Originally published in Backcountry Magazine
Only the Penitent Shall Pass
Pilgrims: those who travel a distance to visit a place venerated for its associations.
Pilgrimage: the journeying of a pilgrim.
When I describe backcountry skiers and the places they visit, these words roll off my tongue, and certain places, distinctive because of their “distance,” come immediately to mind. The Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington is such a place. Its associations are enticing to the skier: wide open spaces holding large quantities of snow, not-so-easy access preserving the feeling of remoteness, summits from which to ski, and great views from high places. Although not as well known as the North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and other hot spots in Washington, the Goat Rocks Wilderness is, within the local ski community, venerated. Most skiers can remember the first time they saw the Goat Rocks. For many, this occurred while looking south from Mt. Rainier across a sea of clouds covering the state. Jutting from the soup are only the highest and snowiest peaks – St. Helens to the right, Adams in the center, Hood and Jefferson in distant Oregon, and the Goat Rocks to the left. Often these people become instant true believers.
Covering over 105,000 acres, the Goat Rocks Wilderness has long been recognized as a place worthy of a pilgrim’s visit. Starting in 1931 when it was established as a “primitive area,” it has steadily grown from the original 44,500 acres, by various acts of government, to its present size. Thick stands of trees guard the lower slopes, giving way to vast meadows above treeline, with permanent snowfields, glaciers, and craggy peaks in the upper reaches. There are moderate slopes and glaciers and multiple easy summits available to the skier with a willingness to go a bit off the beaten path. The entire area becomes snowbound in winter, making access in a car impossible, necessitating a long approach on skins or the use of a snowmobile to ride the roads. Because of this, skiers most often visit the Goat Rocks from April through June, when the snow begins to loosen its grip. This can also be a great early season trip (November) in the right conditions.
The main summits of the Goat Rocks, Old Snowy Mountain (7,930’), Ives Peak (7,900’), and Curtis Gilbert Peak (8,201) anchor the north/south spine of the Cascade Range as it passes through the wilderness. In the summer and early fall thru-hikers make their way along the Pacific Crest Trail on their way to Canada, weaving along the crest, dodging snow patches. But not the skiers. They are not often seen avoiding the snow, which would be a super-human task in the spring. Below the summits and above the trees lies a backcountry skiers' Nirvana. On the west side of the crest, above Snowgrass Flats, one can find bowls that will consume entire days of yo-yoing. On the eastern slopes, beginning right at the crest, lie McCall, Conrad, and Meade Glaciers and their associated permanent snowfields. Just looking at photographs of this place will make your quads sore. The glaciers and snowfields present a snow covered face almost 6 miles long well into summer, and the west side is similar.
Set aside a minimum of three days for this trip. Of course it is possible to blast in and out, but then it wouldn’t be a pilgrimage, would it? A day of driving and approaching on one end and descending and driving on the other still leaves only one day to pay homage to this place. A good tour of the relics on display assumes a camp in Snowgrass Flats on the west. From there ski northeast to the summit of Old Snowy and take in the outstanding view of Rainier. From the top, ski east into the basin at the headwaters of the Tieton River. Consider making multiple runs on the McCall Glacier before heading to a pass just south of Ives Peak. From Ives it is a westerly ski back to camp, carving the circumnavigation into completion at about 5 miles. Another day or an extension to the above mentioned route will place you at the summit of Curtis Gilbert on the boarder of the Yakima Indian Reservation. But one of the great things about the Goat Rocks is that its bowls present as much good skiing as its summits. A great time can be had within the confines of Goat Creek basin to the northwest of Snowgrass Flats or the cirques at the head of Cispus River, east of the flats.
But this snow-covered cathedral is not without its tempests and tests for the traveler. In a two-day tour of this area in early April, one group encountered over 20 miles of skiing, more than 9,000 vertical feet of gain, and several hours of total whiteout while returning to camp. Another group found similar difficult visibility and climbed and skied a different peak than they were attempting, followed by an extra night out and a discussion with a spouse about carrying a short wave radio on future trips. Because of the fairly long approach and the amount of contouring, this area presents even more of a challenge to the snowboarder than it does to the skier. However you get there, remember that the weather can change rapidly, like anywhere near the crest of the Cascades, and the Goat Rocks are remote, so an attitude of self-sufficiency is a must. Finding camp on your return from the summits may well come down to having the right skills and tools. Winter-like storms can follow you into this country well into the month of July, so keep your head on straight when packing for this one. Also, steep terrain both above and below treeline presents high avalanche potential and appropriate precautions should be taken.
Like any pilgrimage worth its salt, the Goat Rocks Wilderness will change you. The inspiration may be as simple as a reminder about the power of the road less traveled or just as easily take the form of a test of your physical and mental backcountry skill. In either case, accept the lessons learned, you will have earned them.
Access to the Goat Rocks Wilderness can be found on the west and east sides of the crest. From Seattle, WA or Portland, OR take Interstate 5 to Highway 12 and follow it east toward the Cascades. For the western approach, turn right onto Johnson Creek road 2.5 miles before the town of Packwood. Drive the road toward Chambers Lake until you are stopped by snow. Park the car and get out the skins; some up and down terrain will lead you to Snowgrass Flats at 6,300 ft. Behold the bounty. For an eastern approach continue through Packwood, over White Pass to the turnoff for the North Fork Tieton River road. Your focal point for the east side of the range is McCall Basin at 5,000 ft. Bring a wide angle lens for this view.
References include: Goat Rocks Wilderness map issued by US Forest Service, Topo! Interactive Maps on CD, and Rainer Burgdorfer’s oft-quoted book, 100 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes in Washington.
Kaj Bune is a photographer, writer, and consultant to outdoor companies and lives near Seattle, Washington. He has not to this day lived down the losing of his lunch by the side of the road on the way home from the Goat Rocks.