|Skiing above Crystal Lakes on the Crystal Mountain to Cayuse Pass traverse, January 1997. Mount Rainier is in the distance. (Map, 200kb)|
Long before the Crystal Mountain Ski Area opened in 1962, skiers frequented the alpine basins northeast of Chinook Pass. The Chinook Pass highway was finished in 1931, and Yakima skiers immediately began using it to reach the pass from the east. By the late 1930s, a pattern was well established. In November or December, after the first snows, Yakima skiers would head for Tipsoo Lake, just west of the pass. After the highway closed for the winter, they would move to the Gold Hill cabin in Morse Creek. Come spring, they'd return to Tipsoo. The Yakima Cascadians owned a portable ski tow that they moved between Tipsoo and Gold Hill during the season. In 1941, club members paid $1 for the season to use the tow.
Chuck and Marion Hessey were the First Couple of the Gold Hill cabin. Chuck first visited Gold Hill as a boy in the 1910s or 1920s when a few down-on-their-luck prospectors were still there. Beginning in the 1938-39 season he spent four winters, from October to May, living at the cabin and introducing youngsters to skiing. He met Marion Monter during one of those winters and they later married. Chuck's favorite tour from Gold Hill was a seven-mile circle to "Crystal Bowl" (now called Silver Basin), a spacious cirque on Crystal Mountain. In the 1940 Cascadian Annual, a poem called "Etching," probably written by Chuck Hessey, captured the spirit of skiing in those days:
Mid darkling pine,
Members of the Seattle Mountaineers occasionally skied from Highway 410 to Crystal Lakes and crossed over the Cascade crest to Morse Creek for a weekend at the Gold Hill cabin. During snow surveys for the Crystal Mountain ski area in the late 1950s, Duke Watson and Warren Spickard, officers in the newly formed Crystal Mountain, Inc., would sometimes meet the Hesseys ski touring and talk with them about the future of skiing in the area. Chuck and Marion Hessey were never interested in lift skiing. They preferred backcountry skiing from simple cabins like Gold Hill or the snow survey cabin at Lyman Lake, above Lake Chelan. The Hesseys were ardent conservationists and filmmakers, and they played an important role in establishing the Glacier Peak Wilderness and the North Cascades National Park.
I began skiing at age seven a year after Crystal Mountain opened in the early 1960s. My father was one of many Puget Sound area skiers who bought stock to help the ski area get started. I grew up skiing at Crystal and so was naturally drawn to explore beyond the lifts when I took up backcountry skiing in the early 1980s. In 1991, my brother Carl and I skied from Crystal Mountain to Chinook Pass on a day when the lift skiing was hard-packed and icy. Unfamiliar with the route, we decided to ski from Chinook Pass down Highway 410 to Cayuse Pass and continue to the base of the Crystal Mountain road, a total of ten miles of road skiing (see map, 200kb). Thanks to the glazed snow conditions we encountered that day, we covered those ten miles in just an hour. But we realized that on most days the gentle road would involve a lot of trailbreaking. Since then, I've always returned from Chinook Pass to Crystal, completing a loop.
This tour has become a favorite of mine when the lift skiing is uninspiring, typically after a long dry spell when the snow surface is hard. Such conditions are ideal for traveling fast. Thousands of words and pictures have been devoted to making turns on skis. But very little, it seems, has been written about one of the finest experiences skis have to offer. That is to push off a high ridge, set your edges on a gradually descending traverse, and then hold them. No turns -- maybe some poling and skating -- just letting your skis gobble up the miles. Above treeline, where you can watch the landscape wheel by, there are few finer sensations.
On a February day in 2006, I drove to Crystal Mountain by myself with a vague idea of touring around the boundaries of the ski area. When I arrived the weather was better than expected, so I decided to head for Chinook Pass. I left a detailed note on the dashboard of my car (my wife knew only my vague plans) and started skinning up one of the groomed ski runs in mid-morning. Although the snow conditions were mediocre for turning, they were great for covering distance.
Above timberline, the slopes were either wind packed or scoured to a sun crust. Everything was edgeable. I had never seen better conditions for setting an edge and letting the skis run, and I was able to hold a higher line on the traverse than ever before. In three hours I was at the Chinook Pass footbridge (pictured below). I returned to Crystal Mountain by a different route, completing my favorite loop. As I dropped into Silver Basin, the anticipated storm finally arrived and I squinted into a blizzard. The wind diminished as I skied down the groomed runs and I returned to the lodge after only five hours on skis. I made only a few dozen turns all day, but the feeling of movement was really satisfying. Arnold Lunn wrote about the ski mountaineering of his youth in 1949, and he penned one of the few descriptions I've found of the sensations of this sort of skiing:
"On the smooth unchanging gradients of a gentle glacier you lose the sense of personal movement. You feel as if you were stationary and as if it were your surroundings that are moving. Your skis seem like a narrow skiff anchored in midstream, a slender boat that sways gently as the river sweeps round the bows. The illusion is reinforced in late spring when you reach the wrinkled limit of the snows, and where your skis float over the ground swell of snow waves. As the speed relaxes, the hills move to a sedater measure. The foreground that had rushed up to meet you slows down... Suddenly the world gives a little jerk. The mountains stop moving and the world of fancy gives way to the world of sober fact." --Arnold Lunn, "Skiing the Skyline"
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