A brief but powerful cold spell gave us two lovely weeks of “real winter”, and then El Niño returned with a vengeance. After multiple atmospheric rivers, the snowpack is pretty bleak. Baker and Crystal seem on the verge of closing, with bare ground under the lifts. But after a few weeks without skiing, Logan and I decided to get out for a tour nonetheless.
Logan had mentioned that he wanted to get up to the Rampart Ridge area on skis, so I suggested a high traverse from Rampart Ridge to Hibox, exiting via a 6 mile road skin to the Lake Kachess Sno-Park. This is the kind of exit that would have felt prohibitive in the past, but with our new G-skins, 6 miles did not really sound that bad!
We dropped a car at the Lake Kachess Sno-Park and got started from Exit 54. We used the old logging road connector that we found last year on our I90 Glades Tour. Despite the recent rains, the coverage was perfectly adequate and the firm snow made for generally fast skinning. When the road ended, we tried to stay low, but this resulted in a lot of icy sidehilling. In retrospect, in icy conditions I would probably just ascend and hit the road above, then rip skins and glide down the road to Rocky Run.
The dusting of fresh snow made for hero skinning conditions. We were pleasantly surprised to find the creeks bridged nicely by solid snow. We continued up the Rampart Backdoor trail, following the skin track from our friends, the Snow Troopers, who had started an hour before us.
At Lake Lillian, we caught up to the group of four. Some were skinning, and some were booting the steep slope above the lake. We put on crampons and followed the summer trail, hitting the ridge in an icy wind and whiteout fog. We continued on towards the Rampart Lakes, navigating the complex post-glacial terrain through some of the most disorienting fog I have ever skied through. We heard voices in the mist, but never saw our friends.
Using our smartphones, we were able to find our way down to the Rampart Lakes, skiing some terrible blue ice and dust on crust. But finally we were down below the fog and so visibility was better. I knew the forecast was risky – Windy.com called for high clouds above 10k ft at this time of day. But I have yet to find a weather model that understands the effect of easterly fog at Snoqualmie Pass. It was sunny just a valley away west of the crest, but easterly winds typically lead to dense fog just east of the crest. This was a cold reminder of the limitations of a computer model. Local knowledge is incredible valuable. Wyatt and I cover easterly flow, amongst other things, in our new Snoqualmie Pass weather video.
My hope for the tour was to explore some new terrain, ski some mediocre snow, and get great views. Now it looked like we were just going to ski bad snow in a ping pong ball. If it were not for the fact that we had already set up a car shuttle, we might have bailed. But this year has taught me to recalibrate my expectations and make the most of a tough situation.
We trudged onwards, skinning up and down along the ridge towards Alta Mountain. As we followed benches just east of Alta, the clouds seemed to be lifting. We took a lunch break and gazed across to “Mossy Slab” and other cliffy formations in the valley.
To get over to Hibox, we had to execute a few long downward traverses. Here, the firm snow was very helpful, allowing us to maintain elevation. The sun started to come out, and our spirits soared.
I watched Logan descend a slope of frozen avalanche debris, just giggling like he was skiing the best powder in the world. I asked him what was so funny. He said it reminded him of his childhood, skiing awful snow every weekend at Summit Central. This year, I think every PNW skier could learn from Logan.
After a few transitions, we finally found ourselves beneath Hibox’s south face. It was warm and comfortable in the sun. We put our skis on our backs and began a long climb to the top.
Once on the open slopes beneath Hibox, we generally followed the steep summer trail. After just an hour or so of mixed sunshine, we were shocked to find that the snow had transformed to a corny texture. I tried to not get my hopes up – the clouds could return at any moment and refreeze the snow, or the wind could put an end to the softening.
The final bit of the climb crossed the south face, where a few inches of fresh snow had settled and warmed. Our original plan was to ski the upper south face and continue on a traverse towards Lobox, but we both agreed that we had to ski the corn on the southwest side. The summit chute was not really in, so we called it at the ridge.
We crossed the upper south face back over towards the southwest ridge where we came up.
We often get these “Junuary” mid-winter pseudo corn cycles in the PNW after big rain events. But this wasn’t just psuedo corn. It was bonafide, USDA certified corn. With the sustained pitch and combination of passing clouds, mountains, and Lake Kachess, we were overjoyed. Is this even real?
As we got lower, the corn continued to provide. In typical spring conditions, the bottom would become mushy if the top was good corn. But in February, the sun is not as strong, and the slope seemed perfectly ripe from top to almost the valley bottom, where it was still a bit icy. It was a super fun run, bouncing over bushes and rolls, crossing gullies, and finally descending through a nice forest. Of the 3200 ft descent, probably 2000 ft of it was great corn, the best corn I have skied in Washington in the last two years! Absolutely shocking!
At the valley floor, we took a long break and drank from the creek. We still had hours of skinning ahead of us, but it didn’t feel intimidating. After all, we were just out for a scenic walk, whether it is on a ridge line or in a deep valley. This valley happened to be wonderfully open and simple to skin through. We only had to take off our skis once for the very last creek crossing.
Down at the summer trailhead, we switched to our G-Skins and started gliding! Like always, it took some adjustment, but quickly we were gliding at a good pace, typically 13-15 minute miles. The 5.7 mile skin out had only one section that was consistently downhill enough to warrant transitioning if you were on normal skins. The rest is rolling, although net downhill. With the glide of the G-Skin, we were able to finish the 5.7 miles in 1 hr 15 min (avg. ~13:10 min/mile pace), probably 30 minutes faster than on normal skins! Not to mention the fact that it turned a slog into an enjoyable classic ski as we watched the clouds fade into the sunset.
For snow enthusiasts, this winter continues to disappoint. Early on, I decided that instead of “waiting for winter to finally arrive”, I would do things differently. This simply is not the year for counting days, vertical gain, or face shots. But as I have gotten older, I have come to realize that I will take quality over quantity. My days this season, although limited, have been highest quality adventures. The dire conditions we face have only increased my gratitude for these wonderful experiences. You don’t need a record snowpack or blower powder to have a great time in the mountains. We cannot control the weather, but we can control whether we mope around or try to make lemonade out of lemons, and maybe if we are lucky, even a little corn.
- The traverse was 19 miles and 6800 ft gain. It took a little under 10 hours.
- The snow was generally firm but we never quite needed ski crampons. Boot crampons were nice on the climbs.
- This traverse is much easier in firm conditions. It would be a ton of trail breaking in deeper snow and some of the traverses would be difficult to hold elevation on.
- This traverse is essentially a scenic way to approach Hibox. It is probably a little faster to just go in and out from the Lake Kachess Sno-Park if your only goal was to ski Hibox.