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A Sawtooth Traverse

A Sawtooth Traverse
by Coron Polley

On an early afternoon in March, three skiers devoured delicious hamburgers at the Stehekin Landing. I gazed around the dining room at old pictures of upper Lake Chelan from years long gone. The three of us sitting at the table had just finished a three and a half day ski traverse and I was thinking back and smiling.

My parents met on the shores of Lake Chelan during college summers while my father worked for the Lake Chelan Boat Company and my mother at the Stehekin Landing.  Seven years later my parents had returned. Ernie Gibson, the owner and pilot of Chelan Airways during that time, was convinced that I was going to be born either at the wrong end of the lake or worse---in his plane before it reached Chelan. He forced my mom, dad and infant brother back to town where I was born well over a week later. 

While I was growing up our family spent as much time as possible "up lake."  I was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes in 1984---the same year the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness was established. Over time, my brother and I turned our gazes to the mountains above the lake. By our late teens, I think we felt that the Sawtooths were our mountains. I spent a lot of time amongst these peaks, but until four days ago I had yet to traverse them on skis.

Friday, March 8th, 2013
Gold Creek Road to the Old Maid Divide
Photo: Merchants Basin.

Tom Janisch, Adam Vognild, and I started our journey by skinning up Gold Creek and Foggy Dew Roads. Over the next four days and many miles, I spun yarns for my companions about my travels in the Sawtooths, including some sobering stories that explain why, for the first time, I had brought along a satellite phone. 

We rapidly covered miles on the frozen, snowy road, then the summer trail. We climbed out of the forest and into Merchants Basin just as the sun touched the horizon once more. I had come through this area back in early September on bicycle. That day we had enjoyed the views in the warm sun, but a winter evening left little desire to linger.

Halfway down the steep, windswept slope the rocks opened up and my companions descended ahead of me, making quick turns that I had no energy to replicate.  I made long arcs as the last light washed out of the sky. We found a bench for camp among a grove of larch above the Middle Fork of Prince Creek. As the stars appeared in the sky we melted snow, dug out an area for the tent, crawled in our bags, replenished fluids and nutrients, and immediately passed out for the night.

Saturday, March 9th
Old Maid Divide to Horseshoe Basin (East Fork of Fish Creek)

Photo: Camp One on the divide between the East and Middle Forks of Prince Creek.

The 5:15 alarm allowed us to finish coffee and breakfast before first light.  As the sun touched the high peaks and ridges, we were stuffing our packs full of gear. We started the day with a glide down into the creek. The meadows held perfect powder and provided a fun early morning ski. 

Ski crampons helped us climb up and out of the valley in a frozen avalanche path.  We entered the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness and looked back to view Switchback Peak. It looked to be a long way off, but Star Peak, in the opposite direction appeared to be substantially farther. 

Photo: Adam skiing powder into the Main Fork of Prince Creek.


We skied perfect powder snow into the Main Fork of Prince Creek, then traversed across the big drainage. As we started climbing out the other side we followed the summer trail and soon passed the Prince Creek Shelter. I remembered sitting in front of it many years ago while my brother massaged a rolled ankle from running down the trail. He claimed he was fine and we walked another 20 miles that summer day.

Photo: Tom Skiing toward Star Lake.

The three of us climbed steadily to a saddle above Star Lake and the headwaters of the East Fork of Fish Creek. I had daydreamed about skiing down these slopes after an August snowstorm a few years earlier when I climbed out of the basin alone on my way up Star Peak. After skiing these slopes we made a long traverse through scars from the 2006 Flick Creek Fire. Late in the day we slowly climbed out of Fish Creek and above Horseshoe Basin. This gave us a short ski down to another camp among the larch.


Sunday, March 10th
Horseshoe Basin to Hazard/Purple Ridge Bench

Photo: Adam climbing through Horshoe Basin with the Chelan Mountains behind. 

Sunday morning dawned cold with a high overcast. Clouds and storms brewed to the west, but snow showers left us alone. I had traveled through Horseshoe Basin several times during summer and fall, but the landscape looked totally alien with snow and the overcast. We climbed past Tuckaway Lake and across to a high saddle above Eagle Pass.

As we turned back, we admired the sheer rock of Courtney Peak's north face and the windswept pile of boulders that makes Oval Peak. Ahead we found that the nicely spaced contours on the map were much closer in real life. Instead of skiing a “Plotz Line”, we dropped eastward into Eagle Creek before heading back across Eagle Pass.  The next traverse started above the North Fork of Fish Creek. We were able to stay very high above the drainage and again covered miles in minutes rather than hours.

Photo: Skiing into Eagle Creek.

Another climb brought us to the head of the last drainage to cross on our ridge route.  Purple Pass, Boulder Butte, Reynolds Peak and McGregor Mountain were visible.  This was a definite sign that Stehekin was near. As a crow did rolls in the wind in front of us, we made slalom turns through the trees on north facing slopes into Fourmile Creek. It was fun rolling terrain and the sun had again appeared as another traverse took us within a few miles of Purple Pass.

I slowed my climb, letting Adam and Tom leave me far behind.  I stopped often to look around and enjoy the scenery. My body was now accustomed to the daily routine and wanted to keep skiing, but my mind was telling me that the boat and life wouldn’t wait another day.

Photo: Climbing toward Purple Pass. 


My companions had already added layers against the cool wind when I reached the knob above Purple Pass. They had been there for a while, and were enjoying the view of mountains in all directions. Well over a vertical mile below, Lake Chelan and Stehekin were in sight. A huge pile of avalanche debris was visible in the creek bottom several thousand feet below. The slope looked steep and I wondered if the route from the pass would be any more appealing.

 Photo: Purple Pass with Flora Mt and Castle Rock across the Chelan Valley. 

After skiing to Purple Pass, Adam cut the steep slope. Nothing but unconsolidated snow flowed down. From there we enjoyed the surprise of wonderful powder snow for several thousand feet. All the skiing had been genuinely good, but it was amazing to ski this excellent snow while looking down at Lake Chelan, the shores getting closer with each turn.   

I had been dreaming about this trip for a long time.  As we set up camp high above the lake, I felt some disappointment that the trip was nearly over. Tom had joked with Patti that if we weren't on Monday's boat we would be down on the next scheduled boat Wednesday and would be skiing McGregor on Tuesday. With Stehekin close, we were unlikely to miss the boat. Besides, my wife would have sent search and rescue to fetch us if the Lady of the Lake did not have us on board.

Photo: Adam looking down on Lake Chelan. 

The snow wasn't deep enough to fit three people in the tent.  Since I had a bivy sack, I slept under the stars. The lower elevation and earlier arrival allowed us to cook and eat outside and enjoy the evening.  We watched the sun fall and stars appear in a perfectly cloudless sky. Just before dark we watched a boat make slow progress against the wind on the lake far below. It was about this time of day in January of 1994 that I, in a diabetic coma, was heading in a boat in the opposite direction.

I had spent a month in a cabin with one of my best friends from my youth.  We were both in college.  Both universities we attended had a 4 week term in January. We thought it silly to try to cram a semester's worth of education into a month. We felt our time would be much better spent exploring the lake and mountains in winter. The day before the Lady of the Lake was to arrive and return us to civilization, we had climbed up Rex Creek toward the Sawtooth Rocks on snowshoes. It was a beautiful day and I have vivid memories about the crystal clear winter views. The spot I was now sitting 19 years later and only a few miles away reminded me of the scene. 

Three days later I had come out of the coma really mad I had missed the last day of the trip. I was a little slower at first, but shortly returned to my normal self. A few years later, my brother bought a satellite phone for use at the cabin. I survived thanks to my friend. He had a hard time recovering. While I was comatose, he dealt with me alone and without help. I think time has helped heal. I sent him the pictures from this trip and he sent a response suggesting a hike from the Canadian Border to Lake Chelan this coming summer. 

I looked up at the sky as I laid in my warm sleeping bag.  The mountains were lit up by the brilliant stars.  As I gazed into the night, I thought back over the long weekend.  I reflected on all the memories that were generated the last few days.  The terrain was so familiar, but also completely different.

Monday, March 11th
On to Stehekin

Photo: Morning view of Lake Chelan

We awoke early and found the snow frozen hard. We all drank coffee in excess and no one was in a hurry to finish the trip. Tom especially was disappointed there would be no climbing. We could not delay the inevitable, so camp was crammed into packs, we stepped into bindings and dropped. The hard snow made it feasible to ski across patches that would have been impassible the previous afternoon. Every turn saw less snow around us, and snow was totally absent when we reached the creek and trail.

Photo: The last turns down to Purple Creek.

We put skis on packs and marched downhill toward civilization. Green grass appeared along the trail. Stehekin was past winter and heading into spring when we arrived. The landing was not yet awake, but it got busy when the boat approached with staff, locals and visitors all converging at once.

So there we sat enjoying lunch, with me gazing at the pictures of the mountains. The previous night I had dreamt about different routes in this little nook of the Cascades. I thought about the places we skipped, where we had turned east instead of west, the ridges we looked off before having to turn the other way. The places we climbed up and did not get to ski back down, the mountains that looked so inviting to climb. I had pleasant thoughts of past and future trips in my mind. The sights, the snow, the turns, the laughter with friends.  The fun of being in the mountains… Skis, snow and gravity are a wonderful combination and I can't wait for the next journey through the Sawtooths.


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