The Paleozoics & Cenozoic of Silver Star
by Andy Dappen
We’re mainly a gray brigade of ski tourers who have assembled to ski Silver Star Mountain. At age 70, Chester Marler is our senior advisor, but to prove we’re inclusive and not ageists in the opposite direction, we invite Cyrus Desmarais, age 24, to join us. Singlehandedly his addition drags the average age of our group down to 52… that makes us feel young. Cy, meanwhile, is new to ski touring so he’s willing to suffer our slow pace in the hopes of learning some scraps of wisdom before they all dissipate back into the ether.
More or less in age order we trudge slowly up Silver Star Creek to the 5,000-foot level. Above here, the terrain starts to steepen and open up. Cy is not only young but he runs ultramarathons, which makes his participation with us doubly comical. He charges up the slopes; then occasionally waits for the gray to catch up.
Intermittently, we give Cy questions to ponder. “What do you think of the snow stability today and why, where are we going to find the best skiing on the return trip, what are some quick ways to evaluate the snowpack on the fly?”
We also see Cy is struggling on his uphill kick turns and give him pointers to make these turns effortless. We’re not the best teachers because he’s still struggling after our lessons, but we leave him with new techniques to practice.
By early afternoon we reach the bottom of the Silver Star Glacier. Our group is spread out but the spacing is favorable for contending with the steepest, wind-loaded upper portion of the glacier whose pitch (a little under 40 degrees) sits in the sweet spot for avalanches.
We know Cy would like to tag the summit of the peak while the rest of us are content to turn around where the skiing ends at the col below the summit. We send Cy ahead so his objective is not victimized by our pace.
Austrian ski tourers have an expression: “What happens on the uphill is your choice; what happens on the downhill is life’s choice.”
As we start our descent, we find the windblown powder on the upper glacier tricky – on some turns the skis accelerate quickly on top of the snow while on other turns they decelerate suddenly within the snow. When it’s Chester’s turn to ski, life makes a choice for our 70-year old. During one turn the snow grabs his boards and he takes an awkward plunge. A ski pops off and something else in the lower right leg also seems to pop. He stands back up but feels considerable pain. Turning aggravates the pain. He descends the rest of the initial steeps taking long, shallow traverses.
Cyrus follows with a wider stance and with his weight farther back than best practices would dictate. Nonetheless his legs and core are steel and the snow has difficulty rocking him off his hunched stance. With more power than prowess, he charges down. By the time we’ve all coalesced below the initial steeps, Chester has guzzled several ibuprofens to help with the pain. A little farther down the pain is increasing and the kick turns terminating each traverse are growing torturous. We dig Vicodin out of the first-aid kit to dull Chester’s troubles.
Chester is a proud man who blanches at the thought that others might need to bail him out of a bind, so we suspect he’s hurt worse than he’s letting on when he suggests, “Maybe we should… you know… call for a rescue?”
We pull out a phone, but there’s no reception. Given this reality, Chester decides to keep skiing out rather than to have us send a rabbit out for assistance. The descent is slow and we start questioning whether we will reach the highway before dark. While Chester traverses, we briefly discuss ways to hasten the descent. Once we reach the 5000-foot level, re-applying skins and putting Chester in touring mode will speed-up a mile of relatively flat terrain, but we’re worried about the final 1,500 vertical feet of skiing that drops through steeper, wooded terrain. Will Chester be able to sideslip through here? Might he be able to walk down this? Questions are mounting.
Over the course of several decades of ski touring, I remember only one other occasion (in the Wasatch Range) when helicopters serviced some of the same terrain on the same day that I was ski touring. This is the second such day. We have heard helicopters several times today and have seen the tracks of heli-skiers.
As we near the 5,000-foot level where the terrain flattens outs for a mile, two skiers emerge from a glade to our right. “Do you think they’re heli-skiers?” Cy asks.
More skiers pop out of the same glade and converge at a spot looking suspiciously like a landing zone. One of the skiers pulls a walkie-talkie from his coat. It is a heli-skiing group!
We rush to meet them and ask if there is room to board an injured skier. There isn’t, but years of accruing good karma is going to payoff for Chester. This group has just finished its final run of the day and is headed back to the Freestone Inn in Mazama. The guide, Sid Pattison, volunteers to give Chester his seat and to ski out to the highway with us.
It’s a big gesture. I surmise if Sid is not on the spot when his clients disburse, he’ll lose some substantial dollars in uncollected tips. Yet he’s nothing but gracious as he skis out with us, “It’s just more time in the mountains for me,” he says.
The return to the highway is tedious for about half an hour as we make our way along the flat portion of the drainage. Then comes the fun. With corn snow coating the surface, our slalom course through the forest proves fabulously entertaining. “Gotta love skiing this schmoo!” Sid says as he waits for us all to congregate after one twisted pitch that winds between trees and rolls over snow-covered boulders.
We keep descending terrain where wood and stone can create unforgiving encounters with dark matter. Technique matters here and Cy is getting pushed a little outside of his envelope in the effort to keep up. I ask Sid to stop on occasion so that ‘life’ does not lop off the young end of our group.
Faster than we really want, we pop out of the trees and onto the highway. A buttery sun illuminates the road, but in a matter of minutes the fireball will drop below the silhouetted peaks to the west.
We all understand that without Sid’s contribution to the day, it would have taken extra hours to extract Chester. During that time, Sid’s ‘schmoo’ would have hardened into frozen pooh. It may have been a bad day for Chester, but how often does a bad day turn out this good?
Epilogue: A visit to a walk-in clinic confirmed that Chester broke the distal end of his fibula (i.e., the ankle end of the smaller bone in the lower leg). Cy may be reluctant to ski with the gray brigade again – now he knows we’re both slow and brittle.
Skiing Silver Star Mountain (8,876 feet)
Skill: 2+ to 3- (advanced intermediate to easy advanced)
Fitness: 3 (advanced)
Elevation Gain: 5,200 vertical feet to col, 5,400 vertical feet to summit
Equipment: Normal ski kit (ice axe and crampons recommended if tagging the summit).
Access. Drive Highway 20 about 9 miles west of Mazama and park in the large pullout immediately east of Silver Star Creek. You can also access the north side of Silver Star Mountain via Varden Creek by parking about 6.5 miles west of Mazama.
Map. See our topo map of the area. This is a PDF map and, if imported into your smartphone with the Avenza PDF Maps app, it will be geo-referenced to work with your smartphone’s GPS system.
Trip Instructions. Leave the highway traveling south. Parallel the course of Silver Star Creek along the east side of the creek. The best route is to stay well above the creek (see map). At the 5,000-foot level (waypoint ss4) follow the obvious avalanche slide path to looker’s right past waypoint ss5. Near the 5,800 or 6,000 foot level, traverse up and left (southeast), passing waypoints ss6 and ss7. Follow the main draw draining the Silver Star Glacier past waypoint ss8 to the glacier and waypoint ss9. Finally follow the glacier to the col at ss10 (8,640 feet). The scramble to the top is steep and exposed and best done with an ice axe. If the snow is firm, crampons will also be advisable.
Season. Because road access to Silver Star Creek or Varden Creek is often possible in early winter and is usually possible in spring long before Highway 20 opens all the way to Washington Pass, this tour has a longer season than most Washington Pass tours. As a result, it is popular and can even seem even busy on some March weekends.
Land Ownership. Forest Service.
Heli-Skiing. Ski tourers should be aware that heli-skiers use the north side of Silver Star Mountain throughout the winter and throughout the month of March. The area is part of North Cascade Heli-Skiing’s permit area and, because the slopes here are high, spectacular, and near the heliport, the area is regularly used. You are warned: Don’t be upset if you find people who are paying dollars to ski the same terrain you’re paying for with sweat.
Leave It Better than You Found It. This should be every user’s goal. Do no damage and pick up trash left by others.
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.