The Magic of the Cascade River Road
At the beginning of astronomical winter, the PNW snowpack is in a sad state. Many of the typical touring locations, like Snoqualmie Pass and Crystal Mountain, are barely viable. But as we showed last week with a scenic tour of Green Mountain, El Niño also brings unique access opportunities. After last week’s adventure, I turned my sights further north to the mighty Cascade River Road.
The Cascade River Road has some of the highest, most glaciated peaks in the North Cascades. The catch is: to get high, you have to start really low. I heard reports that the road was open to the Eldorado Trailhead, only 3.5 miles from the end of the road, and that coverage was decent up to Sahale Mountain. I had skied down Sahale once at the end of a multi-day Easy Pass to Cascade Pass ski traverse in spring, but the prospect of visiting this zone in mid-winter excited me greatly!
Jon met me and Logan in Marblemount early in the morning and we drove 20 miles up the Cascade River Road. I had not seen Jon since skiing Cashmere last February, so it was great to see him again!
We parked at the Eldorado Gate, an elevation of about 2100 ft. There was a dusting of fresh snow down to this elevation, but the road was otherwise snow free, so we loaded our skis and boots on our packs and started hiking. Typically, I try to avoid hiking to skiing until the spring, but this year I have embraced it.
Jon had never been to Cascade Pass, so he was excited to see the massive peaks all around us. This section of road has incredible views and so we all were enjoying the morning walk.
Boston Creek had done its typical thing already, pooping many tons of rocks out across the road. But even worse than past years, part of the road was also gone. This section of the Cascade River Road is an endless battle with nature to keep open.
We switched to skinning around the Boston Basin Trailhead. Once at the Cascade Pass Trailhead, we pleasantly found enough snow to move through the alder directly “up the gut” towards Cascade Pass. This approach is much simpler than the summer trail.
We skinned through about 4 inches of very light snow on top of a hard crust. The fresh snow also covered a minefield of rocks, so we would have to be careful when skiing down. We overcame the steep pitch with some tenuous booting on very firm snow. It reminded us that we would have to watch out for steep wind stripped slopes. Once past the steeper section, it was a relatively simple traverse over to Cascade Pass.
On a cold December day, it felt great to enter the dazzling sun at Cascade Pass! The initial steep slopes above the pass were scoured to ice, so we booted. The snow quickly transitioned to significant loading, with a foot or more of fresh snow. We carefully spaced out crossing the steeper slopes, digging some hasty pits to evaluate the snow. It appeared not cohesive and we never saw any cracking, so we chose to continue on.
Once on the lower angle slopes of the Sahale Arm, we heard some loud “whoomphs” that put our head on a swivel. However, we did not see any cracking around. There was a lot of recent snowfall, so we figured it was the snow settling, but it definitely made us feel a little unsettled.
Once on the Arm, we could see our entire path up to Sahale Mountain. It was now just a race against the already-low noon sun. We agreed that we should turnaround by 2:30 PM to make sure we have time to ski down before dark. The days are so short at this time of year, but the low sun angle makes for less sun effect and beautiful lighting all day!
The Arm sees a lot of wind so it was a mixture of wind scraped firmer surfaces and pockets of powder.
I have been up the Sahale Arm nearly half a dozen times now, in many different seasons. I always love the way the layers of endless mountains open up in all directions. For such easy access, Sahale is probably unmatched. It really makes you feel like you are in the heart of the North Cascades.
At the Sahale Glacier Camp, we took a quick break before one last push up the Glacier. We had come in with expectations of wonderful scenery and mediocre to bad skiing. As I broke trail through increasingly deep powder, we started to realize that we might be in store for some actually good, and maybe even great, skiing!
The Sahale Glacier is a rather uncommon glacier, situated on a southern aspect without steep walls to avalanche snow on it. Although it has been receding quickly, it still is sizable. Its existence is a testament to how much snow this spot receives. While supposedly only 4-5 inches of snow fell here, wind loading from the NW winds had deposited over 2 feet of fresh snow in places!
The crevasses at the convexity of the Sahale Glacier had large and solid bridges, so we felt comfortable continuing higher. However, it is still a good idea to carry crevasses rescue equipment in these situations. The gnarlier glaciers in the Cascades have very poor coverage this year and need a lot more snow to be good for skiing!
After over 6,000 feet of climbing, we were all tiring, but we summed up the energy for one last steep pitch to reach the ridge at 8,300 ft.
We reached our high point above the glacier just before 2 PM, well before our turnaround time. It was a remarkable late December day, with air temperatures likely in the low teens but hardly the slightest breeze. In the sun, it was perfectly comfortable. To be so deep and high in the range in winter felt incredible!
After soaking in the sun, we decided it was time to get going. This was Jon’s first ski day of the season, so we gave him the honorary first turns. We were not sure how the somewhat dense feeling powder would ski, but after the first turns and powder trails, we knew it was going to be great!
The snow was a solid 8.5/10: fast, effortless, and smooth. The views and position were an 11/10. We came in seeking bad skiing, and yet we were somehow getting some of the best turns of our lives!
The main part of the Sahale Arm was a mix of firm, sastrugi, and powder pockets, but even that skied so much better than expected! The snow was just so cold that everything was soft to some degree. It reminded me of mid-winter conditions in Alaska, where despite the wind, the snow was still fun.
We had to do one short skin on the Arm before our final descent to Cascade Pass. These slopes had been bathing in the sun all day, but somehow the snow was still perfectly powdery – the magic of the weak mid-winter sun! Just as the sun was about to drop beneath the wall of peaks around us, I captured what might be my best ski photo ever:
Once in the shade, it was bitterly cold. We zipped down to the pass and down into the basin above the trailhead. We were able to sneak through the cliff band, side slipping some icy snow and then we just had to ski the sharky apron back to the trailhead!
We avoided any lethal shark attacks, navigated the alder at the bottom, and were cruising down the road! In front of us, we watched the warm light bathe the giant peaks in front of us.
When the snow ran out, we switched back to our approach shoes and hiked down the road. From the valley bottom, amongst the old growth cedars, we caught glimpses of alpenglow on the giant peaks almost 7,000 feet above us as a nearly full moon rose. The Cascade River Road is a magical place, where if you crane your neck through the old growth mossy forests, you can see mighty glaciers and serrated alpine peaks. To me, no other place feels so quintessentially North Cascadian. It has been such a formative place for me over the years. I felt grateful for another wonderful experience in this place.
In any objective sense, this ski season has been a disappointment. But even in a low tide season, there are opportunities for wonderful, unique experiences. Maybe this is not the season for easy powder, but with the right attitude and expectations, adventures are awaiting. We took our skis out to Sahale with expectations of poor skiing and wonderful views. Our optimism was rewarded with one of the best ski days we have ever had. There is a great deal of luck involved, but also patience, creativity, and faith.
Days like this also have made me realize how difficult this ski season could be for less experienced backcountry skiers. Pulling off an adventure like this takes a lot of experience, knowledge, and skill. This is part of why Wyatt and I have created Cascadia Mountain Weather – to help others make informed decisions and enjoy their mountain adventures to their full potential.
- Our tour was 15 miles and 6800 ft gain. It took us just over 8 miles, including the road walking, so we did not need a headlamp.
- We had to walk about 2.5 miles before skinning. Bikes would not have worked because the road was very icy and had a few inches of fresh snow. Even without snow, the road is pretty steep for biking.
- The road was open to the Eldorado Gate. This is different than the national park website. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know this. We just heard from other skiers about the access conditions.
- When conditions are deeper, you can ski straight down the west side of Sahale instead of the Arm.
- There was just enough snow to go “up the gut” to Cascade Pass from the summer trailhead. I would not attempt this tour until there is enough, because the alder and rocks could be bad otherwise.