The snow is melting fast at lower elevations. We are having a more typical spring than we have had in several years. The sun feels good, even though I’ve become accustomed to a long spring ski mountaineering season. It’s time to set sights on volcano skiing and rock climbing.
Every season has a different profile. We had a fantastic number of stable, sunny powder days this year. December was as good as it gets–consistent cold and snow the entire month. We had the usual high pressure bouts in January and February and March was strangely quiet but snowfall kicked back in late in the season. After January we didn’t have any prolonged snowfall cycles but great conditions came remarkably consistently–never more than a few days away it seemed.
As far as big projects are concerned this season was a bit of a dud. I will never tire of skiing powder but my current tastes are for big faces, seldom skied routes and trips well off of the beaten path. These types of trips are the most satisfying for a lot of different reasons. Successful or not, this year brought with it quite a bit of reflection in regard to motivation, perseverance, and risk.
Three Fingers East Face Couloir
The East Face Couloir of Three Fingers had been occupying my thoughts (both waking and sleeping) for nearly a year. After a recon hike to the base of the face last spring it seemed a little more tangible. There were no documented descents of this line though we think it had probably been quietly slayed by some hermetic Cascades hardman we’ve never heard of. Several have tried but the tedious approach (20+ creek crossings over six miles) combined with an enormous face that sheds rock and snow with the first rays of sun each day have kept this area off the radar of all but the most depraved skiers. We made two attempts in January and were turned back first by avalanches and then by deep snow wallowing. The unknown nature of this trip made for an interesting mix of despair and adventure as we skied in the dark toward a huge, steep, mysterious wall at the end of a scrappy valley slog.
Oh, that’s why we’ve been fumbling over the river and through the woods all night.
In round one, we willed my truck up the snowy road as far as it would go, slept three hours and then nailed the approach, I’m proud to say. Unfortunately, the Squire Creek valley seldom sees the sun and we found ourselves struggling through waist-deep snow and arriving at the base of the couloir just as it unleashed its daily fury of snow and rock avalanches. It was quite a spectacle, but the 2k’ of deep powder we skied in retreat was unsatisfying.
6.5 hours to the base, sun starts to do its work on the face.
Consolation pow. Couloir entrance in the background.
In round two, our group of three grew to five and we skipped sleeping altogether in hope of climbing the couloir before sunrise. As it turns out, the snow was even deeper this time. Wallowing, equipment failure and route finding in the deeper snowpack put us at the face only slightly earlier than the last time. One difference was the very cold temperatures we had this time which kept the debris to a minimum and allowed us to climb the first 1/3 of the couloir. It was big and steep and intimidating–a beautiful line. But fatigue and frayed nerves proved too much when trying to break thigh deep trail up a 50 degree snow couloir. Again, we skied bittersweet powder to the valley bottom, contemplating the value of gut feelings and fear versus objective decision making. We resolved to return in firmer conditions and make it a two day trip as even these failed missions were taking about 15 hours car to car.
Debris hanging above, 100′ cliff below, 50 degree knee-deep trail breaking.
Welcome to Squire Creek! Twenty foot drop to the icy water below.
It honestly came as no surprise when a certain skier ventured up the valley in his typical cowboy style (solo/unstoppable) and skied the couloir after bivying at the end of the valley. I must admit this takes some of the intrigue and sexiness (and terror) out of the project but I hope to return and ski it from the summit of the Middle Finger which even Super Dan failed to do.
With our thirst for suffering sufficiently quenched for the time being, the snow returned and we skied lots of local classics in perfect conditions. Still, the big trips beckoned while the weather failed to cooperate. There is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that come with succeeding on something big–it’s adrenaline, athletic achievement, knowing that few have done what you are doing, the experience of being fully committed to a goal and out of one’s comfort zone.
Perfect powder and short drives will have to suffice for a couple months. This is Snoqualmie Pass where it only rains and the terrain is boring.
In April, our obsessive ski mountaineering psyches became refocused on the Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak. It is a classic mixed climb but has only been skied by a small handful of people. From a ski mountaineering perspective it has it all. It’s steep, exposed, technical and aesthetic. With the winter closure of the Eightmile Road it makes this a 25 mile day with just shy of 8ooo vertical feet of elevation gain. Given that, and the burdensome load of rock gear we were carrying to rig rappels and deal with whatever conditions we might find, it was hard to pull the plug on what I can say is one of the coolest ski lines I’ve ever stared down. One of our group of three twisted minds was optimistic about conditions, one was mentally out of it from the time we left the city, and the other was dubious at best. We have all occupied each of those mental states at one time or another and it isn’t the sort of thing you should convince yourself or others to do, so it was an undisputed but disappointing decision to turn around. Once again we found ourselves skiing thousands of feet of alpine powder with frowns on our faces, mulling the dynamics of group decision making, the legitimacy of risk-taking, and the nature of motivation.
Dragontail and Triple Couloirs. We planned to ski the North Face variation between the upper and lower couloirs.
Ski down there, don’t fall in the lake.
With bigger and more technical trips comes a lower rate of success, I guess. It wouldn’t have the same appeal if it were easy or if success was guaranteed. Bailing sucks but it is all about perspective. I can say confidently that the decisions my partners and I make almost always err on the side of safety. Better to be persistent than reckless. Most big descents can be done relatively safely if you are patient. The impulse to be safe is stronger than the impulse to execute and i think that is really saying something.
“So here I am again in this game with the mountains. Could you get the thrill of your life and feel truly alive if you knew they were perfectly safe? Would your consciousness be completely in the moment if you didn’t know this was serious business? Would it be a game worth playing at all if the outcome was certain?” Andreas Fransson
“I’ve learned that risk can be managed. Not all of it, or it wouldn’t be an adventure. But it’s also not as black and white as the Times or others suggest, where you’re either likely to die doing something you love or you simply don’t do that thing you love. That big grey area in the middle is where you find adventure, where you find risk, and where, to me, the best of life begins.” Steve Casimiro
“The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Only a person who risks is free.” William Arthur Ward
“To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort. ” Sir Francis Younghusband
“Anything that produces this much joy in people’s lives is worth a certain amount of risk–physical risk, emotional risk, whatever. But how much risk it’s worth is an open question.” Lou Dawson