The Magic 'S' Loop

July 4, 2012

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason L. Hummel


Knock. Knock. My eyes blast open and my synapses fire like they are swimming in molasses. Why am I in the back of my car? What ungodly hour is it?

Then I remember.

A night’s migration had taken me to the Cascade Pass Trailhead along the narrow and winding Cascade River Road. As I entered North Cascades National Park, it was pitch black. At the same time the foliage thickened. So did the fog. Unable to see, my car crawled at two miles per hour. At one point I foolishly feared I had lost the way (can you even lose a road?). But when a car grew out of the mist, I knew I had made it to the trailhead and thankfully, in the process, hadn’t careened off the road.

Relieved that the drive was over, I was quickly met by Louie Dawson and his parents, Lou and Lisa. Louie was joining me the following morning for a ski tour. As for the elder Dawson, he is famous for being the first to finish skiing all the Colorado 14ers in 1991. But many know them all from their backcountry ski blog – Between tales we sip hot cocoa far past a reasonable bedtime.

It is then - at 5a.m. that I arose to knocks on my car. Through my foggy window I see Louie, remember where I am and how I arrived.

Nearby is a muddy Subaru that Louie and I suspect is Andy Traslin’s, but we are unsure. Looking in we both ration that it’s a nice day and anyone worth their ski-mountaineering salt can’t fault us for waking them early. Thankfully we didn’t have to find out. Practically jumping out of his seat, we see Andy’s face turn toward us.

We are now a party of three. On the agenda is the Magic ‘S’ Loop, appropriately named by Sky Sjue and Dan Helmstader in 2007. This tour, in a nutshell, goes from Cascade Pass to Cache Col to Art's Knoll to Hurry Up Peak’s Plan B Couloir to S Glacier to Yawning Glacier and back to Cascade Pass. In 2011 Ryan Lurie retraced their tracks on a solo endeavor. In his own words, “This has to be one of my all-time favorite tours and I can’t recommend it enough.”

With Traslin and Dawson, we push aside slide alder for 150-ft before entering continuous snowfields. You can also take the trail, but most people continue up the winter route until the snow becomes discontinuous. Meanwhile to our west, lowering fog retreats down the valley and muddled pinks are made out through the haze. Their gray tentacles lick the peak tops.

At Cascade Pass ( 5,392-ft), 1800 feet above the parking lot, popcorn clouds clutter the sky threatening to steal sunrays. Unencumbered by the clouds is the sweeping curve of Sahale Arm cupping Doubtful Lake. For me I picture the long snowy ridge over the azure orb of Doubtful Lake as an arm swaddling a baby.

My eyes return to my feet that follow boot top deep steps made by Louie and Andy. They lead to a high point that allows us to quickly traverse to the final climb to Cache Col. Somehow I manage to skin around the overhanging cornice, pounding my edges in and using my whippets to full effect on the icy under-layer of firn.

I never tire of the views from Cache Col: the snaking couloirs that appear to descend forever into the Middle Fork of the Cascade River, the ominous faces of Spider and Formidable, the goliath walls of Johannesburg and the distant peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse to the south - they all force me to surrender feelings of tiredness and replace my weariness with awe.

A quick descent on new snow and soon I am crossing Kool-Aid Lake before climbing again to the col near Art’s Knoll where we take a break. I see Louie and Andy staring at the fully revealed Spider Mountain. I can only guess they are dreaming of skiing it. In 2005 Sam Avaiusini and I had the same objective - the north face of Spider Mountain. That was my third attempt and again it was in terrible condition. As one of the worst drought years in a century, I wasn’t too surprised. What did come as a surprise was Plan B Couloir. Cleaving Hurry Up Peak in two this line was a consolation both Sam and I could live with. Seven years later, I am thrilled to be back on it again, if only to climb it as part of the Magic ‘S’ Loop.

In Plan B Couloir peaks are above, around and beneath. A gentle ridge intersects the couloir at the top. Clear views are had in all directions and once we stand on the summit after a short ten minute traverse, our excitement grows exponentially as we see the ‘S’ Glacier unroll before our eyes. It flows off the summit like a great waterfall of snow. Smooth, gorgeous, delectable and - perfect.

Andy races from the summit first. He skis into the face and is soon joined by Louie and me. We pick our way down several more turns until a rollover appears to continue slopping toward vertical. A few passed glances of concern and I find myself shuffling turns as far down the roll as I dared. My inspection isn’t good news. “We’re in the wrong place...the route is up and over there,” I indicate by pointing to another part of the mountain.

More climbing once again puts us on the summit ridge. Picture-perfect clouds send shadows dancing over the baby-skin snow. Although appearances are deceiving; the snow is isothermal slush and its temperament becomes more and more questionable as we turn into steeper and steeper terrain. We take it slow until confidence grows. When it does our skis set sight on the bottom and three thousand feet of ‘AWESOME’ travels by in minutes.

Trapper Lake is massive. The name as appropriate as a name can be. Locked in by Hurry Up, Trapper and Glory Mountains with no trails to its shores, few ever visit. At the base of the ‘S’ Glacier as we scurry around shrunds we make out the frozen waters of Trapper Lake. They envelope the tightly enclosed basin. Love while easily thrown around in the mountains, is for me something I can place on this area even more than most. I LOVE it. Love, love, love. It is amazing. Some places are just made more amazing for the fact that snow clings to every rock, ridge and summit. Summer fields would be too calm and serene. It would distract you from appreciating the convoluted geological nature of the area. But for the sky, every inch is a variance of black and white.

From the base of the ‘S’ Glacier I lead a traverse over to a snow slope that leads gradually toward Alteration Col, which resides between Pelton and Magic Peaks. Louie takes charge soon after and before we know it, we are looking back at Cascade Pass.

The ski from Alteration Col down the Yawning Glacier takes us to the headwaters of the Stehekin River. Our descent is made on the best snow of the trip. For Louie it is too tempting. He rides it all the way to the bottom. Andy and I soon follow suit.

After a nice break and cool water, we ascend to Cascade Pass. For fifteen minutes, I feel the cool wind and the rhythm of turns. Shadows are already crawling over our tracks as we walk up Cascade River Road in the blazing late day sun. Once back at the cars, Louie Dawson’s parents pull chairs out and we sit. With drinks in hand and food being served, I feel happy. Good days are common enough, but great days come with the whim of nature and our own moods.

And this was a great day.


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Jason Hummel