Splitboard Trip -American Alps traverse-
WORDS: SPLITBOARDMAG PHOTO: MARC SIXTO
WORDS: SPLITBOARDMAG PHOTO: MARC SIXTO
At moments like this you wonder if you should just turn back. We were climbing the last thousand feet to the final summit of a journey that would last over two weeks. It all came down to this and if all went according to plan we would be exiting the Cascade Mountains merely minutes before chaos stuck in the form of an electrical storm.
We were buzzing, not from excitement but literally our gear was conducting electricity reminding us that there was little time to spare. But in all honesty, there was no way to turn to; we had come 120 miles and all that stood in our way was the final summit of Glacier Peak and an exit via Kenndey Creek, an area rumored to be washed. My body ached and my mind was restless. Would we beat the storm, had it come a day earlier than predicted? but that’s how the Cascades are and this is our adventure.
The American Alps Traverse
The concept of the American Alps Traverse was a vision of PNW ski Mountaineering pioneers Lowell and Carl Skoog, envisioning a grand 100 mile traverse of Washington’s North Cascade and Glacier Peak Wilderness Mountains, following the high crest. Inspired by stories of ski traverses in the Sierra Nevadas and other well known ranges, they felt the Cascades had what would become a classic in its own right. Several attempts were made, but with bad weather they weren’t able to pull it off in its entirety. Sadly, Carls death a few years later brought an end to the idea of a continuous traverse. In the end, Lowell broke it down and did it in four separate traverses known as the Isolation Traverse, Ptarmagin Traverse, Extended Ptarmagin and Suiattle. Over the next two decades, the concept of a continuous traverse had grown to almost legendary status and awaited a crew willing to attempt such an ambitious project.
Over the years I have been fortunate to know and tour with many strong and talented ski and splitboard mountaineers, one of which is teleskier and photographer extraordinaire, Jason Hummel. When we met, we had two things in common: our love of the mountains and our unemployed status. With both of us having limited budgets, we quickly got into week long trips. With little experience of doing traverses, I would skin as fast as I could to catch up only to see him sitting lazy skiing what took me so long. I remember during one of these trips he mentioned “What’s your thoughts on attempting the American Alps Traverse” To which I responded “No way in hell would I want to put myself through that epic sufferfest”. Fast forward a few years, a few traverses and hundreds of missions later to the beginning of May, 2013 when my words came back to haunt me.
Ascending the Chikamin glacier.
Each season I have set my mind on a particular goal, be it climbing the 10 highest mountains in Washington or running up and down the Cascades doing lines on 25 separate volcanoes, but 2013 was different, I decided my goal was to not have a goal, and have my journeys dictated by both weather and conditions. I spent a lot of my time pulling off traverses, as I loved the exploration aspect as well as the stunning scenery and isolation. It was by chance that I received an email from another talented ski mountaineer (Forrest McBrian) with the subject stating: “What are you doing this June?” it had been sent to both Hummel and I. Sitting on a metro bus in downtown Seattle I opened the email and read amongst other words “Traverse the North Cascades”. Knowing the ruggedness and isolation of the range I knew, this would be an epic of some sort, an amazing journey of crushing defeat, but something I didn’t feel that I was physically capable of doing.
After a few emails back and forth with Hummel, telling him good luck and that I wouldn’t be a part of such a grand/crazy idea I started looking at the environment around me. Here I was sitting on a bus in the middle of the city, and like everyone my eyes were glued to my smart phone with my ipod in my ears, I decided I didn’t want to miss out on such a grand adventure. I sent them both a message saying” I’m in” and that the next month of my life would be dedicated to attempting something so big I couldn’t actually fathom pulling it off. In the end, Forrest got an amazing opportunity to be a park ranger on Denali, which for obvious reasons he couldn’t refuse, so that left Hummel and me.
The concept of the American Alps Traverse was a vision of PNW ski Mountaineering pioneers Lowell and Carl Skoog, envisioning a grand 100 mile traverse of Washington’s North Cascade and Glacier Peak Wilderness Mountains, following the high crest.
When I met Jason Hummel, we had two things in common: our love of the mountains and our unemployed status.
The Isolation Traverse
The loud crash of avalanches echoes through the valley as we make our way through an area called the Devils Backbone. What we had thought would be a simply multimile incline on mellow slopes, had turned out to be the crux of the first leg of our adventure. We had prepped and planned for weeks for all sorts of conditions, but we were caught off guard by new snow accumulation in the high country. We had gotten to the point on the Isolation traverse where the exit was closer than the beginning, so we pushed forward cutting in steps that rolled away under our feet before pushing on. We quickly learned that there wasn’t going to be anything easy about this trip.
We pulled up to the Pyramid lake Trailhead on Highway 20 under a cloudy sky. Our mood was set by a constant drizzle of rain as we jammed a weeks worth of gear into our packs, knowing snow line was 5,000 feet above us. Before we left, I told Jason “I would do the first leg of the traverse and see how I am doing” and then we were off. The first few hours were a blur of adjusting to the weight of our packs and navigating though the dense jungle, trying not to get my splitboard caught on limbs before we hit snow and were able to put it on my feet. Over the next four days, we made our way through numerous passes, glaciers and around steep faces with hopes of finding flat sections of dirt to set our camp up on. Before we even started our journey, we had ideas of where we wanted to be each, night but that was quickly thrown out the window as speed was dictated by terrain and snow conditions.
Descending into the forest.
Things had gone as smooth as we could have hoped until the third day. We had reached an area, which required a mile long sidehill made worse by avalanche prone condition, each step causing a wetslide and slowing our progress. In the end of the day, we would go only half the distance we had hoped and set up camp on what we would later realize it would be our favorite site of the whole traverse. That night we watched the sunset taking notice of where we came from and where we were going, how much food we had and how our bodies were feeling. It was with great relief that we made our way down to the Eldorado Trailhead on the fourth day, as our friend James awaited our arrival with a fresh depot of food and batteries. We celebrated our first leg, and I came to the decision that I had the energy to go for second leg of our journey.
The Ptarmigan Traverse
“This is the last crux of the section”: this became a recurrent theme as we pushed our way onto an area referred to as The Red Ledges, with nothing holding me onto the side of a mountain other than my crampons’ front points and two ice axes. I look down to see an empty void of space under me, and decide to focus on my footwork rather than the dizzying heights. As I push across the face, I let out a smile and think about how my levels of comfort have grown over the years. I felt at one with the mountains and carefully kicked my foot into the solid snow before placing my axes in, then repeating the movement a handful more times. Before long, we are on easier angled slopes and with a sigh of relief that the hard part was over, I would come to find that was not the case.
The second and third leg of our four part trip was in my mind a huge undertaking, the time when our packs were the heaviest and the terrain the most remote. The Ptarmigan Traverse is known as an epic, long sidehill, so we decided that we would break the section into 3 shorter days so we could rest and explore the relatively untouched area. The first night, we found ourselves camping next to the only people we saw the entirety of the trip, and it was a group of 15, who were training to travel in alpine conditions. We chatted with them for a bit and told them about our plans. The ones who had no idea what we were talking about, thought we were insane and the ones who did know thought the same.
Kyle Miller atop Fortress Mountain looking forward to our eventual destination – Glacier Peak.
That night I was woken up by a drizzle hitting the tent, only to find we were stuck in the middle of a cloud that wouldn’t burn off until the late afternoon the next day, this would be the only day of our trip that we were tent bound. With a day lost to weather, our relaxed pace would not happen and we would have to make up for it, so the next day we traversed from sunrise to sunset at a grueling, taking only one 30 minute break along the way. What we had hoped to pull of in 3 days of effort, was forced out of us in two. That night we set up and looked at the mountains ahead, then at the topographical maps we were about to ditch the known, and blaze a way through a section of the cascades known to be one of the most isolated in a range famous for isolation.
With a day lost to weather, our relaxed pace would not happen and we would have to make up for it, so the next day we traversed from sunrise to sunset at a grueling pace, taking only one 30 minute break along the way.
My body was exhausted, and my mind had shut down after weeks of hard work, but finally we were on top of one of my favorite peaks in the Cascades.
Day after day, I would look at the maps and reassure myself that the shortcut route would work. It wasn’t until the 8th day of the trip, that I finally got to look at the mountains that we had intended to travel on, riddled with cliffs with the one potential route hidden behind a vertical rock face. We would take pictures from a distance and attempt to dissect them, but the only way to know if it was going to work was to stand on top of it. When the moment finally came, standing on top of our intended gateway the view was blocked by a blind rollover. We put on our crampons and walked down a bit trying to find a small ramp of snow to the lower more gentle slopes. We had made a gamble going this way, but it had paid off in the end.
We had heard of different routes that had been pioneered, but looking to the map it was obvious that they would involve steep sidehilling, so we decided to attempt a more straightforward path. From the moment we left the standard route, things started to feel really exciting making our way up the Chikamen Glacier. I imagined that only a handful of people had seen what was in front of us climbing up the glacier and around a huge ice cliff before stopping at Sinister gunsight Col, where we put up our camp for the night. It was this night that I got my first view of our final destination, Glacier Peak, and realized what we were up against. I knew it would take over a week of travel to get onto the slopes, and I found the thought of it overwhelming. Instead I focused my mind on the task at hand, to make it through the unknown crux and down to Holden Village, where our foo for the final leg awaited us. We started the next day early, wanting to take advantage of every hour of daylight, heading towards a cirque we could see was riddled in cliffs that the potential ramp through was hidden from view. Once arriving to the crux, we could see there was a way though, and we made our way down to Bannock Lakes celebrating with a sigh of relief, and resting on warm rocks for the rest of the afternoon, no more stress and no more difficult route-finding, or so we thought.
Kyle on Fortress Mountain.
The next day, we battled on what would be the best route to get to the last and final pass of the leg. Jason wanting to stay high in the snow covered alpine and I wanting to go low in the valley, and follow what I thought to be a maintained trail, in the end we went down to the valley only to find swamps and not a trail to be seen, forcing us backtrack several miles into the high country, and across some steep slopes before making it into the snow covered valley and skinning over a cloudy pass and down to Lyman Lake, in the remote Holden Valley camping 9 miles away from the settlement. The next morning we skinned down to the end of the snow and put everything snow related on the side of the trail before walking towards the village. We had mailed food, and upon arrival, we sorted through everything, snacking upon unneeded food and chatting with the locals, who we had come to know over the years. That night we feasted on all you could eat fresh food, bacon and coffee, and I was in a euphoric state, that is until I saw the weather forecast.
Suiattle High Route
I found myself crawling on the NE ridge of Fortress mountain with nothing but a sea of clouds surrounding us. Each step required delicate moves and 3 solid placements before I would push forward. At one moment I looked down at my watch and realized we were getting close to sunset, and that if we didn’t get off the ridge it was going to be an uncomfortable night. I could hear Jasons excitement as he finally put his feet onto the summit of Fortress, as I followed a few feet behind. Like clockwork, the sea of clouds lowered and the North Cascades came into full view. It was at this brief moment that the thought of completing the traverse came into my head, as before that moment it seemed all but impossible.
The forecast called for a end of the good weather in 5 days, so there was no time for rest if we wanted to pull off the traverse. The next morning we were heading back into the mountains with another week worth of food. I was familiar with the last section, and I felt my body could handle what was in store, making our way back to Lyman Lake and setting up camp early to get a much needed rest. We woke up to clouds pushing towards our intended route and knew we had to get moving, quickly finding ourselves in a whiteout, and climbing via GPS, arriving at the summit of Chiwawa mountain via the north face, and descending down the southwest face before turning our attention to the SE face of Fortress.
Fire cures all that ails.
We were sure we had heard of people climbing via the SE and decided it would be our best route. It was easy at first until we arrived at the summit ridge and had to crawl along a knife ridge. We cautiously made our way to the summit as the clouds started to lower, revealing our final destination: Glacier Peak. That moment I realized we might actually have a chance to pull that off. That night we made camp at a flat dry spot in the valley below, hoping that within two days time we would be on the summit of Glacier Peak.
The next day dawned sunny without a single cloud in the sky, I was excited, finally being in familiar territory and it was my hope that things would go smooth from there on out. We were in one of my favorite zones in the Cascades, known as the Dakobeds. I was amazed by how much the snow had melted in a month’s time; what had been 5 feet deep was now dirt, and I would reminisce on memories of a great adventure, making our way past numerous mountains and camping on a flat dry bench on the Northern slope of Ten Peak, within striking distance of Glacier Peak.
By the time we made it to the road we were broken both mentally and physically, hobbling down the road, mumbling to each other about what type of food we would eat once arriving to civilization.
It gave me great pride to say that the First ever traverse of the American Alps was pulled off by a Telemark Skier and a Splitboarder, both natives of Washington state.
In the heart of an approaching electrical storm, my body seemed almost mechanic making my final few steps to the summit of Glacier Peak. My body was exhausted, and my mind had shut down after weeks of hard work, but finally we were on top of one of my favorite peaks in the Cascades. The moment of celebration was brief, with little more than a high five and a few words. We both new that our time in the high country had come to an end, as clouds billowed around the summit dome while we descended 5,000 feet into the tree covered slopes below. From here on out we would be walking through dense forest and remnants of destroyed trails, we felt fortunate that the weather and navigation had gone so smoothly until that second. Within an hour of our descent, the storm had hit the Cascades hard, with dirt turning into swamps and the sky lighting up every other second. It was an intense storm and I loved every second of it. We had finished what I thought was impossible, and as we arrived in the river valley we ate the last of our food and laughed at a journey that had gone almost completely smooth.
The final morning we hung lazily around the camp before picking up and pushing on. We joked that we would be off the trail within an hour as we started heading down river, that was when we hit the first washout. The river had destroyed a near vertical bank and our only hope of connecting with the trail again would be by clinging to loose slopes and holding onto anything we could as we clawed up and around, knowing that falling was not an option. This would happen over and over, and the hour we had hoped for took us about 5 instead, crushing what little bit of energy we had left in out bodies. By the time we made it to the road we were broken both mentally and physically, hobbling down the road, mumbling to each other about what type of food we would eat once arriving to civilization.
…and the rain cometh. With the rain floweth streams.
Later, Jason would state that those last 5 miles were a blur, but I remembered them being a euphoric experience, not because we had pulled off the traverse, but because of both my mental and physically state. Once arriving at the road, my body went into a sort of melt down. Taking off my heavy pack, the journey was over. I was elated. I had pushed myself to my physical limits and succeed in such an enormous task. In the end, Jason would hitch numerous rides to his car and get back to me just as a week long front slammed into the Cascades.
In the end, the Journey would be 120 miles and 60,000 vertical feet over 16 days. It was really amazing and humbling seeing how our skills evolve over the years, and how I was able to pull myself together in terrain and situations where I wouldn’t have been confident years prior. It gave me great pride to say that the First ever traverse of the American Alps was pulled off by a Telemark Skier and a Splitboarder, both natives of Washington state.