Story and photos by Andy Basabe
It’s a Friday evening and I’m checking the contents of my backpack, wondering what the mountains will demand of me. It is spring, with snow shifting daily from oatmeal to steel and temperatures from shivering to sweating. I am trying to decide if I will find myself in any situations requiring rope and harness, or if I am just going splitboarding. Crampons and ice axes go in the pack, rope is left behind.
Frankie, Kyle and I are planning to ride the north side of Spider Mountain, a steep face with a long approach. Martin Volken and Peter Avolio first skied the line during midwinter, when Cascade River Road is gated miles from Cascade Pass. Bushwhacking up the middle fork of the Cascade River, they earned their descent. This was not their first attempt. As much as I want to ride that mountain in winter, I am unwilling to put myself to that trail-blazing test, and have waited for spring melt when the Forest Service opens the road, at least partway.
Later that night, I’m sitting in a crowded bar. Someone I have grown close to is set to leave the following morning for her summer job, and I want to spend time with her before she leaves. It isn’t good style to burden your partners with your excesses from the night before, so Frankie and Kyle agree to join, as if our trip were beginning right now. Tomorrow we will push ourselves to move. Tonight we will celebrate, knowing that we will be depending on each other for the next 48 hours.
Soon enough, I have said my farewell, and am in my room looking at the clock, my mind caught in between what transpired during the last hour and what five hours of sleep will bring. Oh, boy.
Morning comes. Kyle and I are loading our packs into my truck. Luckily we live in adjacent houses, so our routine is as simple as opening our kitchen windows and calling out to one another. But this morning there are no words, as we are too fuzzy to speak. Mountain bikes dangling over the tailgate, we go to find Frankie.
Later, a pair of skiers finds us napping on the ground at a pullout between Concrete and Marblemount. All of our gear is on the asphalt next to the truck. They ask us what we are planning on doing that day. Good question.
Caffeine is what was needed to get us riding our mountain bikes from the El Dorado gate on Cascade River Road up to the parking lot below Cascade Pass. Splitboards rise above our heads, bobbing along with backpacks through the bumps in the pavement. Groans followed by laughter followed by groans.
Strapping in, we finally get moving on snow. Reaching the crest of Cascade Pass, we are embraced by the mountains. Sahale Arm sweeps up into the clouds to the north. Our plan is to skin south over the adjacent ridge, along the trail that begins the famous Ptarmigan Traverse. With the wet snow and steep angle, there is some concern of sliding over the cliffs below. We are committed, and figure anything that breaks should do so below our feet. We move.
We cross the ridge to the land of mountains, the center of the North Cascades. Food in hand, we rest. This is Kyle’s first trip into the heart of Washington’s mountains, and he is enchanted. Mount Formidable stands first in the jagged line of peaks populating the skyline south to Glacier Peak. The mountains surrounding us – Johannesurg, Magic and Mixup – are all impressive. Not far ‘til camp.
Finally, I take off my backpack. We are settling in across from Formidable, above Kool-Aid Lake. The sun is beginning to settle, hinting at the colors to come. While digging our sleeping pit, we begin to feel nauseous, reminding us of how this trip started: pints and shot glasses slamming down on the bar.
The moon is coming up soon, and my sleeping bag promises a better night’s sleep than my bed the night before. I reflect on snowboarding, the only constant in the last 18 years of my life. Alcohol has always gone with it, whether in the Snoqualmie parking lot after snowboard competitions, Glacier during the Banked Slalom, or in truck-beds after trips. I’ve always tended towards excess – in the mountains, in the bar – anywhere I could ignore expectations. I am not particularly radical, but I prefer to be where conformity is irrelevant. The three of us laugh that we are here in this moment, guiding the sun over the hills with our eyes, when 24 hours ago we were leading each other in depravity, in the mockery of productivity that is drinking.
Sunday morning arrives frigid with shade. The soft effects of warmth have worn away, and only movement will liven the body. Catching up on the debt of sleep has put us behind schedule. Our stove flickers out, as we did not bring enough fuel for the trip. We eat lukewarm oatmeal, and we have no way to fill our bottles until we hit running water.
Midmorning finds us underneath Spider Mountain, in sunshine, warming our extremities. Snowmelt on rocks has filled our bellies and bottles with water. Kyle and Frankie stare up at the cornices on Spider as I snack. Our route to the top is exposed to cornices above and cliffs below. This could be why the first descent required a midwinter trip. Had we arisen in the dark, and relied on cold temperatures protecting us, we may have been able to justify the climb up the mountain.
If someone read about us dying on the side of this mountain, climbing underneath a large cornice in the sun in the middle of the afternoon, they would think we were idiots. Which of the decisions we could make right now would not be considered idiotic? That’s how I think. I don’t want to make stupid decisions. We decide against the ascent.
This leaves us a day away from the car. Neither Kyle nor I have been in this valley before. Do we have to return the way we came? Frankie knows of another way.
“Let’s ride the Magic S Loop,” he says. The route involves climbing up a nearby ramp, Plan B Couloir, to the top of Hurry Up Peak, then down and around Magic Mountain via the S and Yawning glaciers, back to Cascade Pass. Now we have a goal without looming cornices. Plan B indeed.
We hustle up the couloir, exchanging boot pack responsibilities in knee-deep corn mush. Hurry Up beckons, and we race to the top. Looking west at the ridge on the other side of the summit, we notice a cornice of similar size and aspect to the one on Spider that we debated climbing under. This cornice is mostly detached, hanging onto the mountain incomprehensibly. We thank ourselves that we are here, right now, and not dead a mile away. It’s time to turn, riding from just beneath the summit along the ridge, to let go of Spider, onto something new.
We ride 2,500 feet of steep glacier, open snow leading to debris fields, until the snow becomes too gloppy to continue. We transition to skins, breaking a path downhill before we can continue up. Back in ski mode, we move up around the side of Magic Mountain.
Frankie leads us to the top of the Yawning Glacier, our passage down to the base of Cascade Pass. I am tired. Kyle is tired. Frankie is never as tired as we are. This is the good tired; free from the doubt of poor planning – this tired is sweaty, warm and pleasant.
Mid-descent, I am sitting on the glacier, waiting for the others to move beyond me to the next stopping point. To my left is a little snow spider, frozen, waiting for me to remove my shadow from its back. This spider and I are compadres. Small, insignificant creatures traveling in a hostile environment, warmed by sun and cooled at night. This crossing of paths cheers me as I watch Kyle ride past me, tracing this little spider’s mountain, reminding me that no matter the objective, being in the mountains is lucky enough. x
The Magic S Loop
Driving to Cascade Pass: Take Highway 20 to Marblemount. Drive down Cascade River Road until the road ends or is gated. The pass trailhead is 23 miles from Highway 20 in Marblemount. Permits required for overnight camping.
The tour: Starting in Cascade Pass, go over Cache Col to Kool-Aid Lake, then over Art’s Knoll to the bottom of Spider Mountain. Climb the Plan B Couloir to the top of Hurry-Up Peak, ride down the S Glacier, ascend the side of Magic Mountain to Alliteration Col, and descend the Yawning Glacier. Finally, ascend Cascade Pass and ride down to the car. 1–3 days.