Paradise to Crystal Mountain Traverse

February 4-6, 2012


PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason L. Hummel


Day One: Paradise to Whitman Crest

Seeing the sun is just about the best thing in the world. When there’s been rain for weeks, any Northwest native will know what I mean; it’s the proverbial drug of choice and in early February we had five mind-bending days of it. That’s why I shrugged aside my recent flu. I was betting an overdose of sun would be the best recovery medicine I could hope for. It was. Better still was the added thrill of completing a traverse Kyle and I have been talking about for years. This traverse would take us from Paradise to Crystal Mountain, up and down 24 miles and 14000 vertical feet and through some of the finer corners of Mount Rainier National Park in the dead of winter.

The familiar drive to Mount Rainier always fills me with Nostalgia. So many days have been spent here, adding up to nearly every winter weekend of my childhood. Because of that past, I can’t help but daydream. My friend Hannah can’t help but daydream, too. I was able to convince her to join Kyle and me on the drive to Paradise. Her plan was to make her 50th summit of Mount Rainier. The best part was that when she was done climbing she could drive my car back to Tacoma, since neither Kyle nor I would be coming back to Paradise. Of course, I wasn’t sure how I’d get back home when I arrived at Crystal Mountain, but that was a problem for another day.

Only a few minutes out of the parking lot, on the Reflection Lakes road, I am gazing up at the Tatoosh Range, taking in the pretty scenery. It is then, with skins on for the descent to the bridge that Kyle suddenly stops to see if I’m behind him. In that instant, I crash headlong into his back, becoming a pile of legs and arms at the base of his splitboard skis. Embarrassed and in pain, crumpled on the ground, I am worried that I really hurt myself. It was such an inelegant fall that I couldn’t believe that it had even occurred, let alone that my slow speed collision could have actually caused bodily damage. Swinging my arm around after I got up, I felt bruised, but otherwise fine except for the humiliation, which of course, I am happy to share with everyone now that I can laugh about it.

Our way forward went smoother after that. We made quick work of Mazama Ridge and arrived at Cowlitz Rocks to see two skiers far below us on the Cowlitz Glacier. They would be the last people we’d see and as it turns out, I knew who they were! Some small talk quickly ended with goodbyes from us and good lucks from them. Since we hadn’t begun until early afternoon, we were on a race against dusk.

Snaking our way around crumbling rock ridges, whose framework around the moon kept our eyes busy, Kyle and I surmounted Whitman Crest long before dark. A platform was dug, our tent was pitched and dinner was served. With clear views of Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma, we were expecting a lightshow that evening. It wasn’t to be. The muted colors hinted at what was happening further around the mountain. We were disappointed, but only until it was dark enough for the moon to capture our attention. Bursting in brilliant light, I was quite literally, moonstruck. Some nights the moon just grabs at you, appearing so much bigger and brighter than normal. On this night I wanted to stay out forever, to be like a rock on the ridge, to bask in the moon rays, but desires to sleep and to warm up overrode my fascination.

Day Two: Whitman Crest to Governor's Ridge

It was for the dawn that I rose early. The chill air still lingered in the ground and like a goblin it came out to steal what warmth I could muster. With a shiver and a smile, I knew that all the suffering would be worth it. There are few moments that are more matter-of-fact, more fragrant and more powerful than that very instant the sun rises. Right then, as I waited, a golden hue wrapped itself around the horizon and with my eyes glued open, I watched the yellow orb of the sun shake loose from the other side of the Earth and explode sunrays over valleys and mountains – and me.

The day had awakened and what a gorgeous day it would be.

Leaving our camping spot was made all the more difficult for the fact that being there had been so restful and beautiful. It was made easier when thoughts of descending down the Fryingpan Glacier were turned over in my head. Skis gliding down to the bottom of another climb that will take me to another descent, none repeated and passed over again is the reason I love to travel from one point to another. Seeing something new everyday can’t become old to me. In that way I am spoiled.

Our descent lived up to expectation and through giant shadows our ascent up Banshee Peak did as well. Dozens of small birds blew through a pass that lead to a gentle ridge and the summit of the peak. While there, I looked back to see that those shadows from earlier had gobbled up our tracks.

Hidden between folds of rock a sliver of snow would bring us down to the base of another climb. Kyle continued on to the summit on the behest of me. Out on a point, I photographed him overlooking the way ahead. Afterward our skis slipped into that couloir and we skied it all the way to the bottom.

Now beneath Cowlitz Chimney’s, another quick transition and small descent followed by another climb, put us atop a wide couloir, protected by a cornice. Through a weakness, I dropped in and surprisingly came upon 4-6 inches of recycled powder. I was thrilled and beckoned Kyle to join me. We both continued to the bottom in a flurry of turns, knowing that the reward was just what we had come to accept if the mountains were kind enough to give. As we have come to expect far too often, they give and give and ask nothing in return.

On Owyhigh lakes the shadows and hoar frost captured my attention. The next day they would keep me for a time, but right then I was in a hurry to catch Kyle who was in search of water. He found it. I laughed when he asked, “Do you think it is okay to drink?” On the bottom was a quarter inch of sand. I told him I didn’t know, but I had thought that it would be fine. I spared him some of my kool-aid and he drank it with no complaints. Who needs morning cereal to get their daily minerals and vitamins? Not Mr. Kyle Miller.

Atop Governor’s Ridge Kyle began cutting another platform for our camp. After a few moments, I joined him in the excavation. He had found a fine place that would offer spectacular views come morning. We went to bed to calm winds and starry skies.

Day Three: Governor's Ridge to Crystal Mountain Ski Area

Taking my fully loaded pack from our snow pit a few hours after dawn, Kyle and I skied off Governor’s Ridge to the trees below. Following steam beds and glades, we eventually arrived at a flat area below a pass. Feathers of hoar frost and early light made for a photographer's playground. I began taking images and before I knew it, Kyle was gone, halfway to the pass. Scurrying, I caught him near the top.

The next descent puts us at Cayuse Pass. Even with a road here, we are far from anywhere. For most of the year it remains snow covered and closed to cars. It isn’t until late spring that plows clear the highway and reopen it to traffic. For now it is open to us and our skis. We cut a track down the middle of the road for half a mile before taking a left from it into old growth trees with their beards of moss and wrinkled bark.

After exchanging wisdom with the forest, Kyle and I found ourselves atop the incorrect ridge, but not so far off from our intended route that a quick descent and climb wouldn’t put us where we needed to be.

By the time we arrived at the shores of Deadwood Lakes, the weather appeared to be changing. Winds that had begun only as gusts were soon enough to muffle our conversation. While waiting for Kyle at a pass, I soon realized that my wait had been much too long and that my holler at him during my descent hadn’t been understood. He had descended ahead of me instead of meeting at the pass. No tracks were visible, so I had stalled in case of equipment trouble. I soon found out why no tracks were visible, the snow was rock hard and the worst conditions we found during the entire trip. I discovered his tracks in the lower forest and hurried to catch him.

Rejoining Kyle an hour later, I took out food and water while he continued. This was to be our last climb. Tracks to either side of me from other skiers were plenty of evidence that we were indeed close to civilization. A red diamond on a tree fueled my legs for that last switchback.

Thinking that I was done with skiing as I cruised down the cat track was dead wrong. Kyle led me directly into the lift line on the Forest Queen chair five minutes before closing. He wanted to get one more run. “Isn’t this great,” he insisted, selling it to me with his best grin. It was his plan the entire time and it was his reason for rushing. We couldn’t have ended our trip any better.

At my house, hours after hitching a ride back home, I arrived to the city. So far away from snow, I walked over the threshold with my ski boots and pack still on. “Isn’t adventure grand,” I had thought aloud. Even now, weeks later, as I finish writing this story, there are raindrops dancing on tree branches and blades of grass. While love is a strong word, I really do LOVE the sound of rain, but only because I take full advantage of the sunny weather when it is here. If there were sunny days every day, I’d soon be spoiled and perhaps I wouldn’t fully appreciate my days spent on trips like the traverse from Paradise to Crystal Mountain. After being sick, the mountains always seem to heal me and not just from illness, but any of life’s challenges. They also remind me that life is great.~~~~~~~

>>>Previous Adventure: Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit

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Sincerely,

Jason Hummel