May 16, 2012 | Posted in:Snowboarding

Disclaimer: This is going to be a long post. But, I think the highs and the lows of this trip warrant delving into the full details of what transpired.

I haven’t spent much time in the North Cascades. In fact, until recently I had never even been on highway 20. I knew I was missing out on something spectacular, but I wasn’t sure just how much. I simply hadn’t had an opportunity to explore any of the abundant mountains that the North Cascades have to offer. So, when I received an email from someone from Turns-All-Year who wanted to plan a trip up hwy 20 once the road was cleared, I immediately said yes.

Over the next week or so, we anxiously watched as the road was cleared, and hammered out the details of the trip. Our plan was to head up Washington Pass, and ski around Snowy Lakes and Golden Horn. The plan was to leave Friday afternoon and skin in as far as we could in the evening. Saturday we would be able to set up camp near the lakes and take laps on the horn. We would stay until Sunday, when we would pack up camp and make the trek back to the car.

That was the plan. The weather was in full cooperation, without a cloud in the sky and hwy 20 opened, as expected, the day before our trip. The funny thing about planning trips with people from an online forum – it can be a gamble. Everyone has different ability levels, experiences, and expectations. So far I have been lucky. I have had the opportunity to ride with some awesome people. This weekend, well, you can’t win them all. We were going into the trip with the attitude of nobody is in a hurry and it is okay if you are a little slow. I was starting to grasp what that meant when we met up in Sedro Woolley. That being said, I still had an amazing weekend and got to camp in one of the most spectacular locations of my life.

We started our hike in around 5:30 from a pullout at Swamp Creek. After a couple hundred feet of climbing, we were well in the thick of the woods, winding up and down, zigzagging between trees wherever we could find a clearing (and sometimes just squeezing through when we couldn’t). It was slow going. Not particularly difficult though, well at least for two of us. We were still making fairly good time. We made it across Swamp Creek and had a decision to make. We could either stop for the evening and set up camp, or we could climb up to the ridge between Mount Hardy and Knoll before the Snowy Lakes and Tower Mountain. It was a little past 7 in the evening and we were feeling pretty good. So far the tour had been pretty mellow and we felt confident in our ability to press on. There was a slight miscommunication about how much elevation was left between us and the saddle (yes, 1800ft is considerably more that 1000ft), and one individual who, I was beginning to realize, had a bad habit of not knowing her own limitations.

The tour took an interesting turn once we start the climb up to the saddle. We had to cross a number of big slide paths, the kind that only rip out every 20 years or so, taking everything down with them. That meant navigating through a bunch of new-growth forest. The fun thing about new-growth is that everything is packed together to the point that navigating through was incredibly slow going. We had started up the slope, so along with tight trees, we were actually gaining elevation fairly quickly. Once dusk hit we began to regret our decision to push on. However, we were now committed and all we could do was make the best of it. The one upside was dusk brought shade and cooler weather. The snow started to harden to the point that we decided to switch to a bootpack. We were still about 1200ft from the saddle and it was starting to get dark. The one upshot was the view of Porcupine Peak and Cutthroat Pass at sunset was something I won’t soon forget.

I did however have to put the view out of my mind for the immediate future so that we could focus on making it to the top. Around 9:30, we stopped to pull out headlamps and grab a quick bite to eat. It was around this point when it hit me. We had crossed over the line from adventure to fuck, this is sketchy. To clarify, I wasn’t particularly worried about myself. Sure it was dark and we were booting up a steep face, but I know my abilities and I was comfortable with my ability to make it to the top. It was the girl who I was keeping a foot in front of me, watching every step she took to make sure it was in the bootpack, preparing to catch her if she accidentally stepped wrong or shifted her weight too far back. It is by no means an ideal situation.

To everyone’s credit, we made it up to the saddle. At 10:40pm no less. We got to work setting up camp under the stars. Once our tents were set up and we had settled in, I took the opportunity to take in where we were. We were camping at 6600ft in the heart of the North Cascades. Was it worth it? I like to think so, though I would not make the same decision again.

Everything is so spectacular on such a grand scale. No picture or video will do it’s majestic beauty justice. I don’t know if I can come up with words to describe the sheer beauty of where we were. All I know is that when I was standing on that ridge, gazing out at the surrounding mountains illuminated purely by the thousands of stars that filled the clear night sky, I had a burning desire to be able to share that moment with someone special. I have no idea how long I stood out there, but I will hold on to that timeless moment for as long as I can. 

I finally retreated to our tent (Sharing tents with strangers is fun!). When I woke up in the morning, the sun was out and I had a peaceful morning looking around and taking in the spectacular views. Eventually we boiled some water, ate breakfast and got ready for what I imagined was going to be a spectacular day of riding. Golden Horn, our original destination was up over this little 500ft knoll, and a bit of a tour out along a ridge, skirting past Snowy Lakes. I was fresh and ready to go. I broke trail up the knoll, not really looking back or stopping to take a break. The Knoll was perfectly situated in the mountains such that it offered a breathtaking panoramic view. Thankfully I had about a half hour to sit and take pictures while I waited for the rest of our crew to finish the hike (I ended up hiking down to them and then back up, setting in a bootpack up the last 50 feet). Here’s a couple of pictures from the knoll, that hopefully give a sense of the view.

Once we were all at the top, it was decision time. Looking out at the Horn, it was still a decent tour and would make for a long day for some of us. The girl in our group decided it was in her best interest to ski back down the knoll to our camp, and then the two of us could continue on. Unfortunately, as soon as she left, I remembered that she had on my goggles, due to losing her sunglasses on the hike in the day before. I was not about to ride the horn without my goggles. The other guy wasn’t in a hurry and did not object when I asked if I could ride down and grab them from her (I made in back in a half hour). It was actually a blessing in disguise. The snow on the knoll was fantastic, and while 500ft isn’t much, it was worth it. So I grabbed my goggles and headed back up. 
When I got to the top (again) we decided to alter the plan. Matt was feeling pretty tired and not particularly inclined to make the trek out to the horn. Also, we decided it was in our best interest to call the trip a day early. We still had to navigate down the face we had booted up the night before and none of us wanted to do it in the morning when it was going to be hard as ice. New Plan.

Matt would chill on the knoll, while I hiked up Mount Hardy. There was a fun looking line right off of the ridge that was easily viewable from our camp and the knoll, and we both felt comfortable in me hiking it alone. The snow was feeling stable and I would be in view the whole time. So, I took off down the knoll again (another fantastic run) and began the tour up Mount Hardy. I am not going to lie, it was a little further away than I was expecting. The lure of the wide-open face and fresh snow was enough to drive me on. 

Again, the view from the top was spectacular (surprised?). I didn’t stay long to enjoy it though because we were now on a schedule and none of us wanted to have to pull out our headlamps again on the way out. So, I strapped on my board and proceeded to have the single best run on my life out in the backcountry. The snow was a nice spring corn that is a blast to turn on. The entire face was open and completely smooth. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. 

By the time I made it back to camp, the others had started to pack up. I was a little sad to be leaving so soon, but at the same time grateful to be getting back. We still had one last adventure we had to deal with. The ride out was by no means straightforward. The face we climbed the night before was littered with tight trees and was fairly steep. On top of that, we still had a couple miles of skinning back to the car after that. I don’t need to get in to the details here, but it was a long process getting out. One that involved pulling others out of numerous tree wells and more or less teaching someone how to ski wet snow with a pack on (they still need lots of practice). We were all thrilled when we finally made it to the car. 

This trip was amazing. Sure it had its ups and downs, but that is part of the adventure. It was definitely a learning experience but totally worth it. 

The best part is, thanks to getting back a day early, I was able to go on another tour Sunday…

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