Best of the West
Three years ago, Daniel and I ran Glacier Peak in one day. It was our biggest single day effort at the time. I remember sitting at White Pass on the way out, drying our shoes, when two dudes excitedly came up to us. They introduced themselves as Anthony and Will. Anthony was in the middle of a 3 month trip biking from Canada to Mexico, skiing ultra prominent peaks along the way. They seemed interesting and stoked, so we got their contacts and stayed in touch.
Over the next few years, Anthony frequented the Cascade Volcanoes, biked, surfed, and skied in New Zealand, and eventually skied an 8000 meter peak in the Himalaya without supplemental oxygen. I barely missed him when I was in Salt Lake City (he was on Denali) and I was always busy when he came to the PNW. Finally, this year, we made plans to team up for something epic. What could be better than a single push of the Isolation Traverse, one of the most famous traverses in the North Cascades?
We met up in Marblemount the evening before. I met Nick, Anthony’s roadtripping partner, who Anthony describes as a “skeleton with a beard”, and Will. It was my first time seeing Will and Anthony in nearly three years, so it was basically like meeting all new people in person. They had already set up the car shuttle, so off we went down the Cascade River Road.
We woke up around 1:30 am the next morning and were on the move at 2. The road was still gated two miles before the Eldorado Trailhead. Anthony, in his speed suit, quickly disappeared into the darkness and the rest of us joked that this would be the last we would see of him.
At the Eldorado river crossing, we quickly found the normal log crossing underwater. We schwacked upstream in the dark, but saw nothing promising. Eventually we backtracked and started downstream. We were losing precious minutes, and we had barely left the road. Will and I found a spot where a ford looked plausible. Right as we were about to try it, Anthony shouted he had found a log further downstream. It was high above the raging river, so we carefully walked across before breathing a sigh of relief.
It was nice to get in a groove on the Eldorado Climber’s Trail and we were at the boulder field before we knew it. Snow started about halfway up it and we switched to ski boots there.
We emerged into the light on the flat of the Inspiration Glacier and switched to skinning. I had spent a few days lounging here on the Pearl Necklace Tour a few weeks ago, but this time we were moving on quickly.
At the col in the Tepeh Towers, we got our first view of the rest of the traverse. Snowfield Peak looked so far away, but we felt pretty good about our pace. Line-of-sight traverses like this are so intimidating to begin with, but satisfying in the end. It is always surprising how far our two feet can carry us if we give them the chance. Through all of my traverses, I’ve learned to not fear great distances, but instead break them down into manageable bits.
The first run down the McAlister Glacier was nice and firm, but still fun skiing. Any skiing in a beautiful setting like this is fun.
For the crossing of the McAlister Glacier, we decided to rope up. It was steep, firm, and relatively crevassed, so we felt like booting would not slow us down.
The final climb up to the next col was steep snow for about a hundred feet, crossing a bergschrund and some cracks. The east facing snow was surprisingly soft, possibly because of melt out on the rocks underneath. I could see this ascent becoming quite challenging in another month. Since I was the only one who brought a real ice ax, I gladly used it to stein-pull my way through the cruxiest step.
Anthony and Nick spent a bit of time inspecting the two rap anchors, both of which seemed to have fresh tat. The rappel onto Backbone Ridge on the other side of the col was only about 10 meters. With four people, this section was a little slow.
The rappel dropped us off in a nice snow scoop. We gazed out toward Mt. Baker and the huge descending traverse along Backbone Ridge. I have stared at it from below many times on the drive into Marblemount, wondering what it would be like to glide across its snow-covered flanks. Now I was about to find out.
Nick put on his skins, much to the rest of our amusement, before realizing we could only go down from here. The snow was still firm, making it easier to hold elevation, although Will still struggled, being a splitboarder. He frequently had to snap out of his bindings, boot up a little, and then continue going downhill.
The efficiency of skis is most prevalent on huge descending traverses like this. We glided for miles down Backbone Ridge. It was easy, effortless (for the skiers at least), and stunning. It is moments like this that truly make me grateful for skis. Learning to ski has completely changed my boundaries and dreams.
We had to skin briefly to reach the break in the ridge. The resulting terrain in the Newhalem Creek Drainage was steep and icy, so we once again ripped and traversed downwards to get to flatter terrain.
As we were transitioning for the next climb, one of Anthony’s skis tipped over. We watched in horror as it rocketed down the icy slopes and disappeared. We were just about halfway through the traverse, fully committed, with no easy bail options. This was a disaster.
Anthony ran down the slope for a few minutes and yelled back to us that the ski had miraculously flipped in the air and landed sticking straight out of the snow! Disaster averted…
We booted northwards towards the top of Ice Elation Couloir.
Ice Elation Couloir is a beautiful mellow 1500 ft line that descends to the north. We expected icy snow given that it was still early in the morning, but we were pleasantly surprised to find perfect corn. The combination of excellent skiing and wonderful views made this one of the best runs I have ever had in the North Cascades, hands down. This is the stuff of dreams.
We were fortunate to find running water near the base of the couloir. Hydration on big ski days can be a challenge, but is so integral to success.
The next climb was low elevation and south facing, so we were concerned about mushy snow. However, once again, we found great booting snow. It seems that the North Cascades’ snowpack has reached a point where mush is basically impossible. Months of consolidation has allowed for safe and easy movement over all aspects at any time. The window can be short, but we were nailing it.
We traversed down and right before beginning our ascent of Isolation Peak. We knew this might be one of the cruxes of the day. After skinning for a while, we booted up a south facing snowfield that led us right across the face to the high shoulder of the peak a few hundred feet beneath the summit.
Since I was with some peakbaggers, we dropped our backs and tried scrambling to the summit of Isolation Peak. A series of cornices and cliffs stopped us a little short, but the view was still marvelous. Isolation Peak may not be very high compared to some of its neighbors, but the view is amongst the best I have ever seen. Surrounded on all sides by wilderness and glaciers, Isolation is a fitting name for not just this peak, but the entire traverse.
We skied down the shoulder a bit before dropping off to the north to the lake beneath Isolation Peak.
There was a small bit of standing water on the lake, which could have made for an exciting pond skim if we had felt more adventurous. Next, we began our final long climb of the day, a 2500 ft grind.
We had feared this south facing climb the entire trip. It was mid afternoon, but somehow the snow remained firm enough for perfect skinning. It started to hit us that we were going to make it, and the snow would hold up all day. Some days the mountains send you scurrying home. But other days, they give you grace and open you with inviting arms. It is those days that become etched in our brains and keep us coming back for more.
Slowly, our watches ticked to 12k ft, then 13k ft of gain. There was no doubt we were slowing down, but no one was crashing. Morale was still high. It is incredible for a group of four to get together for the first time and send something like this with such few bumps. With an objective like this, no one can have an off day.
When we finally reached the col at the top of the Neve Glacier, we put our skis on our backs and we started up the scree. Anthony and Nick really wanted the summit of Snowfield. Hiking up loose scree, we had a collective energy failure and every step became difficult. Everyone has their breaking point, and we were getting close to ours.
Eventually, we reached a point about 100 ft below the summit where we were blocked by cliffs and rime ice. The normal scramble route I had taken in the summer when I climbed Snowfield three years ago was completely covered in rime ice. We decided this was the end of the line.
One of the best feelings of a traverse is looking back on how far you have come. Eldorado was improbably far away, yet we had been there just 7 or 8 hours prior. When Anthony, Will, and I first met, we didn’t really even know how to ski. Now we were completing a massive ski traverse in a single day. We have had our parallel journeys through ski mountaineering, but I am grateful they finally crossed, even if just for a day.
After a few steeper turns high on Snowfield, we cruised onto the huge expanse of the Neve Glacier. This was one of those runs that seemed infinite: endless turns, sprawling views. Oftentimes, ski mountaineering is stressful or scary. But this was pure Type 1 fun, uninhibited joy.
A gentle climb up to the Colonial-Neve col was all that remained before leaving the alpine. There was running water at the col, another gift from the mountain gods.
The Colonial Glacier provided one more marvelous run with perfect snow. We cruised down to the glacial recession lake.
At the traverse beneath Pyramid Peak, we were not able to maintain quite enough elevation and had to briefly boot up to gain the ridge. Then we continued down the ridge, dropping off to the north occasionally to avoid cliffs.
As we got down towards 4,000 ft, the snowpack thinned. Cliffs had forced us off the ridge to the north, but we struggled to get back to the ridge top, especially with a split boarder. Eventually, we ran out of snow and just booted to the end of the ridge at 4300 ft where we found the climber’s trail descending steeply towards Pyramid Lake.
The exit took forever, as it always seems to on a big day like this. We reached our cars in the evening, about 17 hours after leaving the Eldorado Trailhead. We were hot, tired, and smelly, but incredibly satisfied.
The Isolation Traverse has been a dream trip for me ever since I started skiing. The scenery, remoteness, and skiing are all incredible. Covering so much alpine terrain in a single day is exactly what I envisioned when I decided to learn to ski four years ago. The movement is fluid, the terrain is wild, and the style is pure. To me, the Isolation Traverse is simply the epitome of ski mountaineering in the North Cascades. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
~ 27 miles, 14,000+ ft gain, 17 hours.
Thank you Anthony, Nick, and Will (mad props for splitboarding and never complaining) for an unforgettable day in the mountains, one of the best I have ever had. May our paths cross again…
Anthony put together some great footage from our trip. Contrary to what it shows, the entire traverse was not downhill…
- This is a large, daunting traverse, but perfectly manageable in a single push. An early start is key because there are so many south facing ascents. Wait for prime conditions (late May to early June) like this because mush could definitely ruin your day.
- The river crossing cost us at least 30 minutes. If you have the ability, scout it the night before in the light.
- We brought ski crampons but never used them. At this point in the season, we found the snow either fine for skinning or supportive for booting. Boot crampons were helpful.
- The only glacier where we felt crevasses hazard was significant was the McAlister Glacier. But since you have to bring a 30m rope for the rappel, glacier gear does not add much weight.
- We found running water at the base of the Ice Elation Couloir, on the south face of Isolation Peak, near the Neve Col beneath the summit pyramid of Snowfield, and at the Colonial-Neve Col.
- Route finding is generally very easy with good visibility. The climb up Isolation Peak may be the least obvious part, but if you aim for a point a few hundred feet beneath the summit on the right (east) shoulder, it should work out.
- A multi day trip would allow for lots of great skiing around Eldorado and Snowfield and some beautiful camps. Definitely a great way to do it.
- On the exit, cliffs will push you off to the north side of the ridge around 5200 ft, but do everything possible to traverse right and maintain elevation, or else you will not reach the climber’s trail before you run out of snow.