Skiing the Swath
February 28th, 2016 in Trips, Trails, & Tours
It was supposed to rain on Friday afternoon, finally ending a long week of amazing skiing during the last week of February. But while snowmobiling up the 11am shuttle it was still sunny with no clouds in the sky. With only one more pickup my mind started racing through the possible ski possibilities: corn on south and east facing slopes, powder on north, stable steep skiing on west faces. Chris and I had planned to go to Wenatchee to finally watch the latest Star Wars movie after watching the others in order. It had sounded like a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. But this was no rainy afternoon and there was still good skiing to be had. I called her and cancelled.I dreamed of skiing the “swath” from the 6, 602′ point at the end of the ridge perched above Lake Ethel down 4,346 feet all the way to Highway 2. I told Chester of my idea. “It’s too steep,” he told me “I’ve had friends ski it but it’s too steep for me.” I’d been to the top of it twice before, once on a Christmas day following wolverine tracks before I dropped onto Lake Ethel, and once last spring chasing good cell coverage to accept my job at Outward Bound. That time I’d actually dropped a glove down the top of the swath and it miraculously got caught by the lone tree at the top. I knew it looked steep from the highway but I kept asking myself, did it really look that steep from the top?
I texted my friend Jason, former High Camp host, and now a ski patroller at Stevens Pass, to arrange a ride from the bottom of the run. He told me it was looking dark and stormy at the pass. I could see the front coming but Mt Baldy was still bathed in sun. I’d have to race the rain. I left camp at 2:17pm. I’d have to race darkness too.
I moved quickly, without pause, until I ran into a group above Lock Eileen that had been lapping Tamarack. We chatted briefly, then I skinned on. I followed my skin track from two days before when I’d skied a couloir into the White Pine cirque, also down to the highway. Once I reached the ridge I turned right and followed it as it became increasingly sharp dropping below to Lake Ethel on one side and the White Pine drainage 4,000′ below on my left. When I got close to the end it looked like it just dropped away.
My stomach clenched I went to the edge and peered over. “Screw that,” I thought. “Chester was right, way too steep.” I watched tiny cars drive along the highway far below as I contemplated my options. I could ski down to Lake Ethel and then follow summer hiking trail out. But as I kept looking I thought I saw a possible line on the far side of the swath. I’d pop over the ridge and go take a look at it from the top. I skied awkwardly, with skins still on on the wet and heavy snow that had been bathed in sun all day on the east side of the ridge. When I popped back over to the top of the ridge I was amazed: the slope looked perfect: not too steep, not affected by the wind and never touched by the sun. Awesome preserved powder from the beginning of the week. OK back to plan A. I ripped my skins and skied down perfect snow until my legs burned and I had to rest. The cars barely seemed to get closer. Ski, rest, ski, rest, ski, rest. Finally I made it down to my exit logging road. After 30 minutes of skiing down the road I reached the Baptist camp at the end of the plowed road. I took off my skis just before 5pm and finally ate food and drank water for the fist time since leaving camp. What a way to spend an afternoon.