I come slowly awake, peeking under the jacket covering my head from the beating sun. Stretching into the distance around me are the ragged North Cascade Mountains. Immediately past my feet drops the steep snow of the North Face of Mt. Buckner, with the North Couloir just to the right, and the beautiful SW Face behind me — three enticing ski lines, ripe for the taking. As I gather my gear, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing with my afternoon.
Once again the good weather had lined up with the weekend. It was decided to head up to Cascade River Road with Ryan Lurie and Dan Helmstadter. I’d only skied with Ryan twice, and had only met Dan once, and was excited to get out skiing with them. Both have a ton of experience mountaineering in the North Cascades and I’m always looking for mentors. We made plans to ski the north face of Mt. Buckner, a classic steep ski route, and then cross the Boston Glacier and climb the Northwest Ridge of Mt. Forbidden, a classic alpine rock climb. Ambitious to say the least, we brought rock shoes and climbing gear, and prepared for a brutally hard day. I was excited, as I’ve been wanting to climb Mt. Forbidden, of the famous Torment-Forbidden traverse, ever since I moved to Washington.
We left the parking lot at about 4:00 in the afternoon, and headed up the trail towards Cascade Pass, with beautiful Mt. Johannesburg towering above us. We made it to camp at dark, made a quick dinner, and went to bed.
Much to our dismay the alarm went off at two hours after midnight. Funny how things you plan with intention can feel so painful. Bearing up, we pack our rucksacks and head up toward Sahale Peak.
I am not good at getting up early, however I love skinning or climbing before the sun comes up. There is nothing quite like skinning along starlit snow, wrapped in the world illuminated by your headlamp. We passed a few other climber’s tents, the closest we would get to other people all day. The sky lightened as we skirted around the top of Sahale, and headed toward Boston Peak.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise as we walked along the ridge toward Boston Peak. I had read about some tricky 3rd class scrambling to get over Boston, and true to reports we encountered an exposed mass of steep choss — the infamous “Beckey 3rd class.” We eventually found an easier route up the ridge towards the summit of Boston, but that quickly became an exposed, loose traverse. We carefully made our way across and reached the upper slopes of the impressive Boston Glacier.
We skied down the glacier to the base of Buckner and dropped off our rock gear along the way, planning on grabbing it on the way to Forbidden. We reached the face just as the sun was beginning to hit the top. We were able to avoid many of the crevasses on the lower face, and even found some running water half way up. The climb was beautiful, with gorgeous views and hard snow.
We reached the summit at about 11:00, and the sun still hadn’t touched most of the snow we planned to ski. We realized that we had two choices, either ski the face in firm and possibly dangerous conditions, and then climb Forbidden, or give up on Forbidden and wait for the face to soften. We opted for the wait (which conveniently allowed us an hour and a half for a summit nap.)
The sun had warmed the face, and we started down. The corn was perfect and the backcountry skiing fun. We dropped the North Face, and then had to head up the glacier to retrieve our gear. The Boston Glacier is viciously crevassed, with cracks randomly scattered across the ice. We carefully made our way towards our gear, and headed back to the base of Buckner.
We headed up the face a second time, punching in a little more. I was feeling a little tired but we made it to the top quickly, and decided to head down the North Couloir.
The North Couloir is just to skier’s right of the face, and we had looked down it as we hiked up. Ryan decided to hang out on top, and Dan and I skied the chute. It was a nice backcountry skiing run, with added spice of skiing above the gaping bergschrund. We stopped directly above the schrund and headed back up. I was feeling pretty tired, so Dan graciously broke trail the entire way, and we made it up to the top in no time. Third time on top of Buckner for the day!
We started off the Southwest Face, heading toward one last climb and then back to camp. The face was a little warm, but still offered fun turns. The climb back up Sahale arm went quicker than expected, although it was still grueling. We packed up camp and skied toward Cascade Pass.
We were able to make turns all the way to Cascade Pass, and then decided to try to ski down patchy snow all the way to the car, avoiding the nearly infinite series of low angled switchbacks (as in, who built that thing!?). We explored several fingers of snow in the waning light, and decided on one that looked promising. As I skied down it, I thought I saw continuous snow to the bottom, so I motioned for Ryan and Dan to follow. We made it almost to the valley bottom, and encountered a hidden waterfall cliff. We considered rappelling, but it would have been iffy, so we opted to don crampons and climb back up what we just skied. It was disheartening to get so close to the car and have to turn around, but the traverse back to the summer trail went quickly, and soon my headlamp illuminated mud and footprints. I quickly lost count of the amount of the torturous switchbacks, as the path grudgingly made its way down the side of the valley. We reached the car a little past midnight, making for a 21 hour day.
I was envious of Dan’s camper van while driving back to Marblemount, as I made it for barely another hour before falling asleep in the back of my car. I snoozed for a few hours and then then forced myself to get going again so I wouldn’t be too late to work. We didn’t accomplish our original goal, but more than made up for it by skiing three awesome routes on Buckner, making it an epic anyways.
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.