When a self-inflicted slide at Washington’s Crystal Mountain ski area mangled the Chair 6 double during control work a few weeks back, the locals were conflicted. The High Campbell chair was much-loved for its terrain and its history, but hated for its long lines and slow, plodding ride to the top of the Campbell Basin zone and Silver King sidecountry. As a former Crystal ski patroller, Eddie Bauer guide Seth Waterfall’s reaction to the shutdown was also mixed. But he saw a backcountry opportunity while beeping snowcats were busy digging out the lift shack from the carnage in preparation for an off-season replacement. Waterfall, touring with his wife and fellow guide Solveig Waterfall, tapped in by setting the skintrack for a legitimate poach to the new, temporary High Campbell backcountry zone. This is his trip report.—LYA Editor
Words and Images by Seth Waterfall
Weird . . . that’s how I’ve been describing this winter to people who have been asking. There have been some great ski conditions and bad ones for sure, but mostly it’s just been weird. A big storm in October followed by a long, dry cold snap left us with some deep instability lurking in our snowpack. Once we received a dose of a “normal” winter, the tipping point was reached and the Cascades went through a big avalanche cycle. At the height of the cycle, the ski patrol at Crystal triggered an avalanche that destroyed a chairlift, specifically Chair 6, the High Campbell chair.
Now that’s not just any old chairlift. It’s actually several pieces of Washington ski history cobbled together. The towers for the chair were purchased from a defunct ski area on Stevens Pass, then old and new parts were gathered, and in the early ’80s the chair started spinning. It takes you up to the top of Silver Queen peak, where excellent skiing awaits right from the top terminal. The best thing about Chair 6 though is the hike- accessed in-bounds terrain. The King, Silver Basin and Throne chutes are the steepest and longest runs at the ski area. They do require hiking, but the chairlift did the real heavy lifting by getting you out of the Campbell basin.
Now with the lift gone, it’s as if half the ski area was teleported back to the ’70s (but we kept the modern gear). A scant few people have been touring up the familiar, former in-bounds terrain just off the groomers. My wife and I arrived home after a week-long trip and headed out for a ski right at the crack of noon. We were greeted with reports of everything being “tracked out” and not worthwhile, but after deciding to look for ourselves, we were confronted with the reality of breaking trail for 2,000′ uphill to the top of the King. What ensued was several days of remorseless powder feasting, as we returned daily to find just a few souls where normally hundreds ski every day.
To be sure, the “formerly in-bounds” terrain is now uncontrolled backcountry. On lines that we would normally tee off on after ski patrol mitigation, we ski cut, skied in pitches, and kept a close eye on each other. All told, it’s been a great way to make lemonade out of losing the chairlift. A replacement lift is going in this summer. It will be great to get everything back to normal in our little ski area, but for now I’ll console myself by earning my turns a bit more.
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