North Chiwaukum Tour - Lake Ethel to Whitepine Creek, December 2004
With time to burn between Christmas and New Years, Tod and I embarked on another adventure deep in a remote corner of the Central Cascades. Having been in the Chiwaukums before (Icicle Creek to Whitepine Creek via Snowgrass Mountain), Tod was quite familiar with the area. This time, however, we'd approach the range from the north, via Lake Ethel, and traverse the northern crest of the Chiwaukums as far as possible before being forced to descend into Larch Lake basin. The original itinerary called for the summit of Big Chiwaukum via a shallow saddle directly above and south of Cup Lake. We'd then tour up Chiwaukum's east facing remnant glaciers (an area missed on Tod's previous tour), scramble over the summit and ride down the west facing slopes - touted to be very amenable to skiing. We'd complete the loop by riding and hiking out Whitepine and Whitehorse Creek Trails.
That was the original plan, but conditions on the second day of our three-day tour (the day we were to summit Big Chiwaukum) forced us to cut the loop short. Plagued with poor visibility, occasionally heavy snowfall and slow travel through deep, fresh powder, just making it to Cup Lake was an accomplishment. Foregoing the summit, we decided to play it safe and cross over the crest via Deadhorse Pass. We'd make camp in a large, flat basin about 500ft below the pass and complete the loop the following day. Thanks to the whiteout, we unknowingly missed the pass entirely and gained the windy crest just north northeast of Pt. 7534. In the rapidly waning daylight we then made a blind descent into unfamiliar terrain. We'd only know where we went wrong that next day after the weather cleared somewhat and we could reconcile terrain features with our topo maps.
We located the snow-covered trail the following morning (after a somewhat unpleasant descent through steep, snow-free forest) and hiked out the remaining three or four miles to the trailhead. We then skied (without skins) the last few miles of snow-covered road to where Tod had parked his truck near the Cascade Meadows Church Camp. Incidentally, from where he parked his truck, Tod biked the short stretch of Nason Creek Road (snowplowed to church camp), hwy 2 (downhill ~ 2 or 3 miles) and the last mile or so up to the Lake Ethel trailhead on the first day of our trip. Doing so enabled us to avoid any elaborate car-drop/shuttle arrangements, though we still had to drive back up to the Lake Ethel trailhead and retrieve Tod's bike.
Reflecting on our trip on the drive back to Seattle, Tod and I both agreed that we felt a bit cheated not having summited Big Chiwaukum, and more importantly, not having ridden down its dreamy west slopes. For that reason, there's already been talk of returning in the Spring...providing we get any snow this winter.
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