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Crystal Mtn Backcountry

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

Lat­er that day we skied off this suck­er on our way out. Wind had built thin slabs near the sum­mit, so we dropped down the ridge a bit to get below dan­ger­ous snow and onto slight­ly low­er angled ter­rain. Nice, steep and deep, north fac­ing pow­der skiing!

Mark Ryman

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.

Crown Point

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