Every season around April and May, a veritable Chilean invasion takes place in Washington. It's the time of year when Chilean skiers and snowboarders who chase the dream of endless winter with trips to the Northern Hemisphere pass through Washington on their way back to South America. Soledad de las Nieves Diaz, sister to well-known skier Chopo and snowboarder Manuel, was on such a journey this year. After a stint in Jackson Hole, Sole drove a borrowed van to Haines, Alaska, then took a ferry back down to Washington, where she wrapped up the season before returning to Chile. With good spring snow conditions in Washington's mountains, we decided to meet up and head into the hills.
Sole's middle name means "Of The Snows," and it is no empty claim. Born and raised in Farellones, Chile--which sits at the base of three Chilean ski resorts: La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado--Sole is Chile's most highly accomplished female skier, and is most at home when playing and working in snow-covered mountains. The geographies of the Northwest and Chile have much in common. Chains of volcanoes pepper across a rugged mountain ranges in both countries. While discussing plans, Sole and I briefly considered a trip to Mount Rainier. But then I flashed upon a quote from Jim Nelson's guidebook, Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Vol. II, regarding one of the Northwest's most classic peaks, Mount Sahale:
"Here's the place to go when you've got friends... who want to see the most rugged and spectacular mountain scenery in the Lower 48. They'll want to go to Rainier, but bring them here."
Sahale it was. I have visited this peak many times over the past several years, but I am still as drawn to this enchanting alpine paradise as ever. The classic Sahale Arm offers a relatively low-risk route with the possibility of great corn skiing in one of the most scenic corners of the continent. Though doable in a day, it can be more enjoyable to camp a night on the Arm, which also makes the timing easier to hit ideal snow conditions.
A rough plan in place, I assembled the gear, headed north out of Seattle, picked up Sole, and drove east on the North Cascades Highway. Construction closed down the road three miles short of the trailhead, so we brought bikes in addition to our ski mountaineering and camping equipment. I wondered how Sole would handle her first Cascadian mission, where heavy packs, long approaches to snow, and rugged terrain can subdue the most enthusiastic backcountry skier. My preoccupation quickly melted away. From the way she packed her gear into her ridiculously small pack, to the tights that she brought as her only pants, to her big sun hat and affinity for drinking from streams rather than carrying water, I could tell she was going to be fine. We began riding bikes up the steep grade, passing millennial cedars that reached skyward. The alpine glaciers and the rock-tipped point of Sahale's pyramidal summit occasionally visible more than a vertical mile above us.
We made it to the road's end, stashed what we wouldn't need, and headed off, crossing through slide alder shrubs to the snow-filled creek bottom. Finally unencumbered by bikes and shoes we were on our skis. Skinning felt blissfully efficient and we flew uphill toward our intended campsite on the Arm, until things suddenly took a turn for the worse.
I was skinning a flat section on the final stretch to camp when the wing of one toe piece on my tech bindings sheared completely off--a catastrophic-looking failure. Was the trip over? How would I get down? We were near enough to the campsite that I decided to continue on foot, planning to figure it out that night.
We debated between a gravelly, flat piece of dry ground and a snow camp in a small depression for our tent platform. We chose the latter, which turned out to be the right choice. The wind started after an epic sunset, a consistent and impressive roar from the west that endured all night. Our shelter withstood the onslaught and I marveled at the fragility of our presence in the alpine environment. We slept soundly at our chosen shelter, where twenty paces away could have been a nightmarish ordeal.
The wind subsided by morning, bringing a peaceful start to the day. We took a casual pace as the mild lingering breeze kept snow conditions cold and firm. I set out on foot with my skis on my backpack, thinking I would attempt the best repair possible at the top as whatever I rigged would likely only be good for one use. Sole skinned and I cramponed. We enjoyed lunch at a snow bench we dug beneath the rocky summit pyramid, marveling at our good fortune and the tremendous scale of our surroundings.
We left our skis at the bench, taking crampons and an ice axe for the climb up the steep snow pitch and rock step that guard the top. It's a proper summit up there, with barely room for both of us to perch precariously. We could see the location of our car, impossibly far down in the verdant depths of the Cascade River Valley. We had paid the toll--from here to there should be all downhill.
We down-climbed back to the bench. It was repair time. I wedged the boot shell in the binding and used some bailing wire to tension it down. A piece of yachting twine Sole brought from Pucón, wraps and wraps of electrical tape on all angles, and that was it. I slid my liner-clad foot into the shell that was now hopefully fixed to the ski for the descent to the end of snowline deep, deep in the valley below.
I gingerly skied a few turns down the upper slopes and then sent Sole. “I think we might be in for something special,” I told her as she skied past, ripping well-practiced turns. There's not much more to say. The snow was perfect.
I skied tentatively, weighting my good binding and generally limping my way down. The snow was never grabby or unpredictable, just a blank, unmarred white canvas rolling away eternally, leading us in swooping arcs back toward our pockmark of a cache on the Arm. We looked back and couldn’t see our tracks. It was akin to skiing on ball bearings. The slopes above Doubtful Lake were fantastic, and the rolling snow meadow offered hallucinogenic panoramas of untold grandeur. We never saw another soul.
We recollected camp, which we had packed that morning, and got a move on, not wanting to waste any time getting to the lower, warmer slopes. The slope from the Arm down to Cascade Pass was too warm and the snow was a little mushy. But the route from the pass on down gifted us with another few thousand feet of great skiing. The repair seemed fine, and I wondered if I should have skied just a little bit harder. I sawed off the rigging with my pocketknife, as now I needed my boot for walking again, and we bushwhacked the remaining 500 feet to the parking lot.
"Gracias," said Sole.
I was about to turn and respond with a "de nada" when I realized she was looking up at the mountains, thanking them for the experience they'd bestowed upon us.
We basked in the afterglow of such a fabulous descent, sunbathing in the grass by the picnic tables at the parking lot. After dozing off beneath the imposing, ice cliff-clad, 5,000-foot nordwand of Johannesburg, I woke up feeling guilty, like this is no place to take a nap with your shoes off. We picked up the bikes once again, and down, down, down we went, dangerously top-heavy, but surrendering to gravity, descending further down, down into the Pacific Basin.
We reached the parking lot and loaded up. Where does the run end? I pondered that question as we drove off. Was it arriving at snows end? At the car? I popped it into neutral and we rolled on, stopping to drink from whatever river we felt like. Eventually, on the spur road to Darrington, we stopped to wash off at a beach on the Sauk River. The emerald water moved past without hurry. I planted a driftwood pole in the sunshine-warmed sand. And then we drove on towards Seattle.