Mt Formidable, Northwest Face: Steep Powder Paradise

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12 March 2006

The skinny: this trip was the manifestation of two years of hard work toward a beautiful idea. The idea? To bag a big descent with a demanding approach in one long day in the winter, packing as light as possible. (The original vision was to ski Spider in this style, but that didn't happen.) Dozens of attempts in the same vein were thwarted by one obstacle or another. It sure felt good to fulfill a dream.

Shot by John Scurlock, the Northwest Face of Mt Formidable. Mouseover to see our route. Click for a large photo without vandalism.

Friday night I went to an entertaining slideshow by Mike Layton. I enjoyed it. Ross, Eric and I prepared for it by swilling half a bottle of Patron. We finished the Patron at the show. I was going to stop drinking after the Patron was gone, but j'ai eu soif. Drank way too much. Plans for the one-day Sunday were perfected and ready. The only problem was if I moved my head it hurt real bad. Chorizo, eggs and medicinal herbs from the downstairs roomies finally cured me around two. So I grabbed Ross and we were cruising toward the North Cascades shorty after four.

Credit is due, so I must acknowledge that Ross was talking about this route over two years ago when I first met him and we skied Buckner. My interest was finally whetted when I got a glimpse of the Northwest Face while heading up the Middle Fork to Spider last month. Couple that with this dynamite photo from John Scurlock and we were ready to go.

Finally high-centered to no avail at mile 16 on Cascade River Road, we dug. Half an hour of digging, reverse, forward, digging and reverse and forward and we had the car on the side of the road pointing toward civilization. We skinned the remaining mile to the Middle Fork circa 8pm.

Deadfall worse than normal bushwhacking was the boon of the night. We were relieved when Klenke's words rang true; Cleve Creek drainage is open and pleasant. From about 2,700' we were able to cut into open slopes and traverse into Cleve Creek. The moon was nearly full, the night was young and I was elated that every vertical foot we climbed from this point would be repaid with turns in powder.

Somewhere partway up the drainage we had a snack and slept until we were too cold. As my old friend Don Quixote likes to tell it, snatches a nap, as they say, resting on his lance and with his feet on the stirrups as knights-errant did of old. Formidable and froid restricted our repose.

Soon the full moon that obviated headlamps also cast aspersions on our access. How to get onto the face? The gully on the right looked like a one-way ticket to nowhere. The slopes we'd hoped to use on its left were snow-dusted rockslabs. Cliff bands barred the way on the left, but there was a chink in the armor on their right. With encouragement from Ross I skinned to the friendliest-looking spot.

There I found thin snow over rock, giving way shortly above to thin ice over rock. I wasn't thinking clearly and wanted to sneak through the spot without any gear shenanigans. So I removed my skis, put them slightly above me into some snow and tried to get up the difficulty with naked ski boots. Halfway into the affair I lost my footing, fell into the snow below and knocked my skis down the slope. Ross caught one. The other?

Stop. Stop. STOP!

It stopped at the bottom of the slope and I proceeded to fetch it.

skin Ross skins at dawn.

While I was retracing my skin track, Ross put his skis on his pack, donned his crampons and made the moves. What followed the moves was a very spicy traverse on loose snow over rock above an ever larger cliff band. Through a scary windlip and now to the business.

Up, up, up... approximately an hour before dawn our efforts put us in a bowl below an ice bulge. I was kicking steps and had avoided the accumulated snow in the bowl's middle, but at its top was faced with a dilemma. Cross the top of the bowl below the cliffs or retreat to a different route? La neige me faisait peur. My sphincter was clenched so tight it could have cracked a carbon nanotube, thinking about cutting a slab out of the bowl and riding it to Cleve Creek, so we found a way to retreat around a rib to some trees. From there we were able to skin.

Above the bowl and cliffs, things were looking good.

We were at the base of the upper face by 8:30. The snow here had ripples, evidence of wind-scouring. We were encouraged. Booting up the face varied from boot-top powder to knee deep swimming. Prolific self-congratulations ensued. Picture yourself perched above cliffs, between rockbands, on a gorgeous steep face filled with powder. Yeah.

Things got tricky at the top. Sugar snow over steeper rocks. We did some really cool booting along the North Ridge with stimulating exposure. There was a good spot for making the change to skiing mode about 15 vertical feet below the summit, so we left the skis there. Sidestepping the 60-degreeish knife-edge ridge at the top seemed passé. I've side-stepped so much in the Cascades already.

summit Twenty-five hours after waking up with a hangover, Sky climbs the final bit of ridge to the summit.

alpine Washington winter wonderland

As far as the descent, suffice it to say that it was the best non-stop, fall-line powder run I've had. 5,600 feet to the Middle Fork with a couple pauses to rest the legs and utter platitudes like "It's so good!" A nice boof into powder at the bottom of the face over the bulge at the edge of the cliff band, where I lost my ski so early in the morning. All part of the game.

cut the ribbon Ross gets the ball rolling on 5,600 vertical feet of powder. Sahale Peak and Mt Buckner are visible in the background.

powder Ross telesurfs the pow on his skinny little Blizzard skis.

neverending powder That's a lot of powder.

more powder We skied amazing, stable powder.

We hauled ass through the Middle Fork's death-shwhack. Sausage sounded good. Back in Seattle, two Ragin' Cajuns at Schultzy's and lots of free beer, courtesy of, put me in a sleepy, satisfied stupor.

Gear Notes: thermos full of sex-shot Americano CRITICAL

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