Mazama Washington Backcountry Skiing


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

It seems to be gear-nerdout season here at Wildsnow. While I’m no stranger to busting out the digital scale and calipers in search of arcane equipment details, how about a trip report for a change?

Jason getting some nice late-day powder above Cutthroat Creek. Being on the east side of the mountains, Mazama tends to have a bit lighter snow than the western Cascades, while still mostly retaining the safer coastal snowpack. Awesome!

Mazama, WA is a tiny mountain town nestled on the east side of the Cascade mountains, on the east side of Washington Pass. Nestled near the craggy peaks of the northeastern Cascade mountains, the Mazama area has some of the best skiing in the state, if not the lower 48.

I’ve been over to Mazama several times in summer for the stellar granite rock climbing on Washington Pass. However, the drive distance from Bellingham doubles in the winter months, so I haven’t managed to sample the skiing. This weekend my friend Zach successfully convinced me to finally head out to Mazama for some incredible skiing on Highway 20.

Most of the skiing around Mazama is accessed by snowmobile up a variety of roads with the main access being up snow-covered Highway 20. The highway is broad and well traveled so beater sleds are the perfect tool for the job. This is our ride for the weekend.

The parking area at the end of the winter maintained Highway 20, full of snowmobiles and friendly folks.

Saturday we headed up the Cutthroat drainage and found some sunny powdery skiing. Casey enjoys the view.

North Cascade Heli Skiing operates out of Mazama and on Saturday they were running laps in the same valley as us. There's plenty of terrain to share and we hardly saw other skiers all day. As long as they didn't use up all the powder, it was cool to see the dark helicopter with a skull and crossbones swooping low over the trees periodically. You can see the helicopter in the right hand sky of this photo.

Casey shredding a steep face later in our first day.

Zach shot this great photo at the end of the day of Cutthroat Creek.

Local friend Amber has a well-marked map of the area, which we spent several hours poring over late into the night.

Sunday morning we sledded up the road to just below Washington Pass near the summer climbing in the Liberty Bell group spires. On the way up we stashed some breakfast burritos on the sled exhaust, and enjoyed tasty treats before starting off on the skin track.

Sunday morning we skinned up toward Kangaroo Pass and then skied a short chute above and down into the next valley. From there we were able to see this nice long couloir that Zach has been eyeing for a while (at the very top of the photo). Our stability assessment had so far been confidence inspiring, so we decided to make our way up toward the couloir while evaluating the snow a few more times on the way up.

As we climbed up the apron into the main couloir we continued to evaluate the snowpack. Our studies conclusively showed 'epicly' blower pow (with stable snow underneath to boot). Perfect!

Jason captured a classic between the legs shot part way up the wallow fest of the couloir

The climb narrowed sharply at the top and then popped out onto a broad ridge.

Although we had booted up the chute, I still felt a belayed ski cut couldn't hurt. We quickly set one up, and I guinea-pigged the first few turns. After a vigorous set of hops and slashes, I untied and skied the rest of the couloir. The chute and the lower apron held incredible snow, and proved to be one of the top (if not the best) run of the season so far. Woohoo!

Monday we will ski one more day before I book it back to Bellingham just in time to slip onto campus before class starts. It’s six degrees out and snowing, so tomorrow should be just as good. Thanks good people of the Methow valley for the incredible skiing!

Comments

25 Responses to “Mazama Washington Backcountry Skiing”

  1. Erik February 3rd, 2014 7:19 am

    So great to see a winter trip. When i lived in Seattle, I used to go up there after the road opened, and always wanted to get after it in winter. Fun read.

  2. James Fulton February 3rd, 2014 8:36 am

    Louie, I hope you checked out Goat’s Beard Mountain Supply in Mazama. It’s a great gear shop opened by CB and Mickey Thomas who lived in Colorado for years.

  3. kevin February 3rd, 2014 8:43 am

    What kind of cord/rope are you using for your belay?

  4. Brian February 3rd, 2014 10:43 am

    Nice TR. more please!

  5. Rod February 3rd, 2014 11:09 am

    How deep is the snow there? Thinking of spending 3 weeks in twisp in june and I’m wondering if the snow wil last.

  6. Ryan February 3rd, 2014 11:52 am

    Is that Mammut procord ya’ll are belaying with? Seems like a pretty good option for the “just in case” days when you’re not planning on needing a rope.

  7. Sandy February 3rd, 2014 7:03 pm

    Sweet!

  8. Louie III February 4th, 2014 1:31 am

    In the picture we’re using a 35 meter length of 5mm Maxim Tech Cord. It’s a cord with a polyester sheath and a core of technora, an aramid fiber. Pretty similar to kevlar I think. The main reason I’m using the Tech Cord specifically is that it’s a little difficult to find high-strength skinny cord that isn’t pre-cut into short cordelettes.

    I’ve been consistently carrying a light cord like this, a light harness, and a locking carabiner in my pack for the past year or so. It’s nice and light, and a great system for belayed ski cuts or cornice cuts. In my opinion non-belayed ski cuts are pretty sketchy. However, ski cuts are a pretty effective way to test a slope that I’m already confident will be stable, so it’s a nice tool to have in the pack.

    Rod – The snow in the area is a little below average I think, not sure what the coverage will be like in June. There will still be at least some skiing for sure.

  9. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2014 5:43 am

    I’m a big fan of belayed ski cuts. In fact, I think if you do a lot of ski cutting you’ll eventually get caught in a slide unless you’re roped. For smaller stuff, doing it unroped can be an acceptable risk, but when you’re in a situation with lots of vertical, you don’t want to fall down the mountain so the rope is key. The only problem with Louie’s system (I use something similar on occasion) is that the non dynamic cord puts a huge shock load on the system if any sort of ballistic energy is involved. In other words, if the rope is kept without slack and you’re just holding a person from getting swept away in a slide during a ski cut, that’s one thing. But if the belayed skier falls off a cornice or otherwise “jerks” the belay, it’s possible that the anchor is going to get ripped or the skier will be injured by shock force, or both. Ditto for using such cord for rappels, as if you take a small accidental drop on a rappell anchor when using a static line, you can rip your anchor.

    Of course cavers use static rope for rappelling and other stuff, so it’s not unheard of. But you have to know the limits and possible problems created by a system that has very little energy absorption.

    That said, if you have 20 or so meters of the static cord in use, it does have some give, and the other stuff in the system has some give as well, so it’s not totally static. Nonetheless, using this cord is not that much different from using a length of steel cable, so when envisioning associated systems that’s a good way to look at it.

    So, solution? I’ve been thinking for a long time that any belay system using static line should have something dynamic in the chain. For example, perhaps a Yates Screamer should always be used at the anchor or perhaps on the harness, or both. Problem is, you do this and you add complexity and weight.

    Tricky issue.

    In the end, most people should probably just use an 8 mm x 30 meter rando rope that’s dynamic and dry treated.

  10. Trent February 4th, 2014 7:22 am

    LD,
    In a static system isn’t there real risk of shattering the belayed skier’s hips should the anchor hold? Also, what is “rando rope”? Is that just 8mm climbing rope? Thanks.

  11. Zach W February 4th, 2014 11:36 am

    Pleasure having you guys out here Louie!

    I don’t have a light static system like Louies, so when I anticipate needing a rope I bring a 30m length of 8mm rando rope.
    (Trent, yes mine is rated as a half rope – so similar to a normal single climbing rope but rated using a smaller weight).
    The downside to my set up (same harness/hardware as Louie’s set up) is that the rope is just heavy enough that I usually convince myself to not bring it. I like going with Louie because the choice to bring an extra camera lens instead is easy :)
    With the static system, I think the best way to mitigate shock is to give a good dynamic belay rather than having a fixed length locked off.

  12. Darin Berdinka February 4th, 2014 11:54 am

    To beat the dead horse that photo certainly looks like a great way to shock load and blow out the anchor or possibly the skiers back if they did take a fall/get caught in an avi. Bluwater makes “dynamic prusik cord” in a 6.5mm width that weighs 3gm per meter more than tech cord. Tensile strength is 10kn which should be way more than you’ll ever encounter in a ski belay situation. 1/3 the cost as well.

  13. Louie III February 4th, 2014 12:02 pm

    Good points on the static rope use. Currently I simply rely on the fact that a skier at the start of an avalanche isn’t loading the rope in the same way that a vertical fall would load the rope. Avalanches move fairly slowly (at least compared to free-fall) when they start, so there isn’t much acceleration before the skier is caught by the rope. Also, since the skier is sliding, his full weight isn’t on the rope. A dynamic belay can help as well, although it’s not a very reliable solution (it depends on the skill and attentiveness of the belayer).

    Also, the tech cord does have a (minimal) amount of stretch. Static ropes are fairly commonly used for rappelling. I remember on my NOLS course we carried static ropes specifically for glacier travel and rappelling, in addition to dynamic climbing ropes. One of the other reasons I carry the tech cord is for an emergency rappel.

    Those are just my thoughts on the topic. Using the static rope isn’t perfect, and sacrifices some weight-savings for safety. However, I think it’s still much safer than non-belayed ski cuts. In some instances where weight isn’t an issue, and ski-cuts are imminent, I’ll carry a dynamic 8mm rope instead. The benefit of the 5mm static cord is that I carry it almost every day I go skiing, something that would be difficult to do with a heavy 8mm rope.

    It’s the same argument with lots of other safety gear (airbag packs, shovels, first aid kits etc), it needs to be light enough that you are going to carry it every day, so when you need it you, have it.

  14. Louie III February 4th, 2014 1:43 pm

    Darin – thanks for the beta on the bluewater dynamic prusik cord, I’ll have to check that out.

  15. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2014 2:05 pm

    Seems like the dynamic belay would be key… munter hitch probably locks too well so some other method?

  16. Trent February 4th, 2014 4:03 pm

    LD, at least with the munter hitch you have the advantage of the knot slipping from one side of the carabiner to the next. It’s slightly more dynamic than a locked off belay device, no?

  17. Billy Balz February 4th, 2014 5:52 pm

    Louie, which NOLS course did you do for climbing/ski mountaineering course. I’d like to find one that focuses on climbing/belay/rappel. I can ski most stuff, but new to backcountry. Thanks and digging your trip reports….don’t fall, somebody’s gotta take over for the old man!

  18. Louie III February 4th, 2014 6:15 pm

    Billy – I did a wind river mountaineering course. Highly recommended. Here’s a article I wrote after the trip (8 years ago now!):

    http://www.wildsnow.com/articles/nols-lou3/nols-lou3-07.html

  19. Billy Balz February 4th, 2014 7:31 pm

    Thanks Louie…damn, that was a fast response. The old man better have eyes in the back of his head!

  20. Trent February 5th, 2014 10:23 am

    Re: the münter hitch, from what I read and listen to, the münter works well with larger diameter ropes. I’ve used it without problems on a 10.2 and a 9.6. Apparently the münter works less well with smaller ropes and also experiences problems when wet. FYI.

  21. rod February 7th, 2014 10:59 am

    With 5.5 mm tech cord, I use the super munter, which holds really well, even to rap on a single strand.

    It’s a munter with an additional loop, many YouTube videos show how to tie it.

    Louie, how many times have you used your tech cord? I heard that it doesn’t last long when bent, like in using a carabiner to belay.

  22. Louie February 7th, 2014 5:40 pm

    bute used the super Munster a few times, I’ll have to try it with the skinny cord. I have used the tech cord a fair bit, probably for about four belays this season. So not really a ton. I also bought it a little long so that I could cut off the ends to prolong the life a bit.

  23. Rod February 8th, 2014 8:33 pm

    A simple solution if youre concerned with shock loadi lineng a static line is to tie the line to your life line on the harness.
    If you tie a purcell prussic on the life line, it wil provide plenty of give.
    Climbers use the purcell prussic instead of a fixed length life line so they don’t break their back if they fall from above the anchor.
    And if you carry a harness you will probably have a life line.

  24. Lou Dawson February 9th, 2014 7:50 am

    From Black Diamond tests:

    “Technora: Technora, like Kevlar, is an aramid, but with vastly improved fatigue properties. It shares Kevlar’s high tensile strength and high melting point.”

    Technora with a nylon sheath (the Maxim Tech Cord Louie is using) is perhaps the best “high strength small diameter HSSD” cord for alpinism.

    5mm Maxim Tech Cord has a breaking strength of around 5,000 lbs! And yes, impact force in my opinion is a very real problem with this sort of rigging. I’m thinking the system needs much more work to remain light but have better shock absorption. A belay system can be built with mechanical shock absorption such as a dynamic hold of the rope, along with webbing and other components such as sliding prussiks that absorb force, but depending on the human body to absorb forces is very wrong, as the human body is so fragile.

    http://www.neropes.com/product.aspx?mid=FC4DB29E596CB9D0D1DE3CDC00B982F1&lid=3&pid=66

    I asked some experienced climbers about all this, their sage advice was that the concept was understandable (which is why HSSD is used for climbing slings and indeed used by guides and alpinists for specific situations when weight of cord is priority) but that using HSSD for belay line is incredibly dangerous due to high impact force and that to reduce the forces using shock devices such as Yates Screamers added too much complexity and in the end too much weight, as compared to simply carrying an 8 mm x 30 meter dynamic randonnee rope or something similar.

    See following review. Also, anyone know of a 7.5 mm dry treated dynamic rope?

    http://www.wildsnow.com/5913/tendon-master-rope-review/

    Check out Beal Gully 7.3 rope, 36 grams/meter, 7.9 kN impact force (nice and soft).

    Perhaps using a Yates Scream Aid shock absorber at both ends of the system (at harness and at the belay) would be an elegant and lightweight solution, as these activate at a nice soft 1.5-2kN (around 400 pounds?)

  25. Rod March 6th, 2014 8:54 pm

    Louie, od the snowpack deep enough around mazama for june skiing?
    I’m thinking of spending 3 weeks there.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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