It’s not often that you start a trip exhausted. Here I was at the physical prime of my life yet drained of enthusiasm and a general stoke for the mountains. My life has always been about the ups and downs, whether it is mountain climbing or living life day to day. Each passing moment has a lesson to be learned, but only if you take the time to look at it that way. Sometimes it’s a twist of fate while other times you push yourself in that direction. Here I was on an adventure in one of my favorite places in Washington, Holden Village, merely days from the one year anniversary of my father’s passing. This was going to be a dense trip and I was mentally exhausted.
The argument will go on forever over who came up with this plan, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The general idea was to tag both Maude and Seven Finger Jack in one continuous push and if all was planned right it would put me under the North face of Fernow exactly a year after my near fatal accident. In total it would be 3 days, 22 miles and 13,000 vertical feet. It’s hard to come up with names for stuff like this but we all agreed on The Big Copper Circuit.
It’s always a pain packing your bags when you know you are going to remote areas. Not only do you have to remember the major stuff but you also have to remember all the little stuff. Screws, screw driver, extra fuel and the list goes on and on. Fortunately we would be heading via boat out to Holden Village, so we smashed our duffel bags full of gear and waited for the Lady of the Lakes’ arrival.
Wild eyed and ready to get our peak bagging on we arrived into Holden Village, ski gear in hand. By now they were awaiting the arrival of the two crazy people who rode both Fernow and Bonanza the previous year and were back for more. The majority of society thinks that ski mountaineers are crazy and maybe they are right. But it is in these mountains that I feel alive, free from the burdens of modern day society.
So, yes I may be a tad bit crazy!
When word ran through town that we were visiting Brennan was waiting for us. The previous year we met and did Bonanza with him. Not knowing our plans but craving an adventure, he’d joined. With one last glance at the promising forecasts we made our way out of Holden and past the taluses of the old mines toward the main headwalls of Big Copper Creek.
Over the past few years I had been digging deeper and deeper into the backcountry and less into the ski resorts and my speed and strength were showing it. I had made the call to bring ski crampons which allowed me to sidehill while the skiers were having trouble. It was a radical shift compared to prior trips and I felt I had finally destroyed the Stereotype. I was the splitboarder and I had made it up to the col 20 minutes before both skiers.
The first time I had set my eyes on the North face of Maude was while summiting Seven Finger Jack with Scott McAllister, who would ride Maude a few weeks later. There are few lines in the North Cascades that are more impressive than Maude and the Entiat Basin. It was my first time taking in the view of Maude from the north east and I was flooded with excitement. It had been well over a year and I was finally back to finish a dream that had started the year prior.
We snapped our photos and made mental maps of our ascent route before switching to downhill mode. As always the battle between traversing and fall line riding came into play. In the end, Brennan and I rode directly into the valley while Jason traversed around, finally meeting us in the upper flats of the basin.
One thing that I love about the Cascades is the uniqueness of every valley. There is no question in my mind that each and every peak has a personality and being in the Entiat valley I could feel their dominating presence. Above us was well over 4,000 feet of complex terrain that demanded respect.
Sometimes slopes are skinning friendly and sometimes not so much. Not only does terrain go into play but also snow conditions. The snow was steep and firm it was a lose/lose situation, but with an ungodly amount of practice I made my way up with minimal issues. Making our way onto the mellower upper slopes
It wasn’t long before we were under Maude’s north face and out of the sun. With the coldness came the realization of our remoteness. We were far from the thoughts of anyone and were completely on our own. It is a heavy feeling.
From our low col I finally got my first view of Ice Lakes and the Spectacle peaks to the south. I hadn’t expected much for a view but was pleasantly rewarded with alpine spanning as far as the eyes could see. Below on Ice Lakes we would set up camp for the night, so we switched our gear into descent mode and made our way across the frozen surface to a scenic and somewhat sheltered area.
Once arriving at and digging out camp Jason and Brennan focused on eating and getting their camps dialed while I took in the scenery. Filled with energy and mesmerized by the terrain, I made rando laps on Ice Lakes’ frozen surface until I was exhausted, then made my way to a quiet spot and watched the sunset alpenglow light up the Cascades.
During the night the clouds rolled in and we questioned our attempt on the North Face of Maude. We knew there was only one way we could find out if there was even a possibility and that was to get on Maude’s summit. We left camp with dreary eyes. Our rollercoaster of stoke was hitting a low point, but we knew we had to push on. That’s what life is about: pushing on.
Once on the ridge the slopes got easier and the travel became significantly faster. A mountain goat stood guard to the route and looked at us with an almost confused look. I wondered what was going through its mind as we crossed paths and pushed our ways to the summit of Maude.
Once arriving onto the summit a decision had to be made. Visibility was coming in and out and I got my first view down the north face. No question, it was steep and sustained and Brennan didn’t want anything to do with it. Now Hummel and I were of a different mindset. Yes it was steep BUT visibility was coming in and out and it seemed edgeable. To say I wasn’t fearful is a lie, but fear is healthy and combined with respect you would be surprised what you can get yourself into. So we patiently awaited a weather window before I made the gut wrenching traverse onto the North Face of Maude.
We found a few inches of fresh snow had accumulated on the face over a firm base. Without the new snow it would have been almost unridable, with any slip resulting in a 3,000 foot tumble. But our edges held purchase. A turn at a time we made our way down to the lower slopes before letting loose into the lower Entiat Basin. Not a word was said as we transitioned to skinning and made our way back to camp. The north face of Maude had been ridden and another one of my dreams was ticked off the checklist.
By the time we made it back to camp the storm had arrived and wind was blowing us sideways. Brennan had been enjoying the warmth of camp for over a hour and mentioned the idea of breaking down camp and moving on. I attempted to make food with my Jetboil but the winds ripped through and would blow out the burner. After this happening about 3 times, I’d had enough and we pushed our camp to a more suitable location.
We made our way up and over two ridges as the wind blew us sideways. There is something appealing about being exposed to the elements – a choas that I can’t explain – but it does something to me. Storms and fronts make me excited. They remind me how vulnerable we really are and how much we rely on shelter and gear for survival. That night we would end up camping under the west face of Maude in Leroy Basin, striking distance from Seven Fingered Jack.
The storm pushed through overnight and we awoke to clearing skies. Our 7 foot tall walls had provided just enough shelter for a good night of sleep and after our morning routine we were ready to enjoy our last day in the alpine.
It was the day I had been dreading. A year to the day of my father’s death and my near fatal accident and I was ready to rock. Some people use these feelings as crutches, but not me. Simply put, I am fueled by emotions and things like these are what motivate me to get into the mountains. With crampons on we made our way up the SW slopes of Seven Fingered Jack.
People ask “why the mountains?” This is my response.
There is no better way to rid yourself of frustrations than being in the alpine. If you need to yell, the mountains will listen. If you need to burn off steam, they are there to climb. Judgements are not passed and you can really find yourself among these snow and rock covered slopes. Each mountain and adventure has a lesson to be taught. It is just up to you to listen.
We climbed the easy going western ridge of Seven Fingered Jack with Glacier Peak Wilderness in full display. I like to think I have been all over and seen everything, but that is simply not the case. In all honesty, views like this make you realize you have only scratched the surface of the Cascades and a that lifetime of adventures awaits the brave souls willing to be devoured by the sub-alpine.
Our summit was shortly lived before we made our way back down the slope. The year prior I had spotted what looked like an aggressive couloir dropping into Big Copper Creek. It looked rad. We weren’t sure if it went so Brennan went to check it out and said “yep it goes”. With that unexpected response, we strapped on our skis and board and started making our ways down.
The line just kept getting steeper and steeper before we started scratching our heads. Below us we could see a dramatic drop to the Gloomy Glacier and started to fear once again that it didn’t go. We figured out rather fast that it terminated into a cliff, and had to climb back up the steep face. We transitioned and one by one starting making our way back up.
My mind was in overdrive and here I was climbing up a 50 degree slope above cliffs. Normally I am not a fan, but the climb felt so inviting and invigorating. With both Jason and Brennan out of view I kicked and punched my way back up the slope, laughing at the near vertical face below me. It was exactly what I needed as I put my fate in the mountains.
From the top of the line we made our way farther down the mountain and found a mellow ramp onto the Glacier. Above we saw that what we’d attempted to ride terminated into a 200 foot cliff. It seems we made a good call. From here on out it would be smooth sailing back to Holden.
Halfway down the valley I set my eyes on Fernow thinking I would have some emotional response. I didn’t. I had spent all this time focusing on this one moment and it did nothing for me. Rather, it was the small things in between that would turn out to have the significance that I craved. I made my way to Holden with a semi clear head on my shoulders and had a few moments of silence in my room.
It was our last night in Holden and fittingly II had brought a bottle of Vodka that my father had purchased. That night I persuaded Jason to take shot after shot before we started causing trouble and pranking some of the Holden Girls. The things I can persuade Jason to do when he starts drinking.