The Isolation Traverse

June 4-10 , 2011

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason L. Hummel

"Silence is not without noise. It is not without interruption. It is state of mind that is found in Isolation." J.L.H.

Day One: Cascade River Road to Eldorado

Isolation? The name inspires me. I excel at being away from, well, everything. So when a name like the 'Isolation Traverse' is thrown around for a week-long ski adventure, I'm as happy as my feet are when said week-long ski adventure is over and the boots come off. Besides, having my little brother Jessy along and my two good friends, Adam and Tom, is ingredients enough for an adventure in the making. In fact here is an awesome ski adventure recipe:

Set the oven to 90 degrees and lather with sunscreen. Carry a heavy pack and skin until dusk. For best results, flavor with a sunset and/or rise. Let chill overnight. Before serving the next day, melt the corn snow topping to about an inch to three inches deep. Garnish with top ramen and/or dried potatoes. The optional summit view is especially flavorful.

Granted ski mountaineering is work. I know that. It's just that every time I put a pack on at the trail head, I am somehow just coming to this conclusion. "Damn, this is heavy," I always bemoan. Beginning the Isolation Traverse at the Eldorado Trail head was no different. "What am I carrying...what can I get rid of," I drill my brother Jessy. I think about that extra coat and about ditching it. How much weight is it really? Not much. My remedy is to marry my sunscreen to a smaller bottle. Yeah, that'll help.

Today we are heading up to Eldorado Peak and plan to spend an extra day going over to Primus and Austera after climbing and skiing Eldorado. Two thousand feet above the parking lot, I see familiar ranger attire after a nice break. It is then I realize that I hadn't gotten a permit. When they catch up, "I'm sorry," or "It slipped my mind," didn't fly. The Rangers lay down the law, "You need to go get a permit." This sounds simple, I know. But once you've gone forward, it is hard to go backward. That is why heading down two thousand feet and then driving to Marblemount and returning didn't sit well with any of us. It's our mistake, well, mostly mine. Too often I see no one in the mountains and I forget about rules. There are reasons for them and reminders are good. The more painful, the easier they stick. While Jessy and Adam go on, Tom and I head back for the car and town. "Ice cream," we promise ourselves. One last taste of civilization before we return to the mountains will re-energize us, right? The milkshake I enjoyed came pretty damn close to making this entire exercise-in-stupidity worth it.

Three to four hours later with the joy of ice cream wore off, we return to our stashed gear, permit in hand. I feel legit now. Shrugging my pack on, we scurry a few hundred feet over Sibley Creek Pass to the Eldorado Glacier. There, while the sun casts its last arrows and dips beneath the horizon, we skin up through the pink-skinned slopes. Half our time is spent looking left where Hidden Lake Peaks steals the show and the other half is spent looking ahead at Eldorado Peaks distinct east ridge.

Only dim light smears the slopes as Tom and I reach a high shoulder of Eldorado Peak. Spotting Adam and Jessy, who had set up camp, a burst of energy propels us that last fifteen minutes to camp.

The stars over the North Cascades are a treat. Eating dinner, I couldn't help pausing to view them.

Day Two: East Ridge of Eldorado and Misc. Slopes

Morning rolls over from night, blue sky and sunlight gobble up the darkness like Adam does his breakfast, twice as big as anyone else's, but hardly dinting his supply, which he finishes as the snow begins to soften.

We start our morning by climbing to the top of Eldorado Peak. From it's summit, not more than an hour later, I stare at the way ahead. "Isolation," I remember, "is out there". Eldorado is not known for it's peace and quiet, at least in June. There are several groups camping and climbing on the mountain.

I chomp at the bit to continue on, but with a little effort the crowds are left behind.

For the remainder of the day we ski lines off the upper McAllister Glacier. Adam takes the most challenging route, skiing several hundred feet of a face that makes my mouth dry when watching him descend. He certainly had his wheaties that morning that's for sure. At one point he expectantly cuts a massive wet slide that smashes down the entire face, eventually coming to rest on the McAllister Glacier. Still at the top of the slide, Adam perches on the route with icy turns below. I'm sure his heart is pounding because ours sure were. Even though our wet slide management sensors were already shifted into 'high alert', we made sure to keep them there into the foreseeable future.

After our adventures around McAllister Glacier, we climb Eldorado again. Double the fun for twice the work! We climb it a third time for good measure and end our day with dinner and mountain views, a game of Gin Rummy and lemonade.

Now that's what spring skiing in the Northwest is all about!

Day Three: Eldorado To Backbone Ridge

The next morning with our full overnight packs, we climb up the Inspiration Glacier. From there awe-inspiring three hundred and sixty degree views face us. They are breath-grabbing. They are soul slobbering. The bounty of the McAllister Glacier and the surrounding peaks highlight the appeal of this traverse. It is flagrant and needs no apologies; this place is full of alpine-awesomeness.

On our climb to the saddle between Dorado and Marble Needles, we are betting on a potential detour. In 2010, Kyle Miller and skied a couloir that we called Marble Needle Couloir. From it's base I had seen a route between Marble Needle and Early Morning Spire. The appeal of this route was adding a steep descent into a long day of traversing.

What I do not expect to find is atrocious conditions. Slough and rotten snow encrusted with rocks, awaits. A smile rolls off my face and bounces all the way down to the bottom of the couloir. My hopeful gaze tracing its haphazard path. The entire couloir is crap. So between side steps and careful turns, we all arrive at easier ground, much relieved that it was all over.

With skins on, we climb to the pass, booting the last few feet. On the way, slowly but surely, our moods begin to rise. Not only is it downhill from Early Morning Spire, an incredibly long downward traverse along Backbone Ridge, but many of the peaks that I have skied in the previous months are visible. And -yet - so many more I have yet to ski steal my attention. Jewels like the Three Dicks and the incredible Cumshot and Lost Marbles Couloirs come to mind.

As we rounded Backbone Ridge and began ascending again, weather arrived. Fog that is thick and heavy sinks on top of us and the way ahead becomes shrouded in white. However much I feel like pushing on, the rest of the group convinces me to set up camp early. A few breaks in the clouds are windows into a colorful sunset. They are open for moments only.

Day Four: Backbone Ridge weather day

Whatever hope we have for better weather isn't enough. An entire day of clouds and fog greet us the following morning. Everyone finds their own thing to do. My escape was digging out camp. Then digging it out again. Then deciding that it isn't flat enough, so I dig some more. Ah, weather days are so much fun! We finish the day off with listening to snow landing on the tent. Sprinkled through out our endless hours of doing nothing is copious amounts of eating. Whatever can be spared, we gobble it up. There isn't anything extra as I go to sleep.

Day Five: Backbone Ridge to Isolation Peak

Clouds, fog, snow - sure there was plenty of that, but we aren't into it. But most of all we aren't into another day around camp. Instead we blindly traverse into the miasma with our full loads weighing us down. What I am sure is amazing country is hidden from view. The only respite we get comes as we drop into a spectacular couloir. The views there of waterfalls, glimpses of glaciers and the under story of peaks is quite a pleasant sight after being submerged in the fog for so long, but we aren't done yet.

Climbing upward, we traverse a ridge that leads us to Isolation Peak. The closer we get, the more head scratching we have. The snow is incredibly manky. It's becoming more and more questionable to climb on steep slopes. At the steepest part we're on loose snow on rock. Eventually we climb to a high point and stare directly off a cliff. Our route must be lower we decide. Now in ski-mode we drop in and traverse over trees and some rock, eventually making our way to easier ground.

A break in the cliffs comes and a face drops us directly onto the shores of a lake. It is perfect. There is plenty of water and we were tired of grasping around in the fog. We decide to strike camp early again. Our hopes hinge on weather improving the following day...yet again.

Day Six: Isolation Peak to Snowfield Peak

And hopes aren't enough I guess. Fog...again, but I felt the solar heat above. Is it gonna break?

The heat grows stronger as we climb toward Snowfield Peak. We blindly grope our way upward. Then, after more than 2 days, I see blue. Am I mistaken? Oh no, there is sun bursting through the fog. I climb harder and faster and then I am free. No more tentacles of gray, only blue above and everywhere beyond. On a ridge top, Snowfield Peak screams 'Look at me'!

We jump cornices and take a long lunch in the sun. Gear, coats, shirts, socks and pants scatter and begin drying. We lounge for more than an hour.

Traveling along a spectacular traverse onto southern slopes, we ascend a ramp between the Horseman and Snowfield Peaks. At this point, the weather is so fantastic, we can come up with few reasons to continue. All around us are reasons to stay for the night. Not to mention an ascent of Snowfield Peak.

After pitching our tents Tom, Jessy and Adam join me on a climb of the summit pyramid of Snowfield Peak. We begin by traversing around to the north aspect. While we expect soft snow, what we didn't expect was waist deep mank over rock. This is far from ideal. Worse yet, the day is getting warmer. Everyone is considering backing off. It's the smart thing to do, but of course I say, "I'm going to go take a look." This is famous Jason-speak for, "I'm really want to climb this!" The conditions were very, very marginal and there is no room for error. Reason being: the snow is primed to wet slide and not in any small way. Wet slides can be manageable while skiing, but while climbing that isn't the case. You want to be up quickly. Since the route is only steep for a few hundred feet, the others change their minds and motor to the top with me in a matter of minutes.

Now stepping onto the summit our views widen from noses in the snow to eyes cast to the horizon. Off to the south, our route over the previous five days is visible. "Isolation," I remember is out here and all around me. Valley's of green cover the lower slope and between these forests are rivers that roar. Even miles overhead, we can hear them. The cool breeze seems to deliver these sounds in waves.

The descent is a careful maneuver. Sidesteps over rock and ski-cuts to the snow are necessary. Jessy cuts off the largest slide that bashes down the face and over rocks before squealing to a stop on the Neve Glacier. One at a time, we rush for the bottom and return to camp.

Not quite satisfied, we put our skis back on and ascend slopes that are more favorable for skiing. Over and over we yo-yo hooting and hollering in joy. Even as sunset came, we are still skiing. Our fun is put to an end as rising fog finally convinces us to return to camp. We are exhausted, yet satisfied.

The last and final night of rest breaths life back into our legs. Perhaps it is because that besides a few small up hills, our day ahead is mostly downhill all the way back to our car? "A fine joke", I laugh. "Why can't they be refreshed every day?"

Day Seven: Snowfield Peak to Highway 20

From camp my skis fly down the Neve Glacier. Colorful threads of a sunrise still resides in the distant. I see that the clouds have come back in. They are covering the low country.

At a pass after ascending from the Neve Glacier, we are working our way toward Pyramid Peak. There is a traverse from here to a narrow ridge. It's our last small climb of the trip. As I mount the ridge, I see all the way to the highway below. Wow.

Now a few thousand feet down our skis come off as we enter thick, steep forest. We proceed by winding our way around trees and cliffs for a few hours. Eventually, after route finding shenanigans, we arrive at Pyramid Lake where we once again are on trail. There we shake off the pine needles from our boots, drink water and relax. The distance remaining was only a few miles and we'd be back at the car.

On the hike out, I pause on the trail. My group is ahead and behind me. I look up into the tree branches shinning in the sun. The air is fresh. Summer's warmth pulsates up the hillside. It is peaceful. I get that feeling I always get when a great trip is nearly over. It washes over me as I finish my last hours hike out. It continues with my as my ski boots clatter onto the pavement of Highway 20. I celebrate with a jog across the road. Dropping my pack to the ground is a literal, "...weight off my shoulders."

Water may be the blood of these mountains, the glaciers the heart, but without skis and your own two feet, you can't understand the body of the great Cascade Mountains any better than we had over the past week. Looking up at the way we had come my grin is shared by everyone. We did not only find isolation, but we experienced an amazing adventure as well. With good friends, you can't ask for more than that.~~~

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Jason Hummel