Goodness knows how long it’s been since I’ve had a big adventure, let alone in the winter or on skis. It’s so easy to just do something short and attainable, rather than challenging yourself. I’ve always been deterred by the snow and become a home-body in the winter. Snow is fine when it comes to spring scrambling and packed snow for summer mountain summits. But wading in waist deep snow sounds unpleasant. However, recently, backcountry skiing has changed that attitude entirely.
First, let’s be clear, my intent for doing outdoor adventures has always been to connect with the wilderness and be mesmerized by natural beauty, away from civilization. It’s not necessarily to be the best at any one sport. So I actually bought my alpine touring set-up all on sale, bit-by-bit, over the course of a few months. And this was my first ski set-up – I didn’t even own a downhill set-up, because let’s be real, I was barely confident on blue runs inbounds at that time. I figured, ski touring would get me into the mountains easier and quicker than by foot and a provide fun descent after reaching the objective. Once I got AIARE 1 certified, I began seeking out partners and people I could trust to go on trips with.
And Big Jim was by far the most intense winter/skiing trip proposed to me. Steve was getting stoked about this idea and I knew it’d be a stretch but doable goal. Having only skied inbounds several times over my life, barely doing blacks, and a handful of shorter/easier backcountry trips, I had little clue how to gauge my abilities. So I was like, sure, let’s do some 6000 feet of gain over 10 miles and sure, let’s make this a sunrise tour. Because sunrises are always worth the early wake up. Honestly, this was a pretty okay grade, and also considering we’d do 2.5 miles and 1200 ft of gain on a snowmobile. But, and somehow there’s always a but, it didn’t quite go that way (and hence this is more a written blog than a photo blog).
Mishap #1: Running Late
We left an hour later than we had planned. It’s not the worst, but when you’re tight on time, you want to increase efficiency. One hour later just meant one hour less of sleep, couldn’t be the worst and definitely not the best, right?
Mishap #2: Ice
We got to the turnaround spot off the highway at a decent time, but in our groggy state, decided to drive up the icy forest road. We got maybe 50 feet before realizing, um no, we would not make it. And backing up a truck with a little trailer with the snowmobile is not an easy feat, especially when your tires get a tad stuck in the snow. I kept thinking, if only I were a stronger person I could be of more use and help yank stuff out. Thankfully, two locals saw us and came to assist and were oddly very excited to help us, city peeps. Definitely made the struggle a lot shorter and bed time less delayed. At this point, it was 2 hours less of sleep, but still potential for rest to occur.
Mishap #3: Sleep
Since we decided we’d do a sunrise hike for photography, and even accounting for my slower pace, we agreed to leave at 1am. This made for a 2 hour nap, which really was more like a 2 hour rest with very little real sleep between the rush of trucks on the highway and other noises. But hey, it’d be fine, we’d make up for that, or so we thought. Or so I thought. 15 min after the alarm, we were already on the snowmobile making our way up the forest road that was only partly covered in snow. Time to ignore sleep dep.
Mishap #4/Delight #1: Snowmobile
This was my first time on a snowmobile. Really had little expectations except perhaps assuming it’d be similar to a jet ski. We were going a nice gentle speed, enough to start waking myself up and psyching myself up for actual movement soon. But then we’d go a little too slow for the sled, which would overheat. And then the snowmobile got stuck where we couldn’t quite see a divot in the road. No luck in pulling it out, so we left it and started skinning the additional mile and 500 ft vertical of road. Waste no time when you’re trying to reach sunrise, no matter how fun a snowmobile makes the trip.
Mishap #5: Daylight Savings
Maybe less a mishap, but sometimes you feel the need to blame things on something. And I’m choosing to blame daylight savings for messing up with time. We were going and going and all of a sudden it was 3am, and it definitely took me a solid minute to remember 1 hour after 1am becomes 3am, not 2am during daylight savings. Losing one hour is no fun, but technically the sun still rises at its cadence, disregarding our time constructs.
Mishap #6: Navigation
We were interested in taking the trail to the ridge for less route finding. But we didn’t know it till coming down that we were just a few yards past the turnoff for the trailhead. Blame it on the night (despite the full moon). In lieu of skinning downhill to find the true trailhead, we decided to continue making progress upwards and over towards the trail. The snow coverage was decent until it wasn’t. We kept traversing and gain small bits of elevation while avoiding the bare ground. So long we were gaining progress, it need not be on the true trail.
Mishap #7: Shwackery
Although we did eventually find the trail (thank goodness for GPS maps and phones), the trail proved to be just as much of an icy, downed-tree mess as off-trail. Navigating this was not simple as we’d imagine. Sometimes it’d be finding the best way to cross a log or other times, making sure we weren’t going too steep, and other times, just needing to boot it up the dry patches. I wasn’t a huge fan of sinking into the dead branches, they seemed like traps for my feet. At least, I think I’ve started to become more competent in kick-turns and general uphill movement. Compare that to my first backcountry trip, where I’d slide 3 feet every sharp turn we’d make and I’d be scared out of my mind on every steep hill. Every outing and experience has helped me grow, especially with partners who are also patient and encouraging. And truthfully as annoying as the bushwhacking was, it could have been much worse.
Mishap #8: Energy
It’s something I’m still working on, but I am actually quite terrible at listening to my body, and knowing when it needs food and water. Too often, I’m used to running on low energy. That only works for short, less-strenuous day hikes. But on top of very little sleep, this was a bad combination. And the key is to re-energize yourself before you reach that low. Cause once that low hits, it kind of just goes downhill from there. This trip, I’d swing from being too sleepy to feeling the gnawing in my stomach to being out of breath. And then when I try to force food (a pb+j bagel) into my system, this whole whacky situation continued to make me feel nauseous and queasy. Kept wondering why my body couldn’t cooperate the way I know it can on a normal summer weekend, but most likely it was still the sleep deprivation issue. And do as I say, not as I do, don’t let your body get to the point of feeling lethargic if you can help it. And know how your body responds to different stressors.
Mishap #9: Weight
I have somehow gone from religiously carrying not enough stuff with me to over-carrying. Not that I’m trying to be ultra light, but quite often, I fall into the trap of fill my backpack up no matter what the trip entails. It’s fine when I’m the faster hiker and not in a rush anywhere. Doesn’t work so well when you’re racing the sun up the mountain. I felt 10x better once I offloaded my camera gear and whatnot to Steve. So I was without camera for much of the uphill. Steve’s phone died (mishap #9.1) so we had to use mine and I was totally fine not doing the active navigation. So also no phone camera. Don’t carry more than you need and camera weight is definitely extra weight to deal with.
Delight #2: Moon
The trip was not all negative. One of the first big moments (other than that fun, short snowmobile ride) was seeing the moon set over the ridge. It was a full moon and we hardly needed headlamps since the trees were all burned barren. And as the moon traveled, it just got so big on the horizon, she was a beaut. And the higher we got, the more we could see of Leavenworth and other little cabins near the Wenatchee River. It was a cute sight! We could see the progress we made, albeit slow, so I remained hopeful.
Mishap #10/Delight #3: Dawn
Soon enough, 3am became 4am became 6am and the golden glow of the sunrise started shining in betweens, above the hills in the horizon. It was glorious. But it was also sunrise, and we had planned to be on top of Big Jim at sunrise. Um yes, that doesn’t add up cause we (mostly I) was going that slow. We allowed ourselves 5 hours to climb 5000 ft, which is reasonable on a normal day. But 5 hours today got us to 5300 ft (having gained about 3600 ft over 5.5 miles). Snail pace. The sun beat us my more than a smidgen.
Mishap #11/Delight #4: Alpenglow
I was still not paying good attention to my body, sleep deprived, and overall exhausted. I kept willing myself to take one step after another. Until I literally could not. Just sat there on the side and took a brief nap and forced more food into my system. Rest and food made all the difference for me to continue some 10 more min uphill to catch up to Steve where he’d set up his tripod already, enjoying the alpenglow on Big Jim while also freezing in the cold air. I thought for sure, it’d be a true nap time. But the sun had barely come over the horizon and we’d would have been way too cold. So we just took a break to soak in the beauty around us. Slowly, onward we went till the full sunlight hit us, warming our bodies. Although we were still in between trees, between the glowing sun and pink hues, I couldn’t have been happier to be out there in the Chiwaukum area. I’m definitely coming back for ya!
Delight #5: Sun
The sun. The sun was my saving grace that morning. Steve was having his 2nd and 3rd and 4th winds and I was still trying to bounce up from my low. But the sun made all the difference. And the shallower terrain. And then we saw the Enchantments peaking out. Oh Dragontail, Stuart, Argonaut. Check out Steve’s gallery for the beauty that I could not and did not capture with my camera. Sometimes you just have to keep the views in your memory and let go of taking pictures of everything.
Delight #6: Snow
We kept inching forward and more and more I could finally see distinct progress – we were getting closer to the ridge of Big Jim. Except we were quickly approaching 11am, our turnaround time. We still needed to get back down and dislodge the snowmobile. As much as I had mustered energy to make it the past 9 hours, food and water were slowly not working well for me. We were most definitely not making it to the peak at this rate. But the journey had been amazing. We were the only people out there and the snow was magnificent. It sparkled in the sunlight. It was soft but not too deep. We marveled at the cornices that formed every which way the wind blew. And somehow, even the burnt trees were lovely.
Delight #7: Downhill
And thus began our first transition, a descent on the north side of the ridge. Kind of steep, but kind of fun if I set my mind to it. The more I ski, the more I realize I needed a mental shift from I can’t to I can. And of course, hands forward, lean forward. It makes all the difference. I’d go from falling every turn to smooth sailing down the slopes. This snow was by far some of the best I’ve been on backcountry. Much better than the icy mess I had at Kendall and not too thick to bury me deep. We continued traversing below our skin track, making it to where we first stopped for the sunrise. Downhill travel is infinitely faster and much appreciated. Surprise, surprise. And a couple more transitions crossing bunny tracks, we hit our original skin tracks again.
Delight #8: Afternoon Sun
The sun was still shining as we headed down some slicker slopes. In and out of powder we went. In and out of trees we’d go. Not without falling and hitting a couple trees along the way, but how could you be annoyed when this had been some of the best descents? My first couple trips, my shins were in pain because I didn’t know how loose to keep the boots. Another time, the flat light was scary not knowing up from down. And another time was the icy mess. Not that I’d give up on backcountry skiing, but this (even failed attempt) trip to Big Jim gave me so much more hope for more wonderful backcountry trips to come. The skiing was perfect for me, the weather was gorgeous, the views were incredible.
Delight #9: On Trail
As we continued descending, we started to hit the spots where it lacked snow coverage. A couple more bumps and navigating between exposed logs and we were on top of the true trail, not that it was much better than our off-trail track. Steve went ahead to get a head start to retrieve the snowmobile. And I enjoyed myself getting down to the trailhead and back onto the forest road, hallelujah.
Delight #10: Easy Road
The forest road was still icy in shady spots and softer under the sun. But at least it was straight forward, simple and wide. A perfect cool down gliding back to the truck. I have a soft spot for skiing on roads, whether a true forest road or even some of those traverse roads at a ski resort. They’re like green runs and easy to follow!
Delight #11: Sleep
As I waited for Steve to come back with the snowmobile, I took a nap, basking in the warmth of the sun, listening to the ripple of the Wenatchee River and the rumble of large semi’s passing by on the highway. It was a much needed rest that vastly improved my mood and energy. The work was done, the fun was had.
So yes, it was a hard day and no, I didn’t expect it to be hard in this way. And omg yes it was worth it. I could have slept more, but it was worth the views. And the downhill. And just being out in the wilderness. The wild, glorious mountains.
Successful sunrise trips would probably require more sleep and more energy – don’t forget to fuel and hydrate your body!
Icicle Creek might be an easier access point to Big Jim
Photos shot on Canon Rebel T6
For more pictures from the trip: check this gallery out