Northwest Dreaming - by Zach Clanton

, Written by Zach Clanton
 

**WARNING** This is a long one… but if you’ve got the time to go on a trip with me through the mountains of the pacific northwest, keep on scrollin…

This is the story of my last month in the North Cascades. Alone, I left Salt Lake for 64 days… no plans, no goals, and no idea what I was getting into. These images are the result of the blank canvas I created for myself. (First month trip report here)

“While the distance between experience and expression remains, it’s the intensity of effort to cross that gap that matters. And it’s purity of intention behind that attempt that determines whether you’re merely marketing a brand or truly forging a genuine narrative of human adventure – with all the fears, doubts and rare moments of transcendence of real people” – Michael Kennedy 

Poor Man’s Alaska

“He climbed those mountains with two minds working at the same time. One was focused on the full-time job of mountaineering: finding the route, pushing hard for the summit, and watching out for the safety of his partners. At the same, his visual mind was always assessing the compositions he could see all around him, near and far, left and right, above and below. As he moved along the ridge, he saw everything through a constantly evolving sequence of invisible rectangles, superimposed on the landscape by his mind’s eye…” – Glen Denny

Cresting the ridge, I knew we were in the right place. I had been scoping this zone with my telephoto lens for weeks as some distant, dreamy place. Now I was really here! The Karakoram bros hooked me up with Russell Cunningham as a partner and I convinced him over the phone that this would be a worthy objective for the high pressure we were about to get. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me but once we gained that col, a smile and a nod was all that was exchanged to solidify my choice.

Making ourselves right at home…

In our short 48 hour period of good weather, we rode our boards down a variety of dream lines with a constant look over the shoulder for not only avalanches but the single cloudburst that could move in unexpectedly and leave us stranded here like shipwrecked sailors in an endless ocean. With all of the featureless terrain surrounding us, even a small storm would make retracing our approach through numerous mountain passes impossible without a GPS. Against all odds, the unnatural blue skies persisted and so did our appetite for powder.

After creeping up to what seemed like the edge of the world, I saw it. The snow was perfect… I knew I’d only make a handful of turns. This was high speed shred conditions at their finest.

“And in the process, I created my own continuous and simple line – a range of the imagination” – MK

“Life and mountain climbing are not only about success or enjoyment, but about living true to one’s ambitions. I think that this line was the first time I fully lived these feelings. Although our route was not so hard, it was important to us that we found the line by ourselves, not in a guidebook” – Katsutaka Yokoyama

Then back to the Man Cave for more stormy day riding.

Even during constant snowfall, you could wait on top for these sucker holes that would give you a minute or less of good light to shred. Jon Richardson got this sequence of me riding out one of many that day.

Other days, when the weather got especially nasty, I retreated to my low elevation hide-out. I had a green place to sit by the river and read/edit photos… I even had my own personal out house!

From the coast…

Through the evergreen forest…

And into the alpine… amongst castles of rock and ice. The contrast is beautiful.

“For once, I was completely connected to the present: the airy walls and buttresses, the impossibly hanging snowfields, the overflowing glaciation. That moment is still there, now, pristine inside of me” – Tony Riley

“All mountain landscapes hold stories: the ones we read, the ones we dream, and the ones we create.” – MK

“Something – the minute texture of a moss patch or the light of the sun on the snow – makes us pause, and truly, briefly see. But what we bring back from that other side of perception and how we choose to share it defines us as climbers, artists and human beings” – MK

On 4.20, I got to ride something especially awesome. It takes some rare conditions to form this spine… seeing that in the summer, it’s a 200 foot rock face. I tip toed to the edge so I could be sure where it was and to draw a giant arrow in the snow. I skinned back out a ways, transitioned and then looked back on the almost-flat slope that abruptly ended in a blind roll. Even though I had a skin track and a huge arrow to point me in the right direction, I couldn’t help but feel uncertain. A deep breath, some mellow turns and I was suddenly on the arrow about to pop off the lip onto the steepness below. As soon as everything came into view, confidence returned. I touched down on the spine slightly on my toe edge, two blower turns, then a blast off the old avalanche crown to a high speed pointer through the apron… just laughs and smiles as I popped huge ollies over the rollers below.

Nothin like a good ol fashioned grilled chee down by the rivur after a day in tha hills.

Rob Sourek on the Shuksan Arm. After the Baker Ski Resort closed for the season, we had all the slackcountry to ourselves. Maximum snowpack, sunny skies and all the high speed pow shred you could want… empty because nobody can take a lift to it anymore. After some goood vertical, Rob and Jarvis had to run off work in Bellingham but I was in no rush to get outta there… so before leaving our lunch spot for another line, I took out the mega lens for a look around. Finding a skin track high on Shuksan, I remembered I had parked next what I thought was Dan Helmstadter’s camper. I didn’t know him at the time, but he was something of a myth around these parts. He was known for regularly soloing serious lines in the Cascades. Nobody ever saw him… just the tracks he left behind.

That all changed this day. After sitting on my board for over an hour, eye glued to the viewfinder in the hopes of catching him make the first turns on the Northwest Couloir, it finally happened. I started snapping away as he came flying down the upper snowfeild. Before I knew it, he was cutting over to the Hanging Glacier route! A very bold 5,500 foot line to take on… especially by yourself. He had no idea I was miles away shooting photos. Nobody else knew he was up there, just a speck on this massive alpine face. He didn’t do it for the fame or recognition. Dan just loved to ski… nobody needed to know.

Being the most recognizable glacial formation on Shuksan (visible from anywhere at the resort)… and Shuksan being the most iconic non-volcanic mountain in the Cascades, its amazing the first descent of The Hanging Glacier was made just a year ago. It takes a HUGE snow year to fill in the exits.

Just for some scale… this was the view from my photo stance. Afterwards, I raced back to the trailhead to sit and wait for Dan. I expected to see some old wise mountain man with a huge beard coming down the road, but instead I saw a 20 something year-old with a shit eatin grin on his face… you could tell he had just done something great. I approached him, “Hey did you just ski the Hanging Glacier?” He looked up and said, “Uhh yea, the snow is pretty good up there!” I was struck with disbelief… mostly because of the gold I knew was in my memory cards but also because of how humble and down to earth this guy was… not stupid or reckless, but a perfect example of courage, calculation and execution… highly inspiring. He was living in his camper at trailheads just like me… that made us neighbors. We ended up sharing some beers and stories then later ran into each other again on Shuk… But that part of the story comes later…

Mount Baker

On the day before my birthday, I met up with Jason Hummel, Kyle Miller and Adam Roberts to climb this ice-clad volcano. My fascination with the mountain started with my first tour in this range when I got this photo. With such an introduction, I could not escape it’s attraction.

With an early start, 4,000 feet of visibility rose and faded into the mist. From below the cloud canopy, It didn’t look like a summit day to me. The last thing I wanted to do was pop my glacier cherry by wandering out ropeless onto a slope riddled with crevasses in 2 foot visibility conditions. I thought i was going to blindly stumble off a cliff or into a bottomless hole. Somehow, I ended up trusting my life to these strangers by forming a single-file line and marching into the midst of these clouds. I had no idea what my surroundings looked like but we all stayed as close to Jason as possible… he had the GPS that was guiding us up through over 2,000 feet of blindness.

It is hotter than you could ever image down there. I was overheating but had to keep up to avoid getting lost in the mist. Just when I thought it would never end, we popped out above the clouds and it was like breathing for the first time. Cooling off, I watched as the clouds flowed over the rock bands like a waterfall… rising and falling like waves of the ocean… threatening to consume us once again. With no overnight gear or extra food, I was scared the sky would claim us and keep us in her grips… it could be weeks before the next clear day.

Seattle’s Mount Rainier in the distance.

Looking down on Shuksan. It turns out, Dan Helmstadter and Drew Tabke were over there at the same time doing another variation on the Hanging Glacier Route. You can barely make out their tracks on the upper plateau.

Drew was kind enough to give me this photo of him looking back at us on Baker.

Lunch time. Photo by Adam Roberts

Walking off the summit, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the moon. 1,300 feet of ice was beneath our feet, filling in the enormous volcanic crater.

The Roman Wall.

Our timing was perfect. We were able to sneak through small windows in the clouds for a fast shred… 8,000 feet of vertical from summit to car. And of course, cold beers waiting for us in my cooler.

Mount Shuksan

“At anxious last, I saw it: The face was terrifyingly beautiful. It had the elegance of a Halston dress and the aggressiveness of a metal-studded dog collar” – Mark Twight

“It’s time to return to the concept of mountaineering as discovery. To embody the willingness to explore, to accept the possibility of failure and the need for self-reliance, to commit to the unpredictability of big mountain landscapes, and to encounter the entirety of experience the wild has to offer.” – Blake Herrington

On the approach, it was clear this mountain was not messing around. Our objective was the Northwest Couloir. The obvious line left of the Hanging Glacier with the exposed bottle neck at the top.

What happened to all the trees?

Oh there they are.

Winds whipping… Within the complex terrain, some parts of the mountain were loading while others became scoured.

Atop the White Salmon Glacier… Traveling these mellow snowfields felt incredibly exposed with massive ice cliffs at the end of every slope .

Making the final traverse, we decided to rope up as this area is full of deep crevasses covered by shallow snow bridges… below are even bigger ones that are so big they never fill in completely, even with over 900 inches of snow. If your partner falls into one, it’s your responsibility to arrest the team’s fall before both of you are sucked in to the proverbial black hole. All of this is going through my mind… This was my first time roped up on a flowing river of ice. I was out of my comfort zone to say the least. Not to mention we are on a wind loaded convex rollover directly above a 1000 foot ice cliff.

Atop the north shoulder, I’ve never been so damn nervous about strapping into my snowboard. Once we commit to the bottle neck, the door is slamming shut. We are in it for keeps. At the bottom of the funnel is a short traverse above cliffs so both of us will have to do the “heel edge for life”… risking a 4,000 foot rag doll if you blow it. I cut out left of Russell and started making glorious pow turns down the first steep roll. It was perfect shallow pow and I was thinking to myself, “Wow, we are about to nail this in ideal conditions!” Feeling like I was about to jump down an elevator shaft, I made the first turns into the bottleneck. With no warning, pow gave way to white ice and i went sliding on my toe edge toward the rock wall. Coming to a stop with my axe buried in the ice, I knew that the exposed heel edge traverse would be the same and the risk too great. The wind must have ran through this corridor like a freight train, scouring all of the fresh snow. I unstrapped one foot (as to not lose my board) and kicked in shallow steps with one boot and the edge of my board…. The only solid purchase being my axe. When I climbed back up to take my board off (middle picture), I looked up to see Russell stuck on more steep ice (red arrow). I was now in a relatively safe spot… watching my partner struggle on the brink of death. His heel edge looked like it was barely attached to the mountain… a single slip and he would be dead before he came to a stop at the debris pile over 4,000 feet below. Nerves fried, he traversed over to me as we shared horrifying glances. We roped up and prepared for retreat. (This summer Russell did a mixed route up the couloir and encountered 75 degree water ice at this spot)

“It’s a dark art, figuring out when to punch it and when to bail… I think the best climbs are the ones that barely succeed or barely fail.” – Kelly Cordes

“In this solitude, the wild is not just a word – it is a force” – KC

I’m looking down at my boots when I hear Russell scream, “CREVASSE!” He had fallen through this snow bridge and had arrested his fall by shooting out his arms… feet dangling above the dark abyss. It felt like looking into the open mouth of a monster… not a place for the living. At this point we realized the crevasse spanned the entire roll. and that there was nowhere “safe” to cross. We couldn’t go down and everything up was even worse. At this point the snow was getting much heavier and in turn, the wind slab was becoming more sensitive. If this slope avalanched, even in a small pocket, we could be pitched over the Hanging Glacier or swallowed by more open crevasses below… or both. We needed to get out of there before things got worse but we had to take the necessary time to bury pickets and belay each other over this gap so we could make it back to the White Salmon.

As if we hadn’t had enough madness for the day, we proceeded to trigger a huge wet slide that churned and twisted it’s way down the entire glacier as we narrowly escaped. Now the reality of our decision had set in. There was a good chance that if we continued with our intended route and survived the ice traverse crux, we would’ve triggered a similar avalanche on the Northwest Couloir. Except that face was much more sustained than the White Salmon and the consequences much more severe. On the way out, none other than Dan Helmstadter came skinning up behind us. He had been hiding out in a shallow snow cave (orange arrow below) for hours waiting for the snow to soften in the narrow couloir he booted up. He watched from above as our wet slide tore down the glacier.

Red: Our line of ascent and retreat (red dot is where Russell fell through the snow bridge)

Green: Dan’s Hanging Glacier Route

Blue: Dan and Drew’s Hanging Glacier Direct Route

Yellow: The Shuksan North Face Route

Purple: Yet another Shuksan route completed by Dan… except this one had two 200 foot rappels and he did it by moonlight.

Later on, I fell asleep next to a fire… grateful, exhausted and determined to try again. A line on the photo had become, for us, intangible and alluring… full of unresolved mysteries.

“For beyond the rapid proliferation of lines, numbers, lists, and elevations that predominates in so much of today’s world lies another, deeper, more essential history of our pursuit: the evolution of our imaginations: the ever-changing, creative synthesis of vision and act, of mountain and climber… Perhaps these adventures will filter into your dreams and spark your own journeys” – Michael Kennedy











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