Guides Day-Off: Ski Touring near Crystal Mountain, Washington
Work hard, play hard….Definitely the mantra at Mountain Madness these days. So when co-worker Mark Ryman and I had an opportunity to hook up with some friends for a fun-filled day of backcountry skiing this past Saturday, we took advantage of a break in the weather, and headed a few hours south to one of my favorite ski haunts: Crystal Mountain.
Crystal Mountain is the largest ski area in Washington State with over 3000 ft of vertical, tons of lift access “slackcountry,” and arguably the best and steepest expert terrain around. To top it off, its close proximity to Mt Rainer makes it one of the most scenic ski areas I’ve ever been to in the western United States. With good access, numerous options for backcountry skiers, and consistently good snow conditions, the adjacent peaks are perfect for ski touring day trips.
I’ve been skiing at Crystal for over twenty years. My first real experience with serious avalanche hazard was there as well – at night, by headlamp, with 40 pounds of explosives in my backpack. I had taken a few years off from college to “find myself” and gotten hired onto the professional ski patrol for the season. Second only to Alta Utah, Crystal uses (at least back then) the most amount of explosives in the country to mitigate avalanche hazard within and outside ski area boundaries.
I remember my first morning of avalanche control like it was yesterday. That winter had its ups and downs personally. It was to become a super formative year, however, and it helped dictate much of my future that was becoming more and more characterized by a life lived in the mountains. Like the Austrian legend Kurt Diemberger says: “The lover of mountains must go to the mountains. Otherwise he will cease to be a person, both to himself and to others.”
I really “found myself” that first morning – breaking trail through cornices and up the “Queen” behind the famed Rainer guide Brent Okita who (later that spring) would go on to survive an open bivouac high on Everest after his headlamp froze. “I never got cold,” he related afterwards. He summited solo at day break the next day.
Our team threw a lot of bombs that morning and completely cleared the huge bowl of Campbell Basin (center of first photo) – massive avalanche debris running down valley and hitting the base of chair 6. On the exit run off the “Throne,” with Brent and Julie spotting me, my ski tips augured into the cascade concrete and I found myself stuck on steep terrain just below a huge fracture line of a large slab that failed but not released. Waist deep and stuck like a cork in a bottle of bad red wine, I struggled to free myself and not be the final trigger for the avalanche that was sure to bury me deep. I can still hear Brent screaming, “Get out of there! Get out of there!”
Fast forward 19 years….Mark and I arrived a bit sooner than our friends, so we donned climbing skins, did an avalanche beacon check, and started the pleasurable ascent into Bullion Basin. Our ideal plan was to check out north facing slopes of Crown Point which involves a short climb to a pass, a steep descent down into Union Creek, and then a climb up to gain the corniced ridges of Crown Point proper. After about and hour of skinning up old logging roads and through some beautiful old-growth silver fir, we arrived at a small lake and caught a good view of Peak 6479.
Old Growth Fir photo
Once we gained the pass we caught our first glimpse of Crown Point. This was Mark’s first time in this particular area – needless to say he was psyched with what we saw! Apart from the fact that no one had skied off our chosen peak the day, the first thing I noticed was a small slab avalanche that had pulled out naturally from near the summit.
It looked like this from the top
Our descent into Union Creek was a nice long one, although the previous day’s sun had done a number on any aspect that was steep and facing east through west. After a quick snack, we broke trail through valley bottom forest and started to pick our way up toward our objective. Not too long after we ran into my friends Pam and Zeno who had climbed up and over Crown Point and did some investigation into the snowpack along the way. We all agreed that the observed small avalanche was an isolated occurrence, and if we changed our aspect a bit and watched our slope angles, we could ski some nice lines safely. A bit more digging and scrutiny of loading patterns increased our confidence. The skiing looked like this!
Jeff “I have a PhD and ski like a pro” Ranish
After lunch, and typical of a good powder day, we met up with the last of our friends and our 3 separate groups had merged into one big one. Dwayne and Teresa brought their new one year-old Alaskan Husky. On her second day out backcountry skiing, Lucy was clearly not phased at all – youthful, super psyched, and fully in her element – she is going to be a solid partner in the future.
Lucy “I’ll Ski you into the Ground” Dunaway
Susan tearing it up
After a couple more runs Mark and I had to make our way back – Mark for kid-duty and me for, well, an “engagement.” Breaking away from everyone was pretty tough, and I, in particular, incurred a lot of flack for leaving early on such a good day: “Hot date later!” Dwayne chided me. “No such thing on a powder day!”
Written by Jeremy Allyn