“I’m sorry you feel like you’re going to die,” Lucas said to me with such deep compassion and severity I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. He stood, balanced on his skis, underneath a large boulder that provided solid footing on a precious patch of snow not totally wind affected, or iced over. Throughout the days and weeks following the ordeal, I could close my eyes at any time and see the dark, shaded mountain pass in the Cascades where I thought I would die.
Asgard Pass is a 2,100-foot pass between two craggy peaks spread over just a mile. It is, at a minimum, a relentless 45 to 50-degree angle. We had a freakish dry spell in the middle of the PNW winter and received no new fresh snow. This meant the pass would be hard-packed snow, ice, and generally treacherous. The one upside: zero avalanche danger.
I had been nervous about the pass in the weeks leading up to the trip. I had hiked Asgard the previous May and remember its steepness and overwhelming elevation gain. I was nervous if I could really ski it and if I couldn’t ski it, would it even be possible to come down it? Would we have to turn around and go back the way we came? Was this even a good idea? My anxieties multiplied. A frantic personal and work life left me not wanting to even go on the trip. But I’m good at pushing myself. Besides, I promised Maz and Lucas that we’d go on an adventure. And we did just that.
Maz and I spent two days before the trip hanging around Central Washington trying to find something climbable or skiable. The dry spell also brought warm, sunny weather, and nothing was in. Fucking climate change.
We met Lucas at the trailhead at 4 am and probably left the car around 4:45. The first mile or so was hard, slick ice. Maz brought Micro-spikes and had no issue with the start of the approach. Lucas and I were not so privileged to have the foresight to bring any traction devices. In fact, we consciously chose to leave our crampons and ice axes back at the car. Our rational: this is a ski trip and it’s warm. The only ice we might encounter would be the North-facing Asgard Pass, but if it’s icy we’ll turn around and go back the way we came.
So, Lucas and I walked around the ice, or in the holes punched through the snow by previous travelers. Eventually, after we gained some respectable vert, things mellowed out and the ice turned to snow in the warming of the dawn. It was time to put our skis on. We transitioned and began skinning up the trail. The trail was chunky snow with debris from the forest overlayed on top. Not really fun stuff to skin on. It was icy in spots, crossed avalanche debris fields, and overall not easy. It was slow going for the moment. We eventually got to the first lake we needed to cross. Given the warm temps, and the fact I had never skinned across a frozen lake, I was understandably nervous.
Snow lakes sat half in shade and half in the sun. We dropped from the trail onto ice that was maybe 2-3 inches thick. Plenty thick to support us. As the sun heated the lake, it began making strange noises. Popping and gurgling. We made it a third of the way across the lake when a wave propagated somewhere beneath us and shifted the entire foundation beneath our feet. A loud crack rang in the distance. We all looked at each other without a word. We were all shaken to our core. I don’t think I’ve ever felt fear so viscerally.
“Well, I just tasted a new flavor of fear.” I announced a few moments later.
“What, you mean the fear of uncontrollably falling into cold ass water and drowning after being trapped underneath the ice?” Maz replied with a smirk on his face.
“Yup, that’s the one.” I said back. We all chuckled in discomfort.
We skinned across the rest of the lake on edge. Eyes and ears peeled for any sign of danger. We stayed as close to the lakeshore as prudence would allow. We made it across the lake without further incident and continued. We climbed up out of the basin through a saddle into the next valley.
We made a series of switchbacks up a steep, snowy slope. The warm sun was turning the snow to slush and made traction a tenuous game. Being new to backcountry, and skiing in general, I had a lot of trouble perfecting the technique. Luckily Lucas gave me some really good pointers and things improved, but not without a good dose of cursing and complaining. IFHTS.
We made it to the next basin with the next lake. This one looked smaller and more solid. But after the last lake, I was still suspect of this one. We skimmed across the lake easily and took a break on the snowy banks near what looked like a teepee or the bones of a bonfire to be.
One last climb before we got to the heart of the traverse.
Once more we climbed up through a saddle that would take us to the next basin. This was less exposed, but still had its heady moments. Luckily, I’m a quick learner and was able to put some new tricks to use. I had a much better time. Again, we were slow and didn’t get to the top of this pass until around 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon. We took another break but it was windy and miserable. We only had a couple of hours until darkness so we rushed down onto the next basin. Our number one priority was to find a wind sheltered campsite. We skinned a relatively flat portion and finally decided we’d had enough. We found a spot near a water source and out of the wind.
It was noticeably colder where we were. Less sun and at a higher altitude with heavy wind. I quickly lost my heat. My toes began to feel numb and my fingers burned. I knew we had to get our tent up soon.
Lucas supplied the tent. It was a 3-season backpacking tent. We brought it because it would be lighter than a 4-season, it was simpler to set up, and it would fit three people. So we began putting up the tent and quickly realized that it probably wouldn’t fit three people. It looked more like a 2 person.
“Oh well,” Lucas said “I brought my minus 10-degree bag. I’ll sleep outside. I really wanna test the limits of this thing.”
Maz and I looked at each other.
“Well, if you’re sure.” I recall one of us saying.
So Maz and I got the tent. We set up our sleeping pads and sleeping bags. My feet and hands continued to get colder and colder. Painfully so. I decided to get out of my boots and into my sleeping bag. Once I got in, I didn’t leave for the rest of the night. My toes simply couldn’t go back in those boots. Night came and we slept. Slept might be a generous word because I recall waking up several times to snow hitting lashing our cheeks, Lucas shouting ‘Oh God!’ In the middle of the night as he got pelted in the face with sharp snow crystals, my sleeping pad losing air, and the cold sapping all the heat I worked so hard to hold onto. Once that heat was gone, I couldn’t get it back. Dawn came and getting up to get ready was near impossible.
We both groaned at the cold and Maz turned to me to say “Boy, it’s like suffering in paradise.” I agreed with him. If Maz hadn’t been so active in getting ready I’m pretty sure I’d have stayed in my bag for far too long.
It was a cold start. Something my toes couldn’t handle. I got packed in an instant hoping everyone would do the same, but it was a slow morning. So, I stood stamping my feet in one place for 30 minutes to help keep the circulation going. Neither of them was suffering as much as me in that moment. Once everyone was nearly packed up I announced that I had to get going because I was in so much pain. I boot-packed up a snowy slope ahead of them as fast as I could to coax the blood back into my toes. The heavy pack, the awkward weight of my skis, the cold, and the dehydration caused my back to seize up 10 or 20 feet from the top. All the muscles in the mid-back were clenched and weren’t letting go anytime soon. I waited for them atop the slope and told them I needed to keep going but they should continue with their plan of doing a quick ski run.
“15 minutes. That’s all it should take.” Maz communicated.
“Great,” I said, “I’m gonna slowly make my way to the pass.”
All of the suffering I had experienced until that point melted away in the bliss of skinning across The Enchantments’ central basin. Without sign of human or civilization or any recognizable form of life, I felt truly at one with my surroundings. Gliding on soft powder-the only on the trip-felt like floating on air. It was truly paradise. I laid fresh skin tracks for my friends to follow and enjoyed the sun as it warmed me from the inside out. I enjoyed the quiet of the snowy peaks and the jaw-dropping potential of the ski lines around me. I at once wanted to rocket out of there and stay for days on end. It was parity between beauty and suffering.
I approached the pass and began to recognize the peaks around me. First I approached the pass from skier’s right. I looked down from the top and saw a solid ice waterfall. Unskiable and impossible to downclimb.
I made my way to skier’s left on the pass and looked down at a much more inviting sight. Snow. The pass looked well filled in and fairly skiable. I waited for my friends and had a snack of salami in the sun. I soaked it all in while trying to block out my nervousness on the descent to come. They crested a slope in the distance and I waved at them. I pocketed my salami and watched as they made their way across the flats and towards the edge of the pass. We convened and decided on a plan. Things looked good enough from here so we headed down. We scrambled over icy rocks that would have proved deadly had we slipped. I was unsteady in my ski boots. My sure-footedness and balance were gone in the awkward boot. I felt very uncomfortable.
We passed the rocky traverse and finally got onto the snow only to find it was hard packed with icy runnels hiding in random patches. I made the decision then and there not to ski down. I pondered the steep, steep slope with full consequence run out. In other words, you fall you die. I hoped that I could find soft snow to plunge step, but I wasn’t banking on it.
I started to downclimb as they transitioned to ski mode. Lucas had been skiing for 4 years and boarded for 8 years before that. Maz had been boarding for about 8 or 9 years in total. I had been skiing for about 2 months.
As I began my journey downward, I quickly realized that this was going to be harder than I expected. The snow was so hard that I couldn’t get more than half an inch of my boot sole dug in. I spent three hours carefully kicking steps into the snow and ice without an ice axe or crampons. Though even if I had an ice axe, I doubt it would have saved me. I spent three hours precariously perched on half an inch of boot sole rubber trying to find my way through and down. I spent three hours hoping that this wasn’t where I would die. One wrong move and I was gone, sliding toward a cold, panicked, painful death. One slip and it was game over. I was frustrated at myself for being in this situation. I was frustrated at myself for not knowing better to bring crampons and an ice axe. It’s like I threw out all my expertise on climbing and mountaineering. It’s like I was a noob. And in some ways I was. I’d never done a ski traverse before. It sucked that my first might’ve also been my last.
Lucas an Maz boarded and skied down to different spots and waited for me. I wonder what it must’ve been like to be them. Worried about their next turn, but also the safety of their partner. I was grateful for them in those moments. Knowing they were there helped me stay together. Helped me stay calm.
I found this to be one of the most exhausting experiences of my life. My mind and body were reaching their limit. I found solace in islands of safety. Many of them were under boulders where my feet could sink securely into soft snow. I never rested too long because getting back to the task at hand would have been even harder than it already inherently was.
I sat at one of these islands and fished that hunk of salami out of my pocket. Lucas said to me “I hope you feel at least a little…comfortable.” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Nope,” I said back, “I feel like I’m gonna die.”
“I’m sorry you feel like you’re going to die.”
I took a large bite out of the sausage. “Well, if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna at least have some Salami first.” We laughed.
Eventually, after hours of hoping I wouldn’t die. Hours of making sure each step was solid-and some weren’t. Each pole plant was perfect-and some weren’t. We made it down to Colchuk lake safely. I was alive.
We skinned across the lake and a huge smile filled my face as the sun warmed my skin. We left the dark pass and stepped into the light. I was alive. We crossed the lake and made our way through the trees down towards the trailhead. After a few hours trudging through the summer trails we made it to the trailhead and skied down an icy road for three miles back to the car. My right knee was screaming from kicking steps and blocked me from skiing the last mile and a half.
I learned many things on this trip: The value of partners like Lucas and Maz. People who’ll look out for you and be patient with you when you’re a total beginner at something, the necessity to bring essential gear even if you think you won’t need it, and my capacity to suffer. Despite all that I learned, one question has been plaguing me since the trip: I’m alive, but why am I alive? If I had died on Aasgard Pass, what would my life have been about? What do I want my life to be about now?
This is the gift of the mountains. They annihilate the illusion that the margin between living and dying is generous and expose us to the chaotic rawness of life. They cut right to the core and ask who are you?