April 30th-May 3rd, 2018
G.A Whitehead, an early 20th century Forest Service Ranger, named Royal Basin. His honorifics weren’t merely puff and circumstance. He was the first non-native to see the basin. It was unblemished or trammeled by man or his obsession to improve what is, by default, regal.
Today visitors have had an impact. It has become, at least in summer, one of the most highly trod regions in Olympic National Park. By contrast, winter’s snows conceal that evidence. Throughout winter, like most mountainous regions nowhere near a ski area or highway pass, it reverts to a kingdom of one.
Jake Chartier, splitboarder and everyday shredder who has over 150 days this season, joined me for the ‘Eastern Olympic Edition’ of my Washington Glacier Ski Project. Front page: Deception, Mystery and Surprise glaciers. Back page: the forecast. A day of rain was to be followed by days of sun. Such dreary beginnings, while potentially unpleasant, also blunt the heat, which can be overpowering this time of year. Trust me. Even with rain, it’s hard to tell if it’s water or sweat on your face.
The approach hike curls around tree trunks mirroring each bend and curve of the Dungeness River. Somewhere along the way, Jake shows me a massive boulder, the size of a truck and disposition of a meteor, for the destruction it had lain across its trajectory was catastrophic. Trees swept aside like leaves. Daylight spearing through free air where once green armor shielded ground from naked sky.
Five miles in, Jake and I rounded the trail and arrived at first snows. There’s always a balance between trail and snowpack that’s optimal. No matter the weight of skis on backs instead of feet, too much snow can actually slow progress rather than assist it, even when a deproach can be made via ski rather than foot. Either way, it was perfect. Soon we’d crossed the first basin and were making our way over Royal Falls. Parting clouds weren’t common, yet the reward with any break, as we broke from forests to basin, was a skyline encircled in ghostly vestiges of cliff and ridge, peak top and hanging valley, all parts of mountains yet to be fully revealed to us.
Night one was lost to sleep and I never woke until morning. Expectations of good weather were dodged by reality, which hadn’t slacked while we slept. Clouds encircled us like wolves drooling from mouths, ready to leap and consume us. Like a knight to the rescue, the encompassing rain shadow defended us. As such, a pocket of blue sky and accompanying sun graced us, as we packed our bags for the first climb of the trip, an ascent of the NE Couloir of Mount Deception (7,789′), the 2nd tallest mountain of the Olympics.
The couloir offered spectacular views of peaks I didn’t know the names or history of. Nor did I have history in most of them. It was eye-opening. Humans are creatures of habit, no doubt. Learning new approaches and terrain sounds amazing to most, but few skiers actually do so on a regular basis. I’d like to think I’m an exception to that rule, but that has been a rare case on the Peninsula (the Olympic Traverse is one of those exceptions). My geographical prejudices have kept me at bay, more so than they should’ve. No longer. To blame for this change of heart: my Glacier Project. It’s a home wrecker! My first love, the North Cascades, doesn’t know (shhhh), but the Olympics are worth my advances, too.
Atop the north ridge, Jake and I moved from refrozen, unconsolidated mashed potatoes sprinkled with avalanche debris to a solid snowpack blanketed in a thin layer of new snow. Shadows and sun played across the perfect snow surface and as the last few hundred feet closed to mere feet, excitement bloomed for views of the Olympics, but still all that remained clear was that blue hole from earlier that stretched to the first line of peaks and rarely beyond.
The Deception Glacier curls on the back of Deception. Living up to its name, Jake and I nearly skied the wrong route, which is apt to occur when down fills the sails of excitement. Fortunately, a course correction wasn’t needed, just a change of heading. Jake took first dibs, shredding below a cornice and around a fist of rock that jutted from the snow face. I followed suit, and with turns sweeping up snow and gravity alike, the Deception Glacier flashed by and was behind me in a handful of breaths.
Initially we were going to ski the NE Couloir of Deception, but we let our skis take the reins. Better skiing usually follows such action, although more often than not, so does more climbing.
Up and over several cols along a perfect bench offered more skiing. Massive cliffs loomed overhead. From a jut of rock appeared the face of a dog. Beneath it, along a wall of rock, a line of lichen stretched across the face. Above in green and red. Below, nothing. I was reminded of pictographs I’d seen throughout the American Southwest. To me, lichen is Nature’s pictograph. It tells the tale of time, the rages of weather and the tenacity of life. Lichen is, as explained on Wiki, “…a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi in a symbiotic relationship.” One specimen has been dated to 8,600 years old and is considered the oldest organism on the planet.
Next stop was glacier #2 of the trip, the Surprise Glacier. In between a menagerie of towers with fantastic names such as Gilhooley Tower, Sweat Pinnacle, Sundial and my all-time fav, Gasp Pinnacle. You can always tell when climbers named peaks rather than bureaucrats pointing at maps.
We skinned the final feet to a small pass overlooking a bowl which contains the Surprise Glacier. My first view caught me by surprise (really, it did). We had thought the ski would be continuous, but the entire valley was cleaved from the surrounding peaks and the outlet was actually a small rise. Between, cliff ramparts lined either side of the valley. As we skied toward the camp, the sun-baked rocks spilled snow, ice and stones onto the western slopes. While the solar radiation was strong, it’s short-lived. Ninety percent of the sun’s arc is blocked by peaks. Only the zenith of the sky is ever in sight of Sol.
Back at camp, shadows swallowed our tent after a short nap. Once awakened by cold and growing darkness, Jake decided to give chase to the disappearing sun, and was soon racing toward high ridges and peak tops above camp. I delayed pursuing. Yet, I concluded, once a nap and food is had, then all that remains is skiing. So sit or go wasn’t an option. If anything, the mountains offer clarity, and simplicity. Going is all there ever is, right?
It was sometime before I reached Jake. He’d ridge-hoped to a high point and together we kept going until we reached an even higher point. From there we peered downward, eyes sweeping from camp, to mountain, to valley and far off horizon. I concluded that, “Going? Yes, that is all there is.” Best to burn moments with the sunset. Best to to live life the same.
Before the snow could harden more than it had, we laid tracks from on high to down low, riding into camp with hoots, and tearing to a stop like the avalanche debris that surrounded the basin.
Day three’s plan pushed us from tents at 6:30 a.m., and quickly returned us to the ridge line of the evening before. In full sunlight, the Mystery Glacier hid little, but while lacking the ‘mystery’ it purports, no amount of knowing is best had from afar, so we repeated the descent we made the evening before, although this time, in the opposite direction, coming to a stop at an open creek where water and breakfast awaited us. There’s nothing like fresh water. No amount of stove melted water is a good enough alternative. Chilled ‘winter’ borne from spring melt is Nature’s wine.
We decided not to climb and ski Mystery Peak after climbing the glacier. Conditions were terrible. Instead we took a left and soon made a plan to ski Hal Foss, Fricaba and Snifter Spire (another great name). After skiing from a sub-point, we bounced off the valley bottom like a basketball and in a flutter of feet shuffling over snow, we skinned to the summit of Hal Foss. In the distance, the encircling clouds of the day before had retreated. Destination>>>future had me dead to rights. There, waiting. Calling. Was Mt. Olympus, the crown of the Olympics, no matter what Royal Basin deemed to claim. This year I planned a return. More glaciers. More hidden corners.
Our turns were seconds of wind and flying snow before they were done. Another bounce and I gave chase to Jake who was on a mission to damn-near fly to the top of Fricaba! This summit was a mess of shattered rock. Time had laid waist to any so-called solidity and the only state of matter remaining is dust in the wind for these mountains. Another ski and a final bounce put us on the summit of Snifter Spire. It’s nose in the air may be the root of it’s name. No matter how pompous that may be, the the descent was wonderful. And in the valley once more was a shrinking island of light soon to be consumed by darkness. This time it didn’t matter. We were contented, royalty too fat with the fruit of these mountains to move.
Night swallowed dreams and morning wasn’t met until the sunlight broke over the tent. Breakfast was skipped in lieu of a quick exit. Our tracks from day one were retraced, offering the easiest escape. The hardened snow surface we had hoped for had already weakened too much to support our weight. The ski was a pure, white-knuckled, teeth jarring shitcapade. A steady progression of nightmare turns that careened more than carved led to trail and dirt. Relief was in the shape of ‘Fuck yeah’s’, but not in a good way. There’s a fine line between stoke and anti-stoke. In this case, another hour earlier or later would’ve provided harder or softer snow. As it was, we picked the worst time to go, but that’s the way of things.
While our packs were heavy, it wasn’t with any royal hoard. Royal Basin’s treasures aren’t ones to be carried on your back, but in memory. Our gold, is white gold. And it comes and goes with the whims of season, and the delusions of skiers happy to hunt far and wide for it, no matter where it may rest.
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Thanks for joining me for a walk into the Olympics!