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Isolation Traverse

Eldorado to Pyramid Peak

May 1-3, 2013

Todd has a great trip report and amazing pictures on his climbing blog here

The forecast was for beautiful weather over the next several days and my friend, Todd Kilcup, had been planning a ski tour of the Isolation Traverse. One day at work he asked me if I was interested in joining him and his friend, Will, and I jumped at the opportunity.

We met at Todd's place then caravaned up to the Pyramid Lake trailhead on the Highway 20, then transfered my gear to Todd's car and drove back down through through Newhalem and Marblemount to mile 18 on the Cascade River road. The snow on the road would mean that we would have to hike up the road a few miles to Eldorado Creek where we could cross the river on the logs. There was only one other truck at the wide spot where we parked and their dome light was on. Oops!

Todd and Will slept in Todd's car while I crawled into my bivy sack at a flat spot under a nearby tree. I remembered back to the last time I slept in my bivy sack and it was before Dan Smith and I traversed Mixup Peak enroute to an unplanned bivy on the Cache Glacier. I've always had an adventure each visit to this special area!

We woke up around 5:30, put on our boots, divided the common gear, loaded our packs with our skis and started hiking up the road. We had opted to bring a small tarp in place of bivy sacks or tents to save weight. I chose to bring my small REI Double Diamond ski pack instead of my larger packs. I recalled the words my friend Jeff Witt told me, "If you weren't cold or hungry, then you brought too much!" Hopefully I had planned right so that I would have just the right amount. Time would tell!

Todd, Will and I were all really excited about the unknown adventure that awaited us as we hiked up the trail. We had all read Carl and Lowell Skoog's inspiring accounts of their early explorations of this area and I thought about what it must have been like to have explored this area when so much was truly unknown.

Todd and Will laughed at the height of my skis since I strapped them very high to my pack so that the tails wouldn't get caught on the steep trail as we hiked up the infamous climber's trail. Todd commented that my packed skis did resemble those of the Skoog brothers since they stuck up so high, although I'm sure their skis were in the 200cm+ range, not the diminutive and featherweight 170cm Dynafit Seven Summits that I had the pleasure to use.

Soon we were out of the trees and reached the first boulder field. We switched to skis and skins and made our way up the steep slope. Views opened up across the valley to Johannesberg, Cascade Peak and Mixup Peak. At a break an errant Cliff Bar slipped out of Todd' pack and slid down the snow where it stopped in a shallow tree well. Todd had been doing the lion's share of the trail breaking so I skied down to retrieve the bar so that he would have plenty of energy to keep up his excellent work! The snow was already beginning to soften up and the cliffs above us were sending down wet chunks of snow fairly regularly so we continued on our way.

We took a lunch break on a small knoll at the upper boulder field and enjoyed the sunshine and the expansive views. The night before we had stopped at Costco in Burlington to gas up and I had gone inside and bought a couple slices of pizza: one for dinner and one to take with me for lunch! Eating pizza in the backcountry is always a treat but this was especially satisfying. We continued up the snow slopes to the chute that lead us down to the lower Inspiration Glacier. I recongized the small ridge just at the bottom of the chute where Kim and I camped on a Mountaineers climb of Eldorado lead by Larry Ingalls. It was hard to imagine that was almost 15 years ago.

Todd continued putting in the skin track up the glacier to where we crested the slope. Now we could see the east ridge of Eldorado in it's entirety. Will caught up to us and we stopped at the traditional bivy spot near the base of the ridge. We decided to drop our packs here and skin up Eldorado in hopes of skiing off the summit and ticking off our first peak of the trip. It was great moving up the slopes without being encumbered and I spelled Todd and took over trail breaking duties. The snow seemed very stable even though the temperatures had been high. As we approached the ridge proper and were about to take off our skis to boot pack up the corniced ridge, Todd and I were suprised to see the snow fracturing around us. A small windloaded slab had released four feet above us and started sliding down. I stayed put with my whippet firmly burried but Todd got pushed down about ten feet before the slabs moved around him and stopped about 25 feet below.

Our thoughts of skiing the east face were no longer an option so we popped over the ridge and I began clearing snow and wallowing up the ridge. About 30 feet from the level part of the summit ridge, I chose to stop because of the undercut cornices on the left and the significant exposure on the right. With a rope and pickets I would have felt more confident to press on but the earlier avalanche had made me very aware of the instability of windloaded snow. So we hiked down the ridge put on our skis and made some nice turns back to our packs. We had a discussion about the risks we were willing to take and how we would be more careful to minimize risks of possible future slide areas.

We talked about where we wanted to camp and while this spot was convenient we decided to press on to get a better view of our route for the next day. So we skinned around the north side of Eldorado to a pass just above the McAllister Glacier near Klawatti Peak. Here we dug in a small pit in the snow and covered it with the blue tarp Todd asked me to bring. I had never slept in a "snow cave" before but it actually wasn't bad, except for the light spindrift snow that came in from under the back edge of the tarp and landed on our faces. Will and I quickly solved this nuissance by putting our shell jackets over our faces!

It was a cold night and my water bottle froze inside our snowcave but we got up the next morning with the sun, boiled water for breakfast and the day. We quickly broke down camp, loaded up the packs and enjoyed some great powder skiing down the McAllister Glacier towards Dorado Needle. There was an upper pass to the left but we decided on skinning up to a lower notch to the right that climbed slightly less angle slopes. Here we found a cord tied around a large rock horn so we took off the skis, put on our crampons and ascended to the notch and took turns rappelling down the back side of Backbone Ridge. The rime ice on all the rock made it look like the pictures from Patagonia but the warm temperatures and lack of wind reminded us we were still in the north Cascades enjoying a balmy spring day!

Once down the other side we met up with Todd who had rappelled first and spread out as we made the long descending traverse. The snow wasn't nearly as good on this side as Will and I sank through the breakable crust with our skinny Dynafit Seven Summit skis while Todd skimmed right over it all with his wider, tip rockered, Volkl Nanutaq skis.

We made a long descending traverse down endless snowfields on the west side of Backbone ridge, wishing we had more time to tag some of the summits along the way. We had a map that we hastily printed the day we left because I had forgotten to pack our real maps. So the map we had with us only showed 200' intervals and wasn't as helpful as we would have liked. Fortunately the visibility was always good so we really didn't need the maps very often.

After climbing to a col that ended with 50' cornices above the McAllister Glacier we continued NW following the contours of Backbone Ridge until we spied a long, tree lined ridge and ascended to this saddle then climbed back up and right to where Todd was able to traverse back south onto a steep face with many rocks and he was able to see the long couloir that we needed to ski down to get closer to Isolation Peak!

We took turns skiing down and stopping at safe locations until we were all safely at the bottom. It was a long, sustained slope and while the afternoon sun had turned the snow into heavy mashed potatoes, we were very happy to be back on the obvious route. We took a break at the bottom and ate some food before putting the skins back on and climbing up the other side. There was an open gully but with the warm tempatures we chose to stay right so we could take advantage of the protection of the trees.

Soon we were up at yet another saddle with a connecting ridge that continued over to Isolation Peak. We hoped to camp on the other side so we continued across the ridge and up through the trees and followed the contours to the north of Isolation Peak. Todd was again out in front, breaking trail. About 500 feet from the summit we were following a snowfield that appeared to continue to the glaciers on the east side, below Snowfield Peak. But soon we saw Todd heading back towards us shouting something about cliffs and it "doesn't go". So we decided to climb up to the top of the peak and then descend the south east slopes in search of a way around.

It was nice to finally get a summit and to be able to ski off the top! We skied back down the south side and had to boot pack through some rocks that to brought us to another gully that led us down to what appeared to be a snow covered lake below some cliffs above us to our left. We thought about pushing on and camping below Snowfield Peak but our present location had a safe ridge with a natural snowbank that we could easily build our snowcave in. So we chose to stop make camp here for the night.

The night before I was concerned about staying warm so I suggested we keep the snowcave shallow which caused us to have the tarp two inches about our faces. It wasn't the most comfortable sleeping arrangement, I have to confess. So I left the snowcave digging to Todd and Will and busied myself with melting snow for our dinners.