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Complete Ski Traverse of Chelan Ridge

The goal:
Ride the Lake Chelan ferry to Lucerne, then get back to Fields Point under human  power – mostly on skis, but also boot and bicycle.

The route: Lake Chelan ferry to Lucerne, then hike the Emerald Park Creek trail to snow, then ski over Milham Pass, Saska Pass, climb over Cardinal Peak, then ski and climb the alpine and sub-alpine mountainsides along the west slopes of Pyramid Peak, Graham Mountain, and Crow Hill to Shady Pass, then use the snow-covered forest service ridgetop roads to ski the rest of the way back.

I had been slowly researching and skiing parts of this grand plan for years, finally pulled it off this past May. Yes, carrying a heavy pack and skis, and clomping around the deck in plastic tele boots, I garnered quite a few strange looks from other ferry riders. It was, after all, sunny and mid-70’s. But, those of us who do this stuff know better, right?

After disembarking at Lucerne, I started up the Emerald Park Creek trail. Just after leaving the little town and heading uphill on trail, I encountered a gal who quizzically eyed the skis and asked me where I was headed. I described the intended trip, she listened patiently. Then, walking away down the trail, she said one word: “Badass”. Wow, I do a lot of backcountry skiing, climbing, and wilderness adventuring, but never been called badass before. Was it a compliment? Or was she perceiving something evil about my plan or me? Did my hind end smell? Pondering the meaning, I continued up the well-maintained trail. Well-maintained until the border of the Glacier Peak Wilderness next to Domke Lake. Then I entered blow-down-tick-infested hell. I must have climbed over, under, around, and through a hundred downed trees and large branch piles in the next couple of miles. The skis on the pack made this exponentially more difficult. And after each brush fight, I kept finding 3, 4, sometimes half a dozen ticks crawling on my clothing, the most I’ve ever encountered on a North Cascades trip.

Eventually I staggered into snow, and after the usual tough transitional stretch, the snow became continuous enough to keep the skis on, bury the brush and blow-down, and halt any further tick collections. Exhausted after a very full day, I made camp in the inviting open and flat space of Emerald Creek Park. Beautiful. And maybe badass.

Photo: Emerald Creek Basin

Next day took me over Milham Pass; by skiing just right of the true pass (i.e., following the exact route that the trail shows on the USGS topo map) I was able to keep skis with skins on the whole way, no booting/cramponing. Then I enjoyed the reason for skis, skiing downhill (sans skins of course) on a descending traverse to about the 6200 foot level to go under a buttress on the way to Saska Pass. The burned out forest on this side must be an ashy hell in summer, but covered in snow, it made for enjoyable skiing, dodging through a forest of poles, mostly stripped of any interfering branches. The final very steep bit over Saska Pass seemed a bit icy in the shady spots so I switched to boots w/crampons for safety. The ski down the other side into the North Fork Entiat Valley went smoothly, and this is when my prior touring and research paid off: Descending this mountainside on skis, it is critical to traverse northeastward and stay on tilted shelves between cliffs; cautious exploration of the way is needed. But eventually the flattish basin at about 6500 is gained and the way is clear for an easy ascent through sparse forest up to the west side of Cardinal Peak.

Photo: Saska's east face.

The route enters from the left side of photo and works right across ledges. The open and austere basin just below 7400 feet on Cardinal’s west face is a great place to camp in good weather. And camping here is good strategy if warmer weather prevails in the afternoon; waiting for the overnight freeze-up makes the boot/crampon ascent of the west face safer and easier, plus the ensuing mid-morning ski descent of the east bowl of Cardinal better, as the timing is about right for the sun to warm the snow on that aspect to perfect spring corn by mid-morning. And the east bowl of Cardinal Peak is the alpine climax of this whole traverse, a real treat in good weather, truly badass. A small blue tarn at 7900 in this bowl begins to reveal itself in the spring melt, this would also be a fabulous place to camp in good weather. After a nice ride downhill, traversing out of the bowl is rather easy and connects readily to the next downhill and a traverse over to Grouse Pass.

Photo Above: Dream camp in the west bowl of Cardinal Peak. Below: Despite a look of steepness, the route up is manageable -- crampons suggested if icy.

Photo Below: Cardinal’s east bowl. My ski tracks can be seen crossing the steep.


Immediately on the other side of Grouse Pass there are attractive flat meadows for camping, and I found accessible water trickling out of the rocks just above these meadows (always helpful on snow-covered trips).

Above: Flat camp spot below Grouse Pass. Pyramid Mountain to the left.

 Accessing the west slopes of Pyramid Mountain from here can be tricky. Finding the small buttress that starts at about 7000 feet in the sparse forest is critical; one can then boot up through alternating rocks and snow. On the USGS topo, this buttress appears as a wedge pointing due west in the topo lines, it’s really obvious on the map. At the top of this “wedge” buttress, the way opens out into an easily traveled slope; in good conditions one might find snow all the way to the summit of Pyramid. And the summit should be visited in good weather if doing this trip, the 7000+ foot view down to Lake Chelan is incredible. On my visit this particular time, the last 300 feet was bare rock, but was still worth the hike up.

Photo: Looking south from the summit of Pyramid, Lake Chelan over 7000 feet lower and the ridges yet to be skied stretching onward.

The southeast side of Pyramid contains some steep spots, I found it best to traverse around at about the 7300 level until a bowl is encountered, then downhill. This bowl would have high avalanche potential in the wrong conditions.

Photo: Entering the south side bowl on Pyramid from above can be tricky, just need to look around a bit.

The next couple of miles involves side-hilling on the west and south around the highpoints, rising and falling a bit as needed, sometimes rejoining the crest. Forest occasionally adds to the obstacles, but nothing too serious. The parts where I could ski right on the crest of the ridge were a real privilege, the mile plus drop to Lake Chelan on my left was breathtaking.

Midway between Graham Mountain and Crow Hill.

After passing Graham Mountain then Crow Hill, the road system is gained at Shady Pass. Now the cruising becomes easy, of course. If still snowmobile season, expect traffic; when I was here in early May I didn’t see a single one, but the grooming made the roads easy traveling, and the snow was continuous all along the ridgetops through Shady Pass, Junior Point and Chesepeake Saddle. As I dropped in altitude, the snow diminished, even to the point that only the road had snow still on it (from all the compacting by now non-existent snowmobile travel). Finally about a mile shy of Grouse Mountain, I had to start walking. But very soon I arrived where I hadstored my mountain bike in the bushes before setting out on the ferry a week before. The final payoff was an 11 mile 4000 foot descent by bike back to pavement, then a short pedal back to Fields Point and my car. Nearly a week in the backcountry, fantastic terrain, not a single human sighted, and very possibly a first ski traverse route. Badass? I’ll have to ask that gal if I ever see her again.