Post-Christmas Ski Tour in Stevens Pass
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
When it's raining it Seattle, it's snowing in the Cascades.
Santa, or Ullr, delivered the goods to the mountains over the holiday; maybe not quite as much as the 30"+ storm the Northeast had, but here in the PNW we didn't have the Christmas thaw to melt it all away. The cumulative storm total was somewhere in the 12-20" range (pre-Christmas) in the higher elevations, and relatively calm winds let the snow settle in, reducing overall avalanche risk and leaving me with no option but to get out to Stevens Pass.
I left for the mountain around 0920 on Sunday, a much later start than I wanted, but sometimes that's what happens. It turned out to be a good thing as route 2 had some time to warm up and any black ice/frost on the road had melted away by the time I was driving up. The temperature hovered right around freezing, with the sun peeking in and out of the fog stuck in the pass.
I was able to park across the street from Stevens Pass Resort, to access the Skyline Lake Trail, without a problem. The lot was about 3/4 full at 1115, which I found shocking for a holiday weekend. I suppose that is probably due to COVID and lift ticket restrictions put in place to promote safety, all of which are super important right now. My goal for the day was to get on to Heather Ridge, traverse to Sky Mountain, and take a look down the northern aspect toward Tye Lake and into that basin, eventually linking up with the Pacific Crest Trail to loop back around to the parking lot. I really wanted to look at it, however after touring up to Skyline Lake, the fog was simply too thick and ominous for me to comfortably explore the ridge line. I'd much prefer to get a clear look at it so I can get my bearings and have a solid idea where some landmarks are when exploring that zone; skiing it was not going to happen, no matter what, due to the late start. The ridge was goal 1 for the day and I wasn't stoked to be skipping that, but it was the best option. That's why AIARE has you prep three goals for the day; goal 1 is ideal conditions, goal 2 is good conditions, goal 3 is the extremely safe play. For today, goal 2 was to ski from the lake down, gather some more information in some areas along the trail and check on the snowpack, and then ask myself "two laps?", you know, in case things were going swimmingly.
Well, things went swimmingly.
Lap 1. The snow was simply incredibly. Like butter. Smooth and silky, not overly fluffy, just that perfect density for seriously fun skiing. I stuck the the skiers right, staying about 50m from the edge of my personal boundary lines. I found some neat little features and some sections that could be easily lapped if the snow was truly epic.
Good coverage for the early season, another 2' wouldn't hurt
Low hanging fog over the lake, the reason why I opted not to venture higher
Lap 2. I toured up to the radio towers instead of the lake because I wanted to scout the east aspect, but again, fog made that difficult. Being on this side I decided to ski the skiers left side of my personal boundary line and, well, I crossed over that line and got in a mildly uncomfortable situation in trees. These trees were "east-coast-trees". Tightly packed, lots of branches at eye level, not able to see very far. The area I was in was flat and only 10m from the trail, but I couldn't see the trail. I didn't fall or have any issues like that, however I was not entirely stoked with how close to fir trees I was getting, knowing that tree wells are a serious issue. Thankfully the snowpack, under the fresh 8", was solid enough and held me fine as I scooted my way out. The good news from that experience: gaining the knowledge that this small section of trees is not worth the effort to get in and out.
Once back on the trail, I skied down farther and cut slightly to the left again and I found myself on a slightly steeper slope, probably ~30-40 degrees. I knew the snow was stable from my first run, but still used this opportunity to run through a few quick snow safety observations. Look for signs of cracking, listen for whumphing, check for rollerballs, overhead hazards, concavities and convexities, and terrain traps. Ok all good, now the skiing. Ease onto the slope, look for signs of cracking again, watch your sluff, check for terrain traps, stop in a safe place, don't leave yourself exposed. If you think all of that is excessive for four turns, well, better safe than sorry. You don't learn avalanche safety through experience, you learn through preparation. And by the way, those four turns: awesome. Worth the entire day.
Lots of fresh track to be had
Slope angle for reference, the slightly steeper slope. My track is the middle-left track in this photo is the same track in the bottom-right on the above photo. Below this snowfield, the slope angle increases; opted to avoid that section and cut across back to the trail.
View downhill from the above two photos. Wasn't going to take chances today with it still being December and some rock, stump, and buried tree hazards still existing at lower elevations.
Another thing I learned is that I should probably have a short-day pack that I carry when I am doing shorter trips like this one. I carry a lot of gear everyday and I don't know if I need it everyday. Like, I probably could have left my snow saw in the car and been fine for this trip as I had no intentions on digging a pit. I'll be drafting a post on what I typically bring with me on a day like this just so you can get an idea of what I'm carrying. I've always had the "better to have it and not need it" mentality, so I likely won't take anything out of this pack anytime soon, but it may be something I do as I gain more experience in the backcountry and really hone in on the needs vs wants for a day out. As for all of you, I think it'd be neat for you to see what I carry with me and maybe it'll help you decide whether something is worth brining into the backcountry.
Anyways, be on the look out for that upcoming post and maybe a few more prints in the shop in the next few weeks.
It's looking like a lot of snow in the forecast for the new year. Winter '20-'21 is shaping up to be a good one! Stay tuned for more updates from the PNW.