West face variation on south slopes ski descent
Class II/40 degree snow
26-28 May 2018
Fern and I climbed and skied Mount Maude for Memorial Day weekend. It was a spontaneous decision and quite an ambitious goal for our second trip together. I already had a full day of rock climbing planned in Leavenworth for Saturday and we had received a bit of beta that Forest Road 62 was washed out at the Atkinson Flats campground. But the line spoke to us. We were inspired by Jason Hummel’s entry in Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Washington (tour number 39). Our original plan followed this guide, which describes a descent of the north face.
Mount Maude is the 15th highest peak in Washington at 9,060’. It rests in a sub-range of the North Cascades called the Entiat Mountains near Lake Chelan in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. It is a popular summer and fall climb and is often combined with Seven Finger Jack and Mount Fernow. There are two approaches described by Hummel. One from the North out of Holden Village, which requires climbers to take the Lady of the Lake ferry on Lake Chelan. This approach affords a direct tour down Copper Creek. The Phelps Creek approach accesses Maude from the South West. It is more complex, especially with Forest Road 62 washed out.
We were undeterred. Our plan was to park as far down the road as possible near Atkinson Flats. This left about 7 miles of road to the Phelps Creek Trailhead. Mountain bikes were our solution. We added a couple Cannondale 29ers to our gear pile in the truck. Little did we know how important those bikes would be to us. The rest of our gear included the standard spring ski mountaineering cast. With weight as a reference we were probably over-packed. Any more experienced skimos with advice on how to trim down give us a shout!
It was a top tier, PNW spring day in Leavenworth on Saturday. Argonaut served us a great cup of coffee, the outdoor thermostat was set to a breezy 75 degrees and the Wenatchee River boasted some crazy rapids. Lucas enjoyed a relaxed day taking pictures of the climbers on Castle Rock while I went to trad lessons with Northwest Mountain School. We took off down Highway 2 toward Col’s Corner around 5:00 pm, spent too long at the gas station, took a right on 207 (no one sells whiskey on this road), eventually hit Chiwawa Loop Road and, gate. A closed gate. Not at Atkinson Flats, but the start of 62. This gate was supposed to be open. Lucas had called the Forest Service office the day before and checked their website. But never mind, we gave it the bird and looked to our bikes. It was the multiple other cars full of camping gear and disheartened Memorial Day weekend warriors who came and went during our hour there who were the true victims of that barricade. We had the bikes, and another 7 miles each way. The conversation about a new objective was short lived.
Packs on our back we took off. We opted to take things slow to conserve energy and get accustomed to riding bikes with an extra 60+ lbs and covered the first twelve miles that night. We rolled up to the fork that led to the trail head and called it time for dinner around 10:00 pm. For the record there are a couple spots where the road is a bit worse for wear after Atkinson Flats and one spot closer to Phelps Creek Campground where several large trees have fallen over the road. Someone is clearly out there cutting them so it will hopefully be cleared up soon. Nothing explained why we couldn’t drive to Atkinson Flats.
The next morning, our tail bones were pretty happy to ditch the bikes after the remaining three miles to the trailhead. The initial section of trail is what you’d expect from a maintained, North Cascades trail in spring. The first mile was all dirt. The second mile was a mix of dirt and some snow. The third mile was all (skinable) rotten snow. Creek crossings were abundant throughout. Box Creek was the only one which required wading. There was notably a pleasant lack of bugs everywhere but where we parked.
The next section of the climb began at Leroy Creek. Here the route is a steep climbers path. A right-hand turn onto the well delineated trail took us northeast directly up stream. The snow here disappeared. It was dry, dusty and hot for about for about 1000’. We crossed Leroy Creek again higher up in the midst of more rotten snow and deep, accentuated tree wells. We found a narrow spot at about 5,620’ just downstream of where the left-most fork turns southeast to join the main channel down to Phelps Creek. We jumped over and carried on toward Leroy Basin, now back on our skins. It was some “crack addict,” skinning (if you’ve ridden the bike trail at Whistler you’ll understand) that started to mellow out and gain coverage around 5600’. Leroy Basin is great camp site. Seven Fingered Jack and Maude tower above you. An expansive range including Fortress, Bonanza and Glacier spread out to your south.
At this point we had to accept the north face wasn’t in the cards. We still had to traverse from Leroy Basin to the South Shoulder, descend to Ice lakes, climb up to the Entiat Glacier and descend that to a campsite and initial view of the North Couloir. It was too much for this trip. Instead, we opted to camp at Leroy Basin and climb a route on the southwest aspect. There are a variety of routes one could take. Most shaped as narrow gullies that widen to ramps higher up on the face. We had done very little research on this side of the mountain and didn’t want to risk a mistake on ignorance, so we opted for a moderate ramp on the climbers right that ended about half way up the south shoulder.
Monday morning was an alpine start. We made breakfast, finalized our packs, confirmed our route choice and booted up to the bench at the base of Maude. We got a decent freeze that night and the early morning conditions were a combination of a thin, semi-punchable crust that turned to grippy ice higher up. We traversed into our chosen route from the left, above some healthy exposure. Not sure if any of the lower gullies went clean to the snow field below or if everything was cliffed out. Rock fall was an evident hazard from the cirque above. Numerous bowling-ball sized peppercorns littered the snow and several large runnels scared the face. I estimate the ramp at 35 – 40 degrees. We gained the south shoulder at 9:30am and paused to take in the view and ditch a little weight.
The south shoulder is a walk up. Most of it was down to rock but it looked like we could make some turns off the summit so we brought the skis. Many of you probably wouldn’t call it great skiing but it’s way more efficient than down climbing and we’re kind of obsessed. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to peer into the north couloir as we knew we had to contend with a cornice of unknown size along that edge. The view more than made up for it. The expanse of the Washington cascades is a breathtaking inspiration. Glacier loomed over its domain, shrouded in a skirt of thick clouds. Our objective wish list expanded as we snacked and prepared for our descent and 22.5 mile exit to the truck.
Our hope of summit turns was fulfilled. We enjoyed a nearly continuous descent with a reasonable margin for the large cornices overhung to the north and no sign of wet slides. The snow was pure slush but stoke levels were high. We found the best turns on the ramp from earlier. It had softened just enough to elicit a buttery inch on top of a firm but forgiving base. It was cool to open it up a bit above the exposure. We navigated our way through the traverse and made our way back to camp. All in all, a successful summit day.
Time to retrace our steps. Luckily, we found a somewhat clean ski descent from our camp to the upper Leroy Creek crossing and further on down to the climber’s path. The snow eventually ended and we proceeded to walk down. Back on the Phelps Creek Trail, we skinned as far as we could and made it through Box Creek before dark. We coasted on the bikes down three miles from the trailhead to the main road. Intermission was taken at Nineteen Mile campground to cook up some freeze dried Fourth Meal around midnight. We made it back to the truck at 2:30am Tuesday morning, after a near 24 hour push, weary, but in good spirits and joensing for Sultan Bakery breakfast.
The gate was still closed.