Seeking Out sunshine on the east side

Winter transitioned to Spring in the blink of an eye in the Cascades this year. As the atmospheric river gave way to sporadic storms and the rare high pressure system, we could finally appreciate our ranges, newly adorned with a stout snowpack. Weather for the weekend saw southerly flow trapping moisture on the west side of the Crest and a slowly encroaching system moving in from the Pacific. With high spirits, Colie and I set out for the Chiwaukum to revel in whatever sunshine we were lucky enough to receive.
As we started our tour, a firm diurnal crust made for slippery skinning and engaging edging in the forest. I was able to convince Colie that we would save time and distance by bushwhacking through the dense underbrush instead of following the forest road - I might have even been correct had we not found the creeks open and flowing. A couple tender steps on icy river rocks later we were through the crossing and quickly we came to the summer trail to Lake Ethel. The cold, dry powder between the trees on our approach delighted us as we gained the first plateau, found our first views and began to learn how the snowpack was behaving at higher elevations: crusty and wind-affected.

We found all of the fresh snow from the week had been ripped away from the snowpack in any open areas, revealing the icy crust beneath. Small trees sheltered tiny powder pockets and airfoils sculpted by the winds made for an alien landscape.


As we climbed higher into sparser forest, we were rewarded with our first views of the day: looking north at the southern reaches of the Chelan and Entiat ranges.

As our skin track wove its way up to the ridge, we found bottomless powder on cold, northern slopes give way to tenuous, sun-affected layers on top of a slippery layer of ice on southern slopes. Skinning along the ridgeline and darting out to one side for a kick turn or two, we made good headway until shooting cracks on the northern slope and wet sloughs on the southern slope spelled an end to our skinning. A short boot-pack up the ridgeline varied between waist-deep and knee-deep powder over a supportive base and deposited us on the expansive Chiwaukum plateau.

A year ago, my adventure to the Chiwaukum culminated in a ski down from the plateau to Lake Ethel on dreamy powder and an open, inviting slope that started steep but quickly mellowed out and opened up. As we ascended the ridge today, however, we saw a large crown from a recent avalanche on the planned descent track. The bed surface was visibly icy and our experience with solar-affected slopes was not inspiring confidence in either the stability or the pleasantness of descending to the lake, so we decided to ski mellower, treed slopes on the return instead.

As we traversed the plateau en route to the Middle Chiwaukum, winds that we had been observing from afar became much more intimate. Little dust devils of snow danced across the slopes, cuing us to avert our eyes and brace for impact as they hurled spindrift at us. By the time we reached the summit ridge, the lingering cloud layer had made its way from the west and was threatening to trap us without visibility, so Colie and I decided to ski down instead of attempting the summit.

Our descent started on ice, turned through sastrugi and deposited us in wonderful powder, albeit guarded by a thin wind-affected crust. I knew this was likely to be our best skiing for the day given our conservative descent, so we skinned back to the ridge in hopes of lapping the slope. As we transitioned to head back down, a light white-out hit, for which we waited patiently before taking the run a second time.

With conditions continuing to deteriorate, we decided it was time to head home. Some non-trivial amount of skinning, skiing, poling, cursing, creek crossing and side-slipping later, we arrived back to our car content and hungry, quickly devouring the cookies Colie had saved for just this occasion.