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Hansel Creek - A Tale of Two Passes

 Photo: A typical blue Blewett day. Does Captain Crunch by morning equal cream corn by afternoon?

Note: 3/23/2009 We've just learned that the ownership of the roaded, lower portion of this route (the land with most of the road system) has been sold and is not available to public use. In other words, this route is no longer legal.  More about this at the end of this post. We'll be looking for new (and legal) ways to access Peak 6,800, but please do not use this route. 

While this particular route should not be used, the greater truth about this article (that we are lucky to have both Blewett and Stevens Pass to choose from) still applies.

Backcountry skiers living in Central Washington are lucky puppies. As they devote work hours to the question of where they should ski during their next day off, they can choose between two passes with radically different temperatures and snow conditions. Stevens Pass, being smack dab on the center of the Pacific Crest, gets hammered with about three times more snow than brother Blewett. When the weather dumps, it’s a focal point for fresh turns. It is, however cloudier and warmer. And being close to the hives of Puget Sound,  it attracts swarms of skiers wanting  your lines.

Blewett Pass, being 25 linear miles east of the Pacific Crest, is far sunnier and substantially colder than brother Stevens. It receives radically less precipitation, but the dandruff on its northern slopes is often as light as Styrofoam peanuts…even weeks after the last storm. South-facing slopes tilted toward the sun, meanwhile, can deliver winter corn while peaks near the crest are crusting over or glopping up. Finally, while Blewett has a few known skiing hubs, most slopes along the Highway 97 corridor are rarely visited by the plank-footed.

The bottomline: If conditions stink at one pass, the odds of finding reasonable skiing at our bookend pass are fairly good.

At least that’s what we’re counting on when Tom Janisch and I start to approach Peak 6,800 located two miles south of Wedge Mountain and capping the Hansel Creek drainage. Last week, we encountered dismal backcountry conditions near Stevens Pass. With no new snow and no real change in weather, we suspect the nasties will persist there. We hope the Highway 97 hinterlands will dish out something better. If nothing else, something unknown and possibly horrible trumps that which is definitely known to be horrible. So off we go with high hopes.

Our hopes are eroded throughout the morning and early afternoon. We ascend Forest Service roads on firm, icy snow climbing up south-facing hillsides that on normal winters offer good skiing but are nearly bare during this low-snow year. At 4,700 feet, we reach the long, southeastern ridge of our peak and start tracking along it. As rocky spines along the ridge force us onto north-facing or south-facing slopes to circumvent impasses, we find frozen crust to the north and bare ground to the south. We walk more than ski. If we end up returning this way, we’ll be walking again.

But hope floats when we reach the 6,000-foot level. We can see an alternate descent in a bowl below us that will ultimately reconnect with one of the logging spurs crisscrossing the Hansel Creek watershed. The bowl may brush out before we reach that spur, but the mantra that brought us here today still holds: Something unknown and possibly horrible trumps that which is definitely known to be horrible We carry on toward the summit with more bounce.

Photo: Summit views. Snow Lakes and the Enchantments.

Our ridge fans into the broad summit slopes of Peak 6,800 and we cut a long traverse to the north, using the ascent to scope out the best possible snow for the descent. On the northeast aspects, we find old powder that’s dense but surprisingly consistent. We climb to an airy perch situated thousands of feet above Snow Lakes and yielding a spectacular panorama of the Enchantments. Astounding…in the context of the atrocious conditions we’ve encountered most of the day, our fortunes have flipped.

The descent accentuates the riches of Central Washington’s dual-pass bounty. Unlike the jerky, bumper-car craziness of the breakable crust we skied around Stevens Pass last week, the first 800 vertical feet of this descent is a weaving dance through silk. We traverse, cut through a gap, and tip onto the south-facing bowl we examined earlier. Here we snake through 1,200 vertical feet of California cream-corn snow on slopes spackled with gray-granite boulders and orange-barked ponderosas.

Above and below : Tom Janisch finding lemonade amongst the lemon conditions.

When the bowl funnels into the grotto of a creek, we contour left, drop, contour left, drop, contour… We find enough glades and just enough snow to drop another 1,400 vertical feet and intersect our logging road. We turn left and blast down the road on a surface that alternates between ice and corn as it contours around gullies and riblets.

Seventy minutes after leaving the summit, we’re at the car scratching our heads. How the heck did we coax such a miraculous run from such marginal conditions? Part of the answer lies in dumb luck; part in the tale of two passes.


Details, Details: Hansel Creek and Peak 6,800’

Apologies to outdoor users and landowners. Our research prior to posting this guidebook entry indicated that our acces to Peak 6,800 was legal. We've discovered, however, that most of the road system we describe is on Longview Fibre property that was auctioned and sold about a year ago. The current owners have informed us that this route is NOT open for public use. Please respect the landowner's rights. Peak 6,800 is a beautiful destination and we will research new and legal ways to access it.

Activities. We skied the route on randonnee gear, but snowshoers can follow the same route. Nordic skiers with general touring gear (metal edged skis and skinny skins recommended) can ski the road system in the Hansel Creek watershed. And hikers can scramble to Peak 6,800 in summer (consider using a mountain bike to reach the ridge and dispatch the road).

Difficulty: Skiing the peak (3 or advanced). Snowshoeing the peak (2+ or 3- , advanced intermediate or easy advanced),  Nordic skiing the road system (2 or intermediate). Hiking the peak (3 or advanced). Note: This is an easy climb for mountaineers, but hikers accustomed to trails and signage will find this a challenging route.

Fitness: 3 or advanced.

Distance: About 16 miles round trip. Elevation Gain: 4,900 vertical feet.

Map. View our topo map of the route. Print this on 8.5” x 11” paper in landscape mode. Note: Use ‘Print Preview’ to scale the map to your printer before printing.

Access. From the Y Junction (several miles east of Leavenworth along Highway 2), drive 7 miles south along Highway 97. At milepost 178.1, turn right onto Ingalls Creek Road. Cross a bridge and turn left. Follow Ingalls Creek Road about 1.2 miles and park in the plowed turnaround near the Ingalls Creek Trailhead.

Trip Instructions:

  • From the parking area (elevation 1,950 feet), pack the skis and walk back down the paved road about 100 yards. Turn left onto a plowed gravel road. This road immediately switchbacks and then contours uphill in a northeasterly direction for 0.35 miles. Just before the plowing ends near a home situated above the road, you’re likely to be approached by barking dogs connected to that home. We found them to be all bluster, but they were initially intimidating.
  • When the plowing ends, ski the road. After 0.25 mile, pass through a gate and keep going. About 1.75 miles past the gate, reach an intersection at 3,080 feet. Turn right and climb more steeply.
  • Climb another 3.1 miles as the road zigzags uphill. The road ends on a ridge (el: 4,700’).
  • Follow the ridge in a northwesterly direction for a linear distance of about 1.25 miles until it melds into the summit slopes of Peak 6,800 at a saddle (el: 6,040’). This is slow going in winter and cornices and rock outcrops on the ridge will have you contouring slopes below the ridge top in several places. At an elevation of 5,440 feet, the ridge is particularly rocky and narrow--cross over to the south-side slopes, descend a few hundred feet, and contour for about 0.25 miles before climbing back to the ridge top.
  • From the saddle at 6,040 feet, contour upward in a northwesterly direction; then climb the northeast-facing slopes to the summit.
  • Descent options. 1) Retrace the route. 2) Return to the saddle at 6,040 feet then ski the south-facing slopes below the saddle. Before these slopes pinch down into a confined, bushy creek, traverse to skier’s left, drop a few hundred feet, traverse more, drop more, etc. Staying  a few hundred vertical feet above the creek, keep working down the south-facing glades confining the creek. Intersect a logging road at the 3,500-foot level, turn left and ski a mile back to a road junction at 3,080 feet. Now retrace the roads you traveled earlier.

Allowed: Snowmobiles are allowed on the Forest Service roads, other motorized recreational vehicles are not.

Land Ownership: The roaded section of the route follows Forest Service roads. The cross-country portion of the route is on Forest Service lands.

Permits. In summer, a Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park at the Ingalls Creek Trailhead. In winter if the road is plowed to the actual trailhead, you technically need a Northwest Forest Pass. As a practical matter, however, the Northwest Forest Pass program is rarely patrolled or enforced in winter because so few trailheads requiring permits have plowed access.

Reporter: Andy Dappen, February 2009.

Leave It Better Than You found It. This should be every user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, disperse old fire rings, throw branches over unwanted spur trails…