A daring Isolation Traverse
Story by John Minier
“OK, brake is up this time,” I say. Jenni wrinkles her brow and gives me a concerned look. “But brake is down,” she responds.“Well, normally yes, but we’re using a munter hitch to rappel, so the braking action is opposite of what it normally is.” I go on to explain the mechanics behind the munter hitch. We’re on day two of the Isolation Traverse, and our route requires us to rappel a short step between the McAllister Glacier and the Backbone Ridge. Jenni has rappelled before, but never with a munter. She just gives me a pissed off look. “No, brake is down,” she insists. I choose my response carefully. “I guess I could lower you?” With this she applies an upward brake, and leans back on the rope. “See you at the bottom.” Problem solved.
Matt watches us from the bottom. Mellow, quiet and unassuming, it would be easy to mistake him for a zookeeper rather than a studious avalanche forecaster/splitboarder extraordinaire. Known amongst close friends as Primomo, or simply Momo, he has a reputation for walking softly and carrying a big Voile Split Decision stick. During the summer months he works as an avalanche forecaster for a mine in Chile, only to fly north in the fall to ski guide and instruct avalanche courses out of Salt Lake City. He knows only winter.
I rap down, pull the rope and turn to Matt. “What’s this next section look like?” I ask. He pulls out the map. “Seems like a long glide track traverse out the ridge,” he says. I comment on how that’s going to really suck on a snowboard. Matt just smiles, strips his skins and drops a knee off the ridge in split mode. Touché, Primomo.
This is Jenni’s first ski traverse, and given her enthusiasm, I’d say she’s taking to it well. I’ve got a handful under my belt, and Matt probably lost count years ago. The whole idea of traversing is simple – ski from point A to point B, with point B being some number of days away and preferably on the other side of a mountain range. Often, the reality can be a bit more complex. Timing a traverse can be tricky, especially with fickle coastal weather. Given the relatively stable Cascade snowpack, ski traverses are often feasible during winter and spring, but you do need a few consecutive sunny days to actually pull one off – a tall order in the Northwest. Throw in people’s schedules and the whole process can get messy in a hurry.
Remote viewing. The rewards are great and warrant the spontaneous abuse of sick days. For a skier, there is something remarkably compelling about a one-way journey through the serene, wintry mountains. It harkens back to a time when life wasn’t so easy – when small groups of brave men crossed mountains not for pleasure, but for the simple purpose of reaching the other side. Even today, self-reliance is an integral aspect of ski traverses. Successful trips still depend entirely on the tenacity and strength of individuals within the group; however, Gore-Tex and goose down make for a more comfortable experience. In some ways, a lot has changed since pioneers first pushed over the Cascades, but there is something still very romantic and strangely natural about heading to the hills and skiing into the sunset.
In other ways, very little has changed. Traverses grant us the opportunity to ski and travel through terrain that would be impossible to access otherwise, but the elements that make for a memorable traverse are more subtle. Details, such as the low hiss of a campstove under a starry sky or the view from the summit at sunrise, are what make for a truly successful trip. Traverses also provide the opportunity to worry about real problems: Will we have to ration fuel? I hope we get a good freeze tonight. Is the barometer still dropping? Should we hurry?” These concerns are only compounded by the remoteness. Even with today’s advanced communications, the safety net on ski traverses is a little thinner, and small errors can have large consequences. We mitigate risk as best we can, but adventure is still the primary goal, and there is no adventure without a little uncertainty.
What isn’t uncertain is that some of the best ski traversing exists right here in our backyard. The North Cascades boast all the key elements of spectacular traverses – remote, rugged, steep and snowy. Few roads bisect the range, but the ones that do tend to be at regular intervals and make for excellent starting and ending points. Thus far, the high routes that closely follow the Cascade crest have all been explored and skied. There are still numerous other east to west variations as well as massive link ups that can be done. With enough time, motivation and dehydrated food, one could conceivably head up the Suiattle River Road with a pair of skis and emerge weeks later, battered and bearded, at the Hannegan Pass Trailhead. To date nobody has skied the entire crest, Baker to Rainier, in a single push.
Halfway point. The Isolation Traverse is a relatively small segment between the Cascade River Road and Highway 20. In our current position, halfway out the Backbone Ridge, we’re beginning to feel as though it’s aptly named. Eldorado Peak, the main attraction and a generally popular objective, is hours behind us. Soon it will be days. Sometime in the next 24 to 36 hours we will reach the halfway point, and it will be safer to continue forward than to turn back. This is why we chose the Isolation – total commitment and big remote ski descents.
I take over trail breaking from Matt and head up toward a narrow notch in the ridge. We’ve been inspecting possible descents off the north side of the backbone for the last hour or so, with no reasonable options. Traversing northeast under the ripsaw skyline of pinnacles and peaks, it’s hard to imagine what ski lines drop off the other side. I skin through the notch.
Towers of granite rise precipitously on both sides, like walking through the gates of Mordor. I cautiously approach the edge and gaze over at 3,000 feet of fall line powder skiing. “Whoop, whoop,” I yell back to Matt and Jenni. “It’s good to go. I’m calling dibs on this one.”
We gather on the edge of the run and take our first real look at the terrain we will encounter in the days ahead. Miles and miles of ridges, slopes and summits stretch northward toward Isolation and Snowfield peaks. Beyond lies the Picket Range, Mt. Baker, Shuksan and Canada. “Oh my, so much to ski,” I whisper under my breath. By tomorrow evening we will be camped on the edge of Snowfield Peak looking south toward Backbone Ridge, and somebody will pretend that they can almost see our tracks.
I drop the line first and figure out where all the crevasses are. I stop several hundred feet down and pull out the camera. “Have at it, and stay right on my tracks!” I yell. Matt makes a beautiful second descent, using Perdition Peak as a backdrop for his line. He may be unassuming, but he knows how to produce a good Kodak moment.
Jenni drops in last. Her style is indicative of someone who grew up pounding bumps and bashing gates at Snowbowl and Telluride. When somebody comments on her skiing and asks her where she’s from, they rarely expect “Arizona” to be the answer. She skis like she argues – with purpose and confidence, tearing the slope open with wide GS turns. Watching her ski is like falling in love all over again.
Jenni and Matt lead the way to camp and we dig in for the evening. Far to the southeast, McAllister Glacier stubbornly refuses to give up its last few rays of sunshine. We laugh and joke, relive the day and worry about tomorrow.
Homeward bound. Eventually we will head north over the many miles of rugged wilderness before descending to Matt’s overly compact rental car on Highway 20. He is to return to Colorado before flying south to Chile for the summer, and it may be some time before we see each other again. I will head home to Bellingham with Jenni, who is now completely addicted to ski traversing.
Plans are made for a repeat offense. “Same time, same place, next year?” I ask, but who really knows when or even if we will all assemble again for a similar adventure. Ski traverses are naturally ethereal, and no amount of scheming will force one. Occasionally, opportunities spontaneously materialize with the perfect storm of good weather, stable snow and willing partners. When that happens, drop everything and go. X
John Minier is the owner and lead guide of Mt. Baker Mountain Guides, Bellingham’s biggest little guide service. Visit him at mtbakerguides.com