Mt. Logan, Douglas Glacier Ski Descent
Summary: Chris Fast & Forrest Murphy skied from the summit of Mt. Logan in three days round trip from the highway 20, via Easy Pass and the Logan Glacier. Basic glacier travel, great skiing, complex navigation, very remote and unusual route.
Chris and I had originally planned to do the Ptarmigan traverse this weekend; because of the weather, we finally deciding to go with Plan B, to try to get in to Mt. Logan via Easy Pass. I’ve wanted to do Logan for a while, just to knock off another of the elusive 9,000ers, but had always figured to do it as part of a Goode-Logan traverse. We couldn’t find any information about this approach, but it seemed like it would be feasible, so long as there was still enough snow on the ground. By the time we had eaten lunch, packed our packs, and set off, it was almost 4:00 in the afternoon, and the sun was making limited appearances through the clouds. Right off there was a difficulty, as the bridge at the river along the highway was washed out. We found a good log 5 minutes right (north). We followed the trail as well as we could up through the forest until it disappeared beneath the snowpack, and we donned our skis and headed off through the woods. After the mandatory fight with thick avalanche debris and elbowing through resilient young trees with skis on, we broke out onto the open slopes on the north flank of Greybeard Peak and continued up a series of very skiable bowls, reaching Easy Pass at 7:30 as a light rain began to fall again.
Failing to pay close enough attention to the map (the trail cuts strongly west immediately beyond the pass to avoid cliffy areas below), we headed straight down. After only a few turns in the mushy snow, we had to put the boards back on our packs and pick our way down through several hundred feet of third class dirt cliffs. Finally, we reached an open glade below and were able to knock off a dozen or so good turns through open stands of timber until the valley bottom flattened out. In the morning, we set off down the gentle valley on bare Ptex. We mostly traversed, though at first we could link two or three turns between each sidehilling effort. Eventually, the trees swallowed us up and we occasionally had to tiptoe carefully across bare ground. Several miles downsteam, we rounded the final shoulder into the second major side valley, and we had to carry our skis. The slope suddenly grew precipitous as we crossed into the lower drainage, indicating that the main river must hit some serious waterfalls where the upper valley hung up before its final descent into Thunder Creek. We plunge-stepped down through peat and mud and soon found ourselves on the flat valley floor. At a clearing made by a small rock slide, we got our first real look at our objective. We could see above timberline again, into the huge bowl below the long arm of the Douglas Glacier. Reaching the bowl took another 2 hours of fighting brush and steep slopes. We were racing the spring and the slide alders were springing up out of the snow even as we skied past. But far sooner than I had dared hope, we stepped out of the trees onto a truly gargantuan cone of avalanche debris.
We found ourselves in a wide open bowl, dead flat and oval shaped. The lower end of the valley was choked with the aforementioned avalanche debris, perhaps 200 yards across and deep enough to form its own mini-crevasses, among the largest avalanche paths I’ve seen in the Cascades. Two smaller valleys feed into the bowl, one leading up to Fischer Pass, a remarkably low divide providing access towards the Park Creek watershed, and a steeper ravine leading up to the extreme north end of the Douglas Glacier. Steep, smooth slopes surrounded the cirque on all other sides, with a healthy cliff band extending almost unbroken from the ravine to the shoulders of Thunder Peak. Technically a sub-peak of Mt. Logan, Thunder Peak dominates the bowl we are in and its upper slopes are the source of most of the avalanches that have swept all the way across the valley. We decide there is no point in camping any higher than we have to, and we head for a small hill at the head of the valley. It is probably the safest place in the bowl itself to camp, but the next day we notice gargantuan cornices at the ridgeline, 3000 feet above, that when they collapse will sweep all the upper slopes, shoot over the cliff band and bury the entire upper half of the bowl. Another warning to look at the map and make sure you’re camping in a safe spot – regardless of season. Camp is set up by 5:00 in an increasing drizzle.
When we wake up at first light, the rain is still pounding and by 7:30, not relishing the thought of navigating the crevasses of the glacier above in a whiteout, we are resigned to a moderate ski tour. We eat a leisurely breakfast, lingering over coffee and prepare to depart at the alpine hour of 9:30. The clouds begin to swirl, opening up views, and suddenly they evaporate entirely, leaving us with coffee cups in hand on a bluebird morning. We curse our laziness, but decide to head up the route and see how high we get. A quick calculation yields a turn-around time of 11:00 if we want to be back at the car before dark.
We ski up the upper slopes of the bowl towards the one major break in the cliff band, a narrow gully that we had counted on being less steep than it appeared from below. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, but it was relatively short, so with skis on our backs and ice axes out, we start up the 50 degree slope. The snow is extremely soft and a bit insecure, but in 15 minutes we top out; another 20 minutes of slogging and the slope kicks back enough to put our skis back on and we begin a long rising traverse across the hips of Mt. Logan. It’s an apt metaphor. If Mt. Logan has a neck, it’s certainly the high col where the Douglas and the Banded glaciers meet. The Douglas flows down precipitous and contoured slopes high on the mountain’s breast, then flares out along the long ridgeline and smooth alp slopes that extends several miles towards Fischer Pass like a dress draped over an outflung leg. As the clock ticks towards 11, we creep up the slope. Suddenly, we are high enough for Mt. Goode to appear beyond the ridge, from this vantage point a narrow blade of ice slicing through the fabric of the surrounding hills from beneath. We finally turn the corner of the terrain and are able to begin to ski up more or less in the fall line, arriving at the edge of the glacier proper and our turn-around time almost simultaneously. The summit hangs temptingly close in the perfectly still, sunny air. In full consciousness of the misery we are setting ourselves up for, we decide to tag the top. I calculate that if we reach the summit by 1, we might still make it out to the car tonight, although well after dark. “Well, it won’t be the first time,” I thought. I strap my ice axe to my pole with rubber ski straps, we don the rope, and I set off at the fastest pace I can muster.
The routefinding is really fun. A swooping series of slopes and little bowls leads like a highway among the massive seracs and crevasses. What appeared to be the summit is revealed as a sub-peak; the glacier penetrates into a hidden bowl on the upper mountain. leading to the Douglas/Banded col. A classic wind bowl is formed just below the pass, ending on the right with an astonishing 100 foot wall of vertical snow capped by a knife-sharp arete. We dodge on the left, and head up the last bit on foot. 20 minutes of snow and 5 minutes of rock scrambling in telemark boots and we run out of up. We step onto the summit at 1:08, chilled in the sudden wind but marveling in the amazing views. The entire Ptarmigan Traverse is revealed, from Dome Peak, Gunsight and Sinister on the south, to the immensity of the Boston Glacier to the north. Goode and Storm King look like they belong in Alaska with their snow-plastered north faces turned towards us. We pound a candy bar, then point the boards downhill for our reward.
The snow is very soggy, but if you kept your speed up and don’t over-turn, you could stay on top and boogie down. We flew where we had slogged, figure-eighting down gentle slopes and steeper rollovers. The ambiance is great, casual slopes with these huge, impressive seracs on both sides. In twenty minutes, we’ve swept back onto the slopes of our traverse. As the slope begins to become convex, the pace slows. The snow is even heavier, and a massive sluff of waterlogged slush sluices away from every carve. You have to be careful as you turn back that it doesn’t overrun you from behind. I barely survive the impact of one of Chris’ donuts, pinwheeling freely down the slope. We sideslip as far as seems reasonable, including some respectably exposed hop-turns, but under these snow conditions, skiing the gully is obviously a very bad idea. Once more the skis go on the packs and we back down our tracks from the morning. Ten minutes later, we’re in camp. Five hours round trip to the summit, almost 5,000 vertical feet.
By 3:00, we were on the road again, eking out what turns we could, then shooting out across the avalanche plain. We managed actual turns down the alder slopes, and made it to the valley floor only carrying our skis for one 20 foot section. Once again, we made it as far as we could on skis before bowing to the inevitable and beginning to slog warily on foot along the flat lower valley. As we approached the river, we were not surprised to hear the sound of a waterfall, but we were astonished at the number and size of the ones we encountered. We began contouring right and bushwacking up the slope alongside the gorge. As we pull up into the upper valley, the angle drops way back and the snow reappears. Skiing through the open woods and we soon encounter our old tracks. We estimate that if we can reach Easy Pass by dark, we’ll make it to the car tonight, but we’re both uncertain if we will be able to navigate through the cliffs below the pass in the dark. Except for some skin problems solved with duct tape and ski straps, the going is smooth and we break out into the open slopes around 8:00. Some more fuel and we slither down across the river and begin working our way up avalanche slopes on the other side. The location of Easy Pass is not nearly as obvious from this side; approaching from the highway, it is the head of the valley, but from here, it is merely the lowest of the lowpoints along a continuous ridge.
The slopes above are more melted out than where we’ve been, due to their southern exposure, and we’re hoping to find the trail to aid in navigating to the pass. When I finally spot it, it is a bit below us. Once on the bare dirt, our pace picks up considerably, but snow keeps interfering with establishing a real rhythm. As the steepness increases, our pace diminishes, and by the time the trail reaches the apex of its swithbacks, we are making heavy weather of the deep and soft snow, trading the lead every few hundred steps. It is starting to get seriously dark as we crest the pass, done gaining altitude after about 7,500 feet in 12 hours.
We barely pause at the pass, plunge stepping straight down through the deepening gloom and dropping down to treeline in less than 15 minutes. We had enjoyed dappled sunlight skiing up the valley behind Easy Pass and the sunset had been spectacular, casting alpenglow on the high slopes of Mt. Logan we had skied earlier in the afternoon, but now it began to rain in earnest. Nevertheless, as we reached the darkness of the forest, we dropped our packs and fired up the stove for an overdue dinner. We slurped as fast as we could, burning our tongues as we sat on our packs and tried to ignore the rain falling. We probably made a pathetic sight, and if I had been sure at that point that we were going to reach the truck that night, I would have laughed at us myself. After perhaps an hour, we were packed up again and began descending along the edge of the creek. We felt surprisingly energized with an hour’s rest and some hot food. As we descended further, the snow grew thinner and the brush thicker but we began to despair of finding the trail. I did a quick mental calculation and decided that we were a lot more likely to cross the trail if we paralleled the creek further inland. The extra effort of crashing against the grain for 50 yards was rewarded when I stepped out onto the trail – at the end of a switchback. Ten yards further towards the stream and we would have walked right by it.
In what seemed like only a few minutes, we were at the river, picking our way along the banks in search of our log. The truck was a welcome sight, and we laid our packs down for the last time at 1 am. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the first strains of dawn as we pulled over for coffee in Arlington; it was already 4:30, and we shared I-5 with the first stirrings of the morning commute. Yes, we asked for it by tagging the top, but I still think it was a pretty good effort, all things considered, nailing one of the less-accessible 9,000ers on skis under less than ideal conditions.