The Snoqualmie Haute Route

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Martin Volken, Swiss mountain guide, owner of a Seattle ski shop, and the catalyst that brought this group together, is praying this damn alder disappears. He's worried that we'll rebel if the haute route he's promised (and which he hopes to guide in the future) becomes nothing but a slog down Misery Road.

The crew includes photographer and ski-mountaineering pioneer Carl Skoog, film star and ski guide Mike Hattrup, and me. We're all veterans of the great Northwest, however, and understand a tenet of skiing here: To reach the virgin high country, you gotta grapple with the green chastity belt.

We hold it together, and a few hours of alder-slapping torment transport us to snow line, where boards slide from backpack to snowpack. We shuffle upward on skinned skis, and as rain turns to snow near Upper Hardscrabble Lake, we ascend a treeless draw toward Big Snow Mountain. Avalanche slopes encircle us and an 1,800-foot granite wall towers above, but clouds obscure all this. By map and compass, we navigate to a notch east of the summit, where we drop the 40-pound packs and make a half-hour dash for the top.

"You're lucky," Hattrup tells Volken as we peer through clouds on the top, "Much more of that alder and we might have strung you up."

"Yeah, now you can thank me for the views," says Volken. In truth, the visibility inside a pillowcase would be an improvement. We lock down our bindings and, careful not to fly over a cornice, cut cautious turns back to the packs. But the descent is a novelty: It's not every day in June that you ski two inches of fresh snow.

The remainder of the day we wander a zigzagged route along a high ridge flanking the Snoqualmie River. Just before dark, we establish camp near the river. Setting up tents in the fading light, Volken points out the paradox of our solitude: "We're only 45 miles from Seattle, and we haven't seen a soul...not even tracks."

"Surprising," says Skoog. "With the brush, rain, clouds, and 12-hour approach, you'd expect the place to be overrun."

The Cascades are mountains of contradictions and surprises. Although they are, on average, a mere 6,000 to 8,000 feet high, the Cascades are the most heavily glaciated peaks in the lower 48. Though reviled for their rain, they receive more snow than any range on the continent. And while there are three million Washingtonians inhabiting the western toes of the North Cascades, it's easy to get away from every one of them. It's these contradictions that influenced the 34-year-old, Swiss-raised, American-married Volken to set up shop in Washington.

"This is what the Alps must've been like in the 1930s," says Volken as we boil water for a breakfast of oatmeal and (true to Seattle) gourmet coffee. "These days you must ski the North Face of the Eiger to do something new there...here there are scores of reasonable ski lines to pioneer." But these mountains are shy of both guides and pioneers. There are also no lifts or huts nearby, cell phones are worthless in the valleys, and skis have touched none of the flakes on the surrounding hills.

It's one of these "reasonable" lines that brought us together. By American standards, Volken's route is ambitious. It dissects the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, climbs several of the area's highest peaks, undercuts massive cliffs, descends steep pocket glaciers, and (other than the start and finish) remains near or above timberline. The route is longer, boasts more elevation gain, remains higher, and negotiates steeper slopes than others in this nook of the Cascades. Borrowing from his native land's most famous ski-mountaineering traverse, Volken nicknames it the Snoqualmie Haute Route.

The java does its job and raises us from our down cocoons. We leave camp with light packs for a blitz up 7,500-foot-high Mount Hinman, one of the monarchs of the neighborhood. After half an hour, we reach the head of a valley and wrestle with the complexity of the terrain. Skoog has visited this area before, and itincts tell him we've strayed. "Williams Lake is to the right," he insists.

We study the map, which doesn't seem to match his recollections. We overrule Skoog and bear left. "Okay, majority rules," he says, but his tone suggests the majority is lost. Ten minutes later, we find the lake right where the map says it should be and rediscover what all of us should already know: When memory and map disagree, forget memory.

From the lake, we home in on La Bohn Gap and, climbing toward it, crawl out of the clouds. We reach the gap, and the snowy mass of Hinman fills the horizon with Fujichrome possibility. Skoog's camera has been nothing but an anvil; now it starts devouring film. We snap on ski crampons and, taking slow, cautious steps, traverse above cliffs where a slide would launch us over a body-breaking drop. An hour and half later, we stand on a summit with views way too Alaskan for Washington. We lounge on the rocks, letting the sun scorch our winter-white skin and soften the slopes below.

In the warmth of late morning, we start carving turns on velvety corn snow. Minutes later, Volken's right ski blows off and tumbles down the slope without him. It's a mishap that would send me sprawling, but Volken makes a one-ski turn and intercepts the defector. "Check this out," he says, pointing to the binding still on his foot. He digs into his pack for oversized screws and epoxy putty. In 20 minutes, the wayward board is ski worthy again.

We're back to the tents by noon. Most would call the early-morning ascent and our corn-snow descent a perfect ski day. They would devote the slushy hours of afternoon to reading, lounging, and enjoying the scenery. But with the Duracell Swiss man doing the planning, we've budgeted three days for what should be a five-day trip, and we're slaves to our own schedule. We break camp, skin the skis, and trudge up a spectacular draw undercutting the black cliffs of Summit Chief Mountain. The walls are so sheer we practically sunburn our tonsils craning our necks to view their bulk.

From a col west of Summit Chief, we debate the next move. Our evening objective is the ice plateau of the Overcoat Glacier, a half mile away as the crow flies. Skoog suggests a strategy: "Let's conserve energy, carry the skis, and scramble the ridge over to the glacier." He points to an upward-slanting rock ridge that intersects the glacier without losing elevation. With a pack laden with camera gear, he has reason to conserve energy.

With aching quads and a boot grating my shin into raw meat, I like Skoog's thinking. Volken, however, has come to ski. He loves the kinetic rush of cranking turns and the mental challenge of engineering ingenious up-tracks through elaborate terrain. He suggests we enjoy the long, sunlit corn slopes below us before climbing up an S-shaped draw shadowed by cliffs of Yosemite proportion. "It's classic," he says. "That's the way a skier would go." And that's the way we go. I stuff a bandanna between boot and blisters and prepare to chant my misery mantra.

It's late by the time we actually execute the plan and reach the glacier's plateau. In dim light we pitch tents and start the laborious task of melting dinner water. An hour later my stew of beans and rice receives rave reviews. "Restaurant quality?" I ask, fishing for the limit of the compliment. "Here on a windy glacier, after 12 hours of skiing, it sure is," says Hattrup, punctuating the point with well-timed flatulence.

As I clean the pots in the postmeal darkness, a quarter moon hangs above the knife-edged silhouette of Chimney Rock, and a confetti of stars speckles a purple sky. There's not a man-made light in sight. The western view is altogether different: The horizon glows with the apocalyptic yellow-orange aurora of the megalopolis. Our perch emphasizes how ridiculously close disparate worlds can be.

It's hardly 8 a.m., and I've already violated a sacred law of mountain travel: Think for yourself. I'm standing on a millimeter of each ski edge on a 40-degree slope. A slip on the ice will send me on an unrecoverable slide over a cliff. It's a consequence from which there would be no walking away. I deride myself for following the lead of better skiers like Hattrup and Volken, and for not heeding the inner voice warning me to crampon down the slope. Packing away my pride, I sideslip to safer ground before letting the skis turn.

We drop into the sinkhole of Iceberg Lake, then climb up a draw beneath the sky-scraping towers of the Lemah Massif. With the remainder of our journey spread out before us, Volken announces, "I've been thinking."

We've come to recognize these words as a preamble to pain¿they signify that Volken has hatched an idea that will add hours of sweat to our day. Rather than dropping deep into Burnboot Creek as planned and making one long climb into the basin below Mount Thompson, Volken suggests we follow a higher line leading over Chikamin Peak.

It's a good decision. A few hours later we sit atop Chikamin Peak surrounded by a world of white slopes and black spires. We also lay tracks down 40-degree slopes of corn that cleave cleanly and are every bit as memorable as the powder shots of winter.

In the heat of mid afternoon, we traverse toward a small gap through which we'll make the final two-hour push to Snoqualmie Pass. Suddenly, the solar straw that broke the cornice's back sets the truck-sized blocks of ice on the ridge above into motion. Adrenaline surges, and unsure of where those blocks will stop, we sprint away from the runout zone. The avalanche stops short of us, but the mangled trees in the debris are sobering. We follow a conservative route to our gap, steering well clear of overhanging cornices.

Hours later, we make our final climb to a gap southeast of Red Mountain, where we stand on the border of two very different viewsheds. To the north are the mountains of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness with their bald summits and beards of low-lying old growth. Volken looks appreciatively over the route we've followed. There's a sense of incredulity that all this inhabits his backyard¿and that we have it to ourselves. "If these mountains were near a European city," he says, "they'd be littered with routes like this."

Hattrup stands on the ridge looking the other way, at the freeway below and at the handiwork of the chainsaw barbers who've butchered the forests beyond the road. Smiling, he seems immune to the ugliness. "Three words for you all," he says. "Burgers and beers?" asks Skoog. "Close enough."

We point the skis down for one final descent and, with the sun beating our faces, scribble sine waves on the wide-open Alpine slopes. Soon, trees scroll into view and we slalom around their spindly trunks. As the trees morph from midgets to monsters, we carve past their sun-dappled trunks with speed. We follow thin threads of snow right to road's edge, pop the skis, and step from winter into a beautiful spring day. One word captures it all. Ecstasy.

The Snoqualmie Haute Route: Photo Essay, Part One

The Snoqualmie Haute Route: Photo Essay, Part Two

The Snoqualmie Haute Route: Photo Essay, Going on Tour llimeter of each ski edge on a 40-degree slope. A slip on the ice will send me on an unrecoverable slide over a cliff. It's a consequence from which there would be no walking away. I deride myself for following the lead of better skiers like Hattrup and Volken, and for not heeding the inner voice warning me to crampon down the slope. Packing away my pride, I sideslip to safer ground before letting the skis turn.

We drop into the sinkhole of Iceberg Lake, then climb up a draw beneath the sky-scraping towers of the Lemah Massif. With the remainder of our journey spread out before us, Volken announces, "I've been thinking."

We've come to recognize these words as a preamble to pain¿they signify that Volken has hatched an idea that will add hours of sweat to our day. Rather than dropping deep into Burnboot Creek as planned and making one long climb into the basin below Mount Thompson, Volken suggests we follow a higher line leading over Chikamin Peak.

It's a good decision. A few hours later we sit atop Chikamin Peak surrounded by a world of white slopes and black spires. We also lay tracks down 40-degree slopes of corn that cleave cleanly and are every bit as memorable as the powder shots of winter.

In the heat of mid afternoon, we traverse toward a small gap through which we'll make the final two-hour push to Snoqualmie Pass. Suddenly, the solar straw that broke the cornice's back sets the truck-sized blocks of ice on the ridge above into motion. Adrenaline surges, and unsure of where those blocks will stop, we sprint away from the runout zone. The avalanche stops short of us, but the mangled trees in the debris are sobering. We follow a conservative route to our gap, steering well clear of overhanging cornices.

Hours later, we make our final climb to a gap southeast of Red Mountain, where we stand on the border of two very different viewsheds. To the north are the mountains of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness with their bald summits and beards of low-lying old growth. Volken looks appreciatively over the route we've followed. There's a sense of incredulity that all this inhabits his backyard¿and that we have it to ourselves. "If these mountains were near a European city," he says, "they'd be littered with routes like this."

Hattrup stands on the ridge looking the other way, at the freeway below and at the handiwork of the chainsaw barbers who've butchered the forests beyond the road. Smiling, he seems immune to the ugliness. "Three words for you all," he says. "Burgers and beers?" asks Skoog. "Close enough."

We point the skis down for one final descent and, with the sun beating our faces, scribble sine waves on the wide-open Alpine slopes. Soon, trees scroll into view and we slalom around their spindly trunks. As the trees morph from midgets to monsters, we carve past their sun-dappled trunks with speed. We follow thin threads of snow right to road's edge, pop the skis, and step from winter into a beautiful spring day. One word captures it all. Ecstasy.

The Snoqualmie Haute Route: Photo Essay, Part One

The Snoqualmie Haute Route: Photo Essay, Part Two

The Snoqualmie Haute Route: Photo Essay, Going on Tour