Nooksack Traverse: April 2018 5/24/2020 0 Comments
- Originally Written in Spring 2018
As the winter snowpack consolidates and prepares for its springtime transition, we wax our boards with warm temp wax, adjust to lighter weight insulating layers, indulge in the longer daylight, and adjust our approach for the big mountains. Every March we start to adjust our mindset for long summit shreds and multi day ski traverses. This is where I find happiness with the decision to live, play, and work in the North Cascades around Mount Baker. After decades of riding shred zones around the United States I decided, if the only terrain I had to ride the rest of my life is between Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, I would be a very happy man. So after years of steady focused experience and schedules aligning with two friends we had a go at the Nooksack Traverse. This beautiful line travels around the ragged mountain crest that creates the headwaters of the North Fork of the Nooksack River. Where hanging turquoise, crystal blue, iridescent glaciers spill over the sides of protruding gray granite, green schist, and black lichen covered basalt mountains. Filling aquamarine glacial till streams where lush ferns, dripping moss, and sagging branches shadow salmon swimming upstream to spawn. This lifeline sustained generations of first nations people (Nooksack Tribe). The pathway and guidance they provided to settlers looking for minerals, lumber, and other commodities. This cultural human history led to the construction of the Baker Highway and the proposal of a national park. That subsequently was woven into a variety of parks and forests that now provide access to some of most impressive alpine skiing terrain anywhere on earth. The Nooksack Traverse begins at 3,600’, below the Shuksan Arm, where the quaint but robust Mount Baker Ski Area is located. And ascends up and over Mount Shuksan, across to Icy Peak, up and over Ruth Mountain, and down to the Baker Highway at 2,000’. Covering 19 miles and 19,000' of elevation change this traverse delivers big adventure. Dan and Shane drove up from Seattle while I munched on a Wake n Bakery burrito. I did some last-minute packing, planning, and weather forecast updating. Shortly after their arrival at our shuttle car depot at Hannegan Pass Road, we drove up to the White Salmon Base area at the Mount Baker Ski Area and the of beginning of the route. The sun started to poke out through the passing clouds as we shouldered our packs. Loaded with 2-days worth of gear. Including a glacier travel kit, overnight sleep systems, stoves, and appropriate clothing for a traverse in the most rugged of Cascadian terrain. Far in the distance, we could see a hearty soul punching a fresh skin track through 12 inches of fresh spring pow that fell in the previous few days. The three of us traversed out from the bottom of a chair lift into the rugged, relentless, ground zero blasting zone that is the White Salmon Valley. In classic style the valley was filled with a humbling amount of gigantic avalanche debris that plummets thousands of feet from steep mountain sides above. Most of the time the debris towered over head as we struggled to skin over the firm rubble. Going up and over barricades that were gouged by blocks of snow and ice and down into grooves that were 15 feet deep we eventually reached a smooth track that we ascended up through the trees to the bivy knoll at about 5,000’. The track we followed was at a sustainable angle, linking up slopes that avoided primary avalanche paths, wandering comfortably up the White Salmon Glacier, where “the arm” ends and becomes the mountain, to the top of Winnies Slide at 7,100’.
A short boot pack up Winnies, crossing onto the hanging Upper Curtis Glacier, seracs teetering over the abyss of Shuksan Creek, a giant wind scoop shows edges of ancient glacial ice, we put our boards back on our feet and continued skinning along the established track. Mount Shuksans summit pyramid loomed overhead as we climbed into lowering clouds. Diminishing visibility encumbered our approach to the lofty Hanging/ Crystal Col. Since we were about to descend into new terrain with extremely steep slopes, over cliffed exposure, with bergschrunds and crevasses lurking, seracs and hanging cornices dangling like frozen guillotines, we refreshed ourselves with food and water while we waited for the clouds and fog to part. A reasonable amount of Cascadian viz allowed us to eventually ride by braille off the top of Hanging Glacier, onto the upper Crystal Glacier, towards the initial crux of the route. A bollard, rappel, lower, air it out, what would we need to do to enter the forbidden and rarely traveled Nooksack Cirque. Slow large shred turns weave back and forth seeking contrast, feeling the tilt of the slope under our feet, we inch slowly down the Crystal Glacier to the edge of the cirque. Cautiously we peer over the Nooksack Headwall, into the expansive cirque, and see 50 degrees of steep shred glory. Guarding below the left side of the headwall was a nunatak feature that protruded rock through the icy headwall. Sprawling out from the nunatak was a “schrund” that blocked the riders left option and a fall line choice. To our right a strip mall sized cornice blocked 85% of the entrance. The only reasonable option was easing in, establishing a ski edge, slide a turn, start working right as sluff rushed down slope, skimming the edge of the crevasse, and with 5 giant turns rip down slope, quickly evading the overhead authority until all of the team touch downed on the Nooksack Glacier 400’ below. Riding our way down another 500’ feet of elevation to the point we could start our long toe side traverse, under the cresting Jagged Ridge, sliding turns and edges above thick seracs, we traversed east until we could start linking fall line turns to toe side traverse, to fall line turns to toe side traverse. Skipping over narrow crevasses like stones on a creek, toe siding across steep spines that peeled off the high ridge above, down soft flowy turns until reaching our transition to uphill. To be able to complete the cirque descent smoothly we maintained our elevation high on the glacier, knowing we had to make it far east before riding fall line, taking a “bench” that positioned us between the walls of the Jagged Ridge above and the cracks and seracs of the glacier below us. After descending for 3.5 miles and 3,500’ we reached the corner pocket below the spear point of Seahpo Peak.
A short ascent led us up to our lofty camp that floated amongst the clouds and ice like a sailboat in the fog near the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea. As we dug in our tent site, melted snow, and admired our line of descent across the Nooksack Cirque we saw our cirque companions far below. After dropping low on the glacier, they were ascending back towards our track. Late day light saturated in multi chromatic silver as our new friends ascended our skin track. Allowing us to return the favor for their track earlier in the day. We chatted as they dug in camp and learned that this was one of the last legs of the Cascade Crest Traverse that he had to complete. His next plan was to head over to Baker and do the Watson Traverse (trip report link). Another spectacular traverse over one of Washington’s iconic volcanoes. What a finale to an incredible journey and with rugged dedication. As far as I know, no other snowboarder has completed all the Cascade Crest Traverses.
Shane booting up Icy Peak
A brilliant sunset on day 1 was followed by a warming sunrise on day 2. Up early we were ready to encounter the remaining Cascadian alpine perfection. In short order we were packed up and continued towards Icy Peak. Early morning light glistened off the still refrozen snow crust as we skinned along the ridge. Ski crampons were required as we set track wrapping around the summit of Icy Peak until we accessed the Spillway Glacier. On the way up the Spillway, we inventoried sagging snow bridges that hid deep crevasses, fall line descent options, the consequence of encountering isolated wind slab in this terrain, until we eventually reached the point to start boot packing up the remaining couple hundred feet to the summit. A lofty precipice floated in equilibrium among rivers of flowing ice, crumbling rock, cascading creeks, wafting pine essence, and soaring black ravens. We enjoyed the splendid summit then started our descent down the Spillway. Sliding shred turns past crevasses, over smooth snow, towards a nunatak at the toe of the glacier. We repositioned and finished our Spillway descent to transition for uphill travel towards the south ridge connecting to Ruth Mountain. After reaching the ridge we were confronted with 2 options. One would follow the ridge directly, shorter in distance, but required us to cross a very steep slope that likely would require crampons. Or we descend skiers left off the ridge, around the toe of a rock buttress, then skin and contour around on moderate slopes to the summit, so this is what we did. A short downward traverse and an easy skin track up led us conveniently to Ruth Mountains south ridge. In the late morning diffused light of gray cresting clouds, we reached our last summit of the traverse. Ruth Mountain is positioned seemingly on the edge of the earth with roadless, pristine wilderness cast out around us. From here few people travel north in to the desolate, untrammeled, isolated, distant, dreamy, nightmarish, spooky, ominous, remote Picket Range or the other little-known border ranges. It was a nice experience returning to the summit of Ruth. Many years earlier when I first moved to the Glacier, Ruth Mountain was my first backcountry objective. With my friend Jeremiah, we set out in early November and rode a respectable 3,500’ into the Ruth Creek drainage. I remember an uneasy feeling I had traveling on glaciers. I didn’t know much about them: What to look for? What were bad conditions? What were good conditions? I was fully aware that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now, after years of traveling and working in the Cascades I felt more comfortable with the hazards. After a mega year of snow, a deep snowpack, buried glaciers, and a proficiency with relevant rescue skills it felt all good. We descended fall line from the Mount Ruth’s summit. Riding broad open slopes towards the steepening convexity below, slashing the lip, surfing the banks of a most aesthetic ridge drift directly into the valley. We contoured through the valley bottom, across open avy paths, meandering along the creek, over stretching slide alder, until we reached the Hannegan Pass trailhead. Which of course was snowed in, and after taking a break, we found the road was washed out just before the trailhead. So, in summer access would be restricted. We skated, slid, and plodded along the Hannegan Pass road on our way back to our shuttle car. When without notice the snow abruptly ended miles from our car. But how could this be? From the bottom it was snowed in and now much higher in elevation the snow was melted. Even so it went relatively quick and we found ourselves at the snow blockade where our car was parked next to the Baker Highway. At some point during our egress one of the other parties’ members caught up to us and requested a ride back up their car at the ski area. Of course, but we will need to drink these celebratory beers first!
- Originally Written in Spring 2018 Icy Peak & Spillway Glacier from Ruth Mountain