decided that it was unsafe to continue. We continued our traverse coming to a small flat basin 200 feet below the summit and ridgeline. The ridge here was again guarded by a substantial cornice. There was a high rocky high point in the ridge that did not have a cornice. Maybe we could find a way around that area? Our minds were getting jumbled and it was getting on to late afternoon. We elected to make camp in some tree in a high place away from the cornice collapse run-out. The we set off in the evening to attempt Lichtenberg again. We climbed up the to cornice free rock face and poked around to see if we could get around the right of it but there was a cliff. There was a small area to the left of it that did not have a cornice and some tree provided stability even though the slope was steep. We tired this way and found the snow to be more stable at this aspect. Finally we gained the ridge! We from we simple walked along the ridge staying away from the corniced edge to the summit block. Of course where we arrived there was pea soup from and hail pelted us! But after several tries and some route finding we finally gained the summit!

About 2 more inches of snow fell overnight and we woke to flurries early the next morning along with thick fog. We carried studies several pictures of the the descents from Lichtenberg and our topos and discussed our observations. We needed to get to the saddle between Lichtenberg and McCausland. However, the direct line looked to be a cliff from the maps (we could not see the actual line). Descending in the Lake Valhalla direction is very steep and had some terrain trap cliffs that Damien recalled from the summer. Descending to the valley just below where were camping seemed like the best bet, but which line? The photo was unclear as to which way presented the fewest terrain traps and we were unfamiliar with the slope. In the end we settled on a wide gully that seemed to have the lowest slope angle int he picture and map. As it turned out we took the only way down that did not come to a narrow 50 degree chute or massive cliff headwall. Planning and discussion pays off. We put our skins back on in the valley and headed through the open forest to the saddle between Lichtenberg and McCausland. Gaining the saddle was pretty straightforward and were even have bits of sunshine. From there we headed straight up the broad mostly open ridge to the summit of McCausland. And as luck would have it the sun came out as we prepared to descend eliminating the white light. We skied down to the saddle and then back down into the valley. The snow was difficult to manage as we lost elevation and it became heavy and saturated. But ti was great for Damien to build a snowman! We reached Smithbrook Road near the Lake Valhalla summer TH and skied the road back down the the car. Two more summits!

 

 

The intention for the weekend was to climb Devil’s Peak, traverse the ridge halfway and camp in the flat area and then continue on the ridge and tag Devil’s Thumb the next day. We found that Deer Creek Rd was open so we were able to drive the 1 mile to Coal Creek Road #4054. This road is closed to traffic and is horrifically overgrown. It must have been at least ten years since someone had last driven on it. There was no snow at 1900 feet so we carried our skis. Coal Creek Rd is littered with deadfall and low hanging branches that had an affinity for grabbing out our skis. It was pretty frustrating to say the least. After 2 mile we reached snow and we were able to skin a bit. However, this was short lived as we cut away from the road and begin to make our own way up through the forest cutting the switchback. We skied for a bit  but in got too steep and the trees too tightly woven that we ended up boot-packing our skis up the slope to the upper section of the road. We skinned this section over a bridge to the next switchback and once again cut into the forest. Once again we had to remove our skis for a front pointing steep section. But them we were more or less able to traverse upward through forest and open slopes. We noticed that the snow was very heavy and saturated. The skins seemed to also have a difficult time grabbed onto surface and we slide backwards and sideways down-slope constantly which was troublesome being that we were above to steep cliffy areas at points. We made a mental note of this. NWAC had called to moderate avalanches, but things seemed prime for the unpredictable loose wet slides.

Finally, we arrived in Devil’s Basin. Due to the loose/wet so conditions we decided to abandon the traverse idea and camp by the creek in the basin. We would do to separate ascents if the snow was safe. Looking up at the slopes around Devil’s Peak though it looked scary. Most visible trees in the areas were bent over and avalanche debris seemed everywhere… and it all seemed to be fresh loose/wet slides. Not exactly the type of things that give you the warm fuzzies.

No sooner than we had set up camp did the sky open up with rain. It was falling pretty heavily so we decided to wait it out a bit since it was still early in the afternoon. Luckily, it completely stopped after 45 minutes. We snapped into out skis and began to contour the slope following a weakness to the summit block. The snow was extremely saturated and heavy. Again we slide not only downhill, but sideways. Snow fell down-slope from our edges. Still we pressed on hoping for an improvement i suppose, but as we got higher it only got steeper and the snow only sketchier. At 4200 feet we examined all our observations and decided that continuing on was simply asking for trouble. Our experience descending back to camp proved our decision correct. It was like skiing through wet cement making it impossible to turn and mini avalanches consistently tumbled down slope as our skis slide sideways sometimes bringing with them substantial balls of snow. Luckily, it didn’t bring us with the slide. We were relieved to be back at camp and a bit unnerved so we move dour tent even further back from the in the basin hillside just to be doubly safe. And of course the rain started up again.

Damien dug a big hole down to the creek so we could access water. It was the first time this year we didn’t need to melt snow. Summer is coming I suppose. We discussed our plan for the next morning. If it got cold overnight and things froze up and got stable we would tray again on Sunday… but we knew our chances weren’t good. In fact it rained all night and will still raining on and off when we woke up. Loose/wet potential certainly had not gone down. It was was enough that we had some open slopes to ski down during our descent back to the car, but at least there were more trees and brush anchors.

The ski out was troublesome as once again we had to deal with concrete snow making it difficult if not dangerous to make tight turns around trees. I think we ended up carrying our skis more than actually skiing for fear of being unable to avoid the many forest traps and steep cliffs since our skis continued to slide down on their own accord. We made it own safety though, not with summits, but with new knowledge how to cope with with loose/wet conditions.