The Chiwaukum Range is a relatively hidden gem amongst the peaks of the Central Cascades, and often considered to be the cousin to the peaks of the famous Enchantment Lakes Basin in the state of Washington.
With a series of canceled trips due to conditions and logistics, I was eager to get out on something longer and more committing in the mountains. When my friend Eric, who operates the semi-backcountry cabins of Scottish Lakes High Camp, mentioned the Chiwaukum Range traverse just outside his backdoor, I was immediately sold. The notion of ending our trip at High Camp, and utilizing amenities such as a wood-burning sauna and hot tub had me motivated over other ideas floating around. So after we checked the weather and found mostly high pressure thanks to the crest effect (aka rain shadow), Casey, Eric, and I were on our way to spend the next few days in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
The original route takes you from the end of the closure on the Icicle Creek Road outside of Leavenworth up and over the Chiwaukum Range and down to Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass. We decided to do the route south to north so that we could enjoy better snow on the north aspects. However, during corn season, the route would also be enjoyable going the opposite way if the coverage was sufficient. The Chiwaukums can be seen from the Stevens Pass ski area, where I grew up learning how to ride a snowboard and spending my free time as a teenager. Other than that, this area of the Cascades has remained a blank spot in my consciousness.
After parting words from our dear friends about “two split boarders and a tele-skier doing a ski traverse” (thanks Louie!) we chuckled and started skinning around 5 pm to get the 7 plus miles of flat road out of the way. We were camped at the Chatter Creek Trailhead by dark in a convenient dry patch.
The following morning we skinned on (mostly) snow up the trail to the Chatter Creek drainage below Grindstone Mountain. Within a few hours we were back in wintery conditions and a thick snowpack. After gaining the first ridge, which would send us into the Index Creek drainage, it was our first glimpse at a north/northeast aspect, which we would have to ski several more times in the next couple days. During the previous days of skiing around High Camp we noticed that wind slabs were developing and we were concerned at the potential of them stepping down to lower layers in the snowpack. Fortunately we were able to safely mitigate potential hazard by cutting a cornice and then belaying a ski cut. The results inspired confidence in the slope stability, so we descended into the next drainage and enjoyed great snow on the way down.
We made it to our first camp at Lake Edna before 4 pm. After dropping overnight gear we decided to head up over the next col to see what the following day would entail. We knew we had a long south/southeast slope to traverse, and wanted to get across it early in the morning to mitigate wet slide danger. Fortunately, our scouting mission proved fruitful and we enjoyed several laps in evening light and rippable snow on a north-facing slope, in addition to coming up with a game plan for the morning. There is something incredibly special about making turns down a slope deep in the wilderness after a long day of work. This is exactly what we were looking for.
We returned to our Black Diamond Mega (aka circus tent) and slept a full night before waking up to one of the more stunning sunrises I’ve seen in awhile. With partial cloud cover, we decided that we weren’t in as big of a rush to get out of camp and enjoyed the morning light. Once over the col from the previous night we stopped to assess a slope with a similar aspect to the one we had to traverse, which we deemed an important use of our time. Our arrival at the next slope was both daunting and exciting. In the time it took for us to transition to make our way across the first section, the temperature started to increase with a break in the clouds. As we made our way across the slope and through the two obvious terrain traps, we started to notice slough and pinwheels coming down from the cliffs above. At this point we were committed to moving across the slope. Despite putting significant distance between the three of us to mitigate exposure we were aware that our timing was off. We regrouped in a safe zone and discussed the next moves. Fortunately the clouds were moving back in and the slope ahead had significantly less hazard in terms of terrain above and below our skin track. We were all humbled by how quickly the slope heated up and were reminded to remain vigilant in our decision making for the terrain ahead, which was more of the same slope aspect.
With a heightened awareness, a warming and transitioning snowpack, and the need to keep moving, we opted to not ski from the top of Snowgrass Mountain (like the original route does) and make our way to the Glacier Creek drainage to get across the next southeast slope under cloud cover. After a few route finding shenanigans trying to find the correct passage through the cliff bands blocking our way down, we arrived at the top of a steep north facing couloir. We built a snow anchor with a pair of skis and I belayed Eric as he made a ski cut across the top of the slope. After descending into the drainage and gaining a new perspective on our route, we were fortunate to have a thick cloud cover to keep things stable for us to cross. The flip side of this thick cloud cover was that our chance to ski the noteworthy couloir off the summit of Big Chiwaukum had diminished. Regardless, we were stoked to have conditions for a safe crossing.
We arrived at Larch Lake after a 1500-foot descent in flat light and had made it through the crux terrain of the whole traverse. After a moderately stressful day, we setup camp and slept well that night. The following day is where we diverted from the original route, which goes down a long drainage to Highway 2. Instead we poked around and did some skiing in the Larch Lake basin and eventually made our way up McCue Ridge and down to High Camp. Coming down to a stoked fire, a warm hot tub, and an immediate whiskey slap was absolutely the best way to end a trip through such a beautiful and relatively remote wilderness.
All in all, the traverse took us over 17 miles and about 9000 feet of both elevation gain/loss. The Chiwaukum Traverse is another seldom traveled corner of the Cascades that is often talked about but rarely completed. I would quickly jump on another opportunity to spend more time out there skiing the lines we weren’t able to on this trip.