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Kyle Miller Ticks Historic First Traverse of the American Alps
Posted on July 19, 2013

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Kyle Miller is drawn to brutal slogs of epic proportions. But his mission to complete the first- ever traverse of the American Alps with Jason Hummel once again confirmed his standing as the undisputed champ of Cascadian sufferfests. Linking together the Isolation Traverse, the Ptarmigan Traverse, the Extended Ptarmigan and the Suiattle High Route during the first 16 days in June, Miller and Hummel completed a dream first conceived but never completed by Washington’s legendary Skoog brothers. In total, their stroll took them a total of 120 miles, 60,000 vertical feet through some of the most remote terrain in the North Cascades, with re-supplies at their food cache on Cascade Pass and the remote mountain village of Holden, as well as a summit of Glacier Peak. They picked the perfect weather window in the fickle Cascades and became the first pair to tick off this massive ski-and-splitboard traverse—a fitting sequel to the tandem’s 2012 first of Slaying the Washington Nines. This is Kyle’s humble trip report on the latest life list achievement for Washington’s most accomplished splitboarder. -LYA Editor

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Words by Kyle Miller, Images by Jason Hummel and Kyle Miller

(View more of Jason Hummel’s images at https://www.facebook.com/JasonHummelPhotography)

Prelude

It’s been a long epic journey, 16 days to be exact. Along the way we dealt with seemingly brutal traverses over cliffs, crevasses and torrential downpours, but that didn’t matter anymore because we were standing on Glacier Peak. We were fortunate to have good weather near that summit; well, that’s when things changed for the worse. In the distance, a sea of black clouds was heading our way with intermittent crashes of thunder warning us of the ominous threat. With hostile weather in the back of our minds, we put our heads down and moved forward in hopes that we would get out of the alpine before the weather fell apart.

We were on the final thousand-foot push up when the front hit us. What was sunshine one minute had evolved into a hailstorm, pelting us sideways, letting us know we had overstayed our welcome. Our gear started to make a low-level hum, warning us of the imminent danger that was getting stronger by the minute. It was the last peak in our journey, and we experienced a feeling of relief as we put our gear off to the side of the summit crater and walked to the high point. Our celebration was cut short–in fear of death by electrocution–but we had done what both of us thought impossible until a few days earlier. We had pioneered a route in the Cascades dreamed up by one of, if not the highest regarded, ski mountaineers of our time, and with great pride we yelled to each other “Congrats, you just pulled off the American Alps Traverse.

Introduction and History

Our journey was conceived by Pacific Northwest ski historian Lowell Skoog and the late Carl Skoog, who envisioned a grand traverse of the Cascadian Crest. The route would travel over 100 miles of remote terrain in one solid push. While conceived over two decades ago with a few failed attempts, it wasn’t until this summer that the “American Alps Traverse” was finally completed.

Over the years, Jason Hummel and I had loosely spoken of doing the traverse, but I held little interest in the idea. The route, while beautiful and remote, involved day after day of side-hilling, the thought of which made me nauseous. In the beginning of May I received an email stating, “The Traverse is going to go down: are you in or are you out?” My thoughts went back and forth for days on what to do: in the end, it was the allure of a grand adventure being pulled off by a native splitboarder that pulled me in. So on June 1, 2013, Hummel and I made our first steps from the Pyramid Lake trailhead on Highway 20 on what would become a 16-day adventure.

The Breakdown

The traverse would take us through three staple routes in one continuous push, and though most of the terrain had seen skis, there were a few crux points that to our knowledge had not. Known as the Isolation Traverse, Ptarmigan Traverse, Extended Ptarmigan Traverse and Suiattle High Route, each area has a unique feel in its own right and at almost all times Glacier Peak, our final destination, would loom to the south waiting for our eventual arrival. I was overwhelmed by the thought of taking on this enormous task, so I focused on one traverse at a time, knowing each step brought us closer to our final destination.

The Isolation Traverse

Starting off at the low elevation of 2,000 feet at the Pyramid Lake trailhead, we crawled up what some would call a climbers’ trail, while others would call a faint animal trail, over 3,000 feet before we hit snow and started gliding across the high country. I had heard that this area provided rugged scenery, and we were not disappointed as we skinned up and over peaks like Snowfield, Isolation, and Dorado Needle, finishing off our first section on the upper slopes of Eldorado before making it down to the trailhead. Our cache of food was waiting at our dear friend James Rowe’s Subaru. Throughout four days we had battled rain, snow, wet slide avalanches, firm cramponing, as well as getting ourselves dialed for the crux of the trip: the Ptarmigan Extended Traverse.

Ptarmigan/ Extended Ptarmigan Traverse

With our packs almost overflowing with well over a week’s worth of food and gear, we embarked on the second leg of our journey. Jason had traveled the main Ptarmigan Traverse numerous times but had never extended it an additional 15 miles to Holden on the eastern crest of the Cascades. While studying the maps for numerous weeks, I had found a route that seemed more direct but to our knowledge had never been attempted. It was an unknown, but we were willing to try. After three days of breaking trail and traversing high above cliffs on steep slopes, we left the known and started blazing a new trail, which was scary. It was unnerving but most of all it was an adventure, in every sense of the word. In the end what we dreaded for weeks went as smooth as anyone could hope for, and before long we had ditched our ski gear at Lyman Lake and hiked nine miles down to Holden Village, where our food for the last leg was waiting via the U.S. mail system.

The Suiattle High Route

Our stay in Holden was far too short, leaving less then 24 hours after our arrival. According to the forecast, we had four more days before a relentless front would crash into the Cascades, so we hastily packed our bags and got back into the high country. The next morning we started skinning in sunshine, which quickly transitioned into whiteout conditions. Carefully climbing with both GPS and map in hand, we summited and rode Chiwawa Mountain before turning our focus onto Fortress Mountain, our second big crux of the trip. We decided to climb up and over the east ridge and descend the west face, but upon arriving we found a knife ridge. Not wanting to turn back, we made our way slowly up the spicy terrain, making our way to the summit right as the clouds lowered. All that we could see was the top thousand feet of Glacier Peak to the west, which we hoped to be riding off 48 hours later. We said our goodbyes to the epic scenery, rode down into the valley, and rested for a long day ahead. The next day was a blur, as we put our heads down and made our way all the way to Ten Peak through the Napeequa Valley. If each of us could claim a zone, then this was mine. I had been in this exact area twice in the past two months and in total been there over five times. I felt like I was at the home stretch as we set ourselves up within striking distance of Glacier Peak.

The Final Day on Glacier Peak

We woke up early, knowing the earlier we got off the mountain the better the chance we would be sleeping in our beds that night. I was excited knowing there wouldn’t be any more side-hilling and if all went as planned, we would be riding a route that I had to turn back on in March.  Clouds came and went as we skinned up and over numerous glaciers, finally arriving below the summit pyramid. In the end we didn’t talk much. We both felt our bodies and minds breaking down more than ever. I skinned at an incredibly fast pace, only to rest on the occasional rock as Jason made his way up to me and would ask, “Why are you going so fast?” I didn’t say much but in truth I was thinking, “My mind is telling me I can’t do it and I am trying to keep focused on skinning to shut it up.” In the end we made it to the top of Glacier Peak just as the storm hit, and rode down the west side of Glacier Peaks Sitkum Glacier before stashing the boards on our packs and bushwhacking throughout the forests, keeping an eye out for the abandoned climbers’ trail as thunder rattled from the skies above, calling it a day once we reached the White Chuck River.

The Exit

We woke up with a smile. Four more miles of trail before we hit the road decommissioned for 5 miles, but still a road. We have this in the bag, we thought, as we walked onto the Kennedy Hot Springs Trail. It was lush, vibrant and covered in old growth, an amazingly beautiful trail that hadn’t received any love for seven years. That’s when we hit the first landslide. The steep ravine that the trail was on had simply washed out, and we had no option but to bushwhack up and over, thinking one washout isn’t bad. Turns out most of the trail was gone for three out of the four miles. We clawed in some of the nastiest terrain I have encountered in the Cascades, where a mistake could easily hurt if not kill you. Carefully we pressed forward at a gruelingly slow pace, only to find ourselves at the trailhead five hours later. The last five miles were a euphoric experience for me, but seemed to be the opposite for Hummel. Every inch of our bodies ached and our minds felt shut down as we pushed forward one step at a time. In the end, we would arrive at a commissioned road without a car to be seen. Hummel left his gear with me and hitched all the way back to his car, picking me up only minutes before a front that lasted a week straight hit. We laughed at our luck and celebrated pulling off the American Alps Traverse.

In Conclusion

This adventure was far bigger than I had ever expected and we were so fortunate that it went as smoothly as it did. Physically it was quite demanding, but it was the mental game that really had me stressed out. Being somewhere so remote can be taxing as you ponder the dreaded question, “What if?” Both being natives of Washington, it gave us pride to be the first two people to pull off what some are now calling a benchmark traverse. There are so many people that we could thank, but foremost would have to be Lowell Skoog. Thank you for dreaming up something so big and adventurous; thank you, Jason Hummel, for working with me on not-so-splitboard-friendly terrain; thank you to my mother for giving me my love for the mountains; thank you, James Rowe, for transporting our food; and thank you, Eddie Bauer, for providing gear that would withstand 16 days of brutal bushwhacking and high alpine climbing.

 

Author: - Friday, July 19th, 2013
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