Oh man, this sucks! I haven't thrown a full load on my back in years, and now I'm paying the price in mental anguish that feels totally terminal. I keep shifting my pack, in which I've tossed out all but the lightest essentials, to minimize the slicing into my shoulders. With some 7 miles of bare White River Trail before us it's unavoidable--my skis and boots are strapped onto my five day load for full effect.
Intent on getting the "PIG" off our backs sooner - rather than later we ascend the 3000 vertical to Boulder Pass with purpose, and are relieved when the trail finally gives way to a continuous snowpack. Donning our AT gear this is where we want to be; in a circuit of remote peaks that laces together glaciers (Walrus-Clark-Pilz-Butterfly-Honeycomb-Suiattle-White Chuck) in a master plan seemingly crafted just for skis. Reminiscent of Europe or the best of the Canadian Rockies, it's big country. Colorado 14er pioneer, Lou Dawson, who calls the Cascades "Wet and Scrappy" in his ski mountaineering account 'Wild Snow,' wouldn't believe it exists. Honestly possessive, it gives us no end of joy to have our backyard canvassed with unfavorable opinions…it deters the masses.
Gliding away from Boulder Pass we wrap around through the increasingly complex terrain to a high camp on the shoulder of the Clark Massif. Here, a few sun baked rocks offer some dry relief from the penetrating, snowy cold. As tent mates Paul and Crispin, then David and Tom engineer wind seals for their Beta Light platforms, I pulled out my bivy sack and simply lay it down in the snow. I have an OR LightHaven shelter as backup, but good fortune would keep it in its stuff sack for the duration. It's an idyllic spot with grand views…the moniker for the traverse. After a repose, a continuously anticipated event for its fuel and food consumption that chips away at weight, I am entertained as Crispin and Lowell lead the charge for a short alpenglow ski run on a nearby peaklet. After a big day's effort, converting traveling tools into turning toys is our logical reward.
The 7am start up the Walrus Glacier came naturally, which is a good thing. With 90 degree temps cooking the lowlands, early travel would be necessary to benefit from a re-frozen snowpack. However, during the night it didn't set up and continued to present various stages of mush. Taking a different traverse line than the others, I found myself out front in the knee deep slurpee that comprised the steeply crevassed mid-region. Breaking an honest sweat I was compelled to tamp multiple times the slush track while holding my breath that the slope would hold. This was the skiing we feared by choosing to press the consolidation trend during the favorable weather window. As further reconnaissance would prove, this slope was the worst. Presenting little adversity, the remainder of the Traverse would unveil near perfect snow conditions; not too soft, not too hard, just right when it needed to be. It was surreal, like a dream that in your awakening recalls a distant apparition of déjà vu.
As we near the cross-over for the continued route around to the Clark Glacier packs are dropped. Here skis prove their ultimate utility (surly without them it would be impassible wallowing) in the final ascent to the summit of Clark Mtn. Having reached one of the notable high points of the Dakobed, we now take account of the distance we have slayed and the details of the serpentine terrain before us. Breathless from the spectacular view and effort, soon skis are locked down and turns sliced while cutting the south slopes from their confines. With altitude in our peak baggers sack, gravity now takes control and the travel goes into hyper drive. We make quick work of distance by crafting the traverse in railroad grade like fashion to the shoulder of Luahna Peak. Too soft and steep for an attempt, we forgo the summit and tackle one of the steepest pass-throughs along the route. Fortunately, the potential bugaboo goes without a hitch over soft conditions, and we zip across the Pilz Glacier to the strategically placed 'wind scoop' col. With a little gravity it continually amazes me how quickly skis make tracks.
Arnold Lunn wrote in the early 1900s, "Ski mountaineering is the result of the marriage of two great sports, mountaineering and skiing." But is it mostly mountaineering, or mostly skiing? Are skis tools to achieve some end, or is skiing itself the end? As we process the Dakobed Traverse I'm struck by the realization that for us it's both. It depends on what the terrain commands. When we are traveling we see through the eyes of mountaineers, when the "Pig" is off our back we're playful alpine skiers on descent...the greatest joy occurring when both perspectives comingle. Not being polarized in attitude we relish the total freedom of our walk-about, and flow from moment-to-moment. I mention my 'Ah Ha' to Lowell, and he gets animated. This is the awareness that has driven his mountain passions for decades.
Shortly, the value of remaining high while traversing gives us another gift. We drop our packs and ski up a 200 foot north face to top out on Chalangin Peak. Once again skiing from the summit the turns are alluring and go wanting for more. Negotiating the Butterfly Glacier we strategize which side of the crest to drop-in on for our approach to Ten Peak, a major summit desire of mine. Balancing on our ridgeline camp, it's concluded that the conditions are not conducive for an attempt. Ten Peak is resigned to counting its multiple summits in the evening hues…punctuated by a pesky wind.
Early AM finds us again with dropped packs, and striding for the summit of Neyah Point. I'm not counting, but these high reaches tic off easily and prove to be natural extensions of the Traverse. A significant high point, we absorb survey perspectives of the whole Dakobed and Glacier Peak; nearly lingering too long. For when we retrieve our "Beasts", and harvest the corn on the northerly edge of the Butterfly Glacier, we sense the near miss as the surface crust begins to break down in the lower reaches. At this point the route finding crux of the Dakobed is before us; a steep couloir that leads to an improbable cliff bound ramp, and the north slopes of Ten Peak. Lowell, having been through this terrain in summer, sniffs out the correct line, and suddenly we are released from all constraints. From here on the difficulties of the remaining terrain are all about distance.
As we trudge up the Honeycomb Glacier I am acutely reminded of the Wapta Traverse. This place is expansive, lacking crevasse concerns, and I reward myself with a casual pace of solo contemplation, allowing the group to pull away. Struck by the terrain variety, this area leading to and around the Kololo Peaks could easily inspire days of rambling. I tuck away the notion. When I close the gap for the lunch break below Tiger Tower everybody is euphoric. Glacier Peak, that seemed so far away, has come up to meet us and the scrambling options abound. We quickly tag two Kololo's in "PIGless" succession, dance down the approach slopes, and top Tiger Tower for good measure. This is a hoot…a ski mountaineers delight. But, there is more, much more that lies before our feet. Like kids in a candy store, we stretch the traverse line across the Suiattle Glacier to a bare-ground Nunattack on the Whitechuck-Suiattle Glacier saddle…the foot of Glacier Peak.
In the evening light Crispin and Paul strut to the high ridge of a nearby Kololo and entertain us with their best 'tool-time' turning skills. We watch jealously as they lay down gorgeous lines, too far away to get a good picture, but imprinting our minds and giving us high hopes for tomorrows Glacier Peak.
Every trip has its apex, literally and figuratively. Glacier revealed itself as the perfect pinnacle and the ultimate dream. Freed from our "Beasts", the distance and 3500' vertical up the south side Gerdine Glacier seems to melt away in the dawning light. With heads down motivation, we follow an hour behind two others (AT two planker and split-board one planker) who have done a surprising skin-through while doing a weekend round trip from the North Fork of the Sauk River. Near the summit headwall we watched as they scratch out turns on descent over the firm ice chipped surface. Determined to do the same, the final pitch acquiesces as Lowell magically crafts his way up on ski crampons, while the rest of us pack-sling our skis and boot it. Having been pummeled by wind and relentless filtering clouds, we delight in the summit as the winds abate and the clouds part to greet us. Sun soaked, the 360 degree spectacle captures our souls as we bask in the good fortune of the past days. Then it is time. With unspoken words gear is stowed and skis locked for the descent. Still a little firm the headwall demands turning caution to avoid a probable slide for life, but it is starting to show signs of goodness. Once past the bergschrund Tom gives the relinquishing slopes the first test. We watch in giddy appreciation as the snow surface reveals the perfect softness of idyllic corn. From top to bottom we exchange turns, laying down our signatures, snapping pictures, hooting and hollering, and giggling like little kids. Oh, man, it definitely didn't suck!
Easily a top ten run, Glacier remains etched in our enthusiasm for the next day and a half as we exit the White Glacier and the remaining 25 miles that gravity helps to dissolve. In the process I reflect upon the trend of today to take skis to the extreme edge. In the imagery of a gnarly first descent, the art of ski travel is often over-shadowed. For Lowell, Paul, Crispin, Dave, Tom and me we have been immersed and captivated without distinction. For five days we encouraged our skis across the undulating landscape and slashed a turn when the occasion arose. Beauty in motion, with our skis constantly morphing from traveling tool to delightful toy, we blazed an unforgettable path.