West McMillan Spire, West Ridge Ski

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27-28 January 2007

McMillan Spires and West Ridge of West McMillan Spire The West Ridge of West McMillan Spire (MouseOver to see route)

During an exploratory day-trip descent of Lost Marbles Couloir - a couloir into Marble Creek Cirque from the Hidden Lake Peaks area - on Wednesday, January 24th, it was hard not to notice that the Southern Picket Range was holding a lot of snow on the south side. Skiing a southern aspect near Hidden Lake Peaks later that same day, the snowpack already seemed to be in decent spring condition. The universe was coming into alignment for a weekend trip to the Pickets.

Jason and Phil had another objective, but I convinced them to come with me. The prospect of a ski descent from a summit in the Southern Picket Range, longstanding in the consciousness of at least one group of northwest ski mountaineers, was difficult to resist. We left Seattle at 3:30 am Saturday morning.

We were delighted to be on skis from the gravel pit near Newhalem . The road to Goodell Campground, like so many others in the North Cascades, has a new washout from the November rains. It was lovely to ski the Goodell Creek Trail, which minimized our battles with blowdown and brush.

Terror Glacier ski touring Jason skins Terror Glacier.

The upper portion of the approach, making a rising traverse below the ridge, was much easier with the large snowpack. Dazzling views of T-Bone Ridge during our ascending traverse and comments from Phil had us contemplating the overwhelming sickness of a 6500 vf, 6-mile tram from Newhalem to the top of Big Devil Peak. It would be like a Washington version of Chamonix, with haute route access to Backbone Ridge and Marble Creek Cirque. Actually, I think I prefer the difficult access and its corresponding isolation and tranquility.

Jim has been whispering in my ear about this 19 oz. bivy/down sleeping bag combo for a few months. This trip gave me the impetus to try it. I managed to squeeze everything in a tiny day pack. Somehow I didn't freeze at night, even with a breeze at 5,800'. The whiskey probably helped. (Years later, the only reason I didn't buy one of those things is that they don't make them in long. I'm too tall. I wouldn't want to be squishing myself into the thing to hide from the breeze all the time.)

Sure that the snow would need time to soften, we started after sunrise. It felt incredible to ski up a glacier in a t-shirt, wearing neither hat nor gloves. What a wonderful dose of spring in January! Jason was so happy that he even broke some trail.

Jason skis on the summit ridge of West McMillan Spire. Fall: 300m cliff on the left or 600m cliff on the right?

The exposure increased exponentially as we climbed the ridge above the 7,400' col. The snow was alternating between soft and icy, depending on aspects and rockbands. We were able to link soft sections most of the way. A small rocky step posed an obstacle to the summit ridge.

I wanted to check a possible alternate descent route. It looked like it might be easier, but it featured a much longer section of drastic exposure to the north face. Booting down it in my crampons, I found it much too rocky. The way I'd climbed would be best. I climbed my original line again. I removed my backpack to see how wide the snow was between the rocks. It was about a foot narrower than the length of my skis. Phil told me that Jason was snapping into his skis, so I returned to the summit. Phil downclimbed to just below the bulge, where the slope turned into nice corn.

The summit offered tremendous views of Inspiration Peak, Degenhardt, Mt Baker, Terror, and Shuksan. It was mild enough to stand on the summit in a t-shirt. This is where we started our ski descent. Jason was ready to go and he'd had enough of the exposure, so I told him to be careful and snapped a photo.

sky skis the picket range Sky skis the West Ridge of West McMillan Spire.

Jason's skis were just short enough for him to sidestep through the bulge on snow until he could point them into the corn. Jason made a smooth maneuver, pointing them for a split second to exit the frying pan. Hooray for Jason. I kept my ice ax in my upper (left) hand and sidestepped down a few rocks. Below the bulge, I stowed the ax and enjoyed the exposure. I enjoyed the scenic skiing on the West Ridge of West McMillan Spire. Jason ejoyed the skiing too.

The south-facing slopes down to the 5,400' outlet of the deeply-gorged lake were a sticky, creamy corn. Somehow, the snow didn't get too mushy for the skin to camp. We took a long break to ogle, hoot, holler, eat, and pack camp. I kept thinking "How could it be so good?" while skinning to camp and homeward.

It felt really great to finally realize this long-term dream (three whopping years!). A ski descent from the summit of West McMillan Spire first occurred to me after our first attempt to ski the Degenhardt Glacier in June, 2004, when we saw the West Ridge, still holding some snow so late in the season, from Terror Creek.

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Give all you can to the fall of man.