Sunday, December 5, 2010

Backcountry skiing in the Commonwealth Basin

I am pleased to say that on Saturday I had my first backcountry ski outing of the year. On the plane back from Africa last weekend I was feeling nervous that snow had been falling in the Cascades without me and I was missing out on skiing, but I now feel all caught up. Two of my coworkers, Ryan and Redwood, were equally keen to get out into the mountains and sample the fresh snow so on Friday we laid plans to meet at 7:30am the next morning and head out to Snoqualmie Pass. The chosen meeting point was downtown at our office, and since Ryan had volunteered to drive my initial plan was to load my ski gear onto my bike and ride there. I have used bike transportation many times in the past for myself and my nordic ski equipment, but it turns out that alpine touring gear is a little more substantial and harder to fit on a bike than skate skis. So, after several failed attempts at mounting the ski gear on my bike (while still having the bike rideable), I capitulated and headed back inside to ask Roanne to drop me off at the office in the car, which she kindly did.

Ryan and Redwood were already there when I arrived, so we loaded up our gear and headed east. We arrived at Snoqualmie Pass without incident, and parked in the Summit West parking lot. We then suited up and headed back under I-90, and clipped in and headed up into the woods on an established track soon thereafter. We were heading for Commonwealth Basin which was exciting since I had never been here, and I always like to expand my repertoire of backcountry ski options. Redwood had skied there 8 years ago so we had some idea of where to go, but other than that it was a bit of an exploration mission. The terrain started out with some gentle climbing on a track that had been packed in pretty well by snowshoers and other skiers, here is Redwood approaching a log crossing over Commonwealth Creek:

Eventually the set track went off in a different direction than we wanted to head, and we set about breaking trail up the west side of the west fork of Commonwealth Creek. We were skirting just under the cliffs of Guye Peak, and in a few spots we ran into some steep little sections where we had to remove our skis and fight our way up. Here is a shot of Redwood and Ryan with skis off and battling their way up the deep snow:

After some more climbing we popped out onto the saddle just north of Guye Peak, where it was nice and sunny and we had a good view across towards Alpental. We then continued north to Cave Ridge, here are Redwood and Ryan taking in the view on Cave Ridge:

From this point we had a great view of Red Mountain which has a nice West face that looks like it would be super fun to ski (there were a few people we saw making a ski descent) in the right conditions, and there was also a really cool looking peak (not to ski, but maybe to climb) that we later learned was Thompson Peak. It resembles the Matterhorn from this aspect, and it is definitely on my list of things to climb next summer. Here is a shot of that one:

From there we continued along the ridge towards Snoqualmie Mountain. At around 5600 feet we hit our designated turnaround time of 2:30pm, and skied off the ridge back down into Commonwealth Basin. We had decided to head down a different way than we came up, and were crossing our fingers that we wouldn't run into any cliffs that would bar our passage. The slope we skied down was north facing with pretty sparse tree coverage, so there wasn't much of the crust that was present on the other aspects and the skiing was pretty fun. Here are Ryan and Redwood enjoying the powder:

Eventually the trees thickened and we ran into some pretty steep sections where we had to deploy our combat skiing skills as we continued to fight our way down the hill in tree to tree combat. We finally emerged onto a boulder field at the bottom that made for some easier progress until we were forced into a creek drainage that made for some more "interesting" skiing. By this time it was also starting to get dark which added to the challenge, but eventually we found our way back onto an established track and were able to follow that back out to the road, getting back to the car just before 6pm in complete darkness.

Here is the GPS track from our outing, it ended up being about 13km long with just under 3000 feet of cumulative elevation gain: