Part 4 of Kyle Miller’s 08-09 touring season:
Here it was mid-April, and the storms had raged all the way until the last few days of lift-riding season. With the resort season coming to its close, touring season was just beginning. Nonetheless, I had one final objective on my to-do list for access from within the resort.
In Crystal Mountain’s Southern backcountry, “Southback,” lies an aesthetic line with 45-degree pitches called Smoka. It’s an aggressive couloir on an east-facing peak riddled with cliffs, with 1500’ of vertical rise from the valley below. While usually a multiday tour our intent was to pull it off in a single-day push.
Dan Howell and I decided to skin through the resort under the cover of night, so that we could watch the sunrise from high up on the alpine peaks.
Early in the predawn hours, we began skinned up freshly groomed corduroy the cats had laid just a few hours before. Headlamps in tow, Dan and I finally left the maintained trails at the heart of Crystal Mountain’s Southback, Silver Basin. As we skinned up from the basin and transitioned to the steeper angled slopes, skinning became ineffective on the firm snow, so we quickly transitioned to crampons, to kickstep up the steep slopes. For the last stretch of verts, I raced the sun, which was about to crest over the Cascades. Scrambling up to a low col, I found that it delivered both panoramic views and access to our objective. Here, I rested, taking in the early-morning light show, including great views of both Rainier and our objective, Smoka, in the distance.
After a few more hours of skinning and cramponing, we were standing on the summit of Smoka. Here, we had to watch our step a bit—the cornices around us disguised 2000’ of vertical cliffs below. Smoka allowed us quite the viewpoint. From this high point, we could see six separate areas I’d focus on later in the season, as well as the Rainier ascent route Amar and I had taken little more than a week prior.
While avalanche danger for the day was minimal, the sun had been cooking the slope. As a measure of safety, we cut a huge cornice off and watched it roll down the slope without causing any significant sluffing. It was prime for tracks!
This was my third time tackling the line, so, with that in mind, Dan went first. With a quick slopecut, he was ripping down the side (skiers’ right), taking advantage of the soft windblown pow. He made some turns through the gut, then arrived at a safe zone below.
From past experience I knew there was a huge sidewall lower down the chute, so with that in mind, I dropped in and let gravity take over. The 45-degree chute allowed me to quickly gain momentum through the gut before arriving at the sidewall.
With one huge turn, I ripped it up, leaving a perfect slash in the snow (if I do say so myself!). Once in the apron below, Dan and I dodged the avi chunder hidden beneath the pow, making our way back towards Sliver Basin.
Back in Silver Basin, we celebrated with other locals with an end-of-season Keg. It was a great ending to the resort season, and everyone around reminisced fondly about their epic pursuits from throughout the year. Good times were surely had by all. And though I felt a pang of regret for the time passing and the closing of the lifts, I had a bit of a different response when everyone asked each other what they were planning on doing with themselves, since the ski season was now officially over.
While others were retiring their boards and breaking out the storage wax, I was amassing supplies and surveying new lines. The snowboard mountaineering season had just begun.