Occasionally mountain and weather gods throw a bone to us working stiffs who grind 9-5 during long work weeks. On many occasions we are glumly forced to watch as the storm of the ___ (insert week, month or winter) slams the mountains from the North Pacific. Turning a dry spell into epic backcountry ski conditions that all your underemployed, flexible-scheduled buddies rave about on social media sites or, if they are really obnoxious, gloat about with a text or call. “It was amazing, OMG!” To be honest here, vicarious enjoyment pretty much sucks.
Then along comes some springtime high pressure after a period of storms and overcast that can blanket the Cascades for weeks at a time. Lined up perfectly for the weekend to take the sting out of a winter of missed opportunities. The old hands in this part of the world know that this is when the skiing is at its best. Long, post storm sunny days hold powder on the north and ripened corn on south facing slopes.
Lapping cold winter powder is fun, but for me there is nothing in my ski world that compares to packing up for a big spring mission and MOVING through some serious terrain in the alpine. Fortunately, I have friends who share my old school sense of adventure.
For two days many emails were exchanged, plans made and changed, partners committed and bailed (how was Rainier Louie??). Then finally, late in the evening on a mid April Friday, the smoke rose from the basilica. We had a decision. Two days of high pressure would be spent on the Forbidden Traverse in the heart of North Cascades National Park.
Early on Saturday, six of us (two couples and my buddy Dave and I), groggy with lack of sleep and the long drive into the deep rain forest chasm that is the Cascade River Road, tumbled stiffly out of two pickups. Sleds were unloaded in mist and drizzle, two stroke smoke hugging the ground like a scene from Lord of the Rings. The tricks-are-for-kids plan to run the sleds up to Eldorado Gate came up 1.5 miles short at a 4 foot thick Doug Fir that had recently slammed down across the road. We parked the sleds, reluctantly loaded the overnight packs and started the long day of uphill that would take us over Sharksfin Col, across the convoluted surface of Boston Glacier, over the Boston/Forbidden Col via a lovely boot pack and down long, open slopes of Forbidden Glacier to Moraine Lake.
The early morning mist and drizzle lifted as we did the long climb from 1,900 ft. up the summer road to treeline and beyond, stopping for lunch at the ridge overlooking Quien Sabe Glacier. It was good to be out ski touring with this group, friends I have spent time with over many years; lapping cold powder in the short days of winter out of huts in the Selkirks, to Baker backcountry day trips and the end of season volcano corn days on Mt. Adams, Baker and Rainier. A slight breeze and lingering clouds from clearing storms took some of the edge off of the April sun bearing directly down as we ascended towards Sharksfin Col. For me, after a long week of work, it felt wonderful to again experience a long day of travel and trail breaking, setting a skin track up and across an untouched landscape. Often, on a day like this, with the snow and mountains and sky above defining our existence so starkly, it is with reluctance that I accept that the ascent has ended and it is time to descend.
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
At the top of narrow Sharksfin Col, John the current, and I the ex, mountain guides got the clever idea to lower our party simultaneously from both sides of the rather large cornice lurking over the Boston Glacier side. All went well until John went to lower Corley and Nikki together, the extra weight on the rope sawing into a portion of the cornice, leaving the newlyweds set up like bowling pins beneath the shadow of the now menacing cornice — with no chance for a gutter ball. Two chastised guides (ahem, I am actually long retired) quickly switched the pair to my rope and I lowered them down one at a time: past the double bergschrund and on to the yummy boot top powder that awaited on the Boston Glacier.
We had a short but very enjoyable run down Boston Glacier until the elevation lost forced us reluctantly to start making the rising traverse across the cold, shadowed slopes of Boston towards Boston/Forbidden Col.
We happily roped up for this crossing as the glacier seemed to feature quite a few cracks and long, shark gill shaped curves hidden beneath the snow. We broke out into a wide flat ridge top after a short boot pack. The late evening sun was dropping into the horizon and we marveled at the colors washing back over the mountains and our perch atop Forbidden Glacier. A full moon rose over Mt. Buckner back on the Boston.
The long, long descent down to an evening shadowed Moraine Lake started out hopeful. Decent corn was past its prime but still carvable. After a 1,000 ft of this it turned into breakable crust, grabby slush and avy debris. I get through these zones on trips by telling myself, “It is a traverse. It is not about the skiing.” It was so bad it was laughable. Thankfully no ACL’s were blown.
Camp was next to Moraine Lake on a small rise. I was not amused to find that Dave had brought a nearly empty cartridge for our cooking and snow melting needs. (What is that sound Homer makes?) The couples took pity on us and let us use their stoves after they had eaten. I would like to say it was a restful night’s sleep beneath a full moon, but I had gambled on a minimal bag and had to endure on old fashioned shiver-bivy in the low overnight temps. Dave and I hunkered down in a trench in the snow while the couples slept soundly in a tent and a snow cave.
The next morning I was first out of camp, skinning across the lake, hastening my way to the warm sun. Be careful what you ask for. After a long snow climb out of the valley on rock hard neve, (keeping my 20 year streak alive of never using crampons on a ski traverse) we were back in the sun and started the long climb up the solar oven glaciated slopes below Eldorado. Nikki got a bit overcooked. She and Corley had to forego the summit while they got her electrolytes levels up.
We reached the classic summit of Eldorado after a 4,000 ft. climb. The 1,000 foot descent down the north side of Eldorado featured boot top, settled powder that skied quite well, casting into distant memory the horrid descent from the night before. We had a lovely picnic beneath Eldorado, sharing the best of our lunches with each other and buzzed from the summit and the highly enjoyable descent. Dave and I bummed more BTU’s to melt snow to fill up our water bottles. Life was good.
Below was a huge hole down to Cascade River. Three k of perfectly ripened corn (that is 1,000 meters for our metric system readers) on the south facing Eldorado Glacier, slop through treeline, gripping steep snow vegetation skiing unique to the Cascades, and a direttissima of a climbers trail led painfully down to the river and the log bridge to the summer road. Although my 54 year old knees were begging for mercy at the end, I was happy to have completed a classic Cascade tour on one of those rare spring windows of opportunity for a working and family man.
Albert got it right, it is enough.
(Guestblogger, Gregg Cronn, is a public school teacher, AIARE educator, ski guide and enthusiastic backcountry skier with 25 years of experience exploring the NW, BC and Alberta on skis. With a daughter entering college in the fall, he is looking forward to the approaching empty nest so that he can return to his dirt bag roots and start spending more time with his surfboard and skis.)
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