Cold & Bold
Story by Jake Merrill
A winter traverse of the Twin Sisters
The Twin Sisters, lower than both Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker, stretch from Mt. Baker Highway roughly 45 miles south to Highway 20. The range has been traversed by ski several times in the warmer seasons, but according to record, a winter traverse has not been completed before.
Dustin Byrne, Peter Sundberg and I set out for the traverse on January 2, with a plan to come out in Hamilton sometime in the evening on January 3. We were dropped off on Mosquito Lake Road at about 6 a.m. Low temperatures and heavy packs were a small worry compared to the logging trucks whizzing past us. We proceeded upward, tech bindings gliding silently, accompanied by the squeaking of Peter’s telemark bindings.
We are blessed here in the Northwest with huge amounts of snow, and the weight of the recent snowfall had begun to bend the backs of trees, as if they intended to stretch their heads to the ground and create a tunnel of heavy, snow-laden boughs.
We skinned and reached the west ridge of the north twin around noon. As the sun slowly crept its way along the south face of the peak, we worked our way upward, sweating under heavy loads, yet freezing whenever we stopped for water. As we drew closer to the summit, the terrain became steeper and steeper. With only 50 meters to go, we pulled our skis and climbed to the summit of the north twin, arriving just after 1 p.m. The perfectly clear day sprang out at us, with the San Juan islands sitting lazily on the horizon, and the north face of the south twin staring at us, as if to say, “climb me!” A light breeze came up, crisp and clear, prompting a scramble to the true summit to examine our intended route to the south side of the twin. Rime ice crunched under our boots, and the gaping maw of the couloir stretched out beneath us, full of teeth – like rocks and boulders – with an unclear finish between the north and south twin.
Despite having rappel gear with us, the unclear exit was daunting – extra hours of rappelling and ascending up ropes in the case of a cliff out was not appealing. By 2 p.m. we were saddled up and ready for the first true descent of the traverse. This is why we do it – the north face of the north twin was home to wind-packed fluff, just begging to be skied. All our aches and fatigue washed away with each steep turn, spindrift flying around our faces and beckoning us ever further. We were in pursuit of a couloir to the southeast side of the north twin. Further and further down the ridge we skied. With each impassable couloir and decreasing daylight, our hopes dwindled. Finally we came upon an opening that appeared to go all the way, and we decided to take it. A narrow entrance with an equally narrow exit awaited us, yet we had found a way through. A whole new perspective on the Sisters range opened up before us, with the mellow east side of the crest stretching away in undulating rolls, all the way to the toes of Mt. Baker.
Despite being roughly 3 p.m. by this time, we decided to push for the far side of the south twin before making camp. We approached the north face of the south twin with steel in our eyes, ready to do battle with steep snow climbing ahead. A nasty wind crust awaited us, and each boot step would break off a large chunk of hard wind slab and send it rocketing down the hard surface to the valley floor below us. Sunset was rapidly approaching, and we knew our ski down the south face would be significantly more difficult with little light to guide the way. As the summit neared, our cold muscles warmed and the pitch became even steeper. By the time we reached the summit, a magnificent sunset had begun, a breathtaking rendition stretched before us, reds and pinks spilled from the corners of the horizon, and lit up Mt. Baker behind us with a warm pink glow. Our awe at the spectacular color palette before us caused a brief pause in our hasty switch back to the descent, and for just a moment, one of the few in the entire traverse, we stood perfectly still and admired the masterpiece displayed before us.
After a quick ski down tight, wind-rimed chutes, we made our camp in the drainage to the southwest of the south twin. We settled into an evening of melting water, digging a snow cave and planning a route for the following day. By 9:30 p.m. we were settled into our cozy snow cave ripe with anticipation for the morning, our long day of skinning and skiing rewarding us with a deep sleep.
Dawn reared its ugly head and ushered us from our frozen chamber. There is perhaps nothing more unpleasant than frozen ski boots first thing in the morning. After filling in our snow cave, we were moving by 8:30 a.m. After only a quarter hour of skinning it was yet another bout of steep snow climbing and a quick transition to ski and traverse the next bowl. As we skinned our way toward what turned out to be the last pass through the notch of the traverse, we listened to the complete silence of the Twin Sisters – whistling wind, the glide of our skins and our labored breathing were the only sounds to be heard – a welcome change from the everyday bustle and noise of modern affairs.
As we reached the col, we realized it was the first pass that we had actually skinned all the way up for the whole trip! As we exchanged high fives and transitioned to ski mode we admired the wide-open terrain of the south Twin Sisters. Mellow and long, the exit valley stretched as far as our eyes could see toward the Highway 20 valley, a swath of light trees and rolling, gully-ridden terrain – a skier’s paradise. A clear route toward our intended logging road exit presented itself to us in a series of stretching, traversing ridgelines, and we began our final and longest descent toward the valley floor. Whoops and screams accompanied our every turn, and despite occasional wind crust and sun-cupped snow, we pushed onward and downward. We were enjoying the freedom of constant dynamic motion, the cold of the morning and fatigue of day two being put on temporary hold as we gobbled up vertical feet in our long sweeping traverse.
We reached the valley floor, skinning up one smaller nob through a clear cut and skied down to a snow laden logging road at last. Adventure tree skiing followed in short order. With our final logging road visible at the bottom of the valley, we decided to ski the tight trees instead of wandering the road systems and looking for our exit road. An intended short ski turned into two hours of fighting trees and adventure creek skiing. We followed a creek bed for miles, guessing that it would eventually connect with our logging road. Snow bridges collapsing and trees dumping loads of snow down our backs were a serious hit to morale. After an hour and a half our creek skiing gamble paid off, as we found the logging road and enjoyed a half hour of road skiing until we finally ran out of snow. With mixed feelings we pulled our skis and searched our packs for our buried running shoes. We had finally hit dirt at 2:30 p.m. As we began our long walk down the road we were welcomed to the Highway 20 valley by a herd of elk, which fled up the steep moss covered hillside flicking their tails.
Four hours later, after frozen creeks and logging roads devoid of logging trucks for a hopeful hitchhiking pickup, we returned to cell phone service only to receive bad news: The gate in Lyman was locked, and we had another four miles to slog. We were pushing 30 miles by ski in the last 48 hours, and we walked through the pitch black with bowed heads.
At last, about 7:30 p.m. on January 3, we saw a twinkle of light winking at us through the trees. It was the gate, and our trip was over. After 48 hours, 12,000 feet in elevation gain, and roughly 35 miles of travel, we had completed the traverse. At times it was cold and fatiguing, and at times our minds wandered to other places we could be. Despite all this, the rugged and silent terrain made it all worth it. The Twin Sisters offers some pristine alpine terrain comparable in aesthetics and ski potential to much larger ranges. What it lacks in vertical height, it makes up for in remoteness.
I hope to return to the Sisters soon – they welcomed us with open arms, allowed us safe passage and showed us beautiful sights that will not soon be forgotten. X
Jake Merrill is a Pacific Northwest local born and bred. He enjoys skiing and climbing in the North Cascades and is currently a senior in the outdoor recreation program at Western Washington University.