Pelton Peak, NW Gully

June 5, 2010

I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, nor for others - what no other man can never know ~Joseph Conrad

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason Hummel

Pelton Peak is surrounded by awesomeness: the 'S' Glacier, Sahale Arm, Spider, Formidable, Magic, and Buckner are just a few of the more drool-worthy sights but my poor vision can't see them well enough to make out exactly what it is I'm seeing. Nevertheless, snowy glaciers and pointy peaks line up front to back and side to side anywhere you look out here. You can't help but be seduced into their arms, hypnotized by their beauty.

Adam Roberts and Drew Tabke began the hike with me beyond Cascade River Road 's closed gate. We left with the intention of skiing Magic Mountain, but as looming peaks awakened to a new day’s warming temperatures that plan began to waffle. The rumbling snows breaking loose from lofty heights are a strong mountain-caffeine as well as a game changer! As our morning drowsiness escaped into cool-shadowed valley forests, so went our hopes, too. Bear in mind, we didn’t abandon our original plan; we still had to go and see, but conditions were not promising.

We reached Cascade Pass an hour later, put on sunglasses, SPF 30, and ripped our skins off skis for the descent to Pelton Basin and the Yawning Glacier, whose name is one of my all-time favorites. I’d skied all around it, but never actually on the glacier itself. Before leaving, we jumped snow banks to a stream shore to pull out the cool, crisp alpine draft even the most ardent beer lovers would find satisfying.


Still hoping to climb Magic Mountain Couloir, we battled steep snow beyond the point where skins and skis could take us. Knee-deep slush at a bench below the couloir was expected, but still resulted in hung shoulders and lots of staring around. It was about time we changed plans. All morning we’ve been ogling Pelton Peak’s NW Face. There was a lot going for it: less sun, nice line, steep, and a fantastic summit. The decision was made! We took a left and climbed to the base of the route.

Drew was smart and donned his crampons and axe for the climb. I didn’t do either, since gloppy snow in crampons would slow me down and my whippets gripped the slope well enough to suffice as a pseudo axe. The snow was so firm in places, it felt like rock climbing more than snow climbing. I’m not complaining; it’s a thrill to be hanging out high over valleys, clinging to an icy face with just enough purchase to carry you onward and upward, but I must admit that I was feeling a bit precarious and wished I had used the tools I’d carried. Nevertheless, I was confident and enjoyed making the climb harder than it needed to be.

There was softer snow toward the very top that was unstable. We were able to avoid the deeper sections, always staying within a few inches of the ice. Everything above would fracture and be sent flying down the mountain. However bad this may sound, it really wasn’t that scary. Once on a narrow ridge, we were safe to climb to the summit by staying near its crest line.

These castles-in-the-sky views were a thrill and caused me to visualize whimsical ways to visit them without the work and effort my more pedestrian efforts required. At first, I imagined flapping my arms so wildly and fantastically that I would be sent swooping past monolithic walls and high minarets of rock and ice that coat every peak in sight, but then I realized only sweat gets us humans to these places. It is what institutionalizes healthy habits, like staying in shape and eating right. Those behaviors are essential in continuing to climb, ski, hike, bike, and travel in whatever capacity through these wild and scenic lands as you are able. There is no substitute for hard work. That only happens in fantasies.

We all stood with our skis lined up on the summit, ski tips just peaking over the edge and our eyes staring between them. One at a time, we were careful to avoid any sloppy snow on the south side of the ridge before dropping to the north. Along an arête of snow, we each sped to the top of the NW Face.

The ski from top to bottom was on 45 degree terrain for the most part. It felt steeper due to the ice. Nevertheless, Drew and Adam shredded it like they were at the ski areas. I felt unworthy on my telemark skis. Ice is not where they excel. A few sidesteps here, lots of turns, a quiet break under a spectacularly algae-adorned, bright yellow-covered rock face provided a thanked-for safe zone to watch them continue most of the way to the bottom of the face. Awesome! My turn was slower, but no less exciting. At the bottom, the obligatory smiles and yells were made before lovely turns brought us down the Yawning Glacier to the bottom of Pelton Basin where a climb was needed to get back to Cascade Pass.

From Cascade Pass, we decided to climb another thousand feet for more turns. Skiers were coming down Sahale Arm where the swooshing of snow left brilliant, reflecting tracks behind. We felt that excitement across the valley and it stoked the furnaces and steamed our legs up to a point where we sighted a clean line to the road. Evidence of earlier avalanches was everywhere.

Back on the road, we stumbled like drunks too happy from a good night out. Our day had taken us down a line we didn’t expect on a mountain we didn’t plan to climb. This is exactly as it should be, though. The conditions decide what you do and don’t do. It’s best to listen and take advantage of whatever they offer, big or small and go home thrilled they let you into their kingdom. ~ jlh

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Jason Hummel