Spirit Questing in the Stuart Range
The Stuart Range has a deserved reputation as a challenging place for backcountry skiing. The access points are low, the snowpack is thin, and the approaches are long. Most ski traffic is concentrated around the Enchantments, which require long, annoying approaches on both ends (lots of booting and down skinning, even in the depths of winter). But when I toured Axis Peak a few years back, it opened my eyes to the potential of backcountry skiing in the Stuart Range. There was so much more to the Stuart Range than the Enchantments, and it felt vast and inspiring.
After poring over maps and guidebooks, I sensed that there was actually accessible touring in the Cashmere Massif, much closer to the car. It would still require at least 5500 ft gain at a minimum, but there seemed to be little nonsense with down skinning, long road skins, and bad low elevation shenanigans. I drew up a loop that explored the terrain east of Cashmere and possibly linked up with some steep couloirs around Lake Victoria. It was time for another foray into the Stuart Range!
I had not seen Jon and Casey since the Bonnington Traverse nearly a year ago, but I convinced them to come out to the Eastside for a weekend. Jon has since acquired and completely built out a beautiful van (Margo the Cargo Van), which I got to stay in the for the first time! It was also my first time sleeping on a portaledge, which he used as the third sleeping pad.
Jon served up a wonderful egg, cheese, and avocado breakfast sandwich in the van as we watched a beautiful sunrise.
We started skinning up the Eightmile Road, but ducked off to the right around 2500 ft. I am not used to such a good snowpack down low in the Icicle, but it allowed us to climb directly up the ridge to our west.
The snow slowly changed from facets on crust to pockets of powder, corny snow, and deeper dry snow. The biome changed from Ponderosas to a burn scar up high. And with every passing minute, the views became grander. The long, grinding climb was a welcome change of pace from the quick, short ascents in the Snoqualmie, Crystal, or Baker Backcountry. The verticality of the Icicle is stunning – from the valley floor at 1000-2000 ft to the peaks at 8000-9000 ft. As a result, I always feel like skiing in the Stuart Range is a spirit quest. You have to embrace the long climbs and sink into the scale of the terrain.
Around 5500 ft, we finally reached the ridge, with only another 2000 ft to the top. The snow here on the ridge was cold, boot top pow! There was absolutely no wind effect. All the forecast made wind slabs sound like a problem, but it seemed like we were going to get lucky!
The ridge was not too sharp, but we wanted to stay close to the spine to reduce hazard. The left side was getting cooked in the sun and had the potential to wet slab. The right side was cold, dry snow. I led us up the ridge, making endless kick turns, zig zagging along the crest of the ridge. There was a fair amount of glopping due to the frequent transitions between wet and dry snow, but it was better than booting!
There was one particularly annoying rock band near the top that necessitated some wallowing to get around. But finally it eased up and after a million kick turns, we reached the ridge top!
We took a break on top of the ridge. It was a calm, beautiful day with giant peaks all around us. The 5500 ft initial climb had taken us 5 hours, longer than my average tour this season! I just have not had many full days to tour this season, but the stoke has been building for deeper adventures like this. These are the days I treasure the most.
After lunch, we directed our attention to the bowl east of Cashmere’s true summit. This north facing bowl holds a maze of gullies, bowls, and gentle larch glades. The entrance was a little rocky, but once we got in, the snow was wonderful boot top powder – some of the best I have ever skied.
We followed a series of tight gullies, dropping over rolls, snaking through a canyon. With light flashing through the larches and such playful snow, it was absolutely bliss.
Jon remarked how far I have come with my downhill skiing ability. He has come so far with his uphill abilities. Our partnership has always been symbiotic, in both skiing and climbing. We have helped each other grow in different ways and improve our weaknesses. We don’t get out as much together anymore as we used to, but it is still great to enjoy the mountains together.
Jon and Casey lingered at the transition point as I set off. It was completely serene and quiet – not a sound as I broke trail through the powder, peering through larch glades and sinking into the feeling of solitude. As I rounded one corner, I suddenly saw the east peak of Cashmere – jutting into the sky like a dark pyramid of rock. I just stood there in peace and awe for a few minutes, waiting for the others to catch up. It was a special moment and my favorite the entire day.
We climbed towards the west, through gently rolling larch glades with towering peaks above us. One could farm low angle powder for days here.
I wanted to do a little larch skipping, but could not rally Jon and Casey for a bonus lap, so I took a short lap through the low angle glades before climbing back up to join them. It was barely 2 pm, but the light was already fading from this deep north facing bowl.
We climbed towards an obvious notch between our bowl and Lake Victoria. This is also the top of “Victoria’s Secret”, a steep couloir that would drop us down to Lake Victoria. We had not seen anyone since the car, but just as we neared the notch, people appeared above us! It was a party of four who had climbed up the line. No other lines got skied in the entire Lake Victoria zone on this day, but incredibly both our party and theirs had gone for this line.
We watched the group of four ski the line. The top 30 feet or so was rocks and not skiable. Below that, it was about 45 degrees for a few hundred feet before easing up into over a thousand feet of beautiful moderate slopes all the way down to the lake. The setting, high in the Stuart Range, with views of the Chiwaukum, Entiat, and Glacier Peak, is wonderful. It feels remote and adventurous.
Although it was a little disappointing to not get first tracks, having another group ski before us definitely removed any stress about instabilities skiing top down. The narrow section up top was a bit choppy, like the Slot Couloir after a few parties, but below that there was plenty fo fresh powder all the way down to the lake!
Lake Victoria is a beautiful spot, set in a deep, dark north facing cirque. There are huge thousand foot lines towering above in every direction.
From the lake, we continued down Victoria Creek a ways. At about 5200 ft, we followed a skin track that traversed left out of the canyon. This gets you onto the ridge of “Doctoria”, a much better exit than following Victoria Creek to the bottom.
At our final transition, I chatted with the group of four before they descended to their sleds at the valley bottom. It was a delightful surprise to find that we still had a few thousand feet of hippie pow to ski! We danced through an open burn in perfect boot top powder, bounding off of bumps and spraying snow. It was actually some of the best skiing all day! It reminded me of the lower elevation terrain in Valdez, Alaska, with the thin snowpack and wonderful boot top pow. It was the perfect way to end the day – just stress free party skiing in the fading light.
The final thousand feet were more like survival skiing, but we did not have to take our skis off all the way to the sled road and across the bridge to the Icicle Road. From here, we were still about 4 miles from the car, but the road trends gradually downhill, so we were able to skate it reasonably quickly. Perhaps all that nordic skate skiing has helped me, but I actually was able to enjoy it and clock 6-7 minute miles.
We all arrived at the van tired, but incredibly fulfilled. And the best part was that we did not have to go anywhere – just cook dinner and warm up in the cozy van. After such a wonderful day in the Icicle, we felt no rush to leave this special place.
I have been chomping at the bit this season, finding micro adventures in shorter tours at Snoqualmie. This was one of my first full days this season, and it epitomized everything I love about backcountry skiing – views, friends, powder, adventure. It was a day during which I felt deeply connected to the mountains and the abundance of beauty and possibilities. While we had to tap deep into the well of physical energy for a big day of trail breaking like this, I think we all agreed it only replenished the well of stoke and inspiration.
- Our route was 15 miles and 7500 ft of gain. There was about 6000-6500 ft of trail breaking, with a small amount of booting. It took us 10 hours, so plan for a full day if going into this zone!
- There are an abundance of different lines and exit options in this zone. So many tour possibilities!
- I would compare the upper section of Victoria’s Secret to the upper Slot Couloir. Similar steepness and width. Victoria’s might be slightly wider.
- As it gets into late March and April, I imagine that the lower elevations of this tour may get thin. But we were able to ski and skin from the valley floor.
- The Icicle looked ford-able if your route requires that :).