By Leif Whittaker
A snowplow pushes branches to the edge of the rain-soaked pavement. There isn’t a trace of actual snow on the ground, just brown and green debris that the wind has cleaved off the trees. For a few minutes, as our two-car caravan trails the thundering plow, the sun appears, illuminating the bristling whitecaps on Hood Canal and producing a brilliant rainbow that ends in the distant heart of the Olympic Mountains. Cliff Mass, a Northwest weather guru, has termed the storm that surrounds us a “midlatitude cyclone.” We must be in its eye. I savor every second of bright warmth because I know I’ll be missing it soon.
Motoring along the meandering Dosewallips River Road, I imagine the heaps of bubbly snowfall that must be loading Mount Anderson. Has anyone ever seen it like this—a buried sentinel shedding its glaciers into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, the Pacific? Its summit is the hydrographic apex of the range, and although the trailhead lies only about 80 driving miles from Seattle, the mountain hides in some of the most remote and difficult-to-access winter terrain in the United States. The first winter ascent was not made until 1986, and—due to inconclusive records—it is unclear if that feat has ever been repeated. Similarly, there have been no solid reports of Mount Anderson ever being skied from summit to terminus in the winter, and it is this powdery goal that my team and I hope to accomplish.
Our plan is to carry heavy loads of food and equipment to a base camp on the edge of the Anderson Glacier. We will summit and ski the mountain from there and, time permitting, also climb West Peak and Echo Rock. The crux of this strategy is the approach, during which we will be required to haul sleds over rivers, through blowdowns, and beneath precarious slopes. Expectations are essentially pointless. This is an adventure that resists comparisons.
Ten-day-old tire tracks rut the wet and heavy snow. Grey slush fills ditches, turning soft clumps crunchy as we spin the cars farther from the Sound and higher into the storm. The wind is barely noticeable here in the deep river valley, and the rain has branched out into crystals. Good. Our heavy sleds will slide easily on the frictionless surface. Our wheels, however, can no longer gain traction, so we park the cars in a turnout two miles below the washout—the erosive river demolished the road in the winter of 2002.
The five of us—Freya, Joss, Brandon, Jenna, and I—don our rain gear, harness our backpacks, clip into our skis or splitboards, and say goodbye to civilization and comfort. See you in a week.
Our team is a conglomeration of family and friends who, over the years, have taken full advantage of the ample opportunities for suffering—and consequential bliss—that Northwest winters provide. Brandon has been a climbing partner of mine since college. He spends his summers working as the climbing ranger on Mount Baker and his winters laying down fresh lines with his girlfriend, Jenna, who is an expert splitboarder and probably outdoes Brandon in terms of toughness and panache. My older brother, Joss, is easily the most solid adventurer that I have ever known—he very rarely says “no”—and his intimate knowledge of the Olympics is essential. Joss and my girlfriend, Freya, are the only team members who have ever been close to Mount Anderson. Freya was here only a few months ago, doing a solo hike and capturing the summer light with the lens of her cherished camera. We are a crew as eager as we are patient, and I don’t expect to hear many complaints, no matter how painful this trip becomes.
And right from the beginning, things get painful. In order to circumvent the washout, a narrow trail switchbacks steeply up a forested hillside. Joss hauls one sled, and I haul another. His is filled with food, fuel, pots and pans, stoves. It must weigh at least 70 pounds. Mine is filled with tents, shovels, a repair kit, daypacks. It is significantly lighter. I trudge gradually uphill, my skins barely clinging to the thin crust and occasionally scraping over rocks. Freya helps the sled around corners and, together, we crest the hill. Joss, Brandon, and Jenna are fighting against the laws of nature to bring the other awkward sled over the hump.
After a series of spectacular falls and miraculous recoveries, they manage to arrive safely on the far side of the washout. We’ve been traveling for over an hour and we’ve passed today’s most difficult section, but we still have six miles to cover before nightfall and the snow is not letting up.
Heavy flakes bleach color from everything, even our faces. Hot breath settles along the roadcut. We rest shortly. Any longer would make us cold.
“Ready to go?” I ask, to no one in particular.
“Yep,” replies Joss, and he rises without hesitation. He grunts slightly as he puts his bodyweight into the sled and then glides forward, leaving a deep track in the snow and a giant ripple of invigorating energy in his wake.
Hopefully, we can ride that energy all the way to the summit.
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