It seems like it’s been weeks since the ski mountaineering conditions have been good in the North Cascades, but they sure were this past Friday! Greg called and asked if I wanted to ski the Park Glacier, which was exactly what I was thinking, so the Park it was. Out of respect for the locals, I won’t say what peak we were thinking of, at least not here in my intro.
I first learned of Watson’s traverse after reading about it on Lowell Skoog’s site. It was first done in 1939 by Dwight Watson, Erick Larson, and Andy Hennig. It always amazes me what early mountaineers did, and these guys were no exception. They even lugged a movie camera along and made a short film about the trip. You can find it here.
We left Bellingham at midnight after a few hours of sleep, and made it a few miles below the summer trailhead before being stopped by snow. We spent a few minutes putting chains on, only to make it a hundred feet farther.
We finally left the car at 2:30. After we left the snowmobile track at the trailhead we encountered something unexpected: deep, light powder. Unfortunately that meant we had to break trail, as it seemed no one else was silly enough to wake up at 11:30 in the evening to go skiing. As we made our way toward the glacier, the sky slowly got lighter, and the snow quickly became deeper. By the time we were above the trees, we were up to our knees in fluff. We settled into a routine of one person breaking trail, while the other had time to eat, drink and wish we brought a few more sets of legs, before catching up to take a turn.
It took a while to reach the summit of Mount Baker, and we were plenty tired when we did. We considered heading back down the blower pow we had ascended on the Coleman-Demming, but opted to stick with our plan to go down the Park. “The ski area looks so close!” we reasoned, which it later proved to be quite the opposite. The tempting Park Headwall looked wind loaded and sun baked, so we opted instead to ski down the ridge to the Coxcomb, and then drop in to the glacier.
We skied for a few turns and then jumped over the bergschrund onto the glacier. Unfortunatley, rather than riding out my drop on the beautiful powder, I promptly tomahawked three times. Falling with two sharp whippets and the potential for ending up in the bottom of a crevasse isn’t what I usually go for. Whew, I sat up, unspeared, and not in a dark hole. The rest of the 4,000 foot run was mostly powder, and remarkably crevasse free. We came to a stop in sauna conditions on the Rainbow Glacier, and slapped some skins on for the slog to the ski area.
We skinned up low angled and shaded terrain to the merry sound of wet slides on the steep slopes around us. Thankfully someone had put in a skintrack most of the way back to Artist’s Point, and we even found a few nice powder turns. At Artist’s Point we met a group measuring the snow depth for the DOT to see when they can clear the road. There must be at least 20 feet up there still, so I don’t think anyone will be doing any driving anytime soon. We skied some death crust to the base lodge, and were able to get a ride from one of the few employees still hanging around. Once in Glacier, with the help of a six-pack we procured a ride back to the Jeep, and we made our way back to Bellingham. Over 10,000 vert up (mostly in deep pow), over 17 miles, and 16 hours make for a fun day. I’ve looked at Park Glacier every time I’m in the Baker area, and it’s great to finally ski it. Good idea, Watson!