Kyle Miller’s original stomping grounds are the South Cascades and last month he took advantage of the high-pressure conditions to complete one of the most underrated high routes in the coastal mountains with photographer Jason Hummel. The Northwest splitboard hero traversed the 24 miles from Paradise to Crystal Mountain and this is his unvarnished and completely inspiring report. -EB Editor
Story by Kyle Miller, photos by Jason Hummel
I originally met Willie when I started working for the Crystal Mountain ski school. He’s the type of person who was always smiling and told amazing stories of the valleys surrounding the ski resort and growing up in this vast unspoiled wilderness. His stories go on forever but there was one that really stuck in my mind for years.
Willie was a vital part of the 10th Mountain Division, which specifically trained for Mountain combat, originating in WW2. He told stories of adventure traversing from Crystal Mountain to Paradise the southern most parking lot of Mount Rainier training people to skin and travel far distances without the help of others. This landscape is covered in glaciers, high alpine and rugged terrain. After hearing his stories this trip was put on my tick list.
For years I would stare at the vast landscape of Mt. Rainier from the summit of Crystal Mountain looking upon huge open slopes smashed by rocks jutting out of the snow and ice. I had dreamed of exploring the 24 miles that stand between my home resort and the mountain I called home in midwinter conditions. Finally the opportunity arose in the beginning of February. With a brief high-pressure system leaving the PNW cloudless for 4 days it was time to go for it. I was fortunate that my good friend Jason Hummel was both wanting and willing to join me.
The morning that we started the trip I watch a fiery sunrise ablaze above the bustling city lights of Seattle before heading off to the stillness of the outdoors. With an Alchemist 30-liter pack filled to the brim with food, shelter, a Karakoram 20-degree bag and enough Microtherms to keep me warm for days on end, we were off.
The parking lot was filled to the brim with tourists, climbers, snowshoers and backcountry skiers but after the first few hours we were alone with nothing but our thoughts and conversations to shatter the silence of the mountains. We rode to the toe of the massive Ingraham Glacier littered in Seracs as the ice poured over cliffs. That afternoon we skinned up the Whitman Glacier with Little Tahoma dominating the foreground and the vast southern cascades in the background.
That first night we camped up on Whitman Crest watching the sunset alpenglow illuminating on Mt. Adams and St. Helens to the west and the almost full moon rise to the east causing a eerie glow among the alpine terrain. We had friends on other parts of the mountain who would be pushing for the summit in the A.M. so we thought about them and wondered if they were looking at the star-filled sky as well before heading off to sleep in our warm bags.
The next morning we woke up in preparation of the sunrise and watched a dark purple and bright red light display on the eastern faces of Rainier and Little Tahoma before heading off. This was the crux day of the trip as we skinned up and rode down 12 miles and over 7000 vertical feet, riding classic lines like the Frying Pan Glacier, The Cowlitz Chimney and Sarvant Glacier Couloir all in powder conditions, and all memorable runs.
With each descent Rainier would get further and further away but the surrounding scenery made up for it. We were surrounded by massive mountains tore apart by thick walls of ice. Before long we were setting up our camp perched up on Govener’s Ridge with Rainier and the terrain we had traveled across in full display knowing that if things went smoothly we would be at Crystal within 24 hours.
That night we watched the sunset and the faint red glow of Seattle among the clouds in the distance. People would think that you would get bored of sunrises/sunsets but this is not the case, these are the moments I truly love and feel alive in and by far my favorite parts of the day. Lying in our tent we wondered what was in store the next day and talked about how the journey had gone so far.
The last morning we watched the sun reach over the horizon before setting off. We were heading to a place I had called home for the past ten years and to terrain that was littered in memories of both my childhood and early days of touring. It’s amazing how our perspectives of the mountains surround us change over time and this was the case as we skinned and climbed steep slopes blocking us from our exit.
Each ridge would get us closer to people and the warmth of civilization but in the back of our minds I think we both felt like heading deeper into the wilderness and away from all that but we were at the fate of weather and it was turning for the worse so we exited via the southern backcountry gate of Three-way Peak. We had made it just in time for last chair at Crystal and decided to take a quick lap.
Standing on top of the Forest Queen chairlift with huge backpacks we smiled and looked around. I could only imagine what it was like for the Willie to be breaking in a skintrack along these same mountains.
We had made it flawlessly across the traverse and sadly our adventure had come to a conclusion. We said goodbye to the mountain as we took one final run to the base of the resort with the setting sun light up the peaks in the foreground.
Up and down, up and down this was far from a trip of sidehilling this was an epic adventure spanning 24 miles of fall line riding. This was the Paradise to Crystal high route.
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