floofy cornice central | lichtenberg mountain ski tour
February 14, 2023
9 mi . 2500 ft gain. 5844 ft high
Henry M Jackson Wilderness
It’s been 2 years since I’ve written a backcountry ski trip report! This was the perfect day to get back out there after my knee surgery last year. For some reason, I hardly ever make it out to the Stevens Pass area, maybe for fear of the traffic situation or road conditions. But after a few rounds of Snoqualmie Pass, I was ready for something different. The Smithbrook area had been on my radar for a while because there’s plentiful low angle terrain with open slopes, which is less intimidating for a moderate skier like me. We threw around all the options: McCausland, Jove, Lichtenberg, Nason. We even thought about linking some of them together until I realized we’d have many thousands of feet to gain. Since I was still easing in from recovery, it seemed best to just lap one mountain. Lichtenberg was on the top of both of our lists and I liked that you could ski both sides of its main ridge.
Avalanche conditions were moderate throughout all aspects where we were, with wind slabs and wet loose avalanche potential problems. Going into the tour, we knew we’d be approaching from the leeward side where snow deposits occur since we had westerly winds. Ski tours (and honestly most other mountain adventures) are all about setting good expectations and usually declaring your boundaries for risk well in advance. Those boundaries only decrease and really never should get larger. So we had confined ourselves to ski Lichtenberg with the option of skiing multiple laps both on the back side and front side, depending on the conditions, or perhaps not at all even.
The skin up the Smithbrook road was fairly uneventful. We went all the way to the summer trailhead, about 3 miles before heading up to the woods to gain the gentle “north ridge” to Lichtenwasser Lake. We hardly needed to navigate with good internal directional skills of staying on the ridge and going up. We did semi-blindly follow some skin tracks and ended up following another group to boot pack up a small rock face (cliff, if you will). Turns out another group following us did the same! This is a good point in case not to randomly follow random skin tracks. This turned out to be fine though.
Soon enough we got to the edge of the lake for a quick snack break before skinning to the opposite end. I love seeing snow covered lakes, even with a track or two on it, it just looks like a clean blank canvas. Nature is beautiful! We decided to take mostly the main bowl up, but on high avalanche days, obviously that can be a slide path. But monitoring conditions, nothing was propagating in the trees at the low angle. It’s possible to take the north ridge all the way up (look up some other blog posts on the internet for that).
However, as we started to see the main ridge between the north and south Lichtenberg summits, we noticed quite the number of giant cornices. Granted, I’ve seen bigger, but our route had us traveling under these. The issue with cornices is that they can break off and cause an avalanche below. They’re overhead hazards and can be triggered naturally or by humans. We saw 2 skin routes directly beneath the biggest cornices. That gave us concern on such a warm day (high 30s) and we made the safer decision but heading up the north bench beneath the north summit. It takes us directly on steeper terrain, but the overall objective hazards seemed vastly less than standing under the cornice over an avalanche terrain. The bench had tiny cornices which we estimated would run out on the bench and not further.
Every other group followed the main track while we overheated breaking trail on the thick, sticky snow. It really wasn’t too much gain (only around 1000 feet from the lake) to the summit. We found yet another small party who approached from the west side. We watched them drop in from the summit while we took a mellower line between the cornices and down to the bench below.
As we rounded the ridge to drop in, we looked across the valley to see a large smooth line across Jove, where we originally intended to go. Could it be a skin track or a snowmobile track? Our poor eyesight couldn’t make out any avalanche debris, yet my gut tells me that line is the picture perfect slab avalanche shape. Eventually we had to compare photos blown up to see that in fact it was a slab avalanche that happened, just within 5 minutes of looking at it prior. We couldn’t hear anything, probably because we were on the windy side of the summit. Boy, were we glad not to be standing there. Later, 3 public observations were reported on NWAC viewed from different angles. This definitely would be something I would have submitted NWAC because it’s useful observation for both the public and the forecasters. It looked like it ran pretty deep – we’ve been having fairly unusual persistent weak layers that run down a couple feet to snow from a month ago. Usually in Washington, layers bond pretty well since temperatures are pretty moderate here. So it was wild to see the before/after of the slab. On the other hand I was only concerned about wet loose slides on the mountain we stood on.
Back to the skiing, the first turns are always the hardest and I ended up having to traverse the slope to feel better about turning. But eventually we made our way down 500 feet before deciding to lap it! I’m sure glad we did a second run because I got more comfortable with the steep slope and having the confidence on the thick snow. It’s hard to get better backcountry because you can only do so many laps versus at a ski resort you can get really good at groomers very fast. We got better pictures of Jove on our second summit and soaked in the views before the long descent back to the car.
We stubbornly didn’t put on skins, to get across the lake, shuffling step by step. Snowboarders – go into ski mode and shuffle through! Or put on skins to be less slippery. We decided to go skier’s right of the lake drainage and run into the Smithbrook Road. I was doubtful we’d find an easy way to cross the creek, but amazingly, the perfect passage came right before us and we got to ski down the road. More like pushed ourselves down the road. I think that if it were an icier day, it would be easier to ride down the road, but it was thick enough that it required some effort of pushing or skating to get down. But my snowboard friend made it down all the way back to the highway without transitioning!
There’s many ways up and down Lichtenberg. We decided this would be simplest and most straightforward for us. There are definitely small cliff bands to watch out for on your way up to the lake.
Trees are generally fairly open and I never really felt like I had to side slip because it was too tight to make a proper turn, but obviously depends on your skills.
Overall this is a great beginner ski tour with options to lap different areas depending on conditions.
Easy to add more vertical feet with laps near both summits about 500-800 feet at a time.
Parking: There’s a wide shoulder on the west-bound side of Highway 2 just east of the true Smithbrook turnoff. Lots of snowmobilers come this way too, which makes the road nicely tracked out and packed down.