Crossing the Heartland
Spring has sprung in the Cascades. Snowline scurries up the hillsides, leaving the valleys lush and green. But in the alpine, winter hangs on under a dozen feet of snow. Southern slopes may dry bare to the bone in the powerful sun, allowing flowers to bud from the soil. But northern aspects remain caked in ice and rime, lagging behind. The days are so long, but the windows are so short. You have to move fast or you miss it completely.
Spring can mean many different things – new beginnings, hope, change – but to the ski mountaineer, it means one thing: freedom. Forest roads begin to melt out, the snowpack solidifies, and the weather sometimes permits greater exploration. We turn our attention away from the limited confines of the passes and look deeper into the big peaks and the wilderness. Pull out a map and gaze into the heartland of the North Cascades.
Ever since I started backcountry skiing two years ago, spring has evaded me. Disproportionately, life seemed to happen more in the spring, and consequently mountains happened less. For the last 11 months, I was looking forward to spring in the Cascades. My dream was to do a multi day traverse in the North Cascades. Then I injured myself on Sloan Peak and spring seemed doubtful. But I recovered, and then the Covid Pandemic happened, and spring seemed doubtful once again. Luckily, spring lasts longer in the North Cascades than any other range in the lower 48. Patience. I’ve waited years for this. The time will come, if not this year, then the next.
Slowly, things began to settle down. It became clear, as I had suspected all along, that the chance of transmission outdoors was very small. Death rates were much lower than initially forecasted. Maybe spring would happen after all. When a splitter weather window, the kind that only comes once a spring, began to materialize, I called up Porter and Doug. But first, I pulled out a map and spent a few hours drawing lines, researching trip reports, reading the Beckey Guide. When I was done, all lines circled around one peak: Eldorado. Beckey calls Eldorado the “Queen of the Skagit Valley.” Jewels, crowns, and royalty. The idea was born: the Pearl Necklace Tour.
Day 1: Humble Beginnings
We got off to a casual start on our first day. We got stopped by snow about a mile from the Hidden Lake Trailhead, but were able to start skinning pretty quickly. A little more skis on and off through the forest brought us into the valley, where snow coverage became deep. Some fresh powder from the day lay on top of the base, but it was rapidly warming and globbing in the sun.
We began the long traverse across the western flank of Hidden Lake Peak towards the lookout. Back around Christmas, Logan and I had made it to 6000 ft before his skins failed and we turned around. It was nice to know we would at least make it a bit further this time.
It’s always stunning this time of year to see how much snow remains in the higher terrain of the Cascades. Especially after a few months of staying home, drifting out of touch with the mountains, and some 70 degree days. It feels like summer down low, but it is easy to forget that the upper elevations remain buried, thankfully. Before I learned to ski, I was excited for trails to melt out. Now I want to milk all the skiing I can.
We arrived at the saddle above Hidden Lake in the early afternoon and ditched our overnight gear.
A gentled skin led us up the ridge to the summit of Hidden Lake Peak. This was a fantastic vantage of the formidable wall of peaks from Backbone Ridge all the way to Sahale, the mighty giants of the Cascade River Road.
For our first run, we cruised 1000 ft of gentle west facing slopes. It was such easy, fast skiing. Doug zoomed by us and Porter and I exchanged glances – Doug may only ski fixed heel a few times a year, but he was still a far better skier than us! I guess he does have at least 10 times the ski experience of me…
When we got back to the top, we looked at options off to the east. We found a break in the cornices 100 feet down and were about to jump onto the northeast face when we noticed an aesthetic ridge line on the other side of the bowl. There was no reason to rush, so I handed the camera to Porter and Doug and I booted back to the summit before working our way over to the ridge. I’m so frequently the photographer and not the subject that it was nice to let Porter capture this one.
The snow itself was a bit variable – a mix of preserved powder and breakable crust – but what a stunning position! Doug and I worked back and forth on a snow spine, kicking up spray for the camera. It felt like it could be a magazine shoot, with such beauty all around us, if only we were better skiers. Nonetheless, definitely a memorable sequence.
We continued all the way down to a little frozen pond and observed the terrain for tomorrow around the Triad.
A brutal skate across Hidden Lake, and then one last skin to retrieve our gear and reach the lookout, our home for the evening.
The east facing traverse to the lookout was already refrozen, so we had to boot some, but it was not too bad.
I remember the first time I visited the Hidden Lake Lookout: five years ago, my first time really seeing the North Cascades up close and personal. I remember feeling so mesmerized, so impressed, so intimidated. To a kid who grew up hiking mostly just around the I90 corridor or Mountain Loop Highway, I never knew that there could be peaks like this so close to home – encased in ice, guarded by vertical cliffs. It felt like a different world. It is a different world.
The lookout was splendid, with some thin mattresses, a table for cooking, cookware for melting snow, and even a guitar! Doug had a guitar tuner on his phone, but the strings were pretty hopeless. Even if I got it tuned up, the strings would be out of tune by the 5th fret.
After dinner, there was but one thing left to do: alpenglow. Hidden Lake Lookout might be the most stunning position of any fire lookout in Washington. From the Pickets to Glacier Peak to Baker, the detail is endless.
And moments after the sun went down, the full moon rose from the east.
At this time of year, the nights are short and stunning. One could never sleep. But we had a big day ahead of us, and comfy places to rest, so to bed we went.
Day 2: Through the Backdoor
The combination of comfort and views makes the Hidden Lake Lookout an unparalleled place to wake up to.
I slowly watched pink light tickle the tops of Glacier Peak and Baker before bathing the other great North Cascade peaks in time. Lovers of Alpenglow, brace yourself.
Eventually, the sun broke the crest of Eldorado and Torment. There are few moments that match the first rays of sun in the cold mountains. So much promise and hope – what adventures would today hold?
A few hours later, we got moving. The east face off the lookout had pleasantly softened just enough, making the first steep turns of the day a little less intimidating.
We hurried across Hidden Lake before traversing hard left, trying to keep as much elevation as possible. The snow was softening fast at the lower elevations, but we were able to traverse all the way into the basin just south of the Triad.
We put our skis on our backs and began a long booter towards the col just left of the left peak of the Triad. Down low, We ascended the rightmost gully. Although it was not apparent this was the correct choice from the bottom, it definitely turned out to be. The gully was perfect firm booting and actually sheltered us from majority of the avalanche hazard above.
Doug had been (not-so-secretly) hoping for some icy slopes with breakable crust where he would zoom ahead with his ski crampons and leave us in the dust, but instead we just got 2500 ft of perfect booting. Porter and I eagerly approached the col, excited to get our first view of the key that would unlock the entire tour: the Kumquat Couloir.
When planning this trip, I really wanted to circle Eldorado by traversing the wild Marble Creek Cirque. Exiting via the Dorado Needle col is no problem. The problem is that there is no easy way into the cirque. Lost Marbles would take us too low. There was some obscure couloir off the west side of the Inspiration Glacier that was skied last spring. But the north face of the Triad was 3000 ft of cliffs with only one skiable weakness.
The Kumquat Couloir was first skied in June 2007 by some very talented skiers. We are not sure if it had been skied since. The nature of the description made us suspicious of the difficulty. Was it sand bagged? Were we even capable of skiing it? How intense?
At the col, Porter and I peered over the edge and stared down a 55 degree snow slope leading into the abyss of a valley 4000 ft below. Nope, nope, nope. Not with full packs. Not with how little we had been skiing recently.
We had some time to wait for Doug at the top of the couloir. We decided to downclimb a little and assess the snow. We pleasantly found a nice 8 inches of preserved powder and a perfect ledge 40 ft down to put our ski on at. Stability seemed good from a few brief hand tests. Maybe it was a go.
When Doug arrived, he was pretty enthusiastic about conditions. Porter and I are complete backcountry newbs in comparison to his lifetime of experience, but we are also not as good skiers. Still, this gave us the confidence to go for it. We downclimbed to the protected ledge and all put on our skis there.
Porter got first tracks, and made a few cautious jump turns. The snow looked incredible! In the lowlands, a few miles away, it was heading towards the first 80 degree day of the year, but here in the alpine, we were skiing powder on steep north faces!
Porter skied the entire upper section of the couloir before coming to a break on a ridgeline where we would later cut left into the lower couloir. Then it was my turn.
It was definitely the most intimidating line I had ever skied. When I started skiing four years ago, I just wanted to be able to get around on skis. They were a necessity, a vehicle to the alpine. I never thought I’d be skiing steep lines in the North Cascades. But that’s the thing about mountains – there is always a new dimension to expand and explore.
The main gut of the upper couloir was probably only 45 degrees and definitely not as hard as it looked. Still, the exposure was serious so I skied carefully down to Porter.
Doug was the only one to actually link turns and he quickly joined us.
The second part of the line turns to the left over a blind roll before entering a deep couloir. We resolved to ski it one by one. Doug went first, and quickly disappeared from sight. Porter and I watched anxiously as little wet slides popped off the ridge above the couloir. There was some serious hangfire above and the May sun was cooking it.
Eventually, Porter and I decided we had waited long enough and we dropped in one by one. Doug was still in the lower couloir because the going was slow. While the upper part of this lower couloir was again perfect powder, the lower part was avy debris covered skiing with a giant runnel in the middle. Fortunately, this runnel attracted all the wet slide debris and kept us safe.
Anxiety slowly turned to just exhaustion as we neared the apron. My legs were gone from trying to make turns in avy chunder on skinny skis with a heavy pack. But we were all smiles at the bottom; overall, we could not have asked for better conditions.
The only bummer was that my Sony A6000 camera had suddenly failed. The shutter stayed shut the rest of the trip and refused to open, no matter how many times I reset the camera. The rest of the photos are phone photos.
Down around 4500 ft, there was plentiful running water, so we filled up and took a lunch break. The rocky spires of Eldorado stood 6000 feet above the valley floor. The Marble Creek Cirque is as wild of a place as I have ever experienced in the Cascades. Even though we were at the topographic low point of the traverse, it felt like it was all downhill from here. The key to the Pearl Necklace Tour had been unlocked.
We spent the afternoon on a long, leisurely traverse upwards towards the Dorado Needle col. We took time to admire the ice on Eldo, the thick walls of Early Morning Spire, and the wild valley beneath us. This is a place that relatively few get to visit, and we felt grateful for it. Doug kept mumbling “so delighted” and Porter and I certainly felt the same way!
Before we knew it, we were above the Triad and once again had views to the Olympics. Kumquat remained slightly obscured; we never got a clean view of the line we had just skied.
Surprisingly we found running water near the col. Unfortunately, we had filled up 3500 ft below. Now that is what you call training weight!
We crossed onto the McAllister Glacier and the scenery took a step up. We entered the world of ice caps and towers, a scene that makes the North Cascades so unique in the lower 48.
As we approached the col to the Inspiration Glacier, it felt like a crescendo building. We had encircled her majesty, groveled at her feet, and now we were about to enter the castle: the Inspiration Icecap.
This is a place that is special to me. I remember the first time I set foot on this glacier as the day I truly fell for the North Cascades. This time around, we did not take the direct route. It took two days of winding our way through couloirs and crags. After blasting up the Eldorado climber’s trail in the past, there was something really neat about sneaking through the backdoor.
A downward traverse brought us to the base of the east ridge of Eldorado, where we made our camp for the evening. None of the campsites were dry to bare ground, but we could at least find rocks to lay out on and gaze out onto the vast, flat glacier and an ocean of peaks.
Day 3: Kings and Queens
Our plan for the third day was to leave our base camp and ski the Inspiration Traverse out to Primus Peak and back. We were excited to have light packs and cruise the massive glaciers for many miles.
Thankfully, the snow was nice and firm, although the morning sun was already warming the Inspiration Glacier. At Klawatti col, we entered the shade while traversing to the next col. Doug got excited that this might be the icy traverse where his ski crampons would reign supreme. Alas, Porter and I snuck by with careful edging.
The col to reach the Klawatti Glacier has a rock ridge that usually involves a bit of tricky downclimbing. However, the snow was high enough that it was just a few easy 3rd class moves with the skis between our pack and shoulders, pulling a “Houdini” move that Doug taught us.
More cruising low angle glaciers brought us to the false summit of Austera Peak. The true summit was a steep snow chimney and we did not care for that.
Even though it felt like we had just got going, Eldorado already looked so far away, rising above ridges and ridges of gendarmes.
We ripped down the eastern slopes of Austera Peak, wrapping around the base of the east buttress at about 6800 ft. Here, the snow had already softened a startling amount. We were not looking forward to the return trip…
Thankfully, the snow once again firmed up as we crossed onto the huge, flat North Klawatti Glacier. This glacier was impressive is length and size, especially for a glacier so far east on this massif. On the shoulder of neighboring Tricouni Peak, I spotted many larches! These are some of the western most larches I have ever seen in the Cascades, evidence of a strong rainshadow from Eldorado. This might be the only place in the Cascades where a huge glacier sits right next to larches!
The skin up the south face of Primus was utter skimo perfection. Huge, open 30 degree slopes with surprisingly firm snow allowed for effortless glide. The higher we got, the more the North Cascades opened up around us. It was silent, except for the occasional plane and periodic avalanches ripping off the southeast face of Austera.
Atop Primus, a persistent breeze kept temperatures down around freezing. Porter and I waited for Doug and admired the incredible wilderness all around us. On Eldorado, you can see the Olympics and the lowlands through the Skagit Valley. But out here on Primus, there is no end to the mountains as far as the eye can see. This is the heart of the North Cascades, wild and wonderful.
There are certain places that are beautiful in what you see. There are other places that are beautiful in the journey to get there. Primus is both.
After a leisurely break, we checked our watches and decided it was indeed corn o’clock. The 1500 ft run down the south face of Primus was simply perfect: fast, smooth, ripe corn. There was no stopping Doug as he roared to the glacier below.
When I first decided I was going to learn to ski four years ago, this is exactly what I dreamed of. Long, flowing ski traverses. Crossing miles of glaciers. Snow as far as the eye can see. Gentle, alpine descents. The Inspiration Traverse has made that dream come true. And in totality, the Pearl Necklace has surpassed my wildest dreams of what I thought could ever be possible. Maybe it will spur new dreams, even grander.
On Primus, we had spotted a wide couloir the splits the east ridge of Austera. This could give us a shaded passage up to the Klawatti Glacier, expediting our return trip. We decided to give it a go.
There was one tricky bergschrund crossing, but we got across on skins barely. Above, we booted knee deep snow. Porter broke trail the whole way.
We arrived at the perfect spot on the Klawatti Glacier and skinned across back to the Klawatti-Austera Col. Pretty soon, we nearing Eldorado once again.
Since it was mid afternoon, we were able to skin the east ridge of Eldorado all the way to the base of the knife edge. There was a remarkably steep skin track leftover from the day before (thanks, Sam).
And just like that, we found ourselves once again atop Eldorado Peak. From Prince Primus to King Austera to Queen Eldorado. It felt like the perfect culmination of the Pearl Necklace, as fitting of an ending as possible.
Doug led us down the northeast face, which is a much better descent than the “50 classic” east ridge. We arced huge turns down the 35 degree slopes in lovely afternoon snow. Somehow, the timing just kept working out for us.
Within minutes, we were back at camp, in plenty of time for Doug to finally dry his boot liners.
For the second straight evening, we watched the sun gradually lower in the sky and shadows creep across the Inspiration Glacier. Even just a few months ago, I might have felt the need to ski until dark. But over the last few months, so much has changed, both in my life and in the world. It almost feels like a fire inside has been lost. I went from worrying about if I would be able to climb again because of my accident to worrying if I would be able to climb again because of a global pandemic to just worrying about my financial future and how I was going to meet new people in a socially distant world. My worries went from what the weather would be the next weekend to what my life would look like years from now. I think the expansion of this horizon has given me a new found patience. There will be other days. Seize the moment, but realize that there is a whole life ahead of us, and we need to plan for that too.
Day 4: Down and Out
It was a warm night, which meant a superficial freeze of the snow surface. Still, it was nice and firm when we left around 8am to cross the huge “football field.” We stayed as high as we could on our traverse to the Triad, finding some softened turns already.
We reached a low point around 6600 ft beneath the east ridge of the Triad. A short climb and traverse led us to a ridge line with nice views back to Hidden Lake Peak.
The traditional return route drops all the way into the valley at 4600 ft before climbing out over the shoulder of Hidden Lake Peak. I had mapped out a potential higher traverse through a notch just west of the entrance to Kumquat that would save us a great deal of elevation. I thought it would work out, but there was only one way to find out.
We dropped a short but steep run and then booted quickly up over the next col to the right. It was terrible terribly post holing, but at least it was short.
Our next goal was a sloping snow ledge to get around the next corner. The snow was already grabby and breakable, but we held enough elevation to pull off the traverse.
From there, it was an 800 ft climb to the col that would lead us to the Sibley Creek drainage.
We were able to skin mungy snow until the last steep bit, where we booted. There were a few interesting scrambles moves to the top out, just enough spice!
We promised Doug this was the end of the uphill, so we were darn going to make this traverse work. Next, we started a long westward traverse across rolling gullies and alpine bowls.
In the end, we maintained just enough elevation to get through the pass that led us down towards the Hidden Lake Trailhead. As we got lower, the snow became absolute slush. I had a major wipeout when my ski suddenly sank and stopped in the slush. Lower down, we jumped glide cracks and slid through slide alder Candide Thovex style.
Down in the forest, Doug milked every last bit of skiing while Porter and I resigned to booting. All in all, it was a pretty painless entrance and exit for such a wonderful skimo adventure. Just after noon, we arrived back at the car.
Nothing could have really turned out better. Over three and half wonderful days, we covered some wild unknown terrain, and some familiar classics. We raced across miles of glaciers and skied steep couloirs. Doug, who was just about done it all in the Cascades, said it was the perfect balance between traversing and skiing. Each day was just enough, but not too much. That is high praise from someone I respect greatly.
Once again, I would like to thank Porter and Doug for going along with my crazy plans. Some may say the Cascades may are “tapped out”, but there is still so much fresh and original if you look at the mountains through a creative lens. After a few month period where I felt like I aged years, it was a nice reminder that my child-like imagination and desire for exploration will never leave me. Nor will our canvas, the mountains that we love, ever leave this world.
- In total, we did about 40 miles and 20,000 ft of gain. You could obviously do less if you did fewer party runs around Hidden Lake and did not go all the way to Primus.
- The Kumquat Couloir was the biggest mystery for us. It turned out to be a committing, but not super steep line. It should be manageable for most skiers who can jump turn and control their speed well. Nothing is steeper than 50 degrees, and that is just near the top.
- There are many huge wind lips near the edges of glaciers or at cols that could offer protected camping.
- The shortcut couloir on Austera would have been a fun descent too, but that bergschrund will be open soon and looking at summer photos, it’s a man-eater.
- The return route we did was very quick and stayed above 6000 ft the whole way. I would highly recommend it for getting from the Hidden Lake Trailhead to Eldorado. In fact, under good snow coverage, it might be close to as fast as going directly up the Eldorado climber’s trail, and definitely more fun.