Mike comes up towards Austera with Forbidden and Klawatti/Klawatti Glacier in the background
The only time we saw Johannesburg
I teetered awkwardly on the 12″ log over the river, cursing the dark and the water and my shitty balance and where did the huge log that used to be here go?! That one already sucked enough! Did it wash out, like the ski pole I had just dropped, whisked away into the darkness never to be seen again mere feet from the parking lot? We weren’t even really at the trailhead yet, because the trail post is on the other side of the river crossing. Mother. Fucker. And I had just been telling the story of Kacie who dropped her oatmeal in the river when we crossed the same stream back in 2016. And here I was with one ski pole, a subpar sense of balance, and three long days ahead of me.
- Distance: ~20 miles
- Elevation: ~11,000ft (8500ish, top of Primus)
- Weather: 30’s and socked in, 50’s and sunny
- Commute from Seattle: 2:30 without traffic, 4 hours for us because we couldn’t leave on time
- Did I Trip: I basically tripped the entire boulder field. Mike had a nice slough ride. And Brad… did he not trip? No I think he had one good stumble on the boulder field too.
Brad coming out of the clouds
There were other casualties too. Mike broke his nalgene. Brad snapped a strap on his pack. Mike tore a sock. I had like 7 chapsticks and none had SPF (RIP my lips). We wasted like 40 matches. My roll of toilet paper was destroyed (not by poop, jeez). Many gloves lost their fingers. And yet somehow we found ourselves on top of two peaks, sunburns and blisters and walking sticks be damned. Anyway, let’s get to the trip.
Naturally we wanted to do the full Inspiration traverse, but this is not the time of year to ford Thunder Creek and the bridge is washed out. So we figured we’d head in from Eldorado, bag Klawatti/Austera/Primus, and head right back out the way we came instead of going up and over Primus. So we drove up on Friday after I got dragged into several extra hours of work due to everyone panicking about the GDPR (I work in internet marketing) which meant we sat in traffic instead of beating traffic which means we listened to the same ~80 songs on my recently played playlist over and over again. Apparently Mike listened to mostly folk last time he was in WA, and instead with me he got a solid rotation of Satisfaction (Benny Benassi), Over my Head (Sum 41), Despacito (Luis Fonsi??), and a variety of Eminem and James Brown. My family asked when my taste in music became so terrible. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that… 90% of it is bad.
Tendrils coming over Torment & Forbidden
We got started around 5am Saturday, an hour after I expected (this will become a theme). It took us several hours longer than expected to actually reach the boulder field, and then the notch, and then the shoulder of Eldorado. The forest is actually much better than it used to be. Much clearer trail, fewer trees to duck under (no more logs of sorrow!). I found a nice solid walking stick to use, and eventually deemed it Emily Stickinson as we bonded over three days. The boulder field is pretty much as I remembered it, except I didn’t have John’s happy bouncing face to follow dodging and weaving rocks. Instead I had only one useful hand, because the other hand was clutching the walking stick I knew I’d need for all the sidehilling to come, and the mental fortitude that comes with carrying skis everywhere because you don’t know how to ski.
Mike skinning to Klawatti Col (PC Brad)
Brad switched to skis halfway up the boulder field, but I had to put on crampons and continue booting because it was icy and I don’t have ski crampons (another recurring theme, continued from the prior week). The regular notch was good to go with its classic third class scramble move at the bottom which I assure you is more enjoyable with skis on your back, especially if you’re carrying a rope and a rack. I refused to take the snow ramp because I watched my buddy Sam tear an ACL going that way a few years back, so I scraped my skis along the barely melted out heather ramp on the side, sacrificing some polish instead of risking a fall. Nothing like the sound of scraping skis in the morning. There is another scramble that can be taken ~50ft lower than the usual notch, but I didn’t bother to investigate. Old habits die hard.
Mike moments before fall (I had a mid-slip-pic but this one looks better sorry Mike)
I finally put on skis at the bottom of the notch and we started skinning towards Eldorado. The glacier was very well covered still, and we actually never roped up for any of the glacier crossings. I finally noticed that The Triad has three freaking summits, hence the name (I always wondered). Clouds started moving in and I worried we were in for some surprise precipitation. We only had bivvies (Mike was cowboy camping, no bivvy necessary), so rain would have been less than ideal. We passed a couple of whooping skiiers coming down Eldorado who turned out to be our buddy Sammy Davis, who took beginner ski lessons with me last winter! Amazing how far we’ve come!
I went to go check out the composting toilet (it’s one of the 50 Classic Craps of Washington after all) but either it was buried or I didn’t look hard enough. You could see the south face of Klawatti from where we were and I could already see the open bergschrund, so that route was out, which was a bummer because that’s the route I had my eye on. We continued moving in and out of clouds, traversing over to Klawatti Col. Which is over a mile, even though it looks wicked close. And more up and down and slower than it looks, especially when the clouds close in and suddenly you can only see 7 feet in front of you so you stop and grumble about no views and wind is cold and Emily Stickinson is so heavy and whiiiiiine and wait for your buddies hoping they don’t have a hard time following tracks. Soon enough we found ourselves on the col that leads to Dorado Needle, where the clouds conveniently lifted for just long enough for me to realize we had traversed too high. Shit. I knew I would do this. Oh, and my right arm was wiped from repeatedly lifting a tree branch instead of a ski pole. Thank you, Emily Stickinson. Get swole baby.
Shitty pano of our K-A Col moat campsite
Savoring sunrise (PC Brad)
Brad was nice enough to take Emily Stickinson for a bit so my arm could have a break, and we dropped down a couple hundred feet and continued on our way. Luckily the clouds had mostly passed at this point and we had line of sight, which makes the traverse very easy. Until the last stretch to Klawatti Col, which was steeper and slushy, and being the skinning chicken that I am, I booted it. And I was validated when I heard a stream of F bombs and turned around to see Mike slow-motion slide out of view riding with a small slough. I dropped my shit and started running back. He was fine and also insisted on more skinning. When I get spooked, it’s back to boots. And I get spooked a lot. Skinning chicken, but I’m really good at walking.
At Klawatti Kol I took a look at the SW buttress route and decided I didn’t want to lead it. It was late, I was tired, I don’t know the stoke just wasn’t there. At all. So we decided to see if we could camp at Klawatti-Austera col to set us up for success on Primus and Austera. And we had heard that the North Ridge of Klawatti was a class 3 scramble, so we crossed our fingers for that. The traverse to Klawatti-Austera col felt like 10 minutes compared to everything else we had done that day. And upon our arrival, we found an easy way to drop into the moat and a sweet little snow bowl to camp in that was (somewhat) protected from the wind!
Brad scrambling the ridge of Austera
The view of Klawatti and Eldorado from Austera
We dropped our packs, set up bivvies, and started the 8hr process of boiling water for 3 people in a Jetboil that’s probably older than I am. The lighter didn’t work. The matchbox didn’t work. The lighter still didn’t work. The jetboil ignition hadn’t ever worked. Oh shit I got a match lit!! Get the shovel I need a wind screen! We dug snow coffins (Brad’s was legit, mine was half-assed, no, quarter-assed, and Mike slept on a mostly crooked rock), and watched sunset from the ridge. Oh, and I used my barely-utilized InReach to get a weather forecast from Simon, because we had two more days up there and if weather was moving in for real I wanted to know. But nope, forecast was still good. We can hope.
Brad & Mike on the false summit
We woke up to one of the best sunrises ever. Blue skies above us, sea of clouds below us. I spent all year dreaming of being above the clouds, and once or twice a year I get lucky. It’s an incredible feeling. Once again it took us an hour longer than expected to get ready, but soon enough Mike and I were racing Brad with his ski crampons across the Klawatti Glacier, looking out across an ocean of cotton candy clouds. It was pretty much line of sight to the base of the scramble, where we stashed our skis. I dropped my pack too, thinking it was an easy walk to the top. Dreams!
I topped out on the ridge and realized I would definitely want my pack, and probably the rope and maybe even rock shoes. I turned around to grab gear, and we scrambled along the ridge. I didn’t see the third class scramble, so we roped up thinking we’d pitch it out to the top. But the trip reports are right. If you follow an obvious ledge to the right from just before the chockstone notch, it’s an easy third class scramble to the false summit. Barely third class. Once around the corner I laughed at the fact we had roped up. But the rope helped with the final notch, which was full of snow and ice. And I was in rock shoes. Which aren’t great on snow or ice. Oops.
Brad skiing down from Austera
Identical except better photo of me skiing down Austera (PC Brad). If only the lake were melted out!!
I downclimbed into the notch, choosing to stay roped up for the short “traverse.” No one had brought ski boots or crampons or an ice axe, all of which would have made this a piece of cake. The first few steps were wicked icy but Brad had forgotten to take the shovel out of his pack, so I chopped small steps for my rock-shoe-clad feet. Beyond that, it was bucket steps in slush and then 6′ of soft steep snow, and I self-belayed with the shovel (bomber anchor, guys) to a pseudo-stem-across-a-small-moat-onto-a-ledge move. Supposedly there’s a 5.7ish slab move to deal with when it’s all melted out, but it was buried in snow and I preferred our moat hop. I set up on the summit and alternated hip belay/using the rope as a hand line for the others to get across. I was whooping and shouting back to them about the peaks we could see – “Guess what that pointy one is?!” GOODE!” “AND THE HUGE MASSIF IS LOGAN!!” I was going crazy. Everything’s amazing and so few people go past Eldorado even though there’s all of these incredible peaks and ridges back here!
Primus looking primo
The views back at Klawatti, Eldorado, and Dorado Needle are spectacular from Austera. And looking back along the ridge and all of the towers is absolutely wild. We searched for a summit register to no avail, and eventually traversed back over where we just downclimbed the scramble and ended up back at our packs. We had set out water bottles stuffed with snow in the sun to melt, and they had melted!! I know, we’re so smart. We chugged water, stuffed more snow in the bottles, and talus-hopped back to our skis.
And then we enjoyed 1,500ft of the best backcountry skiing I’ve ever had. Unbelievable. We hit perfect corn. Mellow slopes. Mostly covered crevasses (one bunny hop, which is good, because I can’t jump). And the backdrop. The fucking BACKDROP. LOOK WHERE WE ARE. You can’t help but look around and just start laughing because you’re in a place that’s so wild and so remote and so beautiful and so untouched by anything.
Mike and I stopped perfectly (PC Brad)
There are many slopes that look like they’ll drop onto the North Klawatti glacier, but the first real access comes at the ~6,800ft shoulder of Austera’s south ridge. I packed the skis because it was steep, uncomfortably slushy, and the runout was a cliff drop if you didn’t stop in time, so boots it was. Oh, and we had dropped a bit too low and needed to regain elevation anyway. Start packing. Good news is, Emily Stickinson is basically an ice axe except lacking the ability to arrest. But for self belaying (stupid fancy phrases for basic techniques), walking sticks work pretty damn well. Like an alpenstock.
I booted up and north for what felt like ages and finally came to rest at the bottom of the mostly flat basin below Primus. Brad and Mike were switching to skins a few hundred yards behind, so I sunscreened up, mushed my shirt into the snow to try and cool down, and decided to brush my teeth, which I neglected to do that morning. Brush brush brush. I giggled surveying my surroundings. Bet this is the coolest place I’ve brushed my teeth.
We skinned to the base of the slopes and I pitched the idea of ditching all of our heavy crap. Ten minutes later, we had a pile of puffy jackets, a rope, small alpine rack, goretex, stove, spare snacks, a mini yard sale. And light as feathers (hahahaha not) we started skinning up the face of Primus.
Brad and Mike coming up Primus
At first it was awesome. Perfect zig zags, avoiding the occasional rock island. And then it started getting hot. Really hot. And there’s no shade. And everything is reflecting at you. It’s basically a bright white desert except you can roll around to cool off briefly. I hit the talus around 400ft from the summit, thinking 400ft was a lot closer than it actually is. And the talus was shitty, rubbly, everything-wobbles-when-you-step-on-it talus, not fun rock hopping talus. And I lost the bottom half of my whippet. And dragging a huge walking stick in one hand is tedious and means you can’t really use your hands. Dammit, Emily. But I had packed the skis and didn’t want to unpack, so I sucked it up until I met Brad, who had passed me skinning. Stashed the skis, and walked up to the summit, which was like a football field you could totally camp on. Besides the huge slumping cornice, so we didn’t get a great view of the Borealis Glacier, but seriously, everything is still amazing.
Beautiful place for a memorial.
There was no summit register. We found a glass jar, and expecting a celebratory list of names I was rendered speechless as I slowly realized what it was. Hmm, a jar, not a brass register? Okay. One sheet of paper? A pic of a young kid? I unfolded the paper. “In loving memory of John V Yoder, Died May 10, 2016. Age 19. We miss you son.”
I sat there trying not to cry. I knew if I spoke I’d cry so I didn’t. I had only ever been up and around Eldorado with my friend John, this trip I was doing was supposed to be with John, a different John but still a wonderful John who was ripped away far too early in an unexpected accident
in May a year after John Yoder. I do not know this family, I probably never will, but they just got one more person in the world to know their son, and that’s a hell of a good way to remember him. Hopefully they’ve gotten closer to finding peace (not sure you ever truly get there, but everyone kept telling me to find peace so who knows). I’ll never know why they chose Primus, but it’s one of the most remote and beautiful places in the North Cascades and I hope the jar hangs out up there for a long time.
I pulled myself together as Mike caught up and whipped out a summit brownie (no, not of the pot variety) that Brooke had made a few days earlier. At least I don’t think she snuck anything in there besides whatever crack she uses to make desserts so delicious. It was a little mushy and a little warm and we split it three ways and it was the best god damn brownie I’ve ever had in my life. Chugged some Mio to rehydrate, took summit naps, and got ready to ski.
Aaaaaand bring on the next best 1,500ft of backcountry skiing I’ve ever had. Light packs, untouched corn, ridiculous scenery, sunshine and fresh air and the whooping of friends as we party ski down (Mike skiied too fast for pics) to our gear pile on the glacier. We’re so lucky. I don’t know why I climb. Most people seem at least capable of enumerating their reasons, but I either have 500 sort-of-reasons (views, workout, escapism, community) or no reasons, because my favorite hobby has also caused the worst days of my life, during which none of the above mattered. All I can say is that more often than not, I love every minute I’m somewhere like this, I just occasionally have to make sure I’m out there for the right reasons.
We repacked our bags, skiied to the shoulder that wraps around the south ridge of Austera, and booted it. And we actually booted it all the way back to camp. Even after we were back on the Klawatti glacier, it was so slushy and steep enough skinning would have been a pain in the ass, so we made a staircase back up. And when it mellowed out, I was too lazy to transition (you get in a rhythm with booting you know?) and carried on with my steps.
Brad skiing Primus
Heading back to camp. Too lazy to transition.
Oh, and there were ice worms! I hadn’t seen those bad boys since Glacier Peak! They come out at dawn and dusk, and while it was still bright and sunny at 3pm they were getting more and more dense as more came to the top of the snow. We marveled at the tiny creatures and apologized for stepping on some of them. We scrambled back over the ridge (3rd, maybe 4th class move? I handed Emily Stickinson to Brad so I could use my hands) and dropped down to our bivvies (after javelin-throwing Ms. Stickinson off the ridge into the moat). Ahh, so satisfied. Besides the fact that this alleged third class scramble route on the North Ridge was completely evading us. I couldn’t even begin to make out where it might start (unless you can hop some schrunds earlier in the season). I think the SW buttress would have been the route to do it anything, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to pitch out a legit climb with one rope of 3.
In some separate world, glaciologists make six figures and I’m a glaciologist. But in this world I have a desk job until further notice. And I use the weekends to pretend I know things about glaciers. This was a sweet trip because you cross five glaciers (six if you drop onto Borealis after Primus!) and end up on some of the most rugged, wild terrain in Washington, maybe in the lower 48. Wait until I retire. I’m going to get to so many glaciers. Unless they die first.
Sunrise on Memorial Day
I got all snuggled in my sleeping bag while the sun set and announced that I love my life. We’re so freaking lucky. Well, Brad and I were lucky. Mike had had “Despacito” stuck in his head for two days at this point and was probably quietly going insane. And I rescind my prior statement about being so smart, because if we were smart we’d have brought a black trash bag to fill with snow and melt on the rocks while we climbed so we’d return to water instead of hours of jetboil chores. A watched pot never boils and by that logic… well maybe not all of our water actually boiled. I had a several hour staring contest with that stove. I demolished some spicy pumpkin seeds, had some dehydrated food, and topped off the night with a cup of tea courtesy of Mike, who carried like 40 tea bags on the trip. MVP.
We woke up and figured we’d use the whole day for leaving, thinking we’d need all day to get down given how long it took us to get up. That was false, since we got moving around 6am and were out around noon, maybe a little later. We started an hour later than intended again, but I’m chalking it up to the difficulty of putting contacts in our eyes when it’s windy and you’re just in a bivvy. Crux move of the trip. JUST STICK TO MY EYEBALL DON’T BLOW INSIDE OUT whyyyyy you gotta be like that?! I saw Brad fighting the same battle a few minutes later. Everyone get Lasik.
Brad takes a break below the east face of Eldorado
Back at Klawatti Col I took one last look at the SW buttress to be positive we didn’t want to give it a shot. The stoke still wasn’t there. How can I have so much summit fever and so little motivation at the same time?! I think if I had known more about the route maybe I’d have been more into it, but all I had was a vague “it starts as 5th class, then 4th, then 3rd class.” Blah. Next year. Plus that way I have an excuse to come back here, and I bet Klawatti could be done in a long day (JT, you reading this?).
The skin back over to Eldorado was even more scenic than the way in because the clouds were lower instead of socking us in with ping-pong-ball views, and besides a brief sting of why-am-I-carrying-skis-and-rack-and-rope grumpiness I was in my happy place. We debated climbing Eldorado just for kicks (or turns) but I was concerned about getting down in time since we were about to drop into whiteout and the stoke wasn’t there, so we kept moving.
Glacier Peak and Eggplant (hahahahaha I know I know) in rolling clouds
Skiing down to the notch was amazing and terrible at once. I don’t like skiing in whiteout on glaciers. But despite stopping every four turns, we still got to the notch in what felt like 15 minutes compared to an hour or more on the way up. The scramble up was easier than the way down, and we dropped onto the boulder field and put skis back on. Except this was low angle and sticky and gross. After a few turns I wasn’t feeling it. So I packed the skis.
They told me there was no way booting was faster than skiing. So I started jogging, and eventually lost them while they negotiated trees and rock patches and I assume the occasional wipeout? I finally waited at the official end of the snow until they packed the skis and caught up, and we took a short detour through the forest west of the boulder field (which is open, for now) before popping right out in that terrible-slide-alder-or-slabby-scramble section of the boulder field. From there, it was navigating boulders and scraping skis off every fucking rock and cursing Emily Stickinson until you’ve gone emotionally numb from stress and anxiety and guilt over destroying thousands of dollars of gear and finally you’re back at the forest.
Skinning with Purpose
In the forest we decided it was every man for himself, we’ll meet at the car and backtrack to the trailhead if anyone takes too long. So I took off. That meant no one was there to see me au-cheval the log crossing because I was fed up with balancing and I wasn’t about to lose my other ski pole. I laughed at the people in the SUV who drove by and stared as I stepped out onto the road from the bushes. I made it back to the car, stashed Emily Stickinson with her new friend, another stick that had to have been used by someone else as a walking stick because it was too perfect (Charles Stickens?), changed into new clothes, and threw my car camping setup on the ground for naps. And ate the half pound of pulled pork I had left in the car. That’s right, for three days. You can judge me or be awed by the immune system of steel, I know you’re jealous. IT WAS DELICIOUS. And I didn’t die, so I think I’m in the clear.
Bonus pic of me skiing Primus (PC Brad)
Brad popped out 10 minutes later as did Mike, and we piled our stinky ass gear into the trunk and marveled at the damage we did to our feet. Thank the sweet baby Jesus for flip flops. And there we were, headed back to Seattle! It’s a crazy feeling getting back to civilization after a trip like that where so much of it is just you and the mountains and views and silence. Finally took advantage of a three day weekend, and waking up above the clouds two days in a row is a pretty damn good deal. I think the skis are hung up for the season (I’m too lazy for Turns All Year guys I know), but that just means it’s time for rock climbing and trail running and maybe even some biking. So much to do, so little time!
Oh, and I think I’ll be buying some ski crampons. Waking up every morning carrying skis cramponing crust while Brad got to have them on his feet was mildly annoying. Skis weigh a lot. My back and shoulders hurt more than the rest of my body the next morning. Yes, I know, my pack doesn’t fit great if that’s the case, but I think with enough weight there’s no such thing as a perfectly fitting pack.
Mike skinning up Primus, Baker in the back