Mt Blum: Northwest Shoulder Ski Descent

30 January 2005

When viewing the bigger version, note that in late May of 1970 the cliffband was completely buried where we had to scale and jump it. Such are the advantages of drought years.

Mt Blum This big, beautiful Blum photo is from a bushwhacker-errant who bears the seal of the Rhinoceros, a strong sturdy beast if ever there was one. His celebrated sorties and picaresque adventures canvass the Cascades in a most inimitable fashion. Thanks for the photo, Dr. John Roper!

This winter has been very frustrating. Many nights of being a drunken braggadocio in pubs around Seattle made me feel impotent, as if I were losing my edge. I needed release. I needed adventure. My plan was to ski Mt Blum in a day. I was hoping that I could make lemonade out of our bitterly citrus-flavored weather. The Hummels were ignorant of the more sinister aspects of my design, so they happily agreed to go with high expectations of surveying new terrain.

The more I looked at the topo maps, the more excited I became. There is an abundance of alpine terrain up there! Bacon Peak connects to Mt Blum and Hagan Mountain, from which there is a high route on a ridge to Mt Despair that never drops to timberline. Wow! The weather forecast deteriorated before Sunday, but that's more of an expectation than a surprise. The situation in the northwest right now is remarkably vexing: we have effectively zero low-elevation snowpack, the forecasts give no hope that we'll have a low elevation snowpack any time soon, yet we still can't get any stable weather to make the best of it in the hills. Maybe it's good to know how bad it can really get; I'll be more happy with all kinds of less-than-ideal situations in the future.

So pardon my lengthy preamble and let me tell you about our picaresque adventures above Baker River. The Hummels met me at my house at a quarter past three in the morning on a Sunday, so that we could visit the church of steep brush. Never mind that it was raining as we packed our gear at the end of Baker Lake Road; such is the fate of ski mountaineers-errant: to climb and ski the great worthy peaks where others would not deign to venture because of the great suffering required. No bushwhack is a match for a gallant ski mountaineer-errant's doughty back and well-loaded pack, with skis proudly pointing to the sky to make the branches overhead crack.

How difficult could it be with the nice new bridge over Baker River? We found no trace of a trail leaving the Baker Lake Trail on the other side. It was probably only because it was dark, but we wandered from the bridge to the next creek to the south several times without finding the indicators we sought. With much speculation I used my mapcraft to determine that the creek nearest to the bridge was Blum Creek, which meant we needed to leave the main trail somewhere in the interval we had repeatedly traversed. Several forays into the woods gave us no sign of the well-flagged route of which we'd heard, so we finally decided to do the honorable thing and make a sortie through the shrubbery.

Our efforts up the flood plain and through gullies choked with dead trees were eventually rewarded with daylight, plus a pink flag hanging from a tree. I can only speculate how long we would have continued through the wet woods without this affirmation, but the bootpack we found in short order after the flag multiplied our motivation manifold. This approach was unique in my experience. In all my gallivanting about the Cascades the last few years, never have I spent 4,000 vertical feet (That's 1,200 meters for you SI junkies.) in steep forest without intermission. Luckily, most of it is in open old growth forest, so it could be much worse.

By the time the steep ridge eased at 4,600 feet, there was a consistent snowpack. We were thankful that the rain had subsided not too long after we began, but brushy sections in the woods had left us as wet as could be. We didn't contour to Blum Lakes; instead we stayed on the ridge. The trees opened at 5,400 feet, where we left our water-logged shoes and socks (except for Josh who had forgotten extra socks) to don skis and skins. I had read of several routes in the red Beckey, but they left me ambivalent. Given our position we decided to follow the ridge as it turned to the north and passed a lake at 5,900 feet, en route to crossing a ridge that trends northwest from Mt Blum.

Josh led the way on skins at noon. Two seemed like a reasonable turnaround time, but I wanted to make a good effort and considered a time more toward three acceptable. We crossed the aforementioned ridge and climbed toward the small, north-facing glacier to the west of the North Ridge without further ado. We were treated to one of our two tantalizing glimpses of that giant yellow thing in the sky about this time, which allowed us to ogle the terrain toward Hagan Mountain. I was also elated to discover the return of the maritime snowpack. There was a thin coating of a few inches of powder over a bombproof concrete base. Moreover, the snow began warm so that there was no trace of a crust, just an impregnable bottom layer.

I was in the lead as we sallied toward the top of the glacier, which presented an array of obstacles against which we could test our resolve. We chose to regain the northwest ridge via a steep chute. The chute's sidewalls consisted of blue ice over granite. Josh led the posthole procession up the chute, which included a large fan of snow accumulated from spindrift off its steep sidewalls. I stayed well behind him, somewhat concerned about the large pile of snow releasing. The runout on the glacier was mellow, though, and the snow had shown absolutely no signs of instability. Josh was a bit intimidated by an ice step where the chute made a bottleneck, so he asked me to join him.

With temerity befitting a ski mountaineer-errant manifesting great deeds, I quickly kicked steps up the seventy-five-degree constriction. The angle eased before long and I was able to boot to the gentle ridge without hindrance. The ridge above 7,000 feet presents easy ambulation, but is exposed to large cliffs toward the glacier. We slowly strolled over a roll and were disappointed to see that the whiteout had enchanted us and that we had work to do yet. So I began kicking steps up the snowfield just to the northwest of where the North Ridge and the ridge that trends northwest meet.

I recently bought a gradient gauge so I decided to put it to use on the open snowfield. A measurement near the bottom yielded 45.5 degrees, and 150 feet higher the result was 47 degrees. I didn't bother to use it again in the j-shaped chute above the snowfield, because I found the cliff at the bottom of the 'j' somewhat discomforting. The chute was much steeper than the snowfield, though; I would estimate 60 degrees.

The top of the chute formed a hinge between the North Ridge and the ridge that trends northwest. It looked like an easy stroll along the ridge was all that remained to the summit of Mt Blum, which according to my mapcraft and trusty topo was about 200 feet above us. Faced with fleeting daylight and the prospect of navigating the steep woods down to the river in the dark, combined with the nontrivial aspects of the ski descent now below us, we decided to end the ascending phase of our adventure there at the top of the honourable j-chute.

ready to ski Sky, ready at the top of the steep j-shaped chute. Photo by Jason Hummel

I was the first one ready to ski, so I had the honor of scraping the meager layer of fresh snow off the chute's icy surface. I made a turn at the top, the ugly skidding end of which I found quite disconcerting. In the interest of self-preservation I side-stepped and -slipped the remainder until I found myself facing the wrong way at the bottom of the 'j.' I asked Jason to take a photo and made my jump turn. Then I traversed onto the snowfield and made a couple relieved turns in the nice snow of the benign, 47-degree slope. Josh had never seen me resort to the sidestep, so he followed with a bit of trepidation. Both Hummels made it down the chute intact.

They were in concordance that their new skis may have saved them in the chute. I helped them select something other than the big fat skis this fall. It is good to see them on reasonable skis at last. Now if I could just talk them into getting properly functioning bindings! Don Quixote had that brilliant beast Rozinante, as every knight-errant had a worthy horse. In the same manner it is befitting that a ski mountaineer-errant should have a good set of boards.

steep skiing on Blum Sky Sjue, ski mountaineer-errant extraordinaire, ponders his options above the dogleg chute. Photo by Jason Hummel

Pleasant skiing on the ridge led to the chute above the glacier. The top of it was too narrow to sidestep. It was also a dogleg, so straight-running the top posed the peril of maiming oneself on the rock and ice at the side of the chute. I was considering climbing down it, when Jason solved the problem in short order. He hurled himself in a thirty foot drop onto the pile of spindrift in the chute's gullet. There were plenty of pillows for all of us, so Josh went next, followed by me. The landing was as soft as could be; I emerged from a butt-check to make a few powder turns on the glacier and shout for joy.

Time was now our enemy, so we truncated our celebrations and made a high traverse for the ridge. After we skied by the 5,900-foot lake we were treated to views to the east and west off the ridge. Both directions beckoned with huge, tempting fields of powder. We had to ignore the enchantment of the powderfields in light of our haste. Return to this fair bastion of terrain in the future, we must. The rolling ridge was a worthwhile consolation prize, then we were able to ski another 500 vertical feet or so into the trees, amazingly without losing the path.

We stayed in our boots for the downshwhack. We ran a respectable race against the clock, but we could not avoid the inevitable. Darkness descended upon us with 2,000 vertical feet remaining to the valley floor. Somehow we had made it 2,000 vertical feet in half an hour as darkness approached, but in its presence it took us three and a half hours to finish the deed. The sounds of Blum Creek and Baker River were maddening. We could hear them, but they didn't seem to get any closer. The closer we got to the valley floor, the more deadfall, devil's club, and daunting debris slowed our progress. The rain returned with some fervor as we struggled down to the valley.

By the time the terrain was flat we were going nowhere and I was absolutely convinced the valley was enchanted. Consider the evidence: Jason Hummel, for all his celebrated adventures as an esteemed ski mountaineer-errant, was reduced to behavior unbecoming of even a squire. Some devil got hold of all of our tongues, and we were walking as if drunk and falling due to some bedeviled branch every third step. I had to laugh in delight, knowing that an evil wizard would only go to such lengths to stop a ski mountaineer-errant who was destined for truly great adventures. That same wizard further tried to stifle us by extinguishing my torch. I had to stay between the Hummels. Add to the copious evidence of enchantment the fact that the Hummels, with their torches, were falling much more than I was falling with only the scattered light they left for me. Or perhaps my fair lady was coming to my succor. Who is my fair lady, you ask? Never mind that you base heathen, I would never betray her honor!

After many ups and downs and a pause to check the compass and realize that my topo had become a slimy ball of pulp, we were surprised to stumble upon the Baker Lake Trail. We were relieved to see that the wizard had not thought to hide the bridge by enchantment, and we hiked to the Hummels' Explorer posthaste. Jason offered me a fruit cocktail, telling me it would get me high. It was most excellent, but it could not replace the salve of a good beer. I cracked a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which to me is as good or better than the magic healing balm of Fierebras was for the famous knight Don Quixote de La Mancha. I tried Jason's salve but he would not try mine. Maybe it would treat him like the balm of Fierebras treated Sancho Panza?

Note: This essay would not be complete without a recommendation of the Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra masterpiece, Don Quixote. I would also like to give thanks to Ray and Toni Hall for the new, super-light Ortovox backpack which is really handy for trips like this.

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