Photos by Scott Rinckenberger
Torrents of snow curled into the air, the sky and the cold crystals indistinguishable. You know this feeling, right? The first pitch of a new line swells the heart, bursts it open so that the vast wild spaces fill you. Your insides, too, become indistinguishable from the sun and the snow and the perfect silence. On the particular day I have in mind, we gave into gravity and fell toward the earth, 4,600’ to the valley floor, overnight packs unnoticed, singing with joy.
In the North Cascades, the magic of this moment has something to do with the days of travel required to get to the line in the first place. It has to do with the effort and solitude and focus that grow as you walk the deep valleys and forests, that smolder inside as you crawl into your bag beneath the stars, still far from your destination. Something in this elaborate pilgrimage has kept me coming back for two decades, but always for four days, occasionally six. I would always leave the mountains feeling reluctant, feeling curious about what I would learn if I were to remain.
Because doesn’t something start to happen on the fourth or fifth day? In the stillness of a starlit morning, or amid the fragrance of sunwarmed fir needles near dusk, looking out on a nameless valley, isn’t there something happening inside you?
Last May, a friend and I learned what it means to slow the whole thing down, to remain in the mountains, to arrive atop that line only after weeks of travel. I want to share with you a little about what we learned, and what we are still learning.
The pass was warm and dirty, humming with the concrete tones of the interstate. By May 1st in the Cascades, thoughts of powder are gone and you long mainly for clear skies, for the cooling of the earth out into the dark of space, for vast planes of firm crust softening in the sun. But this particular May 1st, the dark crags of Guye and Denny stood half wreathed in cloud, a light snow sifting down with unlikely leisure, considering the warmth. We climbed up the snow bank and clicked in. At that moment we were one hour from the mirrored towers and the swiveling, industrious cranes of Seattle, one hour from where Pleistocene ice sheets ground down and polished the edge of the continent. One hour from where 3.8 million souls dwell amid rectilinear perfection, fake islands, fake hills, a million coffee shops, tent cities along the freeway.
We set out up a valley we’d travelled hundreds of times; we call it our backyard, a term I think mountain people like because it contains all the childlike affection and aspiration rekindled by these haunts. Over the years, this quiet climb has unfolded so many ways: laps in the ancient hemlocks of Kendall, couloirs above Silver Creek, the back way up the hulking massif of Mount Snoqualmie, the Crooked, the Slot. But on this day we moved north under new and unusual terms: we had thirty days, and nothing to do but ski.
Our world as skiers can be a kind of mythic cosmology: here we are in middle earth with our workaday lives and our local ski hills. But just out of reach, and never far from our thoughts, is a kind of Valhalla, a place we long to reach and sometimes touch, briefly. For some it is Jackson, or Chamonix, or Haines; maybe it is El Portal, or Niseko. There, if we are lucky, we will ski with the gods and with all of our friends and we will fulfill some dimly understood destiny. But the ubiquitous bucket list is where our imaginations go to die; it tends to get cluttered with manufactured ideas of what is worthy, what is ideal, what will make us happy. I see how goals energize and inspire. I’ve got my own list, and I keep it close. But I often wonder what it means to really follow your own dream–to discern its outline in the first place, to recognize it, is hard enough. Trevor wonders the same things, and that’s how our trip began.
To be clear, we were not the first to imagine skiing the length of the North Cascades. Lowell Skoog has relentlessly stitched together the entire crest of the Washington Cascades over two decades of careful and well-documented adventure, all squeezed into a busy life of full time work, family, and serious historical research. Jason Hummel and Kyle Miller did a long stretch a few years back, calling it the American Alps Traverse. The idea for this trip arose over hundreds of days of our lives spent covering ground on skis in the North Cascades. It was an act of geographic imagination that occupied us season after season as we explored the range. But considering our long-term affair with the lore and craft of skiing in our range, it was also sort of an obvious thing to do. We are proud to be part of a hundred year tradition of Cascadian skiing, and it is safe to say that we are standing on the shoulders of some frosty, Game of Thrones-style giants.
Carving a month out of your year is not easy, especially if you have to do it over and over again as you wait for favorable conditions to arise. It’s a big hit to the household budget, and a big ask of the family, friends and coworkers who will be picking up the slack and coming through on last minute resupply missions. Considering what it would take to make it happen, some people asked us why we didn’t take the opportunity to go somewhere exotic. It’s true that, with a month, we could have gone just about anywhere in the world. We could have gone to the Wrangells, or to the Selkirks, or to Svalbard, or to somewhere no one has ever heard of and no one has ever skied. But here is the thing: we did not first decide to take a month off for a ski trip, and then daydream about destinations. We just wanted to ski from Snoqualmie Pass to Canada, and we had a line on a map in our minds; it was only when we’d looked at the actual maps and done the math that we realized it would take 30 days. It seemed like a long time, but we both kept thinking about it, for years.
Trevor and I tell each other, “This is what we learned: spend time in nature—the more time, the better.
For two guys who have lived and worked in the mountains for much of their lives, that might not seem like too much of a stretch, as far as deep insights go. But look at it another way: we spent 34 days skiing our hearts out, and that is the single most important thing we brought back. It’s more urgent than we thought, both for ourselves and for our world.
The benefits of time in contact with living things and with natural landscapes are well documented in so many traditions: choose from among the poets, the philosophers, the prophets, and now, recently, the scientists. Trevor and I knew we valued being in wild nature, and in many ways had built our lives around it. But we were deeply moved by the power of connection we felt with the mountain–we were, frankly, startled by it. As this sense of connection grew, a calm and easy-going joy arose in us. We looked for an explanation, wanting to understand what we had been missing.
We realized that, for one thing, the evolution of skiing and alpinism has condensed so many overnights into all-day missions, and week-long trips into quick-hits. Doing things faster and lighter is the logical way to grow mastery, to reduce exposure to hazards, and to fit more into a limited timeframe. But as we had followed that logic, we had lost something. The down time, sitting in camp and staring into the folds of some mountain, or watching the ants in the heather and kinickinick—that was important to us, and perhaps as important as the skiing.
We crossed very few ski tracks on our trip, despite some stretches of very good weather. We found this troubling, and we discussed how long overnight trips are becoming more difficult for people to make room for. We also noted that skiers and climbers today tend to have a variety of interests, and may not choose to devote the time required to attain proficiency in the many skill sets required for overnight wilderness ski mountaineering.
We realized we really want more people to spend more time in these places, and that we want to work to make that happen. We would give up the solitude reluctantly, maybe, but we believe the wilderness—and perhaps the Wilderness Act itself–will need strong allies in this and future generations. Those allies–normal citizens like you and I–need to touch these places. We need to dwell in them for a while, to come to understand what they mean, and what they offer to us, and to life on earth. And then we need to understand what we can offer to the wilderness.
Not only do we need people to travel the wilderness, but we need a broad cross section of society to do so. Time in wild places should be a rite of passage available to all humans, not just the indulgence of a privileged few; I think it is ethically difficult to be a proponent of wilderness but not of social justice. A friend of mine says simply, “Skiing is life.” And I think that can be true, if we look deeply. For if skiing brings you to the wilderness, and in the wilderness you touch a sense of care and reverence for life, then you can bring that home to the city; you can feel that same care and reverence, driving past the blue tarps and pallets of a shanty in the freeway underpass. You can feel more connected, and you can act. Skiing can be life.
I feel hopeful that this generation of Cascadian skiers is becoming more connected not only to the political realities around our public lands, but also to the natural history and ecology of our mountains. I think that once they have spent even a little time there, people long to know about the secret lives that go on out in the wilderness. I share that longing, and our long ski tour gave me little glimpses of those lives.
Somewhere far from any road, where two valleys rose to meet atop the ancient crest of this range, we crossed a set of wolverine tracks. We have just a handful of these animals in the North Cascades, but Cascadian skiers are fiercely proud of them and curious about their lives. Even if people almost never see them, our small population of gulo gulo generates a lot of tracks, and they share with ski mountaineers a taste for terrain: high, rugged, deeply snowed. Wolverines are notorious for epic day journeys that make our ski touring efforts seem sort of, uh, junior varsity; they are made for this environment. They rely on deep seasonal snowpack for fast travel and, critically, for safe denning with young. A few years ago, Trevor and I followed a set of tracks up the somewhat technical Frostbite Ridge on Glacier Peak, a remote and glacier clad volcano. The tracks lead straight up and over the 10,000 ft. summit and vanished down a headwall on the other side. The wolverine may quickly become totemic for the Pacific Northwest skier: we rely on the same mountains and the same snows, and we need freedom to roam.
Our ski community is also learning that the snow itself, receding into the high country as the world warms, is home to a complex community of invisible life. Shortly before we began our traverse, a biologist changed forever how I experience snow. You learn in your first avalanche course that snow crystals begin life as water crystallizes around a nucleus–often a particle of dust–inside of a cloud. But it turns out that many of the nuclei are actually micro-organisms swept up into the atmosphere. And in fact many of those organisms survive the journey, and become metabolically active in the ecosystems where they end up. The snow is in a very real sense alive. I thought of this each night as we dug our shelter–how the snow was like a coral reef, the collective mineral shell of billions tiny beings.
Waking up each morning on our traverse, cradled by the living snow, we would listen for the lovely and very economical song of the Gray Crowned Rosie Finch, or for the grousing of ptarmigans. Trevor’s wife Emily is a serious birder and has been teaching Trevor about the birds who frequent the glaciers and high cirques of the North Cascades. Trevor taught me about these birds, and the next time I go skiing, I’ll share the birds and their songs with my companion. This might seem like a small thing, but it is one of the gifts of our long traverse. Because now that I have seen a little of the ptarmigan’s secret life, a little of the wolverine’s, I can never go back to thinking of them as features of the landscape. They are the ones who live here; they belong, and maybe they can teach me about belonging.
The traverse is long gone, but we relive it over and over. We agreed to more slideshows than we could quite handle, but we want to share and inspire; it’s also an opportunity to maybe do some ephemeral good. We donate all the proceeds to the Cascades Wolverine Project, and tantalize the audience with fun wolverine facts. We try hard not to get preachy, or come off as total hippies; we try to make our message seem reasonable: please go squander your time playing in the dirt because it will make your life better. Meanwhile, we keep looking at maps.
When you go night skiing even though it’s crappy; when you get out of town and just sleep in a tent because it’s been too long; when the snow is better on the front side but you just want to go somewhere quiet, so you go to this spot you know to feel the stillness of the firs and the drifting, turning snow: that is you, in love with the earth.