February 15-19, 2015: Jason Hummel, Rowan Stewart and Jeff Rich
~With 894 square miles of wilderness, it’s easy to discover corners of Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness I’ve ignored. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of it. Months of my life have been spent hiking and skiing her peaks and valleys. Yet, like a princess in a ballroom, she suffers as most regions do that are dominated by a volcano. Everyone wants to meet the princess and most potential suitors take the quickest way they can to get to her, flying like an arrow to the center of the room, fighting to gain her attention. But go a few steps in any other direction and you’ll find yourself meeting the shy and intelligent, more subtle beauties.
This dance reminds me of the ancient proverb that purports, “…an old broom knows the corners best.”
As I have gotten older, I have been led to those mountains that my younger self ignored and what has been found there has rekindled my excitement, the kind I enjoyed during those first Cascadian vistas, when I stared into the distance and wondered, “What peak is that?”
This wasn’t the case with Glacier Peak. I’d been to her summit many times before before. But look to her southwest and you’d find slumbering there a string of mountains that few people explore. Climbers had long ago traversed them, connecting these peaks in a route called the Painted Traverse. It was a cross country hike my friend, Jeff Rich, scrambled across last summer.
It was during a month long powder hunting mission in Japan this January that Jeff brought up the Painted Traverse. He told me how he imagined it as a ski trip. His excitement was infectious. Together we wholeheartedly agreed that we’d ski the route at our earliest convenience.
After only two weeks home, Jeff and I set off. Great February weather was forecasted.
Fleshing out our crew, we added a third member to our group – 20 year old splitboarder Rowan Stewart. His spark of youthful exuberance lit a fire under us ‘old men’.
Day One: Sauk River Trailhead to Red Mountain
Loaded with five days of food and gear, ready to get our alpine fix, we set off into thick forest that smothers the Sauk River Trail in forest shadows.
For the first miles, I considered the winter of 14/15. It’s what’s become known, to any on the West Coast of the United States, as the winter that wasn’t. Time warp me to any other June and I’d be hard pressed to see the difference. Right then, by God, it’s February! This dissociative identity disorder that winter was suffering from was bad, but that’s only due to perspective. If you can smell the flowers, then so long winter, let’s go spring skiing!
A left toward Red Mountain and several thousand feet of climbing led us to snowline. Some bootpacking broke us free of the last trees and into open glades. In 50 degree temperatures and less than half a days work later, we stood on the summit of Red Mountain, sweating buckets.
Within moments I gazed down Ruby Lake Couloir, which lies between the two summits of Red. The gawking didn’t last long. A rush was on to pitch camp and snap on our skis for an afternoon run.
Rowan went first. His edges cried out as he descended. But it didn’t last. Where the sun had graced the slope, corn snow awaited. Pretty soon my whoops of joy rung off the rocky escarpments, mixing with the others as we descended toward Ruby Lake.
Darkened skies swamped us as we skinned the last feet back to our camp. After I took my skis off, I turned 360 degrees. By the time I stared at camp again, I realized that we had the most awesome camp ever. “Five star accommodations for a screaming deal, the rock bottom price of one gallon of sweat,” I thought with a smirk.
That night, the lights of Stevens pass shone. They were an island in the darkness. Behind me our tents were brightened. No other lights shone across the wilderness that separated us. We were just two spheres of light saying, “Hello,” across the expanse. In between was nothing but dark valley hallways between monolithic peaks. Turning around, the afterglow of sunset spun her final dark colors above the cities. The last vestiges of day were slowly swallowed by blackness.
Day Two: Red Mountain to Black Mountain
Morning woke cool, but not crisp. Wind raked her fingers through the tent flaps and the rising sun yanked us from our sleeping bags as her warm glow bloomed on the horizon and spread over Red Mountain, earning her namesake.
The day’s efforts took us across several high points. We never descended more than a few hundred feet from the crest. There are seven summits along the traverse and all but one named after a color. Why one peak was called Skullcap, I don’t know. It hardly fits in with the other names along the Painted Traverse. Those names include Red, Brown, Magenta, Purple, Black and White Mountains. If all went well, we’d try to tag on Glacier Peak as well, but it is beyond the traditional traverse.
The ancestral people called Glacier Peak, ‘Dakobed’. It means, “The great parent”. Calling a peak ‘Glacier’ is like calling a lake, “Blue Lake.” The great parent, on the other hand, holds meaning.
We had to negotiate one challenging ridge line. I took the lead, nosing my way down a steep ridge before traversing across a precarious face. Within a few hundred feet I sidestepped around a shoulder of slope and could see a way down to easier ground. “Perfect,” I yelled to Jeff and Rowan. They followed and soon were both on easier ground.
We arrived below Black Mountain. Our plan had been to ski it that day, but we were behind schedule and wouldn’t have enough time. Instead, once I climbed up to the others, we found a nice bench and flattened out spots for our tents and then, before sunset, ascended to a high shoulder on Black Mountain and spent that evening gawking at a beautiful sunset blazing above Sloan Peak, a miniature Matterhorn. Inky colors played from yellow, orange, red to purple before finally fading entirely, becoming black and yet as beautiful as all the rest when pockmarked with stars.
Day Three: Black Mountain to White Chuck Glacier
Leaving our tents filled with non-essential gear, we reversed our tracks to where we’d watched the sunset on the southeast shoulder of Black Mountain. From there, we climbed a steep face which brought us to a narrow ridge below the north face. We continued on it for a few hundred feet before climbing the final steep pitch.
When I arrived at the top, I joined Jeff. Together we gazed at DaKobed. Between us, we had 12 summits of her and Rowan had none. When he sauntered up, I saw the glint in his eyes. He wasn’t slicing his way through the room to DaKobed, but taking the long and winding path. No matter how he detoured, her splendor was magnetizing. We couldn’t blame him for wanting to go to her.
Snow fell away from the topmost cornice and splattered down the mountain as we skied to the edge of the North Face. Controlled turns led us to easier ground. Only then did our heartbeats moderate, shuddering to normal speeds.
Back at camp, we packed our gear and set off. A few great descents beyond capitalized our remaining thrill. We wanted more, but DaKobed was in our sights. Instead of sunset turns from camp, we pushed on toward ‘The Great Parent’.
Just before the sun dove behind nearby peaks, we strode exhausted into camp on the White Chuck Glacier.
When the sun winked out, the shadows preyed on the light. They hunted in stealth until they converged and leaped. Within seconds, only darkness remained.
Day Four: White Chuck Glacier to Glacier Peak and back
Still tired, I slipped into ice encrusted boots and stood on rock hard snow on the fourth morning. “Oh man,” I grumbled, “this is going to suck.” Certainly not the climbing nor the views, just the skiing. It was incredibly icy. The snow shone in the sunlight, glistening and the wind pulsed and circled around us like a war party.
Pushing off from camp, I skate skied the frozen surface for over a mile. Views of Tenpeak opened up as we rose higher, climbing onto the Cool Glacier. Clouds choked the valleys. Every few minutes I’d look behind and see those clouds rise further and further, scraping their way upward. Pretty soon I knew they’d swamp us.
We were on the run now.
On the summit, our boots clang the final few steps. From such vantages we could see our entire last 4 days stretched out in front of us. “It doesn’t seem so far,” I thought. It was, sure, but in the vastness that stretched out before me, it was a drop in the bucket.
We skittered down the slope, edges clawing onto the snow. Below Disappointment Peak, Jeff let his skis run. We saw him crumpled on the ground, having wrecked very hard. We assumed he was alright and was just taking a photo. Part two of that assumption was right; he was taking a photo! But he was far from okay. Blood covered his face and the snow. His left ski was also gone.
His ski was found a few hundred feet lower, a miracle I could hardly fathom. Drop a hundred skis, a thousand and if they’d all gone to the valley 7000 feet below, I’d not have been surprised. How his stopped was due to lady luck and fate alone. Or, perhaps, ‘The Great Parent’ was looking after him.
We met the fog a few thousand feet below the summit, still miles from our camp. White on white blinded us, three fools stumbling around. Jeff joked, “Doesn’t that look like the way we came?” We laughed and scurried like rats back to our nest.
Back at camp, we huddled in our tents to stay warm, knowing that the weather the following day would not improve.
Day Five: White Chuck Glacier to Sauk River Trailhead
Leaving behind our final camp and one of my favorite mountains is never easy. But skis sometimes feel like flying when compared to the ascending. Terrain that took hours to climb up passed by in seconds. Wind whipped past us and before long, we were at snows end. Along the way we added a summit of White Mountain, which was truly living up to her name. That whiteout from the day before was still in full effect. We couldn’t see a thing, not until we dropped into the wet valleys. Above hung that heavy cloud like the head on a beer just poured from the tap, which reminded me of the beer waiting for me at the car. I pushed down the trail even faster than before.
Green isles full of giant ferns, thick moss and tall, ancient trees led us miles and miles back to the trailhead, back to where we’d begun this adventure five days before.
My back creaked and the agony reminded me of past adventures, of all the years and mountains that had passed under my feet. “An old broom certainly knows the corners best,” I muttered under my breath.
At the car, we cracked beers and cheered. Smiles swept across our faces. We’d met the princess and her ladies in waiting along the Painted Traverse. We’d danced with each of them. A smart man knows that sometimes that’s all he’s ever going to get. In these splendid mountains, balancing near the sea, most only view them from afar. They never dare to approach them. How fortunate we are.
“Brochè,” we cheered, beers tipped and spilled down our gullets and and overflowed onto our chins.
A video of our trip I put together. Enjoy! And be sure to press HD on the right of the video screen.