Watson’s Traverse — A Cascades Trip Report

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | April 24, 2011      

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.

Greg setting the skin track as the sun rises.

Slogging pow as the sun rises

The sunrise was stunning, so I figured some redundant pictures were okay.

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.

When we got back to the car in the afternoon, the sun had melted most of the snow. My Jeep looked a little funny on the dry road with chains on.

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.

Greg trenching.

Rewarded with some incredible views.

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.

Skiing some stable snow above the Coxcomb

Greg at the top of our run.

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.

Secret stashes of the North Cascades revealed!

We were almost too tired to enjoy the powder on the way out--almost.

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!

Waiting for a ride in Glacier.


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13 Responses to “Watson’s Traverse — A Cascades Trip Report”

  1. Leyland April 24th, 2011 10:42 pm

    Probably the best thing you can ski in a reasonable day up here in the PNW. Sunrises on the Colman Deming are truly breathtaking.

  2. Mike Traslin April 25th, 2011 7:43 am

    Good one….I wish the brother and I could have helped out but we left at 7:15 am…It would have been great to join you guys…Thanks for putting in the track. I have always wanted to ski Mt Baker in powder and we almost got it in perfect conditions…(2 hours earlier on the descent we would have had it)

    The snow was so good on the uptrack it was tempting to not summit and just do laps…..


  3. Lou April 25th, 2011 7:55 am

    Sounds like it was crowded up there. That’s what happens when guys come up from Colorado and start breaking trail (grin).

  4. Matt Kinney April 25th, 2011 8:47 am

    Most excellent!

  5. Kirk April 25th, 2011 11:20 am

    Lucky dogs, Andrew and I couldn’t get out till Sunday, we found some reasonable snow after skinning up death crust, but then the clouds socked in and it greenhoused in a matter of minutes so we had to bail but had fun in the sloppy snow on the way out!

  6. Gregg Cronn April 25th, 2011 1:59 pm

    Thanks for posting Lowell’s writeup and the film. I had not seen that before. In the film you can see the Kulshan cabin being dug out prior to the traverse. We used to stay in the cabin in the early 80’s before it was torn down. It is so cool to see folks skiing the traverse on wood skiis and leather boots in the ’30’s. Those guys were impressive. The Watson Traverse is a classic high mountain trip–highly recommended. But if you are going to attempt it in fresh snow have lots of legs for the trail breaking! Thanks Louie for a great day in the mountains. (and for bringing lots of pizza slices to get me back to the ski area).

  7. Louie April 25th, 2011 3:11 pm

    That’s cool that you’ve stayed in the Kulshan cabin. That would be awesome if they still had a cabin up there, although it might top Keiths in crowdedness.

  8. Lou April 25th, 2011 8:02 pm

    Louie, thanks for telling me on the phone about your skin tearing in half partway into the trip, then you plodding along with it strapped to your ski, no glide. Quite amusing to picture. I hope your back is okay after limping through that whole thing (grin)!

    Signed: Proud Dad

  9. Lee Lau April 25th, 2011 8:27 pm

    Hey Louie – well done. So does that make it into the skin review? We have several projects up here for you to self-promote and bag btw. The more we tick off the more we seem to find. Btw – I managed to not break any boots this week

  10. Gregg Cronn April 25th, 2011 9:29 pm


    He didn’t get mad or even make a negative comment. Just focused on fixing it and getting on with the climb. He did many one legged skin glides on the way out! He is an outstanding companion in the hills. I have to say though, he is really taken with the Cascades these days. Grin…….

  11. Louie April 25th, 2011 10:01 pm

    Add yet another thing to the list Voile straps have fixed.

  12. Lou April 26th, 2011 5:43 am

    Famous guide Reudi B. once had a joke played on him by some friends. Somehow they took his skins out of his backpack during a descent so when he got to the bottom, no skins. Story is everyone kept their distance as they watched the sometimes volatile and nearly always tight R. unpack his backpack and carefully go through his stuff. Then, without saying anything, he makes skins out of accessory cord tied to the skis, takes off, and still breaks trail for everyone to the top, where the laughing but no doubt humbled crew hands over the fur to the master. One of the classic Reudi tales. The other classic tale is when famed writer T. had the end of his male unit nearly bitten off by a pine marten lurking in the outhouse at Reudi’s hut. But I’ll let T. tell that one.

  13. Warren April 26th, 2011 6:24 am

    Ha, Reudi B. got the last laugh!

    An Exum guide told me that Jack Tackle forgot his skins one morning — so Jack duct taped some spruce boughs to his skis and kept pace all the way up.

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