The Axis of Skiing by John Plotz
Ever since I started ski touring around the Eightmile Road corridor, Peak 7550′ has always been in view with its impressive north aspect. Sharp ridges are interspersed with couloirs, most of which end in large cliff bands. The exception is the Northeast Couloir, which runs from summit to lake in an uninterrupted sweep.
I have since heard Peak 7550′ referenced as Axis Peak. On subsequent trips around Eightmile Lake, I’ve snapped plenty of photos of the massive north wall of Axis, and filed images of the NE Couloir away, daydreaming of the perfect time to ski it. The slope seemed to be a combination of a face and couloir, with the upper third of it being a headwall feature, and the bottom two thirds being a more enclosed couloir.
Access to this descent appeared to be fairly straightforward as well, with the choice of either going straight up the gully, or sneaking in from the backside, which is much lower angled. At the end of January two years ago, Tom Janisch and I attempted to climb up the couloir directly, but found a small cliff band separating the upper headwall. Unequipped with the right tools for the job, we turned around there and skied back down. It was a disappointment, but still, any day out skiing backcountry powder with friends in the Chelan County alpine compensated for the missed objective.
So it was time to settle old scores with Axis and ski the NE Couloir in its entirety. I enlisted the help of Kyle Flick, who has been burning up the vertical this year. I don’t know what he’s eating, or what masochistic CrossFit workout he’s been subjecting himself to, but it’s been working. I have found it increasingly difficult to keep up with him on the uphill. Whether he’s on his touring skis or kicking steps up the snow, I have had to see his backside more than I ever expected to. I’ve been trailing him so much that, lately, he’s started complaining about the inequity in trailbreaking duties. One aspect of Flick that hasn’t changed is his willingness to get out in our mountains to enjoy an adventure.
Starting from Bridge Creek Campground on Saturday, April 14, we dispense with the 5.5-mile approach into Eightmile Lake in several hours. From the Eightmile Lake Trailhead to the lake, the going is surprisingly quick and easy. The terrain is filled in with abundant snow to cover the usual chaotic tangle of downfall and brush, leaving us with a virtual straight shot to our objective. The spring has been good to the mountains apparently. The snow’s surface of re-frozen corn prompts us to throw on the ski crampons, and before we know it, we crest the 6,900′ col just east of the summit. A quick scramble around and up the backside has us sitting on top of Axis.
This is the first time either of us has summited this central peak, and it becomes clear how it got its name with all the surrounding peaks that seem to revolve around it: Cannon Mountain, Colchuck Balanced Rock, the hulking masses of Dragontail Peak, Colchuck Peak and Mt. Stuart, and finally Mt. Cashmere to the north. Kyle notes that the three big lakes in the area (Eightmile Lake, Colchuck Lake and Lake Stuart) are also within sight from the summit.
Ever the conservative skier, Kyle has been trying to talk me out of my ski descent nearly the entire day. He has no intentions of skiing it, and before leaving the summit to descend our path of ascent, Kyle half jokes, “Well, I hope to see you at the bottom. If not, it’s been nice knowing you!”
With that, I’m on my own to take in the views and contemplate the safest way to make this ski descent happen. Because we didn’t ascend the gully, I have no idea what the snow conditions are like. I downclimb the upper headwall 50 feet to check the snow quality and find it less than ideal. The soft powder snow on north-facing aspects has long been replaced with wind-hammered hardpan that is just soft enough to keep me from giving up on the idea of skiing it. I climb back out and organize my gear for the descent. From my previous experience, I know there’s rock band down lower, so this ski adventure will take a little more thought and engineering. My kit consists of a harness, 30-meter rappel rope, some stoppers and a cam to build an anchor, and an ice axe.
Locked in, the first turns on the headwall are attention getting. There is no aggressive, hard-charging skiing being done here as portrayed in popular ski movies. Rather, my turns resemble careful, well-thought-out arcs not meant to impress anyone. With a little back and forth, I finally encounter some softer corn snow that allows for more confident skiing. Still, it’s steep enough that I can’t let my guard down. Soon enough, I reach the top of the small cliff band that turned me back in 2010. Without too much searching, I find a solid crack to build my anchor to rappel: It’s always a treat to merge rock climbing skills with skiing. I throw in a couple of the stoppers and the camming unit into the crack, equalize the load on all these pieces with some webbing, thread the rope through the webbing and hold my breath as I put my weight on the system. It holds fine.
My 30-meter line is just long enough to get me over this small cliff onto the slope below. It would be nice to say the rest of the descent down the couloir provided glorious hero turns performed to a triumphant soundtrack, but it wasn’t meant to be. The slope angle eases off, but the snow quality deteriorates significantly. Over the spring, this lower couloir has obviously been recipient of cascading snow from above as there are deep, icy channels that braid the rest of the slope. There is no relaxing yet as my ski edges chatter loudly with each cautious turn, until I reach Kyle who is waiting patiently at the bottom. We exchange old-man high fives, and descend our approach gully back to the lake. For the last 400′ of vertical, the icy snow transitions into sun-warmed corn that forms a smooth layer on which to finally lay down our hero turns through snow that is nearly effortless to ski. Finally the soundtrack blares.
“I hear a symphony!” What is it with this cross-dressing Diana Ross?
A touring friend of mine from the West Side once remarked with envy that I live in the center of alpine paradise. I find myself agreeing with him as Kyle and I drive back down the sun-bathed Icicle Canyon, chock-full of climbers, boulderers, kayakers and, now, two tired backcountry skiers returning from the axis of skiing paradise.
Skiing Difficulty: 4 (expert/extreme). To ski the NE Couloir as described above is a no-fall proposition for the first 700-to 800 vertical feel. To ski the ascent route as Kyle descended is a 3 (advanced).
Climbing Difficulty: 2 minus (easy intermediate). From a mountaineering standpoint, the ascent route is straightforward and requires no technical climbing or ropework. In hard snow conditions, both an ice axe and crampons will be wanted.
Map. The next gulley to the west also affords a good moderate route to ascend and descend. Here’s a map showing the route Plotz describes above as well as the route Coron Polley describes.
Season. Even for climbers, this is best done as a snow route in spring before all the brush and boulders above Eightmile Lake melt out.
Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.