With the weather forecast calling for a snow storm in Western Washington and high winds on the east side, we chose to take on the winds on some lower elevation terrain. Avalanche danger was moderate for wind slabs above tree line, so we picked a low angle route. At first, Christie had suggested Hex Mountain, a popular snowshoe route. To avoid the crowds and running into snowshoers, we looked at a few nearby mountains. We knew the Salmon La Sac road would be plowed to the last sno-park on that road. Using Caltopo, we found that Sasse Ridge would be a fun, mostly mellow tour! I’ve been wanting to go to that area since I last hiked around Jolly Mountain. I mean, how can you resist climbing a mountain named Sasse and Not-So-Sasse?!?
Both Christie and I are fairly adventurous in finding new places to explore rather than the beaten path. I vetoed Snoqualmie pass since I’d been there so often recently. It’s about time to expand our horizons since there truly is a lot of mountain out there. We didn’t find many trip reports and none really added much to our understanding of the area than reading a good map and aerial photos. We had no idea where the snow level was and whether or not we could take the decommissioned forest road out. We were determined to at least find one good spot to ski. We looked at the low angle terrain with least amount of trees. The trip reports we found did confirm sections of incredibly dense trees that could be extremely difficult to ski if not impossible even for the best skiers.
Our main goal was a bowl north of Sasse Ridge and the south bowl beneath Sasse Mountain. And we’d then take one of the west gentler slopes back down to the cars. We also didn’t know where to park, but gained enough info to know that you should buy a sno-park pass for this road! There’s limited shoulder parking that exists mostly for summer. With only the ideal trailhead to start, we ended up finding the French Cabin Son-Park. No one else was there this early in the morning. I figured this area is mostly used by snowmobilers who’d find it easier to get around and not as limited on daylight as us. We walked across the bridge over the Cle Elum River and started our forest approach to the Sasse group. Since we parked further than the normal trailhead/forest road, we decided to take a short cut to the road from where we were. Although the trees didn’t look dense, it proved more difficult than we thought because every 5 minutes of open trees, we’d get another 5 minutes of shrubs to bushwhack through. At least they weren’t too dense. Too enough, we started to meet the Howson Creek summer trail and crossed the Howson Creek at the where the maps marked it. Water was running pretty low but we did have to take off skis to get across and up the bank. Good thing ski boots are semi creek water proof. With a little bit more skinning, we found the forest road.
We thought we’d take this the whole way up to Sasse, but with the slow forest travel and gloppy snow, we ended up cutting off the switchbacks and heading straight up to the ridge. Here, we got a great view of Not-So-Sasse, which looked so incredibly enticing. Open slopes, perfect snow conditions, no tracks in sight. This wasn’t quite on our original plan but Sasse itself seemed quite far away and its west face was covered in one of those thick forests. Getting close to our turn-around time, we determined Not-So-Sasse was within our reach. We continued along the ridge, switchbacks every 10 steps. You couldn’t stray too far because each side was steep. The saving grace was that the ridge was decently wide and low angled except a few spots easy to navigate around. On a ridge, there’s really no way you could be swept into an avalanche and we were generally protected from the wind by the thick trees, which also meant cornices were small and harmless. But as we turned the corner from south to east, the wind picked up and the trees became sparse.
Snow pelted our faces and there was no relief unless we hid on the other side of the ridge. We quickly put on our wind breakers and tried to turn our face away from the wind. After all, the forecast did say up to mid 20 mph winds. They were not wrong. The combination of wind and flying snow built character that we didn’t really need. Tempted with the quieter south side, we started to take a couple steps, thinking that we could use this open face to gain Not-So-Sasse Peak. But as soon as we took 3 steps, we felt the earth shift and a long, propagating crack for between us. Immediately, we climbed back to the ridge.
Assessing, we realized we were on wind slab territory. The whole way up we monitored the snow. There were slab chunks that broke up was we stepped, but none propagated and we were always on low-angle terrain. With the enticing windless slope, we were too eager to take that opportunity. But lesson learned – sometimes things are too good to be true. On the north side, none of those symptoms occurred so we proceeded on our way up to Not-So-Sasse. Beneath us, snowmobile tracks were now plentiful. They found our little spot and with a quicker mode of transportation, they took turns having fun on the snow, I only hoped they left enough fresh snow for us to play in. While this area is designated as a voluntary non-motorized region, it is not required and snowmobilers are free to roam here. We were grumpy about it, but we have no basis to yell at them except for our own selfish reasons. The same could be said of other skiers tracking out your pretty snow.
At the top of the peak, it was surprisingly calm and we took a breather after the brief scare to enjoy the limited views we got. Transitioning to ski mode, we prepared ourselves for the downhill. Boy, oh boy, was it some of the best skiing I’ve ever done backcountry! The snow was floaty. And while it wasn’t light powder, it also wasn’t the sticky, heavy mess from the previous weekend at Lichtenberg. Smiles all around! I think I finally learned to lean into using better technique and having the confidence to go down non-resort slopes. Yes, I’ve skied lots of terrible snow, but I’d hardly call skiing and I’ve always had a terrible time going downhill with too much backseating, causing me to take breaks every few turns. Not this time, I kept going and going, stopping only to check in with Christie. I’m happy that I was able to ski 35 degree terrain (while tree-less) with such confidence!
600 feet of lovely skiing later, we were back to the very low angle terrain. I was actually thankful for the snowmobile tracks now. We didn’t have to figure a way out because if they could go through something, we could as well. Soon, we were back on the old forest road, riding the snowmobile tracks out for a smoother descent. Without them, we’d be much more stuck as the snow had melted some over the day. We generally followed our up tracks down, skiing what we could and taking the road when the trees and shrubs got dense. We opted to stop following the forest road and tried to take the Howson Creek trail back to the main Salmon La Sac Road. We never quite caught it and gave up crossing so many logs, but eventually found a more open area to ski through than the way we came up. I was surprised despite the flat bottom, we could ski it all because it was so icy under the spacious trees. If the trees grew closer on a much steeper slope, this would have been quite miserable. But alas, we got some great skiing in – some the best ski tracks that either of us have ever made. It felt like a true spring ski day even though it was still winter. We’ll be back for more around here!
Parking: the French Cabin Sno-Park is a great place, althernatiely, there’s the Salmon La Sac Sno-Park if you want to get the ridge further north and ski the east slopes. Don’t forget to buy a Sno-Park pass if you’re going between Nov 1 and Apr 30.
I’ve noticed lately that south facing slopes have been prone to slab effects, not just wind loaded terrain
The ridge is surprisingly pleasant to skin over – trust that it goes. The east side doesn’t receive as much precipitation so rollovers and cornices are limited and small. We eventually got off the ridge when it became to windy and we didn’t want to deal with both that and narrowly navigating the trees.