The Osceola Traverse (Carbon to White River)

March 7-10, 2013

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason L. Hummel

“I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and deleting and got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no FEELING. Goddamn it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and the hiding of feelings.” —Jack Kerouac

I look at my hands, they seem to fit onto my camera like they have grown roots into the dials. What would they do without each other? How lonely they would be. How empty.

This camera I carry always is a burden as much as it is a partner. It’s not just the weight, either. Not the tripod, three lenses, filters, batteries, etc and their nearly twenty pounds. No, not that. Even before my fingers pull it from its case, I feel the weight. Lines crisscross my vision. Darkness and light dance. Clouds caress mountainsides. People move. I feel reckless trying to capture an instant I saw an instant ago. So recklessly trying to chase what may never come again. I feel rushed. Climbing and photography don’t mix and I swear at the ungainliness of it all! At least at first that is how it appears. Then I fall into stride. I stop trying to see. I look. I record. I work within the confines of what I have at hand, not what I want to force into my grasp.

I pass my camera to the anxious ranger at the Carbon River entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, elevation 1700’. He takes an image of Kyle Miller, Ben Starkey and I in our packs with skis astride them. In the image we are all smiling like just-found puppies - a moment frozen in time. This ranger made taking an image look so simple. But is it just as easy as that?

Reminiscent of James Michener’s monolithic tales, five thousand years ago Mount Rainier’s northern flanks and far-reaching watersheds were changed forever. The top two thousand feet of the mountain peeled away in a massive slide that reached all the way to the Puget Sound, fifty miles away. It was the biggest slide ever recorded on the mountain and was named the Osceola Flow. Our traverse certainly was appropriately graced with “The Osceola Traverse”. It would take four days, cover thirty-six miles and climb nearly twenty thousand vertical feet.

Most of all, what will make this traverse special is the winter snows gracing the higher hills thousands of feet above us. Winter is special. It is not a functional environment for humans for very long, not without resources like food, shelter and clothing.

A worn trail disappears under snows two hours and two thousand feet higher. Tree branches are filled with millions of white flakes. They shudder under the load. At the same time light breaks from the clouds and a dreary forest instantly transforms into a wonderland.

At Alki crest the trail has long since been lost to its snowy grave. The wind scoured ridge offers little snow to skin on. There is no trail here at all, so we trade between walking and skinning until we arrive at the false summit of Florance Peak (~5500-ft).

Heavy snows chase us down to a flat bench as we traverse our way toward Howard and Tolmie Peaks. The further I go, the better I feel about the traverse. Clouds part even more and there is even a glimpse of Mount Rainier. Certainly that is a sign? Good tidings are in our future.

A weary climb leads to Tolmie Lookout. We rest on the boards and stare down to Eunice Lake. We haven’t far now. I melt water. The others do, too, on another stove. Meanwhile I notice skies darken. By the time we get up to leave, snow falls heavily on our shoulders.

The descent takes us past Eunice Lake and with some traversing puts us fall-line to the snow covered Mowich Lake Road. Preserved in the trees is wonderful snow that makes for excellent skiing. It was so good for me that I easily forget about the last few miles of road. My reminders come as soon as skins are attached and made even more apparent when my flashlight brightens the dark corridor ahead.

The chill crawls into my fingers as the tent goes up. It gets better as I dig a place to sit, so before I get colder I make my bed with the others. Above me then, even as snowflakes continue to fall, I see stars. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. A quick meal follows and happy dreams about the beautiful weather I am sure to rise with consume me. They do so long before I close my eyes.

Frozen gear is encrusted in feathers of white. We await the sunlight that crawls achingly slow towards us. It can’t possibly take that long, but it does. Ten minutes more someone guesses. To stay warm and busy, I skin around in circles and look for images. I find nothing special which surprises me because it is a pretty place. There must be something, but I can’t find it, so I give up my search and enjoy the dawn colors as they paint the hillsides.

With packs astride shoulders we travel across Mowich Lake. Finally meeting us, the sun chases away the low-hanging fog. We take a right into the trees, once again returning to the shadows as we climb toward Knapsack Pass, a process that takes a few hours. At the pass, I see the high country. This is what I live for, the wide views and big sky. It’s a desert of ice and snow instead of sand and just as inhospitable.

Up and down, across gentle slopes and into Spray Park. My last time there was in summer. How hard it is to imagine this place covered in white when all I can remember is color. There I am imagining flowers reaching over the tops of other flowers, mosquitoes chasing butterflies and ponds whose pristine surfaces only brake by the leaping of frogs and swimming tadpoles. While the difference is stark, I appreciate the seasons. They both have their wonders.

Rising up further, we ascend to a point below Observation and Echo Rocks. Our goal is to continue between them. For now there is time to rest. In front of us is a perfect canvas. I itch for Kyle and Ben to continue climbing. For me, humans are the ink that tells the tale. They make images stand out more so than if there were no humans at all. Sometimes I wonder if I’d make a good nature photographer. My guess is no, at least not specifically. Becoming a slave to any one vision would be suffocating. My thoughts are stifled as I join the others in stuffing my face. I do so faster since time is shorter for me. There is never enough time.

While the others break trail, I stay behind. The mountain, the peaks, the slopes, the sun, the texture and the rocky foreground make for perfect pictures. Now it is easy. This takes no talent. Am I just a photographer with a good camera or a good photographer with a camera?

I chase Kyle and Ben for the next several hours. I don’t catch them until I see them putting their boards together at approximately nine thousand to nine thousand five hundred feet on the Russell Glacier. By then the shadows greet us again. Thousands of feet I sweep up in great curving turns. Gravity swallows me. I am no longer fighting it. Only a few photos are taken, but otherwise the shadows blessed me with time to ski unencumbered. Balance is hard to define. It’s difficult to justify not taking images when my work is imagery. Good weather is rare. Getting to places like this takes so much work, so much luck. But I can’t chase what isn’t there. That consoles me.

I beg the others to set camp up high on a bench rather than in the valley trees. Above me is Mount Rainier. Above even Rainier are stars and constellations. Their points of light are magnified when above such an impressive side of the mountain. Willis Wall, Thermogenesis and Liberty Ridge are names that impress. They impress me even more under the soft blues of a star-lit night. I stand in the cold for much of an hour. The shutter of my camera opens and takes in the visible light. Moments later came a click. I do it again and again until my boot liners freeze to the snow. I smile. In the end, I am pleased.

Shadows are chased away sooner than the morning before this one. Packs, skis and feet are moving forward. The direction had been uncertain, up or down. Wanting to stay out of the low country, we turn our skis upward and climb toward the Winthrop Glacier.

Hours pass with hardly a break. Wind whips up as we traverse over ridges. The good snow remains and somehow isn’t all sent into the sky, a bonus for sure. At approximately ninety five hundred feet I catch Kyle and Ben changing their splitboards from tour mode into snowboards again. Below me the sun is out. It is basking on big slopes of powder.

It isn’t long before I realize that my favorite descent of the trip is going too quickly. When I think all of it is over, it continues. We angle across the Winthrop Glacier and drop into a stream bed that is only just steep enough for the skis to keep moving.

At approximately 5400-ft we stop. Ben shares one of his sandwiches with me, made all the more enjoyable with his homemade pastrami, a kind of meat I didn’t even know I liked. Not long after, we are climbing into the trees where a slurry of snow covers a layer of breakable ice. We walk, but that is a pain. I bemoan to Ben that this is going to suck. Putting our skis back on, we traverse further left. We find Kyle and with the map out we decide to continue even further left to a stream. There we follow a gentle bench. It continues until we drop into it. Like unwrapping a present, the trees slowly peel back the higher we rise. The alpine and its fields of white dominate once more. Onto it, the sun beats down on us and our excitement permeates the air with loud whelps and screams of joy.

The climb crosses beneath the Burroughs. For added fun we climb to the top of the second Burroughs. A steep face drops from its summit. While Kyle and Ben take a higher line than I do, my hope is to get to the bottom and photograph them descending. I’m apprehensive though. The snow feels wind-scoured and slabby. I delay committing. I kick down snowballs and see dents in the snow. There IS powder I realize. The ski takes less than a minute after it is finally decided to go. Like a rocket I burst into the lower slopes. “Yes” I scream. But did I really form any words at all? It was an awesome feeling. As planned Kyle and Ben follow. I take images of them from below. They exit the line as wildly and excitedly as I did.

Another gentle skin up to the first Burroughs leads to another descent, this time on terrible snow. I cut a higher traverse, hoping to save vertical and traverse closer to Sunrise and our planned camping spot for the night than I would’ve otherwise done if the snow were good. As I do powder gobbles up my skis and sweeps over my boots. I glide much further than I thought I would’ve.

Twilight faces us as we put on our skins one last time. Ahead, another mile or so remains before camp. That mile doesn’t take long and camp is pitched beneath star studded night skies. Mount Rainier keeps watch on us as we cook. It continues to keep watch as we turn in for one last chilly night.

The next morning Kyle and Ben rise at 4 a.m. They greet the sunrise high on the mountain. They return just before clouds and snow begins to fall.

Our meeting with Don, his stepson and snowmobiles is at noon sharp. They wouldn’t be waiting around, so we break camp in a hurry and quickly set off in search of our couloir that would lead us to White River. With the GPS in hand we inch down-slope. So as to not send us all down the wrong gully, I leap ahead on my skis to take a look. Gazing down, I’m only ninety-five percent sure it goes. The price of being wrong was a sixteen mile road skin (and is that worth a five percent margin?)! Ten turns later, we could see that it went. That relief added pep to our turns.

Somewhere halfway down the couloir, the others far below me, I spot a lonely dead snag. I think of this tree and it's view, how it stood through storm and summer heat. How now it is just a skeleton and still it watches. I feel that moment appear, one in which I must photograph. There is no grasping what cannot be grasped. It is there. My camera clicks - I record - so simple and so sudden. Days later when I look at the image of this dead snag, I realize what is great about it. A tree like this, it has weathered the decades, maybe even the centuries and has stood watch over these valleys without break, even in death. In that image I look out onto the White River and I see what she saw. Any day I think I’ve got it too hard then I can take up this trees burden; I can keep watch over the White River. My sentiments may be too poetic, perhaps even sappy, still that is how I feel. I drop into the trees and soon catch the others on the final slopes. They are navigating a waterfall. The fun never ends, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The snowmobiles arrive at White River fifteen minutes after we do. Less than an hour after that, I ski through the Mount Rainier National Park entrance. Four days, thirty-six miles and twenty thousand vertical feet plus a sixteen mile snowmobile ride had traversed us across the entire park. What a journey.

In the car as we shuttle back to our vehicles, I look back through the images on my cameras screen. I smile. While I agonize over what I missed, I am satisfied that I captured enough. That’s all that matters. Unlike that old tree above white river, my roots aren’t just grown into the dials of this camera, but into the mountains that that camera takes me too. That’s the most rewarding feeling I get. It’s what makes being a photographer the best thing I could ever imagine making a living at. There’s nothing I’d rather spend the rest of my life doing.

>>>Previous Adventure: Columbia Peak Circumnavigation


If you enjoyed this story, tell us about it. Go to the Guestbook and leave a note or write an e-mail to let us know personally. We always appreciate hearing from our viewers because a lot of heart and soul goes into the making of this web site. You can support that! Purchase or license any photograph you see. Go to the photography page for details.



Jason Hummel