Tower Mountain W Face + NE Couloir
On Friday Doug Hutchinson, Jeff Wong and I did a nice traverse of the high terrain north of Washington Pass that included both the West Face and NE Couloir of Tower Mountain. We went up Swamp Creek, climbed the West face of Tower to the summit, skied some aesthetic lines, and exited via Pine Creek. This is the same route that Lowell Skoog & co. pioneered in 2008, with a bonus ski descent of the W Face of Tower – I’m trying to verify if this is a first descent and would appreciate any info on this in the comments or via DM.
The west-facing nature of the route allowed for a very civilized 7AM start time, and travel up Swamp Creek was a breeze. We transitioned to booting at the base of Tower’s W face and Doug led the way to the summit. Snow coverage was excellent on the face and the ascent was pretty straightforward with just a couple of weird climbing moves required to navigate the summit rocks over the final ~50 feet. The upper mountain had been in the clouds all morning but the sky cleared as we climbed, allowing for spectacular 360 views at the top.
Doug and Jeff decided to leave their skis at the base of the W face, but I thought it looked OK and hauled mine up to a wind scoop just below the summit rocks. The descent was fairly steep and exposed, with a mixed bag of snow conditions, but pretty manageable. I made cautious jump turns and sideslipped through an icy choke on the upper section, then found softer snow and more enjoyable skiing in the middle. The fall line takes you over cliffs near the bottom of the face and forces a traverse either skier’s right or skier’s left. We took the skier’s right variation on the ascent but found icy conditions on the traverse, so I decided to try skier’s left on the way down. That way also required an icy traverse over cliffs, so I breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the end of the traverse and making some fun final turns down to the bottom where it flattens out. Thanks to Jeff for standing right in the line of fire to get some video.
After skiing the face I regrouped with my partners and we climbed to the notch that marks the top of the NE Couloir. The couloir is pretty moderate but is guarded by a massive cornice that requires a rappel - after digging around for a while we found a usable rap station and made our way over the cornice. The snow in the couloir and in the apron below was a mix of old powder and crust, with some quality skiing which was dependent on micro-variations in aspect, shading, and overhead terrain. We skied down to the head of Cataract Creek at about 5600’, then made our final climb up to the col that separates Cataract and Pine Creek drainages. The descent along Pine Creek to Hwy 20 was mercifully straightforward and I only took skis off twice – once to cross the creek at 4400’, and once to walk across a small dry section down near the road. Doug captured this video of me "testing the waters" in the couloir.
Unfortunately the day wasn’t all rosy, as Doug injured his knee in some grabby snow while descending the NE Couloir. He toughed it out on the exit but it was clear that he was in pain and had limited ability to guide his ski with that leg. I now have three friends whose 2021-22 ski season ended prematurely due to a knee injury. All three are outstanding skiers and athletes with multiple decades of backcountry experience – it can happen to anyone, any time. Please watch out when the snow gets funky…we are all coached to be alert to avy danger, but I’d like to see more people talking about and planning for all the other things besides avalanches that can ruin your day, or worse.
Photos by Tim Gibson except where noted.