The author dreaming about going 500 miles per hour.
“Million Dollar Ride” Text and photos by Jeff Montgomery
I have seen this route countless times at 500 feet and 500 MPH. The snowfields slide effortlessly by and I can climb, clear, and descend any ridge in less than a minute having it pass miles behind without much more than a slight push and pull of the muscles in my arm. As a pilot in the Navy, I always called this route the “Million Dollar Ride” and flying the length of the Cascades from South to North took a little less than 30 minutes, at which point I was completing descent checks and getting ready for my approach to land.
"Camp life on Overcoat Col"
That was then, this is now, and I am using every muscle in my body to climb 10 feet at about 10 feet a minute. My feet hate my boots, I hate my feet, and both my tent mates hate the stink of me, my feet, and my boots. It will take five days to travel the distance between Snoqualmie and Steven’s Pass, but in these 5 days I learn a whole new appreciation for the “Million Dollar Ride.” Ultimately my trip mates and I learn the wealth of these mountains is truly priceless.
Our group includes our guide Ben “Let’s just see what’s down here/up there” Haskill, his assistant Mike “This is easy” Traslin, Greg “Secret Agent Man” Clark, Collin “All Torque” Darrah, and myself Jeff “Wanna be Mountain Guy” Montgomery.
Under the incredibly skillful watch of Ben and graced by what has to be a perfect combination of stability, snow conditions, weather, group dynamics, and a “let’s do it” attitude we complete what may be the trip of a lifetime. Although 4 of the 5 days are bluebird with almost no wind, things did not start so pretty. Below is a brief trip report of these 5 days.
When I leave my home in Anacortes to meet the group at 0730 for breakfast and introductions, it is pouring rain and the thermometer in the car reads 45 degrees F. We meet at a diner and introduce ourselves over Denver omelets, pancakes and too many cups of coffee. Occasionally, we look outside at the rain that continues to pound the windows. Finally, Ben decides we can delay no longer, and we head to the shop for a gear check. Ben says we are good to go, and we load ourselves and our gear into the truck for our drop off at the start point. The rain continues. Ben decides to have us put on skins, packs, etc under the highway overpass – our final, desperate attempt to delay the inevitable. We can delay no longer and begin our skin up the Common Wealth Valley toward Kendall Peak. Approaching our first steep terrain Ben asks “How good are your kick turns?”, and as horns grow from the sides of his head, he laughs a mighty roar, clicks in the next setting on his heal risers, and vanishes into the blowing snow above. Struggling, Greg, Collin, and I finally catch Ben at the top. I think I hear Mike singing in order to get some sort of work out. Our first descent into the Silver Creek area is challenged by a 4-6 inch reactive layer of new snow that is releasing on the wet snowpack below. After an hour and half of expert control, Ben and Mike decide we are safe. Accordingly, we begin our first “amazing” ski. Let me describe my amazing ski: sidestep, sidestep, sink knee deep in mashed potatoes, side step, start a turn, hit the avi debris, ski, sidestep, ski, wobble, fall, ski. Well, at least I’ve descended back into the rain zone again. Greg, Collin, and I look at each other and wonder again what we have got ourselves into. Oh well, skins on and we complete our long traverse up Gold Creek valley and below Alaska MT. We finally reach our first camp just below Joe Lake. The good news is that there is running water, clearing evening skies, and a chancethat tomorrow will dawn a brighter day. I have packed a book to read. I look at the cover, put it down, and lay back into my sleeping bag for a night of much needed sleep.
A moment of relaxation on Iceberg Lake
“Gentleman, it is 0600!” That is to be our morning alarm for the next 4 mornings. Ben is awake and making sure that we are as well. With Swiss precision, we pack and are skinning by 0800. We quickly climb out of the trees and into the sun as we approach Chikamin Ridge. A small section of ski crampon and some more climbing allow us access to our first truly good ski run off Chikamin Ridge and toward Iceberg Lake below which is flanked by the mighty Lemahs. This time the snow is good and so are the turns. We reach the bottom, have a bite, and begin our next climb toward Chimney Rock and the Overocat Col. A mixture of skinning, steep kick turns, and ultimately trading skis for crampons allows us to reach our camp just below Chimney Rock. Despite being beat down, Ben and Mike protest outside our tent until we are convinced to head up to the small saddle next to Chimney Rock and get one more ski in before settling down for dinner and rest. We enjoy our dinner while looking up at our ski tracks fading in the setting sun. What an amazing day.
We quickly pack and head down into the valley below Chimney Rock intending to head back up to the Summit Chief Col. Approximately 2/3 of the way down, Ben determines the approach to Summit Chief Col to exposed under the current conditions, and we are forced to return to the top and follow our alternate route. A wise choice. As Ben and Mike are exchanging high fives at the thought of another great up track; Greg, Collin, and I are left to encourage one another that it was going to be OK if we just stick together. A mighty skin track and some great knee deep booting allow us to reach our previous campsite, at which point we rip the skins and start our second ski of the day. We spend the rest of the day working our way thru the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and the Dutch Miller area toward our camp near Le Bohn Gap. In this general area we establish a camp that we will use for the next 2 nights.
The camp at La Bohn Gap looking back at "work that has been done".
A glorious day as we can leave our tents behind in favor of lighter packs and a day of big touring. The result: over 7000’ of up track, summit Mt Daniel and Mt Hinman; ski the Lynch, Foss, and Hinman Glacier; and an incredible lunch at the bottom of Hinman Glacier in what feels like a valley on the Moon. The quote of the week comes from Greg who was encouraged during lunch to remove his boots and air his “hot spots.” Greg’s deadpan response: “I am way beyond hot spots.” Regardless, not a complaint from the group as we have just covered what has to be some of the most amazing and isolated terrain in the North Cascades.
A 0800 start and pack up puts us heading down into the Necklace Valley and toward the East fork of Foss River where we meet Martin. He greets us with high fives, potato chips, and cold beers. We are done. Wow, that truly was a “Million Dollar Ride.”