the epitome of spring skiing | rock mountain ski tour
April 19, 2023
9 mi . 5400 ft gain . 6835 ft high
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
Between traveling and skiing a bit inbounds, somehow I’ve been ski touring a little less. With a non-ideal weather system coming in, we opted to go a bit further east of the cascade crest with hopes for a longer dry day before it started to rain or snow on us. It’s amazing what a difference driving out 15 minutes can make! Rock Mountain has been on my radar ever since my friends had gone out there a couple years ago. The reviews were: kick turns until you are super proficient at them. Okay, no big deal, I could always use some practice with efficient kick turns.
We considered several other options off Hwy 2, but it wasn’t until we hopped into the car that we decided on Rock Mountain. We were set on whatever it would throw at us. The NWAC report mentioned a good corn cycle on the south face of Rock, but I was honestly most interested in the northern aspects where it has the least amount of sun effects. By the way, corn snow is the kind where firm, icy snow starts to thaw under the sun creating a perfect layer to ski on, akin to skiing on groomed runs in the resort.
Well, we found the trailhead but you really could not drive any vehicle up that snow bank. Good news, there’s plenty of pullout shoulder to park on where you can still leave a whole car width between yourself and the main highway lanes. But as confirmed by the lack of snow along the drive, we started off booting. Another car parked close to us and we figured they’d lay down the path for us! Little did we know, we’d leap frog each other all day long, and it became pretty hilarious. It seemed like each group had different strengths between speed and transition efficiency and equally puzzled at following the sparse trail.
There’s sometimes a thin line between going straight up a mountain or trying to follow trail. Generally for preservation of the hillside and Leave No Trace practices, it’s best to stay on trail when possible instead of walking on random dirt, which can cause more erosion. But sometimes it’s not quite possible to even find the trail. And once in a while going straight up a snowfield was simpler, other times it would spit you out into dense vegetation. Truly spring skiing for ya!
I was getting a little disappointed by how much booting we’d done, but as the views got better, the snow coverage became more consistent. We kept holding out to when we’d start skinning because sometimes there’s a lot of shenanigans with low coverage snow where it’s easier to just boot as much as it’s heavy to carry all your gear. Around 2000 ft gained, at the start of the ridge (we were always on a ridge technically, but this was more ridge-y at this point) at 5000 ft elevation, we decided to transition. Best decision cause it was definitely consistent snow and a skin track was easy to follow instead of sidehilling on difficult snow. Obviously, different seasons would have a different access point but 2000 ft of booting is near my personal limit!
Pro tip: get comfy boots that are good to walk in too! Or bring trail runners and extra socks that’ll get wet.
I was surprised by some of the steep cliff drop offs along this ridge and was pretty happy to follow a good skin track. So thanks to whomever set it up! It felt like such a breeze as we climbed above tree line. Apparently I hadn’t really taken a good look at the mountain profile and didn’t realize we’d pop out onto a really cool bowl with really cool cornices. It was a bit dizzying to look at with the low visibility light where depth perception disappears. We headed up towards the south peak just to realize that the north peak is the true summit.
I would have been happy to just ski from here but we both were itching to lay some sweet tracks skiing the north side. As cool as it is to have untouched snow and no evidence of other humans, it’s also reassuring to know that we’re not the only crazy ones out here. There’s a few narrow slots from the north face of Rock Mountain, but we found a mellow way down, although accidentally touching some 45-50 degree slope for just a few feet. We’d ski a few hundred feet each time to check in until we felt like it was an appropriate stop. 10 minutes of pure fun!
It wasn’t until I checked my GPS tracks that I realized for that quick descent, we’d have to climb back up another 1000 feet or more. At this point, we lost signs of where our new friends had gone. The previous days’ tracks seemed to have continued on the Howard-Mastiff traverse, so it was up to us to set a skin track. Near the top of Rock Mountain, we gave up skinning as we kept sliding on the firm layer underneath the softer snow. So we started booting up. We had vaguely wanted a good workout day, and we surely got that. Taking turns to create the boot pack up the last about 300 feet, we finally found our new friends again, who had amazing found our tracks to follow!
At the summit, I was ready to head down. As a fair weather adventurer, I like to get myself out of rainy situations quickly before my mood also deteriorates. We left our new friends behind as we took a leisurely ski down the fairly low angle slopes, retracing our uphill tracks. We had pretty firm snow on the west side of the top ridge, making it easy to side slip on and scarier to make turns on. The east side of the ridge was much nicer to ski on since it has more of that wind deposited snow.
In order to not go uphill on our undulating skin track, we would ski a little beneath the trail, but tried our best to maintain elevation while traversing and avoiding trees. This was surprisingly fun even if it’s not getting turns in! We soon reached our first transition spot, but we continued skiing down about 500 more feet where our friends caught up again. The snow was pretty beat up with leaves and twigs, so we opted for one transition and walk the rest of the way down. I like to ski but not that much to squeeze out every little snow patch! Surprisingly the last 1500 feet of descent went by quite quick and we only took about 2 hours from summit to car.
The last of the shenanigans
Depending on the season, there is a trailhead, but you’ll likely have to park at a pullout – there’s multiple on the east and west side of the true trailhead. Please try to leave some space between your car and the road – there are some blind corners here!
We were able to maintain 1000 ft/hr uphill, did a round trip 1 hour down the back side of the summit, and 2 hours to get down from the summit.
We put skis on uphill at 5000 ft and we took them off at 4500 ft going downhill. Obviously snow line is different at different times of year/seasons.
Fairly minimal bushwhacking, but this will definitely test either your kick turn ability or booting up a mountain. It’s pretty steep! The top section above 5000 ft is relatively more mellow and was worth the annoying approach.