“Depot Falls,” I was told. “Go!” Years after this suggestion I dangled above Depot Falls. With my fate entrusted to a branch, I understood, and quickly became mesmerized by the thunderous rumble of glacier melt that poured 1000 feet to the forested valley floor, so distant and insignificant as to be a diorama. Her power reminded me of the lion and how his roar echoed across the Serengeti. It didn’t beseech, but demanded each and every creature, big and small, to recognize who is king. Similarly Depot Falls is the Chilliwack Mountains roar. She gave no permission; to come to her was a patent disregard for her dominance, much like a gazelle who grazed at the haunches of a pride whose appetites happened to be satiated at the moment, but could change in an instant.
Hours before we arrived at Depot Falls Tim, Ashton and I drove along a holdover from decades-old logging. The road was a vine-entombed gauntlet whose woody fingernails wailed across the paint.
After an hour our narrowing lane merged with a stream and cutoff further progress. Waiting there, standing next to their packs, were Seth and Maxx. They’d drove in the night before and our group of three became five. As an aside, one Toyota Tacoma became two and not a half an hour later, the bushes parted and a vehicle crawled to a stop and parked next to us. The owners had their heads jammed from the window and they laughed with the rest of us. Why? Because two Toyota Tacoma’s had become three!
The primary impetus for venturing to the Chilliwacks was to continue working on my Washington Glacier Ski Project whose ancillary goal, outside skiing and photographing all 213 named glaciers, was to push me into rarely visited and obscure regions of Washington State. By that measure, my mission was to ski five impressive glaciers: Silver Lake, Maselpanik, Custer, Redoubt and Depot.
Half a day later, back on the falls a thousand feet above the valley, I turned my camera to the top 1% of this incredible wonder of nature. To get a photo, I would dry the front element and quickly click the shutter. I did this a dozen times before I got it right. Waterfall spittle drooled down my face and there was no doubt I was in the maw. Who was at the top of the food chain out here wasn’t in doubt, that’s for sure.
Above the falls the terrain descended a hundred feet through thick trees. Just as I pushed the final branches aside, I arrived into a partially snow-covered swamp. Around me, the sky and peaks emerged, most notably the north face of Redoubt. We joked about skiing this line, juggling our balls and theoretical routes until they became too heavy to gain escape velocity. The two in the 3rd Toyota Tacoma broke away from our group after telling us they were to go climb this route in the morning. We wished them luck and continued to camp at Ouzel Lake.
In order to ski all the glaciers I had in mind, I conceived of a grand tour for the next day. With contributions from the rest of the group, the tour grew to add Spickard (8980′), which was added to a summit of Rahm (8478′), as well as skiing Silver Lake, Maselpanik and Custer Glaciers. We’d finish the day by descending back to Lake Ouzel from the south face of Custer. It was a day that was certain to be long, but rewarding, which is usually a mutually assured guarantee of an epic adventure – or misadventure.
Breakfast, tea and chatter left us departing camp at near 9 AM, much later than hoped for but with light lasting to past 9 PM, we had enough hours to get done what I wanted to accomplish.
Climbing over the col at the head of Silver Lake, we traversed and ascended Spickard, booting the final few hundred feet to the summit. From there, the peaks preened in the brilliant blue skies. Off into the distance, layer upon layer of rock and ice eventually faded into a infinite white haze. Memories boiled to the surface and past adventures connected to this present time and place. The view south was unfamiliar to me. The Chilliwacks north of Mt. Challenger had thus far remained a blindspot in my understanding of the Cascade Mountains. That was no longer true. This mystery unfolded like my smile and a great, immeasurable satisfaction I’d not felt this entire year, a year in which months of rainfall and dismal weather had infused in me a greyed impression of the world, as if color were no longer present, was finally revived.
Seth took first dibs on the descent and shredded the route in a style none of us could equal. Perfect snow and gravity quickly drew us to the shores of Silver Lake, whose white frozen surface was in stark contrast to the alien-blue summertime invokes. The advantage of an ice covered lake was that we could ski across in ease. At the northeast end of the lake fins of rock dominated. Called Devil’s Tongue (8048′) and Toothpick wasn’t a misnomer. They weren’t alone either. To either side more rock and snow leaned inward and I imagined I was in a distorted Universe, like a snow globe.
The upper slopes of Mt. Rahm (8478′) were reached via a narrow couloir. Yellow, red and green algae colored the cliffs within it’s confines. No less than half a dozen waterfalls to either side of us slipped between moats of snow and disappeared below our feet. In t-minus 60 seconds, their accumulation would arrive at Silver Lake no worse for wear. It was tempting to follow them, but we were headed in the opposite direction. This didn’t stop all of us from losing our shit. While there’s no predicting when the emotional fulcrum will teeter and explode into vulgarity and variations of “Yeahhhhhh”. It nonetheless felt compelled to do so here. Beauty is fuel and we were fired up!
Atop Mt. Rahm we relaxed on rocks and every eye played across the slew of peaks, the same as earlier but with a slightly new perspective. The Pickets, Stuart Range, Chilliwacks (and more) were each a pride of lions lounging in the noonday sun, just as we were. Only difference, they were predators.
All five of us found our separate lines down Mt. Rahm and besides a few photos near the top, I joined them on our mad dash to the Maselpanik Glacier 2000+ feet below.
Now past mid-day the snow was beginning to break loose from warming rocks. A game of risk and reward, calculation and speed proceeded in due course. While the danger was manageable there’s always the potential for an outlier, so we spread out and moved quickly.
On the fringe of the Custer Glacier was a ridge which separated it from the surrounding ice. As I arrived and saw the Custer Glacier, I raised my hands in a calming gesture and said, “Whoa girl, let’s not get carried away….” She was a mess. Broken ice and frozen debris stretched half a mile down her flank. Near the top a week-old 3-4 foot slab lay exposed. Above were the sagging remains of cornices that had, for the most part, been torn away and added to the debris below.
We quickly merged with a safe snowfield that led to the summit ridge of Mt. Custer. Our relief was evident in our banter. By in large I avoid danger in the mountains as much as I can, but danger and mountains aren’t mutually exclusive. For me, risk aversion has evolved with age and I take few risks anymore, but calculated risks are a necessary part of the game of life. They must be embraced not only in the outdoors, but throughout our everyday lives.
We descended rock fields from the top of the ridge below Custer for a few hundred feet before skis and snow allowed a quick descent to a hanging valley which stair stepped into another whose outline was an old terminal moraine, the survival of which had outlasted it’s progenitor. A further traverse propelled us around a sub-peak, eventually returning us to Lake Ouzel. It was 9:30 PM. Our grand circumnavigation had taken 12.5 hrs.
On the morning of the 3rd day Seth and Maxx skipped out of camp just before Tim, Ashton and I. They were adding a few thousand vertical to their descent back to their cars. Meanwhile we were staying at least a day or two more. How long exactly was up to weather and motivation.
On that day’s docket was Redoubt’s (8970′) south face with a side trip to the Depot Glacier.
At midday we had rounded the massive cliffs of Redoubt, only to come face to face with the even more massive cliffs of Bear Mountain. Even further in the distance I could see the gentle slopes of Mt. Challenger. In between I hoped to make out Forest McBrian and Trevor Kostanich at the end of their historic traverse from I90 to Canada, which I assumed would end at Silver Lake. Turns out they ran into another friend of mine in the Picket Range about a weeks march south of us. My hat’s off to these guys for their month-plus adventure! I have no doubt that it will leave an indelible mark on their lives. It is – to me – the ultimate Cascade Mountain ski adventure thus far ever completed in the region, adding to the American Alps Traverse Kyle Miller and I completed in 2013, a trip Forest was to be on, but was forced to drop out of because of work obligations. Way to go guys!
The south route to the summit ridge of Redoubt is a ~40+ degree face and couloir that stretched further than any of us expected. The descent tracks from the two Canadian’s who had climbed the North Face were evident. What a climb they must’ve had! Tim and Ashton climbed to the summit ridge while I took photos of the surrounding mountains.
The descent was magic. We had perfect snow and afterward I felt like doing it all over again.
Above the Redoubt Glacier I traversed to a point where I could capture a view of Mox Peaks. For the top 100 climbers out there, this is among the more difficult peaks to attain. In 7 images I created a panorama.
Before leaving I gazed to the south one last time. My original plan was to ski to Challenger and traverse the entire Chilliwacks north to south, but partners and weather didn’t align. This stretch would’ve been the last leg of the north cascades I’ve not linked together, but I’ve years ahead of me and many adventures to go!
We descended around a nose of rock and climbed onto the north face of redoubt, about 500 feet below the Depot Glacier. Ashton took the lead and climbed to a point below cliffs. After a short rest, we skied onto the glacier and retraced our route. This was glacier #146. I thought about the years of travel and 100’s of days, and how 100’s more were needed to complete the remainder of Washington glaciers. More recently I’ve began to think regionally rather than of the project as a whole. That way it is more palpable and less overwhelming.
Back at camp we lay in the sun and, really, when you get down to it, one of the things I enjoy most about the mountains is a closeness to the sun you don’t get in the low country. Sure, a few thousand feet is statically insignificant when compared to the ~93 million miles separating us from the sun, but feelings are often more powerful than fact in the mind’s of man, so at least in this case, I’m willing to say to hell with fact.
When morning came, clouds were stacking on the horizon. That night a steady wind had blown. This all hinted at weather and with only a few more days of food, a day spent in the rain didn’t seem worth the effort, so we gathered our gear and rushed back down Depot Creek, past the falls and through old growth forest.
Hours later, on a wet road, we plodded through running water to our car, to the last remaining Toyota Tacoma. From it we pulled out beers and in a creek after cleaning cobwebs from our faces, we partook in the ‘trailhead ceremony’ of drinking said beers while resting on dirty packs.
Far up the valley I could still make out the roar of Depot Falls. It was undeniable and unwavering much like the mountains that birthed it, the rugged wilderness of the North Cascades. Whenever I go among these mountains, I am left remade, a different person than I was. Tighter friendships, closer ties to these wild mountains and more connected to the untamed land we hold in reserve not just for me, but for each and all. We need mountains, just like lions, even if to just know that they are there and nothing more.
Thanks all for joining me on this adventure. Until the next one! Any questions or interest in imagery, feel free to comment below or email alpinestateofmind(AT)gmail(DOT)com