If I have learned anything about “winter” climbing on the west slopes of the Cascades, its that getting the conditions just right is both luck and an art. Sure if you get a big high pressure window and ice flowing down tree trunks its one thing, but for the rest of the year finding good sports action is hard. After bailing on grander plans that required a better weather forecast and snowpack, Eric and I decided to do a little short day jaunt into the sisters with skis. We were stunned by the fun climbing and the great conditions we found. Great sticks into ice and snow between discontinuous gullies that hold 3rd/4th scrambling in ski boots and easy mixed terrain made the West Ridge quite enjoyable.
We followed the standard approach to the west ridge of North Twin Sister. This entails driving Mosquito Lake road until you can go left on a logging road that parallels the middle fork of the Nooksack river. There is plenty of beta out there, so I am not going to repeat it here. Most of the time, this is eventually blocked by a big metal gate, managed by the logging company, 5 miles in. Eric and I thought we were quite lucky to see the gate open and blasted right through it (mistake??). We followed the road via GPS coordinates he and I had put together before parking the car where snow on the road made further travel unlikely.
When done as a summer scramble, most folks either run the road or take bikes, depending on how light they are going. We had opted for skis to make the best of a snowpack we expected to find at about 2000’-ish. We left our tennis shoes in the car and did the approach on skis, separated by some brief sections of road walking. A GPS of some kind is quite useful for the approach as there are many spurs on the logging road you are following. The technology exists, you might as well use it.
We arrived at the base of the west ridge after some fun conversations and easy uphill. There were just a few sections of Cascade shenanigans, like crossing a small melted-out creek. Here, we were both either seasoned enough or dumb enough to not take our skis off and did a sort of stem move across rocks to regain the bank on the far side. Instead of following the approach to the ridge for the last half mile, we opted to contour on the north side of the rib of North Twin that becomes the west ridge. This seemed necessary based on growth of the trees along the ridge that would have made pushing skis uphill difficult. I am still recovering from the amount of bush-whacking, Eric and I did this summer, so we avoided the unknown at all costs. See track.
In summer the climb is a 3rd/4th class adventure where proper route-finding makes it a very manageable solo affair. I estimated that between the deep winter snowpack and some melt freeze cycles, we would find good snow and mixed travel conditions with just a bit of technical movement. It would only be hard if we wanted to make it that way. Thus, we left the rack at home and brought harnesses and a short rope only for any necessary rappels to drop into our ski descent.
Our climb was a nice argument for new school versus old school. Eric brought two straight shafted tools, each with wrist straps. I didn’t even know people used those anymore. I carried more modern weapons (pair of Grivel Matrix sticks). My curved tools didn’t plunge as well as Eric’s 90s era mountain axes. Conversely, I had quite a bit of fun as we tooled and swung our way to the summit, seeking out easy ice and mixed climbing where it could be found. There was good melt-freeze neve in several of the small couloirs, and even some water ice in others.
Though we brought crampons, we stuck to boot-only climbing, probably out of laziness more than anything. There were a few crux sections where we scared ourselves just enough to feel accomplished. At one point, Eric and I both completed a full “straddle move to beached-whale to double alpine knee” maneuver to top out on one of the lower steps. I might have even done a bit of O-dub-ing in that section to keep it real.
We topped out, bagged the summit, then picked a line for the descent after an assessment of the snow conditions and avalanche hazard.
Eric, a grand-master of skiing improbable lines in the Cascades, led the decision-making on the terrain we would descend. He and I dug into the layers just below the summit to find an expected dense rain crust with a well-bonded 4-5 inch, highly non-reactive layer on top. It would probably take a bomb to make anything go big, so we skied what was probably the most aggressive line possible, but not without a few ski cuts and otherwise good terrain/group management. The most dangerous aspect of the descent was probably the heavy sluff on the rain crust that locked you into your turns. Our descent from the summit was probably some of the most variable skiing I have done this year, ranging from a nice, carve-able, styrofoam wind slab to the hard rain crust. Below 4500 ft, we found a fun, spring corn-like texture before it got soupy. We skied our way to our original up-track on the north side of the west rib, contoured a bit, then made it through the trees back down to the road. A few free-heel pushes later, we made it back to the car, again with intermittent road walking.
Now for the moment of chance we had been waiting for. Would the road be open, like the arms of a loved one, beckoning us home, or closed, like the gates of Mordor, committing us to a long walk to reach humanity.
A note on the current snow/road conditions (March 21st, 2017):
-we parked at 2220 ft where snow began to cover the road in sheltered/shaded areas
-consistent snowpack on the road above 2900ft, where we were able to skin the whole way to the start of the climbing. It might not be possible to use skis below this point beyond this week.
-at the summit, a non-reactive wind/storm layer was well-bonded to the underlying rain crust. No obs of recent cornice activity or avalanches other than large R2/R3 debris path on NW aspect that looks like it may have released from steep rock face on Friday night.
6:00 – Leave Bellingham
7:07 – Leave the car parked a mile past the gate.
10:33 – Start climbing/skis on pack
14:06 – Top out
4:47 – Back to car
-Two tools (we could have gotten away with one, but route-finding would be more critical, and why not have some fun)
-Short 7.7mm (40m?) + harnesses for stomping on wind slabs on descent if necessary
-Skis, skins, poles, avy gear
-ferosi jacket and OR storm tracker gloves, the ultimate in spring skiing essentials!