Snoqualmie Circuit
January 13-14, 2007

I have seen the sunset, stained with mystic
Illumine the rolling waves with long purple forms,
like actors in ancient plays.

~Arthur Rimbaud

Photos and story by Jason

The weather forecast was too nice to sit and dream. I had to experience!!! Even though I was sick, I couldn't help but plan a trip. After many ideas lived then died - some due to access and others due to low level snow, I finally became set on the idea of going out to Chikamin and Lemah mountains. My summer wanderings in the area left me excited. I wanted to see what winter had to offer as Martin Volken's spring photos in his book BACKCOUNTRY SKIING: Snoqualmie Pass, hinted; there were peaks that begged to be visited. On an early Saturday morning Casey Ruff and I left with high hopes. Our day would begin in Commonweath Basin under brightening skies, sunny except for a few lingering clouds. The day would end disappointedly, but we didn't know that then.

Casey did a good job leading the way up the Basin. It wasn't long before we passed the last tracks, and began forging our own beyond Red Mountain. Our pace slowed considerably as dust on crust made skinning hard, and crust too weak to hold our weight made hiking impossibly slow. Still, our hopes were high. We had lots of time. Then came the Kendal Catwalk. Casey and I began this trip in the spirit of adventure. However masochist, we left Volken's description, although we did read. With maps and route finding skills, we expected to tackle challenges as they came along. What we didn't expect was to be stymied by our first one.

As we reached the ridge top, we traversed over until we came to the Kendal Catwalk. There is a fair amount of exposure here, and the trail was buried. I tied to ski it, Casey tried to climb it. I then tried to ski it once more, and backed off telling Casey that it was not good. He tried once more, and felt after he was back that it was the most precarious he had ever been. Casey is a very good skier. The reason it was so bad was because of snow conditions. Had we had a rope with a few nuts, screws, we would've ski belayed this section. It isn't very long. Feeling very disappointed we tried to look for other alternatives. None looked good. After looking at the maps we saw that if we climbed up the opposite side of the ridge we should be able to bypass the Kendal Catwalk. Our time for pushing on into unknown territory had passed. Snow, wind and clouds had come in, and a good camp on the catwalk itself too hard to leave for the unfamiliar. We pitched our tent and crossed our fingers for better luck the next day. It wasn't too be.

Morning woke with clouds having abandoned the sky. A very surreal feel; the cold chill seemingly sharpening the landscape and heavens. With camera in hand I tried my best to capture the memory. At least well enough before my fingers progressed from dull pain to no feeling at all. With the day so nice, we decided to pack our gear, and head for Chikamin. We figured we'd at least be able to summit this, and could accept it as a consolation prize.

The climbing around the Kendal Catwalk was steep, although it didn't have to be, as we took the most direct route. Once on the ridge top we were happy to see the corresponding ridge lines and peaks leading to Chikamin Ridge. It seemed so easy from there, and the amazing powder left us full of SPIRIT. I told Casey on this trip that my body is ran on spirit. Once I reach the high country I am re-energized with excitement and zeal. I was then as full of spirit as I'd be on this trip. From then on it was finite, with no refills.

We cruised the champaign fields and traversed the ridge, following the lay of the land. As we came to a place in the ridge that fell to a lake, we took a high traverse. This cost us a lot of time, and I would not advise this in winter. Going to the lake would've saved us a lot of time. The traverse was risky in the icy snow, and was not fun. In corn snow it would be better. At worst you could hike it, but the dust on crust didn't allow for skinning and wasn't strong enough for booting. We were left to sidestep across. Eventually we made it to the other side, but climbed up too early and found cliffs instead of an easy traverse. We skied back down around a buttress before booting up better snow to a pass. Above us was Alaska Mountain, only a short way. We tried to traverse the peak again but found steep cliffs. This time we decided to turn around instead of climbing over, and ski to Gold Creek Valley. We didn't want to go back the way we had come. We were betting on a ride from Hyak and, anyhow, sights of Alta Mountain, and a sweet couloir now seemed like a more reasonable consolation prize than Chikamin Peak now did. We skied down wet sloughing snow back to Alaska lake and from there to the valley bottom.

We eventually reached the base of Alta. It was two thirty. We dumped all of our gear, and planned on climbing up the couloir to see if the snow was worthy of spending another night and climbing in the morning. We crossed the creek, managing not to fall in, and climbed the left side of the couloir, bypassing a steeper section. We booted up about 1500-ft before deciding that the dust on crust wasn't worth the trouble. When we returned to our gear we quickly packed, knowing full well that we'd be making night-march out to the road. It would take us another 6 hours to skate ski, hike, and wind our way around and along the creek to finally get back to civilization. When we saw cabins we thought that we were done, but at night the spider web of ski trails snowmobile tracks didn't make choosing the most direct route easy. Since nothing had been easy on this trip, we of course took the scenic route. When I reached the road and saw cars, I thought, "Yes, I am finally done," but no. We had to skate ski all of the way to the freeway on ramp where we dumped our gear. Casey flagged down a car, which turned out to be a state trooper. He was happy to give Casey a ride back to our car.

In the end, I was happy to see new terrain. I wasn't so happy to put so much work in for so little of a return, but this time of year all bets are off. You go, you see, and you return better prepared for next time. Even then, maybe springs your best bet. Better yet, go in Gold Creek. The valley is safe, and you aren't threatened by multiple aspects where snow continually changes nature.

I still have a little SPIRIT left, so maybe I'll tackle this area again this winter, but for now, I'm going to get some ice cream, and try and recover some of my dignity.


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