Climbing in the Chiwaukums : Central Cascades

There are few places within the lower 48 which are infrequently traveled; The Chiwaukums are one of these places. From mellow wide open slopes to massive unskiable cliff bands this small region in the North Central Cascades has it all. While a traverse of the Chiwaukums is the best way to see the unspoiled beauty of this unique area, we chose to do a circumference trip, skiing some of the most notable lines within the Range. While the tour was a long day trip, I highly recommend this trip as an overnighter. It’s worth it for the views alone, but the skiing is a nice bonus. To my knowledge, though a similar trip was pulled off by Oyvid Henningsen, a splitboarder has never completed the journey. In addition, we believe that our descent of the Big Chiwaukum Coliur was a likely first snowboard descent. It all started under a star-filled sky. With only the lights of our headlamps to guide us, Scott and I followed a lightly traveled summer trail towards our objective. We had left the car at 2:30 a.m. in order to have enough travel time to complete the trip in a single day. After countless hours of following the trail, then losing it and then finding it again, we finally reached the alpine. We were greeted by a beautiful view of our first objective: the Big Chiwaukum. 100_1116 Once in alpine terrain, our choice of route was easy and straight-forward. We traversed across multiple large basins before finally making it to the base of the high point of the range—the Big Chiwaukum. Once we got closer and closer, the terrain began to appear and we spotted our first goal: a major coulouir coming off the northwest face. 100_1126 Once we started skinning up the lower apron, we were taken aback by the views of Stevens Pass and the surrounding peaks sitting below our unusual vantage point. 100_1133 Once we made it to the top of the apron, it quickly became apparent that skinning was inefficient and that we would gain ground much faster by bootpacking up the steep coloir. Scott took the lead, and we climbed one step at a time in over a foot of well-consolidated powder with the sun illuminating the peak above us. 100_1135 The climbing seemed to be endless when we gazed up, pondering how close we actually were to the col. While it was a brutally long slog, one couldn’t help but to be stoked to look down almost 2000 vert of fall line powder in need of tracks. 100_1143 Though we were initially afraid of not being able to access the col (a wall of cornices seemingly blocked our approach), we were relieved once again when we gained the final pitch. What at first seemed to be a huge wall was in all actuality a mellow ramp of snow bounded by rock walls covered in rhyme ice. 100_1144 Once on top, we found ourselves surrounded by the Chiwaukums, with vast alpine bowls as far as the eye could see. We could only imagine the endless opportunities for ski lines among the terrain before our eyes—an expanse of peaks and valleys sculpted by ancient glaciers and the fragments of rock they’d left behind. 100_1146 We’d originally considered two couloirs as descent routes, though we couldn’t tell if the second cliffed out. Traversing across the wide-open, mellow slopes to the base of the Big Chiwaukum’s summit, we got a better view of the second colouir. While it wasn’t as steep as the one we’d climbed, it looked to be a longer line with better snow conditions. 100_1158 Scott dropped in first, and to both of our surprise, conditions were perfect to the bottom. We ripped through just enough powder to get the taste of softer conditions, but not enough to worry about bigger sluffs or slabs. I watched as Scott railed turn after turn down the 2000’ of perfection, before dropping in myself. 100_1163 I couldn’t help but get stoked as I rode down the wide-open chute surrounded by massive rock walls. I hadn’t expected the snow to be as good as it was, and soon, what had taken 9 hours to ascend had been descended in less than 3 minutes. After reaching Scott, we both exchanged comments on an epic line now slain—the two perfect tracks were embedded in the slopes temporarily, but would remain in our minds forever. 100_1166 Jan17_i After a quick traverse, we went back to skinning up a mellow west-facing slope, basking in the warm, early afternoon sun. Our next objective was Deadhorse Pass, a low col which would allow us to access the eastern part of the range, and more importantly, our exit later in the day. Within an hour we were standing at the pass looking out among endless lakes, and untouched wide open bowls for as far as the eye could see. 100_1171 Before long Scott had left his mark on the snow. 100_1177 After hastily riding into the valley, we were stoked to find open streams of water, which allowed us to skip the tedious process of melting snow. We decided it would be the perfect spot to rest in the sun while we prepared for some of the steepest skinning of the day, which would be our final uphill pitch before reaching the car now situated 4,500 feet below us. 100_1184 Once we had refueled, we went back to skinning and completed a long traverse. Many of the slopes along the way were scarred with older wet slides, but the snow was now firm, as the sun began to drop in the sky. 100_1191 100_1196 With a long traverse and carefully put in switchbacks, we climbed up to a high plateau that I had camped on earlier in the season. What was once covered in rocks and littered with the occasional water hole, was now buried under 10 feet of snow. While we had been traveling on steeper slopes all day, we anticipated mellow terrain until our final descent, which was less then a mile away. 100_1205 Our exit route was nothing less than perfect. While we had traversed over 7 miles just to get into alpine, our descent was 4,500 feet of fall line skiing all the way down to the car, about 2000’ of which boasted untracked powder. The rest of our descent was 2500’ of summer logging roads, the one service the forestry industry had done for the terrain. Before long, we were celebrating our achievements with well deserved dry clothes, as well as some brand new sun burns. 100_1211 The entire trip was around 20 miles and a little under 10,000 feet. I highly recommend this tour as the scenery is simply breathtaking in this remote region of Washington State. Chiwaukums

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