As Drew Tabke outlined earlier this week, he is not one to relax on the Baja beach when there are still lines to be skied. In the sequel to his Snoqualmie Pass missions—where he ticked impressive descents of Mt. Thomson’s East Ridge and the Northeast Buttress of Chair Peak—Tabke headed for Washington’s big three volcanoes of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier to score some of the best glaciated lines in the state, while logging more than 25,000 vertical feet during the second ski season in the Cascades. This is his second trip report on skinning, corn skiing, and sleep deprivation. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Drew Tabke
Washington State is blessed with absolutely incredible mountain geology. The state’s Cascade Range includes a huge variety of terrain—dense, rainforest-covered hills on the west side; craggy and arid granitic peaks on the east side; glacier-capped alpine summits in the core of the range; and perhaps most recognizable of all, the great Cascadian volcanoes dispersed on a north-south access across the entire region.
Every skier should experience skiing on a volcano. With no trees, people or man-made structures visible for miles and miles, judging perspective and scale is rendered impossible, and the slopes around you roll imperceptibly away, stretching seemingly into infinity. This effect makes summiting a volcano difficult, with the top feeling as though it is forever just beyond the horizon, while hours and hours of walking may in fact still separate you from your goal. But once on top, and with proper timing and route selection for optimal snow conditions, the skiing back down is amazing, with moderate to steeply sloped runs stretching thousands of feet down to the base.
May of 2014 has been a great season for volcano skiing, and my friends and I have had several great trips so far. On the first day of May, my friends Mike Allen, Amar Andalkar and I started the month with a casual trip to Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier. Recent storms had deposited several feet of snow higher on the mountain, and though it was a gorgeous sunny day, we decided it was prudent to stay off the higher, steeper slopes of the mountain, skiing the moderate terrain below the 10,000-foot level. But we gathered good pictures and information about the top of the mountain, in hopes we’d return in the coming weeks when the snow was in better condition.
From Rainier we drove another few hours south to Mt. St. Helens. Amar knows the volcanoes better than perhaps any skier alive, and he led us to an uncommonly traveled route up the Blue Lake mudflow on the west side of the mountain. The mudflow happened in 2006, when 37 inches of rain fell in the area in just six days. Several destructive mudslides occurred throughout the region, irreparably damaging many roads. For visitors today, the mudflow is a scenic, interesting place to visit, with a broad, sandy swath through the forest offering easy access to the mountain’s slopes. We gained the rim of the crater after a few hours of climbing and took in the views of neighboring Mt. Adams, Hood and Rainier, with Spirit Lake below the steaming crater. Geology buffs should check out Amar’s report of the trip here.
The clouds moved in and I took a few days off, but soon another clearing popped onto the radar. The forecast looked great for a visit to Mt. Baker, the furthest north and snowiest of the volcanoes. Joe Hoch, Liz Daley and I camped near Glacier Creek Road at the bottom of the north side of the mountain and began hiking around 5am the following morning. We ascended the well-known Coleman-Deming route, which is never very steep, but travels across massive glaciers during the approximately 7,200 feet of climbing to the summit. It took us about seven hours to reach the top, and we hid out of the light-but-chilly north wind on the south slope of the summit cone, brewing coffee and enjoying the expansive views. We descended via a slight variation on our climb, skiing along the edge of an intimidating icefall above the Coleman Glacier – a line dubbed the “Roman Mustache.”
I felt great after this big day on Baker, and with weather looking even better a few days later, I knew it was time to head to “the Big One”—Mt. Rainier. Joe joined again, as well as my friend Jesse Reynolds. We planned to attempt the mountain in a single push, leaving Seattle at 1am after a scant two hours of sleep. Forgoing a camp meant we could move light and fast, and we climbed the Gibraltar Ledges route, arriving at the 12,000-foot level of the mountain quickly. But from there on up, the going was quite difficult, with multiple large crevasses to navigate, high winds, and all three of us sea-level dwellers feeling the thin air. We summited after about 11 hours on the go. The clouds and wind that had swirled around the summit most of the day magically dissipated, allowing us to comfortably hang out and enjoy the second highest point in the contiguous U.S.
Our plan was to descend the Fuhrer Finger, a steep couloir with a southerly aspect, but we were behind schedule and were concerned that the south slopes would be dangerously warm. We instead descended one of the mountain’s standard climbing routes: Disappointment Cleaver. The top few thousand feet were challenging, wind-hammered snow with crusts and ice, but we finally reached lower slopes where the sun had softened the snow to perfection, and we finished the 9,500-foot descent back to the car at Paradise.
Noah Howell (of Powderwhore Productions) and I have talked about skiing Mt. Rainier together for years. With his eye on the weather forecasts, he called me up the week before, solidifying plans for his long-threatened visit. As Joe, Jesse and I relaxed in the parking lot, drying gear and enjoying an adult beverage, Noah pulled up. The four of us camped near the cars that night, got up at 5am the next morning, and headed up to ski the Turtle.
Some of the best skiing on Mt. Rainier is below the summit, and the Turtle is a perfect example. Dropping from about 11,000 feet, the Turtle is a long, steeply-rolling snowfield that offers a nearly 6,000-foot descent. The skiing was very good spring snow, not too soft or sticky, just perfectly softened for fast, fun skiing. Joe and Jesse split off and headed to the cars to return home to Seattle. Noah and I, on the other hand, had stashed camping gear at the bottom of the run during our approach that morning. We recovered the gear and headed up a short climb to establish a camp that would allow us to make a summit attempt the next day.
We were both tired—Noah from skiing in the Tetons two days before and his long solo drive to Washington, me from a Rainier summit the day before. We put up a basic tent to get shelter from the hot sun and napped through the afternoon. We made a casual early dinner, and tried to get to bed early, with the alarm clock set for 2am. The night was mild, with hardly a breath of wind, and soon we were brewing coffee, preparing to set out.
The timing couldn’t have been better. We left as planned at 3am, a full moon lighting the way. A long traverse brought us onto the Kautz Glacier, and we continued up a variation of the Kautz Headwall route that we’d scoped out the day before. This connected us with our intended line of descent—the East Success Couloir—at just below 12,000 feet. We continued climbing, finding the rockbands—which have turned around other groups’ attempts—well filled in and skiable. We reached Point Success (the second highest of Rainier’s three summits) at 10:15am, and began skiing shortly afterwards.
The run was nothing short of incredible. We knew we’d need to ski the top slopes in icy conditions to reach the main couloir and exit before it was too warm. Though it was firm, it was just beginning to soften, and the snow was perfectly smooth. The skiing continued to improve as the run stretched on and on, with perfect corn snow through the bottom 3,000 feet. Based on some rough calculations, the run weighs in at an average slope of 43° for 5,500 feet of vertical change, one of the longest, most sustained runs I’ve encountered. We traversed back across the Kautz Glacier, recovered our camp, and made it back to the cars. We exchanged handshakes, Noah promising to come back for more adventurous, steep skiing on the Big One at the next opportunity. I sped home to Seattle, trying to beat rush-hour traffic, exhausted but ecstatic at the amazing three runs I’d just had that netted around 25,000 vertical feet of skiing.
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