Background

Over the 4.5 years I’ve lived in Washington my attitude towards the mountains has evolved. When I first moved here I felt like everything in the mountains needed to happen at once. It’s a typical feeling. I still have elements of it now. But with time I’ve grown to learn that some experiences require some patience and trial-and-error before being ‘the right time and place’. For me, the Park Glacier Headwall is a prime example.

The first time I read about the Park Glacier Headwall almost 5 years ago it was a ‘hell no’ in my mind. Too steep, too scary. “That’s a no from me dawg”, as Randy Jackson would say on American Idol. But few opinions are forever. With more practice in steep skiing, it became a ‘hell yes’. It became a focus of each spring season for me. I’ve stood atop it 4 times before; I’ve watched others ski it right in front me. And just like older, wiser people always remind, it’s still there.

This spring has been tricky; a very poor low elevation snowpack has meant that many of the earlier spring lines are in bad shape. But above 6k’ conditions are really quite good. My mind immediately went to the Park. It’s always been a dream of mine to ski it in cold snow as opposed to corn. It’s trickier, more ephemeral. Not sure why, but it’s been part of that vision that’s ping pong’d in my head.

After waffling on our original plan for the weekend, Erin, Letty, Brendan, and I headed up Baker with options open. If the Park looked good, Brendan and I would give it a try. If not, oh well…another ‘scouting’ trip.

Trip Report

Letty, Erin, and I drove up Glacier Creek Road the night before after a day at Index rock climbing (totally separate story…short version: no me gusta). Around 10 PM we reached the start of snow, approximately 0.5 miles from the Heliotrope trailhead. Brendan had been up there 2 weeks prior and mentioned that the Grouse Creek approach was in. The snow on the road agreed with that. We drove back down the road a bit and found a flat spot to sleep.

At 5:15 AM the next morning we met Brendan up the road where the snow started. In the dark of the morning, only voices were distinguishable. I recognized a voice…Thomas! No way…we’d crossed paths earlier this year on Coleman Headwall. Funny.

On the skin up the road I polled the group on what everyone wanted out of the day. There was a mixed bag; some wanted to check out steeps, some wanted to challenge themselves, others weren’t quite feeling themselves. I emphasized that I wasn’t trying to push any agendas for the day and was open to what people were feeling. I really meant that. We continued upwards through Grouse Creek and reached the clearing quickly and easily as the sun rose.

Ski crampons would have been nice, but travel without them wasn’t the worst. There was a stout crust in the climb up Grouse that was ski supportable but not quite boot supportable, consistently at least. We opted to boot and passed most of the others. We counted at least 25 other people climbing up proximal to us. Wow…made sense, great day for it.

Up above the Grouse drainage the beauty of Baker reminded all of us what a day in the alpine is. There were hoards of people but it didn’t feel overly crowded. Lots of room to roam. There were another 25 or so coming up the C-D route from the trail.

Brendan, with the C-D behind him.

We meandered along, noting the big faces above us. Coleman Headwall still looked in, the Polish route on Colfax seemed to be touching, and the Moustache lines were also in. The upper mountain was looking fat. Brendan had his eyes on Coleman Headwall, as did I. We took photos and noted that the upper rollover looked to be in bad shape. The discoloration of the snow gave us pause but we noted it for later.

The photo of the Coleman Headwall I took that we looked at.

It was quite windy but warm on the Coleman. Wind buff started around 6k’ and was warm and soft. It was a sign of good skiing to come. We opted to not rope up but had harnesses on.

We transitioned to booting on Pumice Ridge and feathered our way through others as we climbed the Roman Wall. The groups ahead had set a pretty poor bootpack that zig-zagged way too much for my liking. I reset it, making it more vertical. I had my camera out to take shots of others climbing up. As it always is, the climb up the Roman Wall was a bit of a grind.

On top of the summit plateau it was really really windy. We took a summit selfie and quickly hopped off what Letty calls the ‘zit’. I went over to peer at the Park Headwall. It always feels wrong to walk over to what feels like a cornice but isn’t. You inch over, not seeing the slope below. Then, with one little lean, it reveals itself. Pure, planar, and steep. I probed it with my pole: chalk. Wow…this is rare, I thought.

We tried to find a wind break to eat and drink but there really wasn’t one. Instead we just sat in the snow on the plateau with our backs to the wind. It got pretty cold pretty quickly. I waited for people to eat some food before doing a ‘vibe check’. The vibes were pretty disparate: Brendan and I really wanted to ski the Park, Letty and Erin were quite cold and were feeling “nah dawg” vibes on the Park. We agreed to split up.

Brendan and I clicked into skis and headed over to the headwall. Our plan was to try and ski it as fall line as possible; there was clearly a way to avoid the bergschrund at the bottom by traversing far out skier’s left, but if possible it’d be nice to keep the descent straight and fall-line. We saw a clean way to climb back up the Cockscomb ridge to the summit. We agreed to ski either the Moustache or Coleman Headwall afterwards, depending on stoke and energy.

I pushed off over the lip into lovely chalk. Edgeable, consistent, soft. I made one turn and immediately felt at peace. It’s interesting how with practice you can feel so comfortable on a slope that used to inspire such fear. I was stoked cheek to cheek. I hollered back to Brendan it was lovely. I made some more turns down, then stopped to take some pictures. Brendan pushed off and off we went.

Brendan’s photo of me on the Park, just below the lip.

The headwall was consistently chalky. I led us down. The first bergschrund was filled in well and was easy to ski through. The second, larger one was not filled in but there was a small (4-5 foot) air that had a good landing. Rather than traverse out we opted to jump it. I went first, landed it clean, then Brendan followed as well, cleanly. We bumped poles, hugged, and smiled looking back at our tracks.

Looking back at our tracks.
Brendan just above our hop over the lower schrund.

There was a group climbing up the Park as we descended down to where we’d climb up the Cockscomb. It reminded me of when 2 years ago I thought it was a good idea to try and do the Watson Traverse in reverse. On a day with 1.5 feet of blower powder, we fought our way up the Park only to have a lenticular cloud develop as we were just below the Cockscomb. I was now at that same spot in very different circumstances. Circular memories…

Climbing up the Cockscomb was simple but treacherous. The warm easterly tilt made for snow that balled on my crampons. Every few steps I’d tap them with my ice axe. We opted to rope up as the schrund and crevasses were lurking. Once on the ridge itself it was quite easy and pleasant to make our way back to the summit plateau. Within an hour we were back. It was fun to peek over at our tracks from earlier on the Park.

On the summit plateau we ate some food and chatted. Brendan was really psyched on giving the Coleman Headwall a try. I was willing to go give it a poke too. Honestly, I really wanted it too. There weren’t any tracks and it felt like an opportunity to renew my experience with it in a more ‘earned’ manner than last time. We both agreed, though, that it wasn’t the time to push it if the ‘vibes were off’. If either one of us wasn’t feeling it, we’d back off and ski the Moustache (which wasn’t a bad bail option).

I led us over the roll to the traverse into the line. The snow was variable, to say it nicely. A mix of chicken heads, rime, and sastrugi paired with chalk. We could see that 500-600′ below the line looked lovely. But the steep entrance was in pretty bad shape. I volunteered to give it a try, got my ice axe out, and slowly shimmied my way in. The chalk in between the chicken heads was confidence inspiring, but the occasional hard ice chicken head wasn’t. Once in the pitch my mind switched to problem solving mode and I began thinking of ways to make it work. Time passed imperceptibly. Brendan, healthily, reminded me that we didn’t need to do it. I don’t remember saying this, but Brendan said I responded with “yeah, the vibes are pretty fucked.” I love that. While I wasn’t in the best place to transition and boot out, I made it work. We pulled the plug. I was happy with our decision: we’d gave it a honest try, really looked at the conditions closely, but not too closely. Any earlier and we might regret not trying harder. Any further and the vibes might have been more fucked. Good on Brendan for reminding me of our conversation just minutes earlier. When problem solving mode engages sometimes it’s hard to get out of tunnel vision. Brendan, as a great partner should, brought it all back from a place of safety. My mind was just too locked in to remember. Thanks Brendan.

Brendan’s picture of me beginning the traverse in.
Brendan’s photo of me later, booting out.

After booting out we transitioned and skied down into the Moustache. This was a rejuvenating experience and livened the day back up. It’s sometimes easy to let an intense memory cloud your short-term memory. I chose to ski the skier’s right line, Brendan took the skier’s left ramp that’s the more ‘typical’ Moustache. Both were exceptional positions amongst seracs. We had warm windboard mixed with hot powder. We linked back up at the bottom, where the lines meet back up, and tapped poles and hugged. We were both very happy and at peace with our decision making. The Coleman Headwall would have been awesome in good condition, but it wasn’t. The Moustache was an excellent way to cap off the Park.

Looking back at the two Moustache lines. I skied looker’s left, Brendan skied looker’s right.

We skied soulfully down the C-D to Grouse Creek where I was quite glad to have my 106mm underfoot skis. The proto-potatoes was really fun in the shade where it was re-freezing, where it was still in the sun was poop/schmoo. Quickly enough we were back in the forest, hopping over logs and twigs to the road. We made it back to the car in due time, cracked some drinks with Erin and Letty, and sat for a few hours enjoying the vibes.