When the competition season ends on the Freeride World Tour, most of the professional athletes head for warm-weather locations to decompress. But Eddie Bauer freeskier Drew Tabke comes home to Seattle and goes skiing. As late spring arrives, his adopted home range of the Cascades is just coming into form for serious steep skiing and volcano mountaineering missions, so Tabke took advantage of perfect timing to tick off burly descents of Mt. Thomson’s East Ridge and the Northeast Buttress of Chair Peak. This is his report on the second season. —LYA Editor
Words by Drew Tabke, Images by Tabke and Jay Wilkinson (above)
If you dedicate your life to skiing, the time frame of a traditional ski season doesn’t apply. I returned home to Seattle from Verbier, Switzerland, in April, having just capped off a long season of competing on the Freeride World Tour. And though the competition season is taxing physically and mentally, and most normal people had already hung up their skis, there was nothing I wanted to do more than go ski touring in Washington’s Cascades. And for that, the season was just getting started.
While the Northwest can have incredible skiing during massive, legendary snowstorms throughout the heart of winter, sunny days are few and far between. To go skiing in the big alpine peaks deep in the state’s expansive Cascade Range, we normally require stable snow and sunny weather, which begin to happen more often in April, May and June. When a good forecast popped onto the radar at the end of April, I called up my ski partners and was able to ski two exciting steep lines just an hour’s drive from Seattle in the wild and rugged terrain accessible from Snoqualmie Pass. And in early May we skied several exciting lines on Washington volcanoes (but you’ll have to wait for part two for that).
The idea to ski the East Ridge of Mt. Thomson started when I was in Leavenworth rock climbing with some friends. We noticed the warm, summery days were followed by downright cold, below-freezing nights—the type of weather that can set up perfect snow conditions for spring ski touring. On our drive back to Seattle via I-90, I got a glimpse north into the mountains while crossing Snoqualmie Pass—they looked amazing! I packed my bag that night and left early the next morning with my friend Joe. We were skinning by 5am to ensure we could cover the roughly eight miles and three mountain passes we needed to cross to get to Mt. Thomson in good time.
The approach went just to plan, with the sketchiest moment coming when we had to descend a super-steep, super-icy couloir on the north side of Kendall Mountain before dawn. We arrived at the base of Mt. Thomson’s East Ridge and paused to consider our plan. The line was very consequential, with thousands of feet of exposure off the line’s rolling edge dropping into Burntboot Creek far below. But the snow felt perfect, so we continued up. We topped out at an obvious shoulder about 200 feet from the mountain’s summit. There was a route that possibly continued to the summit visible to our left but it was too risky, climbing onto a steep, dangerous-looking slope on a warmer aspect. A descent off the summit would have to wait for another day. We dropped in and skied the line, finding amazingly perfect spring snow. The line isn’t very long, but its steepness and the imagery created by skiing thousands of feet above the verdant valley far below made it unforgettable. We lunched and began the long return home, which took us through another three mountain passes, with excellent skiing all the way.
Mt. Thomson was a big unknown. I’d found references to skiing its East Ridge in guidebooks and trip reports. People mentioned that it appeared to be a good ski line, but with no specific information about anyone skiing it. We didn’t know if it was possible until we went and found out! For the next Snoqualmie steep mission, I chose to return to a spot I was definitely familiar with: the Northeast Buttress of Chair Peak.
Anyone who has been in the Alpental Valley on a clear day has noticed Chair Peak. It sits like a throne at the head of the valley, and though it is only 6,238 feet high, its rugged form casts an intimidating aura over its surroundings. Familiarizing myself with the peak by climbing its north face four years ago, I returned to ski the Northeast Buttress with my friend Dan in 2011. According to the Internet, apparently we were the first to ski this line, but we did so with a 20-foot rappel near the end. This time, I hoped to be able to complete the route without using the rope, but Eric and I brought all the gear to be ready for anything.
To add a little alpine spice to the already ambitious mission, we climbed a line on the mountain’s east face with steep snow and ice before joining with the route we hoped to ski near the top. We tiptoed past massive, dangerous cornices and summited, and were soon ready to descend.
I dropped in first and the snow felt a bit unpredictable, so I tied into the rope to ski the upper section. With the steepness and exposure, a slip or an avalanche here would be unsurvivable. The snow improved as we went down, making cautious turns on the super-steep slope. We made it past the first vertical rock/ice step with some cautious side-stepping and continued skiing toward the final crux. The route’s exit, where we rappelled during the first descent, involves about 50 feet of near-vertical snow and ice.
We prepared the ropes to rappel, and I side-stepped down cautiously as far as I could while still maintaining edge purchase on the precarious perch. I could see my exit, a 30-foot straightline on ice between rocks, giving way to a broad snow slope where I could control my speed. I told Eric I was going and dropped in, pulling the maneuver just as planned. Eric considered following, but opted to use the ropes and rappel. We high-fived, safely off the difficulties, and skied out to the car.
That concluded my Snoqualmie steep sessions. Warm weather followed and caused the snow to deteriorate past the point where more of these adventures were feasible. But like clockwork, skiing in the region’s volcanoes came into condition shortly after, and we’ve been harvesting ski runs on their slopes for the last few weeks.
Note from the skier/author: People frequently ask if these and similar ski outings resulted in first descents. The answer is rarely a simple “yes” or “no.” For Mt. Thomson’s East Ridge, I haven’t found a record of anyone else skiing it, though I have seen it mentioned as “an attractive ski mountaineering line” in a few different guidebooks. And though it is remote, many people ski in the Mt. Thomson area. It’s easy to imagine previous visitors being unable to resist making turns on this beautiful slope. Plus we didn’t summit, and it looks as though skiing off the mountain’s precipitous top may be possible under different conditions.
Regarding the line on Chair Peak, we haven’t found any record of previous ski descents. But it is a truly outstanding line located in a valley frequented by talented and ambitious skiers (not to mention less than an hour from Seattle), which makes it hard to believe that we were first. If Dan and I were the first to ski it in 2011 (according to the Turns All Year thread linked in the blog) and there haven’t been any subsequent repetitions until Eric and I skied it again this spring, that would make this year’s outing something like the “first recorded repetition and descent without rappel.” What is important on Mt. Thomson and Chair Peak is this: We went without knowledge of previous descents, meaning we had to discover for ourselves what was possible. That, for me, is the essence of a true backcountry adventure.
Read about Drew Tabke’s adventures on Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens in part two of his spring-season report this Friday on the Live Your Adventure blog.
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