March 24, 2013, Rainier, Muir to Bridge Powder WOW

WA Cascades West Slopes South (Mt Rainier)
Posted by Amar Andalkar on 3/26/13 11:31pm
March 24, 2013, Mt Rainier, Above Camp Muir to the Bridge via Nisqually Chute:
All Smooth, All Untracked, and Almost All Powder, WOW!

How did a day with marginal weather and no expectations of anything special, turn out to deliver one of the best ski runs of my entire life? (And I've been fortunate enough to ski a lot of great runs over the years.) Through some strange combination of factors, I haven't written a trip report since last August, despite skiing numerous report-worthy trips since then. But it feels like I should write one this time so that years from now, I can better remember just how unusual this run was. Sometimes "just Muir" can end up being so much more. Just amazing beyond words, an entirely smooth untracked run of 6400 vertical feet in total solitude, even in a most familiar and well-travelled location.

Two-shot panorama of a single ski track along the western side of the Muir Snowfield (click for double-size version)

From 10300 ft on Cowlitz Cleaver above Camp Muir, along the western edge of the Snowfield and dropping down Nisqually Chute, all the way down Nisqually Glacier to the bridge at 3900 ft: 6400 vert of smooth untracked snow, about 2-4" of new snow well-bonded atop a supportive unbreakable crust the entire way, and absolutely stable. Nice powder up high, still good denser powder all the way down to 5000 ft on the glacier, with the new snow eventually getting wetter below the glacier terminus but still smooth and with no stickiness or breakable crust at all. And not a single track to cross anywhere on the entire huge run. Smooth snow and solitude with no signs of human presence below about 9000 ft, all the way down the Chute and Nisqually Glacier, combined to make this run so memorable and unusual. All the more so for being on a busy Sunday with Paradise packed as usual and plenty of people heading to Muir. Even the weather was bizarre too, it started snowing at 1pm and kept snowing lightly for the next 5 hours that I was out skiing -- but the sun remained visible the entire time wherever I was, always partly sunny or even mostly sunny during the ongoing light snowfall.

Two-shot panorama of Nisqually Glacier and my track down Nisqually Chute at right (click for double-size version)

After a big day of over 7000 vert on Saturday, lapping nice north-facing powder in Kendall Chutes near Snoqualmie Pass, I wasn't sure if I would ski anything on Sunday. But the Rainier forecast and UW weather model predicted very light winds at 10000 ft, so a trip to Camp Muir seemed like a good option, with the high elevation likely to preserve powder even on the south-facing slopes. A morning look at the updated model run showed that the the clearest conditions were likely to occur around 5-8 pm that evening, so a very late start was in order. Skinned up from a mostly full Paradise parking lot at 12:15pm, with a cold gusty wind due to easterly pass flow. By 1pm it was snowing very lightly under partly sunny skies, snowfall that would continue for the next 5 hours that I was out, but as expected above 7500 ft, the easterly winds vanished and it was mostly calm the rest of the way up.

Followed a decent combined snowshoe-skin track all the way from Paradise to Muir, arriving a bit before 4pm. Numerous skiers and boarders had already descended as I skinned up, and about a half-dozen skiers were at Muir when I arrived. I asked if anyone was planning to ski to the bridge, but got no positive response. Given the calm winds, I decided to keep heading uphill and put in a skin track up the pristine slopes of Cowlitz Cleaver. A number of ski tracks were visible descending from Cathedral Gap, but no tracks were visible on the Cleaver, other than faint traces of an old bootpack towards Gib Ledges mostly buried by newer snow.

Three-shot panorama of Cathedral Gap, Cowlitz Glacier, and Camp Muir from 10300 ft (click for double-size version)

Reached the lower entrance to AAA Gully near 10300 ft, and took a nice long standing break in the sunshine and light snow, enjoying the view looking down at Camp Muir. Realized that I hadn't sat down since leaving Paradise, but there seemed to be no reason to do so now either. Ripped the skins and dropped down the south-facing gully at 4:30pm, somewhat wind-packed powder at first which quickly became excellent and not wind-affected at all as I reached the gentler slopes below. Just awesome wide open GS turns on consistent smooth powder, among the best conditions one can hope for on such an oft wind-hammered slope so far above treeline.

I headed down along the western margin of the Snowfield, staying well to the right of all the previous tracks, and aiming for the entrance of Nisqually Chute near 8400 ft. Despite a few dozen skiers on the Muir Snowfield, none had ventured near its western side. I arrived to an inspiring spectacle: clouds and sun and snowfall above, smooth untracked slopes dropping far out of sight below down the Chute and Glacier, and no sign that anyone had ever skied here before. I was quite surprised that no one else had even gone over to look down the Chute, much less skied it, and no one had skied to the bridge either since the last snowfall.

Three-shot vertical panorama looking down Nisqually Chute (click for double-size version)

Given the absolute stability thus far with powder atop a firm crust, it seemed likely that the Chute would also be stable enough to ski safely. I dropped in and confirmed that expectation, more stable powder with only a few small roller balls heading down the slope as I skied it. The snow remained smooth and fast as I exited the chute and shot out across the flats of the glacier, a swift glide across the magnificent amphitheater of the Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers. More nice turns along the left side of the terminus, a few inches of powder still sitting atop the crust even well below 6000 ft. My guess is that cold katabatic (downslope) winds flowing down the glacier preserve the snow quality here despite its south and southwest aspect, while similar aspects and elevations near Paradise and the Tatoosh reportedly had much worse snow conditions at the same time (sun-affected snow and breakable crust).

The snow quality eventually deteriorated below 5000 ft after the glacier terminus, but not too much. The new snow was denser and wetter along the flats, no longer powder and with just a hint of an incipient zipper crust in places, but no breakable crust yet at that hour just after 5pm. There were several large areas of roller balls from the steep SW slopes above the river channel, but no recent avy debris. The snow depth remains impressive and well above normal for late March, about 8-10 ft deep at the bridge and almost completely burying most of the Nisqually River's channel above the bridge.

The gentle ramp up the left bank towards the road was easy to shuffle up without skins, the wetter snow providing plenty of traction. As I slid up the final yards towards the bridge, it slowly dawned on me how rare this run really had been: I had skied an entire run of 6400 vertical feet without crossing a single other ski track or skin track or even foot track at any point.

Still untracked, the skiers' on-ramp to the Nisqually bridge.

To cap it off, I managed to hitch a ride even before I took my skis off: as I sideslipped down the snowbank onto the edge of the road at 5:15pm, I stuck out my thumb and the 3rd car passing by stopped to give me a ride back up to Paradise (three nice guys from Arkansas, one of whom had recently moved to Fort Lewis). Can't beat that kind of good luck.

Some thoughts on skiing big runs without crossing any other tracks:

At first I couldn't recall if I might have ever skied more vert than that without crossing a track. Thinking about it a bit more later brought the realization that although it may sound trivial, skiing so much vert without crossing a track is not commonly done at all. Mathematically, it must be quite rare: First of all, you have to be someplace that even offers 6400+ vertical feet of skiable terrain, which narrows down the list of destinations enormously (a safe estimate would be that over 99.9% of backcountry ski runs are shorter than this, even in WA which probably offers more such descents than all of the other non-Alaskan states combined). Then you have to ski soon enough after a large snowfall which has completely covered and erased any previous tracks, before anyone else makes tracks along your chosen line. And you pretty much have to be solo, because if you have partners, you will inevitably intersect their tracks at some point during such a long descent (especially at the top and bottom of the run, plus any narrower choke points in between).

I eventually realized that I had only once skied an even longer run without crossing a single other ski track, about 9 years ago on the north side of Mount Shasta. Solo and also totally alone, with no one else on the north side of this vast mountain, and the road to the trailhead still blocked by snow. Despite spring conditions and over a week since the most recent snowfall, there were no visible tracks along any part of my 7200 vertical foot descent from the summit via Bolam Glacier and the lower Hotlum-Bolam Ridge, any possible previous tracks had been erased by windblown snow and sun (a few old footprints were visible along short sections of my ascent route on the upper Hotlum-Bolam Ridge). See this ancient trip report from way back when TAY allowed only 1 photo per TR:
Great to read your report. Plus the untracked line to the bridge. As we age, it is nice to look back and remember.  ;)

It is great to see you out and reporting again, Amar.
That appears to be one that one would never forget.
Nice work.

I often ski by myself and have to  tell my on going story of "the best powder day ever!" to my often disbelieving wife and kids.  Thank you  for sharing what looked like an Epic run. I can feel it strongly in the pictures - and wish I was there. Glad you had the light and the camera and skills to document it so well.

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Amar Andalkar
2013-03-27 06:31:25