A deeper look into the End Chute story featured in frequency TSJ #9.2–a season-long photographic journey under the stars… END CHUTE, Extended Version.
The idea for this photo all started one evening while Jordan and I were sitting around the house not content with relaxing after a great day of riding. We decided it would be fun to hike up Skyline ridge across from Stevens Pass ski resort and drop Moonlight bowl by headlamp, a popular backcountry run in the area.
We had yet to discover how rad riding by headlamp truly was.
The stars had taken place of the sun as we made our way to the top of the ridge. Peering down the steep chutes leading onto Seventh Heaven, we calculated each of our decent’s. Strapped in with headlamps beaming down, Jordan snapped a quick photo of Ryan Mclaughlin and myself before we dropped and all rallied down the chute onto Seventh.
Due to low snow cover the run was still closed to lift access, leaving the entire summit of the mountain untracked. We helped ourselves to an epic pow run filled with soul quenching hoots
and rock poppers under the stars the entire way. At Hagen Hill I stopped and gazed up at the stars and then to the run above while thinking to myself “Whoa! That was f**king awesome!”. After we all joined back up, Jordan and Ryan were just as pumped on how wild of an experience the run was. We all agreed that shredding more headlamp runs throughout the rest of the season would be mandatory, and then continued working our way back into the base area.
It wasn’t until the beginning of January that we had our next opportunity (weather in the NW is anything but cooperative). Our good friend Cory had just moved in and would be working under Jordan as his apprentice helping shoot photos for the remainder of the season. Being Cory’s first real day back at the mountain, Jordan felt that he should be promptly thrown into the learning process in true Stevens Pass fashion.
We are all relaxing at home, it’s after 9 P.M. and the next thing Cory knows he’s being dumped off by himself in a random spot on the side of Highway 2.
“Climb up on the snow bank and sit there in the freezing cold for a couple of hours and shoot a time lapse of the sky over the ridge while we hike up”, Jordan instructed. Once Jordan and I were ready to drop, Cory would switch from shooting a time lapse to a long exposure while we were riding down through the bowl. We reached our drop point and scanned for a quick spot to cool down and enjoy an ice cold barley pop while Cory finished preparing camera settings. It was so cold on the ridge that in a matter of minutes our beers and extremities were being rendered useless by the frigid wind whipping over the summit. We were fully prepared to face the elements that night, It still amazes me how cold we ended up and how rapidly it happened.
We moved as fast as we could to strap in and run through our transceiver check before we dropped. The drop in was a convex slope and our headlamps only illuminated a short distance before it rolled into blackness. Starring into the blackness it hit me how serious things could quickly become if the slope were to move and a rescue had to be initiated in the darkness. The top of the ridge was wind-loaded but showed little sign of instability. Nonetheless a night rescue in these conditions would be frightening to say the least.
More aware and slightly nervous, I pushed all thought aside and prepared to drop while Jordan signaled Cory by headlamp that we were ready to go. Cory flashed the final signal and Jordan dropped in while I dropped slightly to his left a few moments after. Everything remained stable and the snow was blower.
I shot down next to Jordan at the bottom of the roll where we popped up on a small drop; Jordan launched off the right side while I hit the left. As soon as I touched down it was on! The snow was as epic as it gets and the entire experience of shredding it by headlamp was unreal.
It was a spiritual experience unlike any other, perfect conditions, high speeds and a narrow beam of light guiding the way. It wasn’t until I was halfway down this first Moonlight bowl run that I realized how powerful the experience really was.
One may become slightly uneasy at first waiting to drop starring down into a short tunnel of light; it stirs claustrophobic like feelings, which was definitely the case for myself. Drop in and any such feelings are instantly forgotten.
As the flow of your run builds momentum, you start focusing more intensely on the beam of light and begin shifting into a trance like state. Your mind takes control guiding you through terrain with absolute precision while somewhat unconscious to your surroundings looming in darkness. My board and mind felt connected in a way I had yet to ever experience. I could truly get a sense of mind and board working as one. I’m not much of a hippy but I could easily see myself adapting to such a lifestyle if subjected to more experiences of this nature!
As I was approaching tree line at the base of the bowl and transitioning back to reality, the inevitable had occurred; something strange had happened.
I came to a stop just before the trees, looked back uphill and Jordan was nowhere in sight. I waited for several seconds and still no sign. What made this whole incident odd was that I thought I heard him right behind me the entire run down. And what makes it even stranger is that the line we were riding basically consisted of wide open, gradual rolling slopes with sparse small trees, making it somewhat difficult to lose track of each other, especially spotting a bright headlamp.
I quickly became concerned fearing the worst and started shouting with no response. I grabbed my phone in a panic and called Cory. Thankfully he answered and informed me that he could still see Jordan’s light except that he was acting very unusual and riding slowly in the opposite direction of where we planned to end up. I started to worry that maybe he had hurt himself and was wandering around in a shock induced daze.
A couple minutes passed and I finally caught a glimpse of Jordan’s light heading in my direction. As he approached me I was relieved to hear that everything was ok and he was fine. I was surprised and confused at the same time to hear that he thought I had hurt myself, which was the reason why he was riding around so cautiously. We recounted the occurrence, shook off the tense feelings and continued down into the trees towards the Yodelin parking lot.
When we finally made it back to Cory, we all huddled together and reviewed the final product. The time lapse and long exposure turned out to be a super sick combination. Unfortunately, while reviewing over the finished product, Jordan realized he had forgotten to adjust the camera’s high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction settings. From a professional photographer’s standpoint, Moonlight bowl mission #1 was a bust; well maybe not a total bust that is.
Everyone still impressed with the end results; little could we conceive what the whole headlamp concept was about to transform into. Jordan and I were about to embark on a season-long photographic journey resulting in seven heavy duty night missions to nail the “one.” It wasn’t until our fourth mission while camping in a snow cave up on Rooster that the inspiration for the final photo would be realized.
A sick snow cave recently constructed, raging fire, and I believe three bottles of wine later Jordan and I were strapping in close to the first highpoint on Rooster preparing to shred some sketchy conditions down the ridgeline. Once again, Cory was behind the lens working to dial-in his long exposure skills.
Our first run was intense to say the least as we shot off the ridge down into base camp. Cory eager to keep shooting instigated us to head back up for one more. The hike up was steep, icy, cliffed-out off of one side near the top, and nerve-racking. The ridge was so icy that it was virtually impossible to kick steps up to the drop-in. We were less than stoked to be going back up for seconds, especially after skipping repeatedly from base to ass down the first line. After one last attempt, Cory was satisfied and we safely returned to base camp.
Arriving back to camp and jacked on adrenaline, I exclaimed “F–k it, let’s go ride End chute by headlamp! How sick would that be?” At first everyone was hyped and entertained the thought of it. Excitedly, we discussed the newly inspired idea of riding End chute by headlamp and determined it would now be our new objective for executing the light trail photo.
It was now around three or four in the morning, tired and adrenaline subsiding, it sounded like a pretty serious mission that would inevitably lead to an all-nighter for which we lacked the energy. We decided to stay and ended up watching Jordan destroy a gnarly pole-jam tree with a hefty load of snow keeping it frozen in place. It was steep and under some serious pressure with an f’d run-in. The tree finally exploded through the pillow on Jordan’s third hit and he narrowly escaped a spanking so horrific-it would have rocked him back to his teenage years.
One thing you should know about Jordan; never question his snowboarding abilities because he will most likely pack up his camera, strap in and make you feel dumb. Considering the previous days evening hip session, and the antics that ensued that night-well into the wee hours of the morning already; we called it a night and retired to the comfort of our snow cave.
End chute is appropriately named because it lies at the far end of Gemini ridge. Gemini ridge is located at the end of Mill Valley shadowing over the backside lifts and boundary of Stevens Pass winter resort. End chute is the longest and most prominent chute in the Stevens Pass vicinity-best viewed from the bottom of the backside lift terminals.
Riding End chute at night is an intense mission and no easy task. It required catching last chair up Tye Mill just before night skiing closes at 10:00 P.M., drop into the backside and ride to the start of the boot pack at the base of the ridge, hike up to the saddle in between the two combs, then all the way across the ridgeline and up to the infamous hanging field where End chute waits around the corner. Freeze your ass off while Jordan sets up his shot. Drop. Meet back up with Jordan and skate five miles out of Mill Valley on the Nordic center cat track. Reach the car and head home; now it’s anywhere from 4:00-6:00 A.M. It took three missions out to End chute before Jordan got the photo he was looking for. Each mission was a unique experience to say the least.
At the beginning of the hike on mission #1, a chunk of ice fell off of a power line tower and landed on my head. It hurt. While I continued hiking I wondered if this was a bad omen. I was going solo and the ridgeline remained heavily socked in by fog, unsure the entire way out whether or not it would even clear up or not by the time I reached my destination. Hiking solo across the ridge in thick fog was eerie enough, especially being slightly spooked already from the ice chunk incident. Jordan was shooting the photo on an opposite ridge near the Polaris bowl boundary line, a little too far away for comfort if anything were to happen. Reluctantly I only had to wait about a half an hour on top of the chute and there was a clearing that allowed for a drop. I ended up riding the chute once and having to hike back up it and hit it a second time because Jordan didn’t have certain camera settings dialed due to working against the super bright moonlight blowing out the shot.
While awaiting Jordan’s clearance for drop over the radio, strapped in and studying the steep and narrow chute engulfed by towering walls, it feels as if you can almost hear monks high up in a Tibetan mountain-top monastery carrying out their ritualistic chants; “Ooooohhhhmmmm-Ooooohhhhmmmm!” Riding this chute at night is straight up out of control. It’s hard to describe just how epic of an experience it really is, and doing it justice in doing so.
Everything went smoothly mission #2 and Jordan would have had a sick shot, except I had too much speed exiting the chute and ended up being spit out into a tomahawk. I was too cold to hike back up and hit it again. I blew it this time.
Our final mission out to End chute consisted of Jordan and I, as well as a close friend of ours Grant (a.k.a. Gunther Extreme) who would be joining us for what (at the time) would be our last attempt at this shot for the season.
This time we were all a little weary as we made our way up to the top of the ridge. It had been dumping for the last two weeks and no one had been out on the ridge since. We would be setting the boot pack the entire way out. Of more concern was the fact that End chute hadn’t been ridden since the series of storms first slammed the Steven’s Pass region. Jordan and I had discussed this scenario in the past and decided that if this was ever the case, I would have to hike out the previous day and ride the chute to try and slide it out. Unfortunately it was night out and mission #3 was already underway.
Fortunately the only incident we encountered on the hike along the ridge top resulted in a minor scare that was more startling then anything. At one point I jumped down a small drop, 4 feet or so, and when I landed the ground gave out from under me and I sunk up to my waist-kicking my feet unable to feel any sign of solid ground beneath them. At that same moment I shot through the snow pack on the ridge I heard a loud “pop” and looked to my left just in time to catch the last glimpse of a huge cornice dropping out of sight. I sat there for a few seconds in disbelief, still up to my waist in the pit when I heard Grant nervously callout “…Ryan?” just before he peered over the edge to see that I was still there and alright. I was aware of all the massive-new cornice formations along the ridgeline and making a conscious effort to stay well away from them. Somehow though, this one caught me off guard, luckily it was only a close call. We regrouped and continued on.
We were all going to end up scared at some point or another that night and now it was Jordan’s turn. Jordan prepared to drop so he could go set up his shot beneath the chute. Nervously he told us whatever we do–do not hike anywhere near any trigger points of the hanging field, which we knew better anyway. He had to be slightly concerned because he was going to be right in its path if it decided to awaken. We assured him we would stay as far away from the danger zone as possible and parted ways as Grant and I made our way up the final push towards the hanging field and on to End chute.
Later I would find out after riding the chute and meeting back up with Jordan that he had stomped out a solid escape route across the knoll he was perched atop-over to a cluster of small trees he intended to hide behind in case we set the field off on top of him. As he pointed it out we laughed because it wouldn’t have provided any safety whatsoever.
Grant and I successfully reached End chute and after a good session psyching ourselves out whether the chute would slide or not, next thing I knew Jordan was giving me the countdown over the radio and it was go time.
The chute was stacked and the most epic I had experienced it yet. The snow was stable, blower, and the sluff light. I tuned out and let the ride consume me. As I cruised down into the bottom of the field at the base of the chute, I made my way towards Jordan with my fingers crossed.
We reminisced about past attempts and held our breath as we waited for Jordan’s camera to finish processing the recent image. A couple minutes of intense anticipation and Jordan confirmed he was happy with the final product. Everything came together, we breathed a sigh of relief. Three moonlight bowl runs, a night in a snow cave, three End chute attempts later, and more time and effort invested into one photo then we ever imagined; we could skate out the Nordic track and for the first time make our mandatory pit-stop in celebratory style at Brew Chug stump.
Words: Ryan Waiste
Photos: Jordan Ingmire