“I’ve never used an arm rappel before, aside from practice… aside from a drill,” I stammered. I leaned awkwardly on my downslope arm, gained some friction on the rope, and slowly sideslipped further down the steep, narrow couloir.
When Matt Primomo and I topped out on the south-facing couloir along central Washington’s Nason Ridge earlier this afternoon, the bright afternoon sun that had graced our earlier turns on Rock Mountain was already heading over Seattle. Absent of sunlight, the cool, dark couloir was hard but edgeable. Historically, the col had only been referenced as an unnamed start zone to the “West Camp 2” slide path. It was edgeable, but it was also almost nameless.
Prior to our arrival in the early days of January 2018, a valley inversion had lingered across Washington State’s eastern and central Cascades, keeping snow soft under a cool fog at road elevations, and consolidating recent deep snow above treeline. Although, earlier today the sun had drenched all aspects and most elevations along the ridge. We’re late for soft snow here, but we’re also late enough to avoid the wet avalanches that had come and gone during the warm, sunny afternoon.
Matt fixes a rope on a conveniently-located fir and arm rappelled down first, taking the top of the now refrozen surface snow with him. Edgeable is good enough. Following his tracks, the snow beneath the battered crust is saturated and I’m glad when the couloir’s slope eases below me. There isn’t any real exposure below our rappel, which is good, because my harness, slings, and carabiners are nestled in a pickup truck 1,000 meters below. I lean into my toeside edge and down-weigh my own infrequently practiced arm rappel.
Matt, who is an experienced navigator of the world’s mountainous regions, climbing guide by summer, avalanche professional by winter, and nice, soft-spoken guy by nature, smiles and patiently shouts up, “No sweat! This is not a drill though…”
I’m halfway through the steep couloir entrance and just clear a nickpoint that, although it went through cleanly, was just over a meter wide. A little rocking and a mid-rappel rock jib later, and my longer than a meter board and I clear the couloir entrance, joining Matt. Ropes are pulled and with ice ax in hand, Matt heads down toward the rapidly building fog. He edges and traverses the cool, shaded, and now widening slope, audibly linking turns on the thick crust above the hanging valley inversion. As we descend, dodging recent wet avalanche debris, the sound of our turns dies down as the snow becomes soft.
The slope mellows further, and the Chiwaukum Mountains stand sentinel over Washington State Highway 2 and the popular north-facing backcountry terrain on nearby Arrowhead and Jim Hill Mountains. Although I’d ridden both mountains dozens of times, the new, cross-valley perspective of the zone is incomparable in the fleeting late-afternoon light.
We proceed farther into the thickening fog and now recrystallized, cold snow, a sign that the temperature inversion was strengthening as we lost elevation. Traversing around a rollover that we would later find to be a frozen waterfall, we drop into a classic Pacific Northwest “tree run” of thousands of alder and willow stems laid sideways by avalanche debris from the last, snowy gasps of 2017.
At the toe of the slope we continue over feathery surface hoar snow that hides a centimeter-thick crust. It largely supported snowboards…until it didn’t. A few hundred meters of punching through ice-coated shrubbery later and we arrive at the logging road that leads us back toward the highway.
We turn our boards to skis, click our poles to length and skin out by headlamp, the new year only 60-something hours upon us. With new perspectives on old places gained, languishing skills reapplied, and new places seen, the new year seems to be more than just a drill already.
Matt Primomo and Nate Hough-Snee rode the previously unnamed “West Camp-2” slidepath above Berne, Washington, a south-facing couloir east of Stevens Pass Ski Area on January 3rd, 2018. It was the first known descent of the couloir entry and slidepath. They coined it “This is not a drill.”