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Nason Ridge - Wildflower Skiing

In summer, the trail up the south side of Rock Mountain is wicked. It climbs steeply, switchbacks incessantly, and bakes cruelly in the afternoon sun. It’s a trail Harvey Manning says in one of his 100 Hikes books, that’s for the ornery if you’re old, the stubborn if you’re young.

The backcountry skiers of spring, however, view the trail differently. The southern exposure melts the lower stretches of the path down to dirt in late spring and this allows skiers to ascend the steep, rocky terrain at the start of this route on foot rather than through technical skinning skills. The steepness off the trail also transports skiers quickly to snow level in a mile or two rather than subjecting them to endless miles of travel up a gentle road system.

During the first weekend of June following the heavy winter of 2011, Tom Janisch and I discover another plus—wildflowers. Hiking up the Rock Mountain Trail is a wildflower slideshow with Indian paintbrush, serviceberry, groundsel, dwarf waterleaf, kinnikinnick, trillium, and glacier lilies lining the corridor. For those of us headed up into the monochrome world of winter, all this color is a feast.

As expected the trail transports us quickly upward and at the 4,800-foot level we hit the Bingo Line, that spot where in one step we move from dirt to skiable snow. For hikers this is the place where a pair of snowshoes in the pack will propel them easily up to Rock Lake or the summit of Rock Mountain. And for skiers like us, who have been walking their skis thus far, this is the place where the fun begins.

We follow the snowed-over trail to the summit of Rock Mountain (6,852 feet) with its spectacular views of the Cascades. The mountains from Rainier to Baker are razor sharp today. What’s not so sharp is our ability to identify them. If novices were present, we could impress them by naming some 40 to 50 peaks, but with 400 to 500 summits scraping the skyline this constitutes a pitiful batting average.

Photo: Glacier Peak surrounded by the peaks of the Whatchamacallthem Range.

From the summit of Rock, we descend the mountain’s massive 3,000-vertical-foot west face lined with the gunbarrels of at least ten impressive avalanche swaths. On many winter days, skiing this slope would be an invitation to throw your molecules back into the great cosmic atom scrambler. Today, however, the snow is anchored with the armor of frozen spring snow. The surface has softened and skis beautifully by 10:30 a.m. when we set foot on it. This is likely to turn to mush later in the day, but right now the slopes are a slice of paradise. We fly down to Snowy Creek in minutes on slopes that would require hours to climb.

 Photo: Looking down Rock Mountain's west face. Ready, set, go.

The forests in this secluded backyard of the mountain are dominated by old hemlocks, some that require two or three tree-huggers to embrace, and it's here that the route-finding turns interesting.

We tour up the northernmost fork of Snowy Creek to a 5,130-foot pass, contour under several rocky summits forming the spine of Nason Ridge, thread a few more passes forming low spots in the ridge, and finally find ourselves touring up the northeast ridge of Peak 5576, which sits above the Smithbrook Road and forms the western-most extension of Nason Ridge. All day the character of the light and the big bald peaks surrounding us to the southeast in the Chiwaukums and to northwest in the Glacier Peak Wilderness are other worldly – they evoke vivid memories of spring tours in the European Alps.

 Photo: Mt. Hinman levitating above the Stevens Pass ski area.

From our final peak above the Smithbrook Road we ski downhill through stately old-growth forests coated with soft, consolidated snow that carries us all the way down to the small swithbacks in the road. The water-saturated snow is slow but tree skiing rarely gets any better. On needle-carpeted snow, we snake around the moss-covered giants of the Northwest.

We intersect the Smithbrook Road and another 1.5 miles of poling and gliding cap off the day. The snow lasts all the way to Highway 2 but as soon as we click out of the skis and step onto the dirt flanking the tarmac, glacier lilies and trillium greet us.  Skiing should always be so sweet.

Photo below: The west face of Rock Mountain from Peak 5576.



Details, Details: Rock Mountain to Smithbrook (Nason Ridge – West End)

Skill: 3 (advanced). Fitness:3 (advanced).

Elevation gain: about 6,600 vertical feet.

Recommended Activity. This route is arguably best done on skis but could also be completed on snowshoes.

Recommended season. This tour can be done in winter but skinning up the lower, south-facing slopes and finding stable conditions on the west face of Rock Mountain requires more skill and knowledge. In late spring, walking the bottom portion of this route is easier and it’s easier to find stable snow on the west face. Depending on the amount of winter snowfall, the route will be in best shape sometime between late April and early June.

Access. Drive 26 miles west of Leavenworth on Highway 2 and park at milepost 73.2. If snow still borders the highway, park on the north side of highway just east of the snowed-over road leading to the Rock Mountain Trailhead. Later in spring, the snow will be gone and you can turn off the highway and park at the bottom of the dirt road.

Trip Instructions. Follow the road and then the summer trail up the south side of Rock Mountain to snow line. Once skis or snowshoes are needed, follow the general route of the hiker’s trail to the summit of Rock Mountain. Descend the west face of the mountain to the 3800-foot level of Snowy Creek. Follow the northernmost fork of Snowy Creek up to the pass capping its watershed. Descend the opposite (north) side of the pass 50 vertical feet and then contour steep forests in a westerly and then northwesterly direction for 0.3 miles before climbing to a pass at 5,135 feet (Waypoint 3). Contour a few hundred yards west to a second pass (Waypoint 4), then ski down to the 4,450-foot level of the creek below. Climb up to the north ridge of Peak 5576 and follow the ridge to the summit. Ski off this peak in a westerly direction and descend old-growth forests until you intersect the Smithbrook Road (depending on the line taken, you may end up on logged slopes near the road). Follow the road back to Highway 2.

Shuttle. From the end of the Smithbrook Road, it’s 4.5 miles along the highway back to the car at the Rock Mountain Trailhead. You might run or hitchhike this section of Highway 2, but leaving a bike hidden in the woods at the end of the Smithbrook Road makes for an easy, reliable shuttle.

Permits. None needed.

Maps. See our Rock Mountain topo for the ascent of the peak. Use our Nason Ridge–West End map to complete the traverse.

Other Nason Ridge traverses. Middle section (Rock Mountain to Mastiff). Eastern section (Merritt Lake to Round Mountain).

Hazards. There’s abundant avalanche hazard along this route--in the wrong snow conditions you might find yourself drowning in snow. Literally. It’s up to you to decide when the route is sane or stupid.

Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, etc.

Disclaimer: Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers--they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route.You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.