The original North Face route, climbed by Dallas Kloke and Reed Tindall in 1972, still seemed quite worthy. Its down-the-gut feel arguably has more aesthetic appeal. I certainly wasn't the first to try it. But once it caught my interest, I decided to do it in the winter. Beginning with two attempts in December 2004, it took me seven tries to finally make it happen.
Seventh try's a charm.
I couldn't ignore the brilliant forecast so I sent an APB to the bros a week ahead of time. It's been snowing, snowing, now it's time for going... BIG.
Ben Kaufman, Dave Coleman and I left Seattle Monday night about seven, which is right on target when you tell Ben to be ready at five. Some stupid snowboarder (redundant?) had suggested approaching via the Middle Fork. I gave him a severe tongue-lashing for suggesting such heinous bushwhacking. But as we drove Cascade River Road I thought about avy conditions and the fact that a Middle Fork approach avoided any possible windslab action in Pelton Creek Basin. So we parked at the gate to the old Middle Fork road. (Assworked was right!)
Ben and an old trail sign in the woods in the middle of the night.
Four AM found us skinning through the trees near 3k in the Middle Fork valley. I wanted to hit the route Tuesday because of possible inclement weather Wednesday, but we had to sleep. A warming trend had the trees shedding snow. We slept next to trees, shivering in fear anticipating the next tree bomb, wet in our bivy sacks from the constant barrage and hoping to keep our gear dry enough for the next two nights.
Daylight allowed more rapid progress up the valley Tuesday morning. My skins started retaining painfully heavy amounts of snow as we entered the open basin at the head of the valley. The views of Middle Cascade Glacier were nice; it looks like an awesome ski descent. Weaving through the lower parts of the cirque, finding a good route to skin took a long time and it became clear that Spider was not in Tuesday's cards.
We stopped to make camp at about 5k, directly below Art's Knoll. We dug a large snow cave and slept for eleven hours or so. The next morning greeted us with a whiteout and approximately two inches of new snow. After lots of coffee and a little whiskey, I felt ready to make an attempt despite the clouds and wind.
My instincts took us right to the notch between Hurry Up and Art's Knoll. The wind was howling and we couldn't see a thing. We dug a big hole to sit, shiver, and wait for the sun. Helios kept trying to penetrate the clouds and we decided not to wait. We skied into Flat Creek.
The weather finally started to clear. There were a couple of mammoth crowns on Spider, but everything felt very stable and I was confident the slides were from Friday night's windy, warm storm. Our final conclusion was, "If it goes, it's gonna go huge. But it feels good. Let's just go up there and see what we see."
We nearly skinned to the bergschrund. Switching to boots, the time was 3:30pm. Shenanigans at the bergschrund found me using my skis to cross it, like Ben Manfredi and I did at the uppermost bergschrund the first time I skied the Price Glacier. Ben and Dave crossed in boots. At least I could have dropped them a rope if that hadn't worked.
Sunset approached much too rapidly. I sped up the face as quickly as I could. Above the big cliff all I wanted to do was haul ass to the top. Dave was concerned about skiing the steep face on the wind-buffed powder and he stopped not too far above the bergschrund. Ben couldn't quite keep the pace despite the fact that I was kicking the steps. I really wanted to get to the top and ski the face before dark. "Hurry up you lazy bastard!"
I made the summit ridge just in time for spectacular sunset views. The true summit was maybe fifty feet above me just up the ridge, but skiing the route was the only thing on my mind. I was ready to ski when Ben reached the top. I handed him my camera and got to business. I guess I was in a bit too much of a rush; I realized after the descent that I had skied the face without locking my ski boots into descent mode.
I stomped through the windlip. After the first turn, it became clear that the snow on the face was perfect. It had been wind-buffed enough not to sluff. With each turn it just exploded and caught us in a pillow. I had one turn on the whole face where the pillow didn't explode for me. Ben was on cloud nine. He hasn't been on a big trip in a long time and he couldn't have asked for more.
We skinned to the notch with headlamps and moonlight. Ben and I spent a lot of time looking at Spider's massive northern face and talking trash.
There were no problems finding the cave, which I had feared that morning while ascending in a whiteout. The small bit of new snow made for a really pleasant, high-speed skiing surface. GS turns put us at the cave with big smiles on our faces.
The exit via the Middle Fork sounded unpleasant, so we skied a loop over Cache Col and Cascade Pass. There was enough snow to ski the road past mile 17. We only had to carry our skis the last half mile to the car. From there it was beers, grins and groupies. Ben's thinking about dropping the real-estate gig for life as a ski-mountaineering rockstar.
Ben endures unpleasant crust and wind on the way to Cache Col. Ben and Dave skin to Cache Col with more pleasant conditions. Hurry Up, Art's Knoll and Spider Mountain are in the background. The line of our descent is visible.
Dave enjoys a little powder on the Cache Glacier. Torment, Forbidden and Sahale decorate the scene. There is a really nice view of Boston and Sahale from Cascade River Road
The following weekend John Scurlock happened to fly by the North Face of Spider Mountain. He snapped a nifty photo of the wind-scoured remnants of our tracks. Thanks for the killer photo, John!