A snowbridge too far
A close call on the Watson Traverse
By John Minier
I carefully eased my skis over the roll and onto the face. “Easy does it,” I said to myself. “This is no place to blow it.”
The slope was steep – real steep. Five hundred feet below I could make out the faint silhouette of the first bergschrund. Last week’s storm appeared to have filled everything in nicely, but the bridge seemed superficial at best. Under the skim of fresh powder lurked a massive chasm. Farther down the face, the second bergschrund glared up at me not so subtly.
I worked my skis down into the snow as far as I could. Gusts were still exploding over the ridge on occasion, but the wind slab didn’t seem to be too extensive. “Manageable,” I thought. “You’ve done this before. Just pretend you’re somewhere else. Somewhere other than the summit of Baker.” I took a couple of steps downhill, side-slipped into a good position and prepared to make my first turn. Suddenly the slope released.
Earlier that day…
We backed the sled off the trailer and left it running on the side of the road to warm up. Snowmobiles annoy me, even when I’m happy to have them. With the amount of time that it takes to unload, start and rig the machine, we could have been halfway up the Glacier Creek Road. Maybe it’s the noise and the fumes I don’t like. Whatever it is, it didn’t convince me to skin up the road to the trailhead.
The temperature was unseasonably cold for March. The wind stung our faces as we flew up the road. We parked the sled at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead and killed the engine. Silence at last. Twilight was still hours away, and the night sky was filled with stars. I tossed on an extra jacket, clicked into my skis, and followed Lee and Jenni into the woods.
Dawn broke as we ascended steep slopes above Grouse Creek. The conditions were phenomenal. The cold air dried out the recent storm snow and left us with perfect boot-top powder. We reached the top of Heliotrope Ridge by early morning, and half considered a 2,800-foot hot lap back into the basin. Alas, we decided to press on. We had a goal, and today was the day.
We took turns cutting a skin track into the perfect canvas of the Coleman Glacier. It almost seemed shameful to disturb the billion-crystal blanket of snow that Mother Nature had worked so hard to create. We took extra care to round out our corners and work with the contours of the terrain, so our track – our signature upon an immaculate landscape – looked as if it belonged.
We crested the Coleman-Deming saddle and continued up the Roman wall. Eventually the powder gave way to hardpack, blasted away by fierce southwest winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. We shouldered our skis and continued the last few hundred feet to the summit.
The Watson Traverse: a brief history
Seventy-five years ago, Dwight Watson pioneered the ski traverse that now bears his name. Starting from the Kulshan Cabin, he and his compatriots skied and climbed to the summit of Mt. Baker via the Coleman-Deming route. They descended the Park Glacier and continued skiing northeast towards Heather Meadows. The traverse was a landmark accomplishment due to the difficulty of the skiing and the speedy itinerary. Watson’s traverse, along with his other accomplishments, helped to launch an era of skiing in the Cascades.
Today, the Watson Traverse is a popular single-day objective given the appropriate snow and avalanche conditions. I like to think of it as a “skier’s traverse” because of the respectable skiing-to-walking ratio. The highlight of the route is undoubtedly skiing the Park Glacier, and if you’re lucky, the Park headwall. Visible from the ski area, the Park Glacier and headwall sing a seductive siren’s song, and it sounds like “4,000 feet of fresh powder.”
But like any good siren, it holds a trap. The Park Glacier is separated from the headwall by two of the mountain’s largest bergschrunds. Big doesn’t begin to describe them; you can easily pick them out on Google Earth, which means you can see them from space. One can only imagine the depths to which such fractures dive. They are Mt. Baker’s Mines of Moria, haunting our dreams.
You don’t have to ski the headwall. The Watson Traverse can be accomplished by descending moderate terrain via the Coxcomb ridge, but what fun would that be?
Back on the headwall
My heart leapt into my throat as the slope pulled away from me. “There it goes!” I yelled. The windslab broke at my feet, the crown line arcing across the face for a hundred yards. I took a deep breath and watched it run the length of the face below and cross the first bergschrund. Easing into the slope seemed to be the appropriate technique for the situation. Still, the headwall loomed huge before me. I contemplated the rope coiled neatly in the bottom of my pack.
I opened the throttle a little and began making jump turns in excellent snow. The avalanche left a perfect surface for ski edges, and I milked it as best I could without getting too excited. I was still a long way up.
After a few hundred feet I pulled off below a rock band, and gave the others a rebel yell. Jenni and Lee followed, both styling the headwall in their own way. We grouped up under the rocks and looked down upon the bergschrund. The bridge below us seemed OK, but it’s often difficult to tell.
Lee dropped first. With the bergschrund rapidly approaching, he straightened out and hit the accelerator. The bridge held and he continued down into easier terrain. As the angle eased the snow got deeper and the skiing improved dramatically. We could tell from his whoops and yells. Jenni followed, and they both made excellent use of 1,000 feet of untracked, knee-deep powder. I hung out for a few minutes and watched them arc beautiful turns down the best part of the best line on Mt. Baker. “This is one of those days,” I thought. “Sometimes you just nail it.”
Jenni and Lee found an easy crossing of the lower bergschrund and pulled off to wait for me. I released my ski edges and dropped the tips downhill. The snow felt good: soft and supportive. I laid into my first turn, lifted the skis up, and headed for my second. The bergschrund loomed. It was now or never. Either point it and shoot the bridge, or hit the brakes and call it off. The bridge had held two passings, but something in me twinged. I hit the brakes.
As I laid into the turn, the crossing failed catastrophically below me, and the massive bridge disappeared into the bowels of the mountain. I sunk my edges. The pit reached up and pulled the slab of snow under my skis off the slope, swallowing it with its black jaws. I clung to the icy bed surface 50 feet above the abyss. My mouth opened, and expletives emerged.
A minute passed. I caught my breath and leaned into the soft snow above my skis. My options were limited. The best bridge on the face had just failed. Jumping the hole was not an option. I worked my skis up off the bed surface and back into the powder. The fall-line descent was done. I cut a traverse to the far north side of the face and happily skied around the end of the crack.
Jenni and I ran the sled shuttle back up Glacier Creek Road well past dark. The snow had melted several hundred yards up the road during the day. Spring was coming, and it made the ride back down turbulent. We were both exhausted by the time we got the machines loaded on the trailer.
Later I would connect with a photographer who happened to snap a great photo of our descent. Looking at it, it’s easy to understand what draws us to such places. Our tracks are obvious and seem as though they belong on the mountain, except for my set headed way right.
If adventure is what you seek, adventure is what you will find. Looking back on the Watson Traverse, it’s hard to derive any practical lessons. Why did the bridge fail? Should I have stopped? There are no answers. The Park Glacier simply lived up to its reputation. x