Most of us set goals for ourselves at some point in our lives. Some are the proverbial short term and long term goals we are accustomed to hearing about when it comes to success seminars and self-help books. A long term goal may be to get married and have children or become the CEO of a company. A short-term goal may be to lose 10 pounds or run a 10K. Then there are those goals that we intended to be a short-term goal, but turn out to be a long-term goal or a “who knows if this is ever going to happen” goal. When it comes to achieving goals in the mountains, it seems the latter is more typical than not. Throw adverse weather, schedule conflicts and life in general into the mix, and the latter becomes a near certainty. This is what my goal of speedflying the summit of East Peak had become until recently.
East Peak is one of the more prominent peaks that overlook the base area of Crystal Mountain in Washington. With both a east facing and west-southwest facing aspect, the longest slope is the west-southwest aspect. While the East aspect provides the best snow, the slope is only a couple hundred feet long and terminates into a moderate sized basin. This only provides about 4-6 good turns before slapping the skins back on and going up again to repeat. In contrast, the west-southwest aspect provides nearly 1500 feet of skiable slope through open and gladed terrain. This aspect, which is exposed to the incoming storms, does not typically hold the best snow, and if it does, it won’t for long. However, after a storm cycle is the best time to get it and when it’s good, it’s great!
I had long looked up at East Peak from Crystal Mountain on big pow days or after a significant storm system and wished that I was up there. I would look on in envy at the two or three solitary lines that had been carved out by the lucky devils that opted out of the machine assisted uphill travel for the human powered version.
Only an hour and a half to two hour skin, East Peak is easily accessed and can definitely be done two or three times in a day. The challenge for me would be for not only good snow, an open schedule, good visibility and a worthy back country partner, but for low and cooperative winds as well. Speedflying in the mountains is challenging due to the dynamic environment that the mountains provide. Moderate winds can funnel through tight areas creating a strong Venturi effect as well as create dangerous rotor as wind flows over ridges and other varied terrain. Overall, I would have to wait over four years to finally have all the conditions and timing align to give East Peak a try.
I beckoned the company of good skier, budding speedflying pilot, seasoned skydiver and rad friend, Matt Drewelow, to join me on my attempt. The Cascades had just received over a foot of new snow and we had a three-day window to play with. Since Matt had just left his career in the Navy and was working seasonally at Crystal Mountain as the best lift operator in the world, he was able to switch with some other lifties to get what looked like the best weather day, off. Matt and I decided to meet up in the main lot, slap on our skins and start the trek up hill. Cold temps made for a comfortable skin. The sun peeked through the trees in several places along the single-track trail. It’s amazing how nice the sun feels on a cold day. Matt and I would stop at a few places along the way to admire the views. It was a picture perfect day.
Matt and I continued up the trail and came across other skiers who had the same grand idea as us. We all agreed that we picked the right day and that we couldn't wait to feast on the goods! The winds remained low and the sun kept shining. What a day! Only a few hundred vertical feet shy of the top, we watched on in complete envy as a group of skiers slalomed their way in and out of the sparse trees while collecting a few face shots on their way down. It was like walking downstairs on Christmas morning, seeing a pile of presents, and then having your parents yell out that you had to wait another 20 minutes to open them! Matt and I couldn't reach the summit fast enough! Once to the top, Murphy began to rear his ugly head. Clouds had begun to build and the winds had started to pick up, considerably. While Matt and I decided to see if things might improve, we knew our window for safe visibility was decreasing by the moment. I wouldn't get
to fly today, but it was hard to stay bummed for long. With a great friend like Matt at your side and over a thousand vertical feet of a foot or more of fresh snow below us, it was ON! I slapped Matt with my ski pole and yelled, “TAG,” and the race was on! We spent the next few minutes leap frogging down the mountain, hooting and hollering and laughing our guts out. Once we hit the trail at the treeline, we stopped and looked up at our lines. Not everything is worth the wait. That run was. It was worth the years of anticipation, struggle and work that we put into it. It was almost a shame to have disturbed such an untouched, pristine canvas. Almost.
While still living on the high of getting to ski East Peak and almost completely content with the fruits of my labor, I hadn’t quite fulfilled my goal. I still hadn’t flown it. As I mentioned before, the weather window was forecasted for three days of decent weather. I was able to scrounge up another partner, as Matt was unable to switch again. My new partner and I made our way up the mountain, slowly but surely. The day was proving to be a better day than the two days prior. A bit warner and the snow not as soft, but clear skies and almost no wind! Once at the summit again, the view was amazing and the winds remained favorable. However, I noticed that clouds were once again building to the southwest. Mt. Rainier was no longer visible as it had been 5 minutes ago when we first gained the ridge. It was now or never. I laid out my wing, pointed my skis down the hill and sent it. The launch was quite committing, as I had to fly through a small gap of trees and then fly over another group of trees below that. It was spicy, but made for awesome visuals. The flight was just as awesome as I had anticipated and I eyed some pretty sweet lines that I could fly another time. So many possibilities! I set up for landing in an empty lot of snow and gave out a loud “YAHOO!!!” when after touching down. I’m not always vocal while in the moment. More times than not, I’m focused on the task at hand and at the end, just happy to be back safe on the ground. This time was different. I was pumped. My stoke meter was off the charts and I was shaking from excitement! Nothing about the flight was that crazy (except the launch line), it was the feeling of finally achieving something that I had wanted for so long. It was the feeling of accomplishment and it’s such a great feeling.