January 14-16 Colton Jacobs, Jeff Rich and Jason Hummel
January in Washington has a secret. It’s this: for a week or two during the month, it’s nearly always sunny. I know, you may balk at this pronouncement, especially you fair-weathered PNW transplants, but it’s true. If you’ve been here awhile, think back through those years of foggy, dreary winter days. Remember that bright spot, that shinny thing in the sky we tend to forget about for 6 months? “Hello January.”
Knowing this truth is one thing. Taking advantage of it is another entirely. For me, sometimes I get antsy to get ‘out’ there and go experience the mountains. The resulting enjoyment often suffers from my lack of patience and a misery-quota is reached far too early. By then another winter trip sounds as enjoyable as sitting on a cactus (which I unpleasantly experienced during a photo shoot once in Arizona).
This year, I worked my way into winter like that mouse in my garage worked it’s way into my helmet (and what a fine helmet hamlet it was). It began back in early December when I decided to make a one-day dash up Sloan Peak to tag the Sloan Glacier (glacier #199). Besides a layer of ice over everything and no snow for 80 percent of the trip, my partner Colton Jacobs and I got to appreciate the rejuvenating benefits of an evening swim across the N. Fork Sauk River in 10 degree weather. Don’t worry, the car was close by, just no extra socks.
Dilemma: would you rather have shoes or socks? I realized I’d rather have socks!
By mid-December winter’s snow-spout turned on and the powder stacked up. Skiing was happening! My New Years goal of at least 3-4 days a week making turns and taking photos was, too.
Finally in mid-January, the 14-16th, I decided to go to Lemah mountain to tag my 200th glacier in Washington, the Lemah Glacier. My friend Colton Jacobs (Gold Star for two glacier adventures in a row!), as well as my longtime friend Jeff Rich (lifetime achievement award for fixing my broken stuff) decided to join me.
We approached via Cooper Lake, west of Roslyn. Saving both suffering and time, we used snowmobiles for the road slog. It’s a tool I’ve rarely taken advantage of, choosing instead to slog countless miles of road for no reason other than I always had. “It’s good for the soul,” the purist in me would pronounce. Well, I’m older and wiser now. Road skiing with heavy packs isn’t fun. Ever. No one likes it. Yeah, even you who really thinks you do. You really don’t.
Sure, sleds smell. They’re noisy. But, to be fair, tired and hungry skiers forced to hike countless miles of road are more noisy than the whine of a 30 year old sled!
After an hour of sledding we began our trudge toward Pete Lake, nestled east of the Cascade Crest in thick fir forests and flat marshlands. I lied to Colton and said it would take only an hour or two from the parked sleds to get to the lake. I knew better, sure, but deception is the key to indoctrination.
But Colton wasn’t fooled. He’s a smart guy and he knew better. Plus, doubtful he knows the saying, “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” There was no fooling him twice, right?
“I love creek crossings,” I pronounced. Colton groaned in response. Memories of Sloan Peak leapt to the forefront of his memory. In Jeff and my rambling approach and constant bullshitting, we decided to cross the creek an extra time or two because, “…I love creek crossings!”
“You know, we didn’t have to go this way,” Colton soon declares. Jeff and I give the, “…you know he may just be right,” stare.
“Cold water brings the swelling down,” Jeff adds in our defense. The Cooper valley’s healing waters were just what our aching knees needed! Colton wasn’t convinced. Chagrined, we inwardly agreed, but we’re far too stubborn to admit it.
We reached Pete Lake and broke out into the open. Ahead the frozen waters provided an ice runway. With our excitement already prepared to take off, the clouds parted and the expanse ahead became a canvas of light and shadow.
Whatever sun we expected to remain became inundated as we neared camp at the base of Lemah Creek.
To keep boredom at bay, because nights in the winter go from 4:30 PM to nearly 7:30 AM, I threw in the towel early (as did everyone else) and decided to catch up on a month’s worth of sleep. The plan worked fantastically until midnight.
On day two, we wound our way up Lemah Creek. Hope remained high. The day before, strung along the higher-most flanks, was interesting couloirs and features we pictured skiing in powder. How naive, Cascadian-Padawan.
The SE Couloir on Lemah rose above our camp, from 3500 to 6200 feet. It’s not steep, and the cliffs and terrain that opened before us as we ascended, added to what would’ve been an incredibly appealing line if not for the worsening snow. Besides the avy debris we wound through at the base, there was an inch trap crust all the way to the top. Any powder we’d imagined was bollix. Yet, that couldn’t stop us. Rather than throw in the towel, we just kept going. It’s what I like to call the fuck-it-I-am-here-so-I-am-going-to-climb-cause-I-can. Plus, “I just want to see around the corner.” Oh yeah, and get a glacier (c’mon guys, it’s not just for the glacier, I promise).
Translation: around the corner means to the top.
Colton decided to play it smart and wait for us on a 6200 foot bench below the summit of Lemah 2. Meanwhile, Jeff and I continued up the highest Lemah summit, of which there are seven! Lookers left to right: Lemah Thumb, Lemah 1, Lemah 2, Lemah Mountain, Lemah 4, and Lemah 5. Anyhow, without knowing for sure until home, we went for the tallest of the bunch, Lemah Mountain (7480′).
Jeff crushed the lead to near the top of the SE Face of Lemah. I continued up when he went to check a couloir that turned out to be a sheet of ice. While he was in death grip mode, I moved up the other couloir toward the summit, alone. About 50-75 feet below the top, I stopped near where the snowy ridge met a rocky summit block. As I got my skis on and began to descend, I saw Jeff clamoring his way up. I yelled into the wind, “Poop DOLLAR!” For reference, let me tell a little story our fine friend Colton relayed to us around the campfire the night before.
“When I was a kid,” Colton recounted, “my friend’s and I used to take a dollar bill and roll it up with dog pop on the inside.” Jeff and I laughed, but too early because Colton goes on and adds, “We’d take the money and put it on the street and go hide and wait nearby. Eventually someone would pick it up and open it.” Colton starts to laugh a little and Jeff and I more. “That’s when we’d rise up from our hiding spot and yell POOP DOOOOOLLAAR!!!!!!!!” Clearly Colton was a devil of a kid! Either way, Jeff and I were impressed, and proceeded to laugh our asses off while Colt sat calmly by.
Thus, this line is known hereto forth as, Poop Dollar Couloir.
A sketchy ski descent was made difficult by the wind, which went from zero to fifty, threatening to send either my skis or self from the ridge. But that’s what gets me excited. No wind was going to blow my smile away. I was having the most fun I’d had this trip, outside river crossings. And this was without a single turn. It was far to icy to turn as some of us were bound to prove.
Jeff followed me down from his highpoint, sidestepping ‘most’ of the way. Near the transition between softer snow and ice, I watched as he attempted a turn. That’s when he lost his edges and fell. We both knew he’d pull it together at a flat bench, but my heart still thumped loud in my chest for a second or two!
We both laughed a bit, and he promised too “…sharpen my edges.”
Jeff and I took a side trip to the Lemah Glacier, a mass of ice ensconced in a deep basin carved beneath high rocky walls. Old terminal moraines could be seen below. Even noticeable in mid-winter was the fact that this glacier was on a fast-track to extinction.
Our retreat reconnected us to Colton. Retracing our route across the high bench that bisects Lemah, we found powder. Of course, it was a traverse, but along the way we managed a few fantastic turns. One even blew some snow in my face.
The 3000 foot couloir we’d climbed up was still as bad as we’d remembered. Sometimes you think it’s going to be better? As if reality could be plucked from the past and replaced with something more palpable. Sadly, it wasn’t. I traversed, jump turned and battled for every foot descended until we reached camp. What extra reserves of energy we thought we’d have, to retreat back to the car, remained higher on the mountain.
The next day we retraced our path, this time only crossing the creek twice, and because skis are ‘great’ flotation devices, Jeff and I decided to cross the creek with our skis on, while Colton stuck to the tried and true ice-river-dance.
Endless forest, Pete Lake, marshland, more icy tree wells than you can shake a fist at, and more. Soon, we arrived back at the sleds. Jeff and I were still talking shit, and Colton increasingly added his own voice to the mix. Friends, in the end, help friends laugh. It makes the forgetting that much easier when all you remember are the stories past, and the stories newly formed.
Also, no news to local skiers, Washington has another secret. It’s this: when it’s sunny in mid-winter, the snow is more often bad than good. Sunshine comes at a price, but we can afford to pay it. There was good skiing before, and much more to come.