Skiing the Quien Sabe Glacier on Sahale Mountain in Washington’s North Cascades
Elevation Gain/Loss: +/- 6750 ft.
Distance: 13 miles roundtrip
USGS Quads: Cascade Pass
After the adventure on the Sulphide Glacier on Mount Shuksan, Opie Jahn and I decided to head up the Cascade River Road to Sahale Mountain.
The Cascade River Road heads out of the town of Marblemount. It goes for 23 miles, but the Johnson Gate currently blocks access at mile marker 21.1. This is due to snow on the last half mile of road. It’s approximately 2 miles and 1400 feet from the gate to the end of the road. You can get updated road conditions for the North Cascades National Park here. The Ranger Station in Marblemount is also a helpful place to pick up maps, obtain backcountry camping permits, and borrow hard-sided bear food containers. Permits are a must for all camping in the park. They are offered on a first come, first served basis and must be obtained in person, but they are free.
The terrain up the Cascade River Road is mind-boggling. Massive glaciers, hanging snowfields, thousand foot waterfalls, a roaring river, and jaw dropping couloirs are just the beginning. It’s an easily accessible skier’s paradise. Mostly because at the end of the Cascade River Road is Cascade Pass – it’s easy access ski touring in big terrain.
One notable line up the Cascade River Road is the Cascade Johannesburg Couloir, or CJ Couloir. The CJ has been on my hit list for a long time. We did some recon the afternoon we arrived. The CJ is an impressive 3000 foot line that is relatively easy access from the end of the Cascade River Road.
While scoping out the line, we heard the soon to become familiar snap, crackle, and pop of hanging snowfields releasing snow in the warm afternoon temps. It’s impressive to watch the snow tumble thousands of feet from the safety of the road – not so much when you’re in the gunbarrel, as we found out later.
After out afternoon scouting mission, we made a quick and delicious round of Mountain House, packed up our day packs, and made a plan. The trusty old guide book gave two routes to Sahale Mountain – one up to Cascade Pass and the Sahale Arm, then past the Sahale Glacier to the summit. The other used an unmaintained climbers trail up Midas Creek to the Quien Sabe Glacier and to the summit. There was also an option to do a loop. Of course we decided to be different, so we enlisted the help of several locals. We really wanted to ski the Quien Sabe, but the report from the “locals” was that the climbers trail was a bushwhack to remember and that you can easily gain the Quien Sabe Glacier from Sahale Arm. Armed with this info, we decided to head up the Cascade River Road, up to Cascade pass, up the Sahale Arm, cross to the Quien Sabe, and to the summit. Our down route was yet to be decided – but at least we had most of a plan together.
Finally we lay down in the back of the Tacoma. I’d say I slept well, but I didn’t. I think it was a mix of anticipation of a huge day and another alpine start, but it could have been the constant bzzzzz of mosquitos attacking my skin. Either way, 1am came quickly and another alpine start began.
We threw on our trusty old approach shoes and quickly gained the snow line. We skinned over avalanche debris and wet snow for over an hour to reach Cascade Pass. All of this was in the dark and we still heard hanging snow fields releasing their winter coats at 230am. Every time we heard the mountains we trembled a bit. After we reached Cascade Pass we began to relax.
At approximately 6000′, we reach the freezing level. The skinning was steep, but easy and we did have some short boot packs sprinkled in with our skinning through the steeper sections. Eventually we reached a mellow section and Sahale Mountain was spread out in front of us. It was right about the time when the sun was rising and it was about half of the vertical we needed to cover.
We continued to work the ridge up to about 6900′ where we chose to make a quick traverse across to the Quien Sabe Glacier.
That quick little traverse ended up turning into a fun 500 foot ski through a rather intimidating 40-60 foot cliff band. Unfortunately, no one wanted to dyna-huck any cliffs before sunrise.
At the bottom of the cliff band, we reached the high point of 6545 – a small knoll below the Quien Sabe route. Even though we were below the glacier still, we choose to rope up and quickly skin the 1200 feet to the boot pack. You cover a bit of vertical, but also travel some distance north to find the steep booter.
About 15 minutes up the boot pack, we heard snow rip off of the face we had just traversed under. We also heard it echo across the valley as it ripped down the face of Johannesburg. We knew our time on Sahale was limited so me choose the slow and steady route to the top. As we got a bit higher, the crevasses became a bit more obvious.
Finally we made it to the ridgeline. The views of Buckner, the Boston Glacier, the Sharkfin, and the rest of the breathtaking Cascades was incredible. About a thousand feet below us the Davenport Glacier spread out and behind us the Quien Sabe Glacier.
To the south was our destination, the summit of Sahale. We broke out the ice axes and worked our way up the ridgeline to the summit at 8680′. The ridge climb was a bit intimidating due to the large cornices, soft snow, warm temps, and exposure. We quickly made our way to the summit and made our decisions. We would ski back down the west facing Quien Sabe and more northerly aspects of Midas Creek instead of heading down the Sahale Glacier to Cascade Pass. This would be a better decision for our ultimate goal – return home safely.
At the ridgeline about the glacier, we put skis on and did what we do best – went skiing. We navigated around some crevasses, but overall the ski route down the Quien Sabe was good old fashioned fun.
Until we got back down to the knoll at 6545. That snow that had ripped off of the Sahale Mountain after we started our boot pack had come down and completely covered a portion of our skin track. Opie and I looked at each other and decided it was time to boogie on out there of. We made a speedy descent to the trees on the far side of Midas Creek, sticking to the bed surfaces for the best skiing. Once we reached the shade on the northerly aspects of Midas Creek, we worked the tree line where the shade cause the snow conditions to be much colder and more stable. In fact the skiing was all around awesome.
Like all good things, the open snow fields of Midas. We kept our skis on and bushwhacked through some old growth until we realized the skiing was over for the day. Walk mode got flipped on the boots and we started the bushwhack. Luckily we had heard about the Flying V – The Flying V is putting the skis A framed and pointed out in front of you. This helps beat down the bushwhack.
We worked our way through old growth Cascadian forests, slippery and thick alders, moss covered rock fields and finally we stumbled upon the Climbers trail on the south side of Midas Creek in the old growth. This climbers trail is an unmaintained trail that starts at the Boston Basin Trailhead – mile marker 22.4 on the Cascade River Road. There’s enough space for 4 or 5 cars there when the Johnson gate is open. Most of the trail is just fine, but through the steeper sections there is some serious down climbing over rocks. Maybe it’s not that bad, but with tired legs and ski boots, it wasn’t ideal after a long day. Eventually we made it down to the Cascade River Road.
After grabbing some water, we hiked back up the Cascade River Road to find our shoes. In wee hours of June 2, Opie had been wise enough to hide our shoes under a log a bit a way from the main trail. Thank goodness he did. The park service was using a back hoe to move snow so that they can open the road. The guy had almost buried our shoes!
With shoes on we meandered down the Cascade River Road back to the truck. Another adventure was over. Another glacier experience checked off. Time to head to Seattle.
We headed to Seattle to crash at my brother’s house. We woke early and headed to Atlas Coffee Importers on NW 85th St to buy some coffee. They sent us down to Auburn, WA and the before you knew it we had 250 pounds of coffee beans joining us for the ride back to Big Sky.
We hit the road at the crack of noon. We took I-90 all the way to Bozeman and down to Big Sky. After 12 hours of driving, we got stuck in road works at 1245 in the morning for 25 minutes. Nice end to a fun road trip. All said and done, we drove 1717 miles in 6 days, skied 2 peaks, and put in over 14000 vertical feet. Good road trip.
The following resources were helpful while planning this route:
Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes Washington
Here’s a great shot of the CJ Couloir. We are planning to ski this during our 2015 North Cascades adventure.
Side note: Sahale is pronounced Sa-ha-lay – the park rangers want to make sure you know that.