Columbia Peak Circumnavigation

January 18-20, 2013

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason L. Hummel

I ask myself too often, “Why do I climb to ski?” My inner passion for the mountains is a cure to short-term woes, but when the heavy pack bears down on me, the old injuries and pains return and I wonder still, “Why do I climb to ski?”

That inward reflection continues as cold, dank forest lights up and the predawn glow illuminates my ski partners Kyle Miller, Scott McAllister and Forrest Thorniley. Turning my attention to Scott, I thought about asking him how he does it. Older than me, he appears to have a drive that far exceeds what I had even in my 20’s. Where is his fear? Why hasn’t he detuned his crazier aspirations as he has aged? I thought about his recent wild adventures while boarding the soul-crushing steeps of Tipple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak in the eastern Cascade Mountains, half of which he did at night. Wise? Certainly not. But wisdom needs to be set aside at times to reach higher than you had in the past. Pushing it, well, that’s part of the learning process. That’s how you test your bounds, rattle the cage of the status quo so to speak.

The next three days of adventure would return me for a fifth time to the Monte Cristo’s, a small, but action packed range of peaks stuffed in between one end or another of the Mountain Loop Highway in central Washington State. In winter there is no easy access as the Index Galena Road we’ve been skinning up for the past three hours will attest. That was made more apparent when we reached our turnoff point. There a sign named the approach stream, “Troublesome Creek”. That caused me to smirk and wonder, what was troublesome? Was it the forthcoming approach up this trail-less valley or was it our merry band preparing to enter?

As we left the Index Galena Road up Troublesome Creek, the only trouble we had was the half buried logs, slapping branches and river skirting. I think we are all gluttons, because we were actually enjoying these wilderness amenities.

The trees thinned and the slopes steepened. As they did, we found it best to traverse toward Twin Lakes (4600’) earlier rather than later. As the sole skier, I made a skier-approved traverse that the snowboarders thought unkind. As the sole skier among three splitboarders and a fourth rallying solo in a nighttime bid to reach our camp, I giggled. I remembered the day when I took a good friend Justin Ashworth on a few adventures. He was the first splitboarder I ever took on a ski mountaineering trip. While not entirely his fault, he epic-ed so hard that we began calling him Justin Ass-worked. Times have changed though. Splitboarders gear has since improved in functionality. They can now charge the uphill and shred the downhill as well as any skier, icy traverses aside.

Sunset alpenglow washed Columbia Peaks SW Face. With my breath caught in my throat I gulped in air, trying to tackle my camera from it’s bag to take a photo before the golden light faded. Too much time had passed, so I sat in the calm wind and waited for the others. Kyle showed up first, so I joined him on our skin across the lower of the two Twin Lakes. We pitched camp among trees and settled in for the night on the shore of the higher one. In an attempt to capture the stars before bed, I took my camera onto the lake. There is always something special about standing on mere inches of ice over a span of water. The flat expanse makes me feel like I’m on a baseball field. While I fail to capture the night’s glory I enjoy the serenity of being far from anywhere. That’s exactly where I need to be most of the time. It’s actually the only time I’m honestly aware of where I am physically and mentally.

Light crosses paths with my tent and I know that we’ve slept in. I blame the cold. To get going early in the morning is never easy. To make up for lost time, we scramble to get our packs together and to come up with a plan that ends up being a ‘go and see’. Next to my tent I can see Ben Starkey. He had strolled in sometime around midnight.

Not much skiing has been done in the Monte Cristos. Only a few parties have ventured here. That is why coming upon another party was a surprise, even though we knew they’d be there. As it turns out I’d met most of them at one time or another. Their party of 4 had broken up into two groups. One was on the SW Face of Columbia, a line I’d tried to ski many years ago but was turned around by fog and terrible snow conditions. It had been skied the year before by Jim Dockery and party. It was exciting to take images of skiers on the face. My perspective was perfect.

The other two in the party we met while crossing the 76 Glacier. They had skied another line off of Columbia in search of good snow. They told us that they had marginally succeeded. It wasn’t long before they continued toward SW Face. They would ski the same line as well.

Our party needed to find something else. In a last ditch effort, we turned our focus to uncovering another line down the NW Face of Columbia. Many years ago I had skied a line down the face further west with Ryan Lurie. It was an amazing trip. So it was with apprehension that I reached the top of the face from a couloir on the opposite side. Dropping in without seeing the route is difficult for me. This is where Scott McAllister takes charge. For him there wasn’t even a pause. He was in his element and it was incredible to watch. Unlike me, he wasn’t dubious. He saw his line and after hemming and hawing among the rest of us, he decided to go it alone. Among the rest of us, it was decided to continue our traverse around Columbia Peak. As I was about to leave, Forrest Thorniley changed his mind and went for it. I watched and loved it. Sometimes it’s good to walk away.

My skis had felt weird throughout the day. It was then I noticed that my telemark binding had broken. It was still skiable, if only barely. More importantly, I was then very happy that I had turned away from descending the steep line, even if I felt diminished by turning away. I’d like to say it was my binding that made me not ski it, but honestly I just didn’t want too. The risk wasn’t worth the reward for me.

Continuing around the mountain, climbing another couloir and descending toward the Columbia Glacier via another pass, I found powder. It was awesome. There, too, was Kyle and Ben and far below being gobbled by the very same shadows of the line they had proudly descended was Scott and Forrest.

When we all joined forces again, we rested only shortly before rushing down the glacier to Blanca Lake. Traversing the shore, we began ascending. From high up, I could see the alpenglow once again covering the peaks, especially Kyes Peak. This time I didn’t have to rush. The day was over and progress was just a matter of pushing forward through the twilight hours and no hurrying will change that.

Beyond the final two passes, we watched a sunset explode over Mount Hubert. Every time I thought the sunset was as red as it would get, it would become even redder still. A sunset is always good tidings. Smiles are shared and life becomes more colorful than it was, even on the heels of the slate grey darkness it is hard to forget. Powder turns by headlamp down to Twin Lakes did a very good job of trying.

Dinner was served beneath the stars and sleep came quickly, at least for me. The others stayed up for hours by their snow cave.

Plans the following day to go ski other interesting lines was tabled, but snow conditions made it doubtful, not to mention the already long day ahead of us just to get back to our cars. Steep icy trees led to cliff skirting. My broken binding was terrible in the ice and mixed manky snow. I was barely making it down and not liking it the least bit. While the rest of the group down climbed through the cliffs, I traversed looking for another way down. I found it, but not without my reservations. The snow was deep and rotten. What appeared easy soon became less so. I came up against a cliff after negotiating several waterfalls and paused. I couldn’t jump it. The snow was so rotten that I was worried I’d fall into a moat. Climbing back out took me up waist to armpit deep rotten snow. Exhausted would be an understatement. Satisfaction of escaping it all was amazing, especially as I raced down the slope to find the others lounging in the valley, happily enjoying a snack. I joined them.

Our objective was full of avalanche debris and it was already too warm. With the strong inversion, it became cooler as we descended Troublesome Creek back to the Index-Galena Road. Much of the way I spent alone, as I needed to feel my skis race through the flat trees. At one point, happily exhausted, hair frozen, shirt soaked through, I stared upward through the tree branches. I didn’t think about why I climb to ski then. I didn’t think about the pain and old injuries. It wasn’t gone, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind either. Not even as I arrived at the confluence of Troublesome Creek and the Index-Galena Road at full speed. It was difficult to stop, to take my time, to eat or rest, but I did. And I realized that I like to climb to ski because it makes me happy. It is my escape, my frozen kingdom away from it all. While ski mountaineering holds a special place it my heart, the only thing that makes it different from the many other sports I enjoy is that it combines so many skills into one, each challenging me continuously and never making any of it easy. Maybe that’s what Scott loves, too, taking that skill and casting it like he did against the slopes of Dragontail Peak or here on Columbia Peak. Maybe it’s the same for all of us?

>>>Previous Adventure: Paria Canyon Adventure


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Jason Hummel