Steeps, Crust and the Rare Washington Sun

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A weekend Dash to Crystal Mountain, WA

By Dave Zook

People wonder why Salt Lake skiers ever leave to seek out other mountains, and while I love Utah skiing, I find the suggestion of just skiing the Wasatch preposterous. Utah is amazing, but there is too much wanderlust in me to stay in SLC for the entire winter. For this reason, I jumped on an extended weekend trip to Crystal Mountain, Washington, with a group of professional Pacific Northwest weekend warriors to sample the sweet syrup of the Evergreen state.

I’ve been drawn to Washington for years. The state has produced many leaders of the snowboard freeriding world, who all seem to be strong, explosive, and creative on thick snow and technical steeps. Crystal Mountain in particular has always been on the tips of the tongues of friends rattling off must-visit resorts, often in the same sentence as Mt. Baker and Whistler. This was enough to convince me to take this trip.

Day One

Our seven-strong mixed-bag crew of old friends and new acquaintances entered the morning with various levels of ski experience, patience, and hungoverness, and the morning put stressors on all three elements.

The plan was to take a run together. Or was it? Either way, the group quickly disbanded at the top of our first run, never to reconnect again that day. Some fell, some sped off into the horizon, and some, in search of an easier way down, traversed off the safety of the groomer and directly into a field of chunky and bulletproof snow. So our gang shred group instead broke off into smaller crews.

Still, we remained in high spirits and decided to do what Crystal is known for, inbounds hikes, specifically to Silver King peak. The King has been used for big-mountain competitions over the years and I was itching for a look. Skiers Devan, Amie, Leta, and myself were privy to amazing views as we hiked for 25 minutes along the resort’s boundary to get to the launch pad. Mt. Rainier stands sentinel to the resort; a blanketed, volcanic behemoth. Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood are visible, as are a thousand jagged peaks that will remain nameless. On a sunny, 45-degree day with 360-degree views, it was sensory overload…and I was just hiking.

Standing atop the small summit of the King, our expectations were instantly exceeded. Offering a sustained steep aspect with exposure, rocks, chutes, cliffs, and trees but not necessitating survival skiing technique, it was ideal terrain. At the time of our arrival, a week-old storm had turned firm and been affected by a strong mist (not rain mind you, as confirmed by Crystal’s trustworthy ski patrol) that froze a thin layer of ice over some soft powder underneath, creating a snow condition known as breakable crust. This crust, though not quite as carefree as bouncing-down-clouds-powder, can be uniformly smooth and conducive to fast and (ideally) controlled turns. I found an open, straightforward run and cautiously made my way down, unaccustomed to the slippery crust and wrestling to keep control on my edges. Amie and Leta dropped from the peak to find a steeper, longer, and more extreme line. I conceded the best line award to them while I savored my first taste of The King and its splendid variety.

Day Two

On Superbowl Sunday the crowds dissipated with the sun, and classic Pacific Northwest cloudcover loomed. I thought tired legs, lack of sleep, and uninviting conditions could threaten the positivity of the usually lively bunch, but I was wrong. The beauty of the weekend warrior is our busy lives make us savor any time on a mountain far more than the oft-jaded ski bum. This appreciation is most apparent in variable weather, and our group had no time to wallow in the flat light so pushed through the day with vigor and smiles.

Led by Leta, a Seattle resident with Crystal experience, we ventured into new terrain off the Northway lift and into more short-hike accessed sidecountry. We found soft, rolling low-angle turns, rocky, and cliff-laden sections as well as femur-rattling PNW ice. But every lift ride seemed to expose a new area of the mountain, with hardly enough time to look at all the options, not to mention ride them. I needed more days.

But as glad as I was to explore the new zones, the King called. I calculated two more runs available on this beast. By early afternoon however, a dense soupy fog settled in and sat stagnant all over the mountain, reducing the visibility to nothing. But Devan pushed to go to the summit, and how could I not join him? Though not being able to see a few feet in front of me spawned apprehension.

As we ascended the first lift of two to get to The King hike, we pondered the possibility of breaking through the clouds in glorious fashion. Loading the High Campbell lift, the final ascent, we asked the bearded lifty what he knew about the sights above. โ€œNah, totally cloudy,โ€he replied. Was he messing with us? We had all but given up on escaping the moist grip of this dreary fog, but as we saw the top the hues brightened just a hair and a dull blue began to show itself from behind the omnigrey. Slowly the blue overtook and the impossible happened. Hooting in joy and at our luck, roughly 17 high-fives were delivered in the last fifty feet of the lift. We could see, and it was glorious. A strong wind rolled a flow of wispy cloud trails over the ridge and deposited the strands of grey into the massive, dark sea of clouds. The King stood in the background and beckoned.

If we couldn’t get any luckier, two helpful, friendly and enthusiastic ski patrollers were running a route on the King and aided our quest. After some chatting and divulgence of the magic of Crystal (open boundary policy, massive storms, generally low avalanche danger), they offered to show us where they reckoned the best snow lay. Who were we to argue? They found a non-crust zone, and we zipped along a thin layer of soft into some fun and playful trees. Never doubt the local knowledge.

This grand finale affirmed the greatness of the adventure. Guessing about the fog, hiking, gambling with crust, it all lined up somehow, and we feasted on world-class terrain and challenging runs.

We laughed all the way back to Portland in the back of a minivan as we devoured chips and guacamole and sipped Haitian rum, soaking in gluttonous glory. Realizing the trip was owed to Amie, our organizer, chief motivator, and logistical mastermind, she deserved credit. In reflection I repaid her efforts by (accidentally) spilling thick salsa all over her seats. Twice. I need to work on thank yous.

Dave Zook is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and amateur snowboarder, though he waits tables and pours drinks to make the big bucks. He moved to SLC five years ago to pursue his passion of riding a snowboard down steep and soft mountains.

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The mission of Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine is to inspire and educate endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts in the Mountain West through well-written content on adventure, travel, gear, health, fitness, nutrition, industry news, profiles, and ski resort information.

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