The sky was grey with a cold, bitter wind as Jason Hummel and I loaded our bags on Lady of the Lake, a ferry that runs up and down Lake Chelan. Nestled deep in the North Cascades, Lake Chelan is a massive valley dug out by ancient glaciers that runs over 100 miles and is considered the third deepest lake in the continental U.S. It grants access to two small mountain towns, Stehekin, which is at the head of the lake, and Holden Village, an abandoned mining town that was converted to a Lutheran community. These places are cut off from the main grid of civilization and surrounded by some of the biggest mountains in Washington.
The goal for the trip was to bounce around Holden Village and ski whatever lines grabbed our attention. Whether it took a few days or weeks, there was no shortage of objectives.
From the moment we entered town, we were greeted by the whole town with waves and hugs. It had been over two months since our last visit to Holden, and the people were excited to see us back. Since our last departure, it had snowed at least 100 inches in town, and they were left with a 4-foot deep snowpack. The town was busy in a tradition called “work week” where they prepared for the transition to summer by taking boards off windows for the springtime melt. It was apparent that winter was still gripping the community.
Our first day was filled with warm welcomes, local beta on the snowpack and filling ourselves with calories in preparation for a day of climbing. While both Jason and I were not the most religious of people, it didn’t matter. We didn’t feel like outcasts for the slightest bit. That night, we attended a church ceremony and packed our bags in preparation for the following day, watching huge flakes fall.
When we woke up, we walked to the community board where they displayed the daily weather. The forecast had called for mostly cloudy skies with up to 3 inches of new snow, but to our surprise the sun was out on the surrounding summits. With a quickness, we grabbed our gear and started skinning up Copper Creek towards the upper basin. We had heard that it was a local favorite. Along the way, we hoped to check out Fernow, a 9,200-foot peak that hovered over the Village almost 6,000 feet below.
Astonished that the sun was shining, we followed an old mining road before detouring into sparsely gladed trees, following the creek and generally climbing towards the head of the valley. From our first glimpse of the surrounding peaks, we knew we were somewhere special. The mountains were covered in massive rocks but with enough big lines to keep a person busy for a lifetime. Following the valley floor, we passed numerous, naturally-ran avalanches from previous weeks, leaving scars in the slope up to 20 feet in height. Our first big cirque presented a problem, surrounding itself in steep walls and a crux area where we were forced to make small, steep switchbacks among pillows with just a few inches of new snow to dig into. Slowly we pushed our way to the top of the cirque and skinned through another patch of forest before making our way to the base of the objective—the upper cirque and home to both Fernow and Buckskin.
The weather had quickly deteriorated, and the sunshine had transitioned to dense clouds hovering around the surrounding peaks. It was obvious the weather had turned for the worse, but we decided to take it one step at a time. Our attention quickly went to Fernow’s massive east face with over 3,000 feet of wide-open alpine. The snow was quickly falling as we skinned past massive ice waterfalls locked deep into a frozen river of blue in a world of white. Before long, we were in knee-deep blower powder. The calendar stated it was mid-April, but it sure felt like mid-winter.
By now, the cloud deck had dropped, and we were stuck in flat light conditions. We decided to call it a day and return another time in hopes of more favorable conditions. The ride down was much better then expected. Snow exploding with every turn, we were stoked at how good the snow turned out to be. While we were stoked, we were also concerned about the potential for massive avalanches.
That night, we studied our maps and talked back and forth about what area to check out while watching the snow pile up outside.
The next morning we woke up to 3 inches of new snow in town and grey skies. We put our skins on and followed our previous day’s skin track. We were able to shave off three hours, making it back to the south face of Fernow in similar conditions to the previous day. Once in the upper valley, the skin track had vanished from the previous night’s snowstorm. Visibility came and went as we passed our turn-around spot from the day before, and we were hoping that conditions would improve. Glimpses of the sun came and went as we skinned onto the upper slopes, now deep with over two feet of unconsolidated new snow. With a quick test we found that our only issue was sluffs and cautiously minimized exposure, pushing up to a high col only a thousand feet below the summit proper.
We were surprised we had made it as far as we had and realized we had a chance of getting Fernow’s summit ridge. What started as a mellow open slope quickly became a knife-ridge separating Big Creek to the north and the Enitat Glacier to the south. Falling just wasn’t a option, so we gingerly climbed onto the ridge and across to the summit pyramid of Fernow, reaching our destination along the way. It was an aggressive couloir we had seen in some of John Scurlock’s photos, and to our excitement it was barely filled in. Best of all, it allowed us to the lower apron and a continuous 5,000-foot fall line run.
We carefully skirted into the couloir with ice axes in hand, finding small, soft conditions on one side and bulletproof ice on the other. We slowly skirted down the upper 55-degree couloir, wrapping around a decent-sized cliff before we started making turns on the upper apron. Each turn caused a considerable sized sluff as we carefully mitigated the danger by taking a few turns at a time. Before long, we were out of danger’s way and really able to open it up on the lower slopes.
We enjoyed shin-deep powder as we ripped down the open apron and into a small sucker-hole of sunshine. With no more fears and no more exposure, the only thing that stood between us and the valley was 4,000 feet of breathtaking scenery. There was no question we were in some of the most dramatic mountains in all of Washington. We had slayed one of the biggest and burly lines in the area that we referred to as the Inferno Couloir.
By the time we had reached town, we were haggard and beaten. After 14 hours of climbing, we arrived to the town hall just in time to see the second half of the town’s talent show. It was a great feeling coming back to such a warm, open-hearted community where we sat and ate food before heading off to our room for the night.
The next day were were worn out, and the forecast called for a warming event. We knew we had to give the snow a day to flush out potential avalanches. We slept, then ate and slept again until dinner time when we mingled with the locals, stoked to find out it was pizza night, and we were allowed to stuff our faces. Once done with dinner, Jason went back to the room while I finished up the last of my food, and to my surprise the pastor asked if I could head into his office. Thinking nothing of it, I followed. With a lot of courage and compassion, he let me know that my father had passed away and I needed to contact my mother. I looked at his notes and it said “Kyle Miller,” but I refused to believe it, almost begging him to admit that it was a mistake. After a few quick breaths, I called my mother, and we cried back and forth for the next 30 minutes while she told me the details, asking whether or not I wanted to view the body. I declined.
That night, I layed tiresly going meticulously through memories of our relationship—sometimes rocky but always filled with the hard kind of love, one that was never stated but was there. Sometime after midnight, I fell asleep. If all went according to plan, we had a long day ahead of us.
We were woken up at 3:30 a.m. by Brenan, a Holden local who was interested in taking on Bonanza’s east face with us. We walked over to the mess hall, got our gear dialed quickly and departed towards Holden Lake under a starry sky. There was a lot on my mind as we climbed with the sunrise on our backs and the adjacent peaks in the alpenglow. The snow was still firm crust from the cold night, so we bootpacked up a steep ridge that followed the course of Holden Creek until finally reaching mellower slopes for skinning.
Occasionally I would find myself lost in thought with overwhelming waves of emotion taking over, and other times I was normal.
We reached Holden Lake as the sun broke over the surrounding mountains and got our first taste of the warm sun and our first view of our objective over 4,000 feet above. The eastern face and true summit of Bonanza is a massive, steep snow-covered headwall that has cliff band in the middle and the Mary Green Glacier below.
We started our climb at Holden Pass, an area both steep and scarred by recent avalanches, which made for great bootpacking on the firm snow. We switched off bootpacking until arriving at the lower flanks of the Mary Green Glacier, an area covered by low-angled slopes for 2,000 feet to the base of the summit pyramid.
We skinned in shin-deep powder, marveling at the slopes that surrounded us. While Bonanza is amazing, it is only one of many humbling mountains in the area. The complex terrain was covered in wind lips, crevasses and the occasional serac and needed to be carefully navigatied. Clouds cloaked the summit pyramid, giving us only the occasional glimpse of what was in store.
We pushed up the slopes for the next two hours, exchanging trail-breaking duties in snow that got deeper and deeper with every foot, until finally reaching the base of the summit pyramid. It was just as steep as I had imagined and made even worse by the fact that we would have to traverse over a cliff to gain the summit ridge.
Jason clicked out of his skis first and sunk almost to his chest. There was no question it was going to be a wallow fest for the next 1,000 feet. Post-holing in the snow was a nightmare as each person’s sluff would bury the footsteps below, causing the lower person to kick in new ones. Jason led the way, Brennan stayed in the middle and I took up the back end, carefully climbing up with ice axes in hand and crampons on our feet. It was a challenge the entire way up with the crux being the upper face — we were literally digging a trench and steps into the 55-degree slopes all while trying not to look at the abyss directly below.
The climb was slow and tedious, taking me almost four hours in total. By the time I reached the summit ridge, I was wiped out with knees shaking and nerves rattled. We were 10 feet below the summit proper and carefully transitioned to our downhill gear on top of a freshly dug out ledge. The nervousness dramatically dwindled once I had my snowboard on my feet. I felt solid and knew if I fell I would be able to stop. Both Jason and I were stoked to ski the face while Brenan felt more comfortable down-climbing, so we said our goodbyes and made a meeting point at the base of the summit pyramid. We had worried about sluffs and potential slabs, so after a nice ski cut we were on our way down.
Here we were on a 55-degree slope, carefully riding above and across a 100-foot cliff and causing enormous sluffs with every turn. Our hearts were pumping, and our adrenaline was in overdrive. Once out of the exposed area, we breathed a sigh of relief and let our turns rip down some of the deepest snow of the season. Face shot after face shot, we celebrated with yells screaming at how amazing conditions were. We had made it down the headwall and below us was 3,000 feet of roller powder fields. Once at the base, we waited for Brenan and hugged and high-fived in celebrating our achievement.
By the time we reached Holden Lake, the sun had set and a full moon had risen. Around us, numerous peaks illuminated in the glow as we skinned back through the Railroad Creek Valley back towards Holden and arrived to our room at around 10:30 p.m.
That night, there was a weird balance of excitement and sorrow. On one side, we had slayed two huge line in five days, but on the other end it was time to head home and take care of my family.
On the final morning, we woke up and packed our bags for a 10:30 a.m. departure, our bodies beaten by the climb. We left Holden under a sunny sky and with a warm goodbye from the village. The next few days would be the beginning of a long grieving process.
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