Low Tide Surfing
It has been a slow start to this El Niño ski season in the PNW. But the silver lining of the thin snowpack and high freezing levels is that many access roads have remained open longer than normal. One “early season” ski tour that has been on my radar for many years is Green Mountain on the Suiattle River Road. With a high access road, trail, and nice grassy slopes, it has been an early season favorite amongst skiers for decades. Despite poor snow conditions, I was able to convince Wyatt, Cherlyn, and her friend Kyle to go out for a scenic tour in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
With adventurous plans like this, I always bring my emergency kit – a chainsaw, battery starter, winch, bike pump, and more. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find the Green Mountain road in good condition. Someone had obviously cleared the road recently of downed trees. We had anticipated up to 2 miles of road walking, but were surprised to make it all the way to the trailhead at 3500 ft with just a few inches of snow to drive through in the last bit!
The downside of making it to the summer trailhead was that it meant we would have to hike up to the snow line. We had not expected snow line to be so high, so most of us had not brought approach shoes. Nonetheless, we loaded our skis and boots on our packs and started hiking up. Wyatt wore Crocs, Cherlyn wore some casual boots, and I wore some soft slip-on shoes. Only Kyle had real approach shoes.
The trail was bone dry to about 4400 ft. When we broke out of the trees, we were distressed to see hardly any snow! The exposed south face was largely stripped to bare ground all the way to 5900 ft!
The flat of the trail held snow when the steep grassy slopes were inconsistent, so we switched over to ski boots and continued hiking up the trail, post holing on the trail through the hilarious snow cover.
Fortunately, the snowpack changed dramatically as we rounded the corner onto an eastern aspect. In a matter of minutes, it went from a thin patchy snowpack to a relatively deep snowpack, even in the trees. We put on our skis and skinned along the trail towards Green Mountain.
After some ups and downs, we arrived at the base of the south face of Green Mountain. Unlike the previous one, this south face had complete coverage! The contrast was incredible. We hypothesized that this face was more concave and collected snow better. The other face jutted out into the Suiattle Valley, likely catching stronger winds. Or perhaps the difference was simply due to an additional 500 ft in elevation. Regardless, we were not complaining!
The snow surface was runneled from recent rains. A thin crust was breaking down in the balmy temperatures, with deep mush underneath. The descent would be interesting, but that was a problem for our future selves. I was just happy to be back in the alpine on skis, setting a beautiful track up and across.
As we switchbacked up the final ridge, we could look down 5000 ft to the Suiattle River Valley, and 4000 ft up to the summit of Glacier Peak. The vertical relief of this valley – over 9000 ft – is incredible!
We sat on the porch of the lookout and gazed out at all the peaks around us. Outside of doing the Extended Ptarmigan Traverse, this was my first time up the Suiattle River Valley. It occupies such a giant cavern in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. From our vantage, we could see so many incredible peaks, from Whitehorse to Baker to Buckner to Bonanza. I love seeing these places from new angles.
Along with the beautiful peaks in the distance, I also loved the wild patterns formed in the snow by the recent rains. It might make for bad skiing, but it certainly makes for nice photography.
Once a chilly wind picked up, we decided it was time to get going. On our way up, I noticed that the top 500 ft or so had a supportable crust underneath. With some solar input, I guessed that it might ski a little bit like corn.
While it was not ripper by any means, the predictable snow far exceeded our expectations of awful breakable crust. With such great views and easy access, the tour was already a success, regardless of ski quality. Any turns were just a bonus!
The snow got worse towards the bottom, but never awful. We had to skin briefly rounding the first peak, then we were able to ski downhill following the trail back around the corner. On the mostly bare south face, we were able to “ski” the trail, gliding along the three inches of snow or so covering the trail. It was pretty hilarious.
With an intrepid attitude and moderate disregard for our gear, we were able to ski all the way down to 4500 ft. The few inches of snow on top of grass actually skied quite nicely like spring snow. And somehow, we never hit any rocks!
Back at tree line, we put our skis and boots on our backs and hiked the easy trail out. I was blown away with how “civilized” the entire day was – an easy drive up a remote mountain road, a well maintained trail, and a relatively straightforward transition from hiking to skiing. Where was the bushwhacking and slide alder? After all, this is the infamous Suiattle River Valley.
While the ski season continues to mostly disappoint, this adventure felt like making the most of the low tide. I seriously wanted to bail on my plans in the days prior with all the reports of terrible snow conditions, but I knew that if I went in with the right attitude, a scenic walk with friends would be enjoyable regardless. It is hard to know what the rest of the season will hold, but I know there will be many adventures to come.
- The tour was 7.5 miles and 3300 ft gain. It took us a little over 5 hours.
- Because of the southern aspect, the snow line can be quite high on this mountain, even during a normal winter.
- The Suiattle River Road has been regraded and so is in excellent condition. The Green Mountain Road was easily manageable with my Outback. Even a smaller car could have been fine.
- There is also good skiing on the other aspects of Green if the snow conditions are conducive.