Magic Mountain couloir - June 4, 2004

Matt getting some airtime in the couloir.

Matt Peters and I pulled into the empty parking area at the road closure at about 11:30 Thursday night, and quickly got into our sleeping bags. I tried to get the most I could out of the 3 hours of sleep!

The alarm sounded at 3am, and we got ready in the dark. I had attempted this route a few weeks ago will Bill, and our 6am start was woefully late.

The two and a half miles of road went quickly. The route up to Cascade Pass is starting to melt out, but still pretty straightforward, with only a few snow-free spots. We hiked instead of skinning, since the snow was fairly firm (though its surface had not frozen overnight).

We reached the pass just before 6am, as the sun was rising.

Looking over the pass to the day's adventure. Magic is the pointy summit right of center, and the couloir (hidden behind the rock buttress) starts from the ridge top at the arrow, and empties onto a bench next to the Yawning Glacier.

After a short break and dropped into Pelton Basin. At 6:15 we were skinning up towards the bench below the couloir. The lower glacier segment that had a very healthy ice worm population that was currently eating breakfast. I thought it would be quite difficult and tedious to be skiing through here if I was a Buddhist. I'm sure I carelessly murdered many worms with my ski edges.

Matt plods up to the bench.

As we got higher, the gorgeous curving line came into view. Mmmm...

Photo from late June 2003, when it was a little more bony than its current condition.

Below the cliff band at the Yawning Glacier snout, the skis went on the back and we began booting up. Here Matt realized his sunglasses had gone missing. Did he leave them at the pass? Yet, ever-prepared, he had spares. I should be that prepared, I thought! I had the last laugh however, as his spare pair was of a type that had clearly gone out of style in the late ninties!

At the bench, we traversed over to the couloir. The snow was more promising than 3 weeks ago, when Bill and I had been wallowing in slush. It was about 7:30 though, and the sun was beating down strong. The couloir was split between sunshine and darkness, with a big runnel in the middle. We climbed up the left side to the rock a few hundred feet up - the snow was now getting deeper and less consolidated. We had to cross the runnel, and I realized it was quite a bit deeper than 3 weeks ago.

Coming around the bend. The stain on his left leg/butt is from the sketchiest part of the whole trip: a fall while circumventing a snowbank on the Cascade River road.

On the sunny side, the snow was slightly more consolidated. Plod plod plod up. Unlike the attempt 3 weeks ago, when Bill and I had been threatened by falling rocks and snow chunks, there was very little debris coming down.

We finally reached the bend in the gully, and had a view to the top. The top looked narrow and steep from far away, and it still looked that way from here. Hmm.

More worrisome were the deteriorating snow conditions. As we climbed higher and the aspect became more north-facing, the snow was deeper and less spring-like - more like wet fresh snow.

Just like last time, we entered into a conclusionless debate about turning around.

"What do you think about the snow?"

"I dunno... I guess it's ok. It's pretty deep and wet though."


"We might want to think about turning around at some point."

"Yeah, maybe. The conditions aren't great."

"Although... it's not terrible."


Then we'd try without success to start a sluff, continue for a hundred or more feet, and have the same discussion again.

Matt dug a little hand pit, and noticed that the foot of "wet fresh" came off in a clean shear.

"But you had to pull it."


"On the other hand... feel under the crust. It's all sugary."

"Hmm... yeah. I wonder what the chance of this whole thing going are."

"I dunno."


"Yeah, I wonder if we should turn around..."

"We probably should."

"Let's at least go up to that rock."

"Then we'll be almost at the top."

"Hmm... yeah, I guess we should go all the way then."

Upon reaching the rock and entering the final narrow part of the couloir, the snow suddenly became a little less deep, and the crust below firmed up. With a little bit of renewed faith in the snow conditions, I picked the pace up. A few minutes later, we popped over the top to an awesome view of Spider Mountain and Mount Formidable.

Nearing the top.

Looking down the other side, it was clear this couloir was pretty easy to access from the south. We had contemplated doing it that way, but decided the traverse across Mixup Arm to Cache Col would have been tedious.

Mt. Formidable from the 7400ft notch.

Not wanting to let the snow bake any further, we didn't linger on top for more than 15 minutes. Matt luckily found his sunglasses in the bottom of his pack. He said his spares were pretty blurry and he couldn't really see much with them on. Ok for going up, but "bad for going down".

Just past 9am, I slid off the top and cut the slope with no effect. A few kick turns got me down the top 40 feet until I felt comfortable enough to make "real" turns. The snow was of course quite soft, and this made the skiing pretty relaxed. The steepness never exceeded 45 degrees. The main worry was getting caught in your sluff, so I had to pause every few turns to let any accumulated snow go by.

Matt coming off the top.

Matt soon followed and we leap-frogged down the couloir. The snow was actually making for really sweet turns.

Matt takes a stand.

Matt had broken his normal skis last week and so today he was a little apprehensive since he was using his long-since-abandoned old "skinny" skis. Which are actually exactly the same width as the Tua Hydrogens I was using. Ok, so his skinnies have an extra 20cm to whip around - but it didn't seem to bother him too much. Although I did notice he was straying a little from classic telemark form :-)

Turning in the shade.

We noticed that our turns on the sunny side of the couloir were generating pretty substantial sloughs now, and so we kept to the shaded right side.

O how the runnel
Splits dark shadows from bright light.
Funnel for my dreams.

Around the corner, we made our way down to the rock outcrop near the bottom. Luckily, we were able to squeeze through on the right - otherwise we would have to have entered the runnel, which would probably involve taking our skis off and downclimbing.

Matt sneaks around the rock.

Matt had a little incident here where he accumulated a little too much slush in his turn, and wasn't able to swing his skis back around. Unfortunately, this seemed to be carrying him into the moat next to the rock wall. He was finally able regain control from the slush and avoid being dragged along the wall. As he finished off the run in the sloppy conditions, a small volley of rocks broke loose from right next to me. I yelled "Rock!" a few times but the combination of helmet and slushy skiing sounds meant he didn't hear me. Luckily the rocks were small and friendly, and so they just sort of rolled down in a non-threatening way.

We traversed right at the bottom and stopped in a safe-ish spot. A few minutes later a couple of large avalanches poured off Magic, one of them sending debris across our traverse track. Not time to dilly. Nor time to dally.


Skins on, we climbed a few hundred feet to get a better line and avoid crevasses above the Yawning Glacier snout. The snow on the glacier was excellent, and lower down on the moraine we found an aspect that held firmer snow.

Matt on the snout of the Yawning.

After a long water break at the stream in suncupped Pelton Basin (where Matt gave me some iodine purifying pills that appeared to have a waterproof coating), we crossed back over the pass and began the descent to the car. Miraculously, we found the long traverse that avoided us needing to remove our skis, and soon we were in the valley bottom skiing the tree-debris/rocky mung that barely passes as snow.

Lucky Matt had his long skis today.

Our stashed dry socks and running shoes were a godsend once we were off the snow and back on the road. No sooner than we had our shoes on, did a guy come walking up the road towards us - the first person we'd seen all day.

He was right out of a GoLite catalog and was sporting a GoLite umbrella as sun shelter. We started chatting, and he congratulated us on our footwear. He went on to espouse the virtues of running shoes, but then told a cautionary tale. He said he climbed Mt Shuksan in running shoes once, slipped while going up the summit pyramid, and slid down into a crevasse, landing upright on his feet on a ledge, inches from a much deeper plunge. We talked about bears and waterfalls for a while, and then he continued on up to the parking lot, his destination for the day.

Upper reaches of Mt. Johanesburg. Evil!!

Matt recalled a guy he talked to at Cascade Pass a few years ago, and he was pretty sure this was the same dude. "He never parks at trailheads". Indeed, while driving back we saw his car parked at milepost 15, instead of 21. Apparently he was also a believer in the New World Order. While Buddhists believe that one should not kill another living being, people of the New World Order believe that jet contrails contain government-approved chemicals to subdue the population.

They were out spraying at Cascade Pass on this day.

Log crossing at the washout.

Descent in red (photo from July 1999).