Sunday May 20, 2012
We missed the good weather, and the zoo, by a day. Diane Hennessey, Heather Mirczak and I drove to Washington Pass on Saturday night with plans to ski the Birthday Tour the next morning.
A spring favorite, this ski tour boasts two stout climbs and two fun descents plotting a horseshoe path around the dramatic relief of South Early Winter Spire. It had risen to the top of my spring tick-list. The forecast for the Sabbath was iffy: 50 percent chance of showers after 11am.
We arrived at Klipchuck Campground, downstream of the hairpin, around 8pm and found Carla Schauble and posse—three fine lads named Brian, Tom and Randy—stoking a big fire and slaking their evening thirst. They had skied it that day and reported stellar corn conditions—the best in their collective history of skiing this route. Fun enough to merit a repeat. So instead of heading back to Seattle, Carla and the guys decided to ski the tour again with us.
Cloud cover kept the mercury above freezing at night creating toasty tent conditions. I read DH a bedtime story: Bruce Tremper’s tale of cheating death in a slab avy in a narrow couloir. Revelry bugled at a civilized 7am, allowing plenty of time for a spot of tea and soft-boiled eggs, or in Carla’s case, a single, stick-to-your-ribs Nutter Butter. Our gang of seven convoyed to the hairpin where we left DH’s ride, our shuttle car, and hopped into Brian’s newly purchased camper van to continue to the tour’s start, Blue Lake trailhead, elevation 5,400 ft. At 9:40am, our group was skinning up the trail under warm, cloudy skies.
We climbed a well-worn skin track along the forested trail, eventually spilling out to open slopes where we ascended southeast to Blue Peak Col, elevation 7,800 ft. Slipping was a problem and I had to lift my skis often to gain skin purchase in the soft track. I stopped at the bench before the final 200-ft. climb to A-frame skis to pack and to rest. Many thanks to the hundred people (no hyperbole) who had booted a staircase to the top. A beefy cornice lip typically droops off this saddle, but this year’s leaner snowpack and recent warm spring temps had reduced the flap to nothing. It was snowing at the col so I swapped out shades for goggles before locking heels for the south-east descent known as Madison Avenue, a wide, open run into the Copper Creek drainage.
Skiing down 2,000+ ft. of quality corn was fun, though the 8 or 9 degree rise in temperature translated into liquid precip in the basin. Breaking out skins for the hoof-up to the second col, we observed a woman in snowshoes who had presumably come with her boyfriend. They didn’t seem to be in a festive mood, the kind that speaks “Birthday Tour.” They seemed more dour. Perhaps she was sad about the snow-shoeing conditions (somewhere between lousy and fucking lousy) or not keen about being the lone shoe-er among schussers. We suspected trouble in paradise.
The second climb, out of Copper Creek drainage, is shorter and takes you to a bench, then to a col at roughly 7,200 ft. We didn’t stop for lunch to enjoy the views that were sure to come once those pesky clouds burned off. (Hey, isn’t this just the marine layer??) Instead, we dropped into the skinny slot, one by one. I side-slipped down the slot without incident, but unexpectedly pooched a carve to the right and flipped assoverteakettle, followed by a stylish backside, head-first glissade, trying not to clip Brian in the process. (Insert frowny face or head-bashing emoticon.) I dusted myself off and waited for HM to drop in, scoop up my abandoned pole and deliver it. I continued the descent and caught wee air off a small jump Brian, Tom and Randy hucked spread-eagle.
I loved the final run down a steep chute with perfectly-spaced larches. We all triggered some shallow sluffing. A descending traverse through the thicker timber of Early Winters Creek brought us to the hairpin at 1:50pm for a total tour time of 4 hours and 10 minutes. A thin rain fell as we changed out of soft-shell and Gore-Tex. We piled into Brian’s van, drained the last of our IPA rations and toasted to another Birthday Tour gathering in 2013.