Hog Loppet 201
by Andy Dappen
For decades the Hog Loppet was a locally famous Nordic ski event. On a Saturday in late February some 400 Nordic skiers rode the lifts up the Mission Ridge Ski Area then struck off for Blewett Pass along a route that had several miles of tricky cross-country travel but mainly followed roads that were machine groomed for the event. The route offered a few comical descents like the dreaded “Carnage Hill” where dozens of skiers were sure to face plant, several climbs that could fry the arms of those whose skis were too slippery, and many miles of undulating road skiing with views of the nearby Wenatchee Mountains and the distant high Cascades.
The Hog Loppet was a massive undertaking to sponsor and sometimes needed to be cancelled from either a lack of snow or an abundance of avalanche danger – all of which wore on the event organizers. Eventually the organizational steam behind the loppet simply leaked away. But even though the Hog Loppet as an event died, the Hog Loppet as a route has never gone away. Backcountry skiers can still head out and ski the route – which is exactly what six of us do on a sunny Saturday in mid-March. Four members of our group intend to ski the standard route – except they will start at the bottom of the Clara Lake Trail rather than the top of the ski area.
Kyle Flick and I, meanwhile, intend to ski a variation of the route we are calling Hog Loppet 201. We will start with the others but climb higher to the summit of Mission Peak, the high point of the Kittitas-Chelan county line in the Wenatchee Mountains. From this summit, we will follow the county line over about a dozen hills and knolls as we ski in a northwesterly direction to Blewett Pass. Our route parallels the standard route and intersects it in many places, but the roads the others will follow contours around rather than climbs over the many bumps along the county line.
We think our roller coaster ride will give us views all day long. We also think our variation with its many short ascents, will give us far more ‘yahoos’ as we make turns down the opposite side of those climbs. Both Kyle and I skied the Hog Loppet multiple times in the Golden Era, so we should be fair judges as to whether Hog Loppet 101 or Hog Loppet 201 is actually the better tour.
Kyle and I also intend to perform one other test over the course of our 19-mile ski. We want to determine the ideal equipment for efficiently spanning this kind of rolling terrain. During the Golden Era snow cats groomed the roads so that lightweight Nordic skis could safely span the distance. With lightweight gear and ski lifts moving participants to a starting point 2000-vertical-feet higher than the ending at Blewett Pass, fast skiers could complete the course in four or five hours while the average skier might need seven or eight hours.
Today, with no grooming and no lift assist, different ski equipment comes into play. Climbing skins are important for the steeper initial climb up Mission Peak. Once on the county line, some version of no-wax backcountry ski mounted with either telemark or Alpine-touring binding will be best suited for the many ups and downs along the way.
Kyle and I are particularly interested in testing two different and fairly unique backcountry skis made by Altai Skis based out of Curlew, Washington. Kyle owns and will use a pair of the ‘Hoks’ (pronounced ‘hawk’), a short, stubby ski (145 cm long and 105 mm wide at the waist) which has a permanently mounted climbing skin covering half of the base. The Hok climbs well and glides OK as it tries to strike a balance between the opposing needs of a backcountry ski. I own a pair of Hoks but have borrowed a pair of Koms (pronounced ‘combs’) which have an aggressive no-wax, fish-scale pattern covering two-thirds of the ski’s base. The Kom’s are longer and a tad thinner (162 cm long and 99 mm wide at the waist). I know these skis will glide faster than the Hoks but will they climb adequately? In the pudding of the day ahead, we intend to find proof of the preferred ski.
Roughly 2.5 hours after leaving the Clara Lake Trailhead, we reach the summit of Mission Peak (6,876 feet). This is the day’s high point and we suspect it will also be the high-point of the day’s views. To the south, we see the winter-brown valley enveloping Ellensburg as well as the snow-plastered highlands surrounding Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and the Goat Rock Wilderness. To the west, are the usual suspects of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness – Mount Stuart and its minions. To the north, the blue ribbon of the Columbia snakes between the agricultural hills of our orchard country.
The day is windless, rare along this ridge, and we enjoy the sun’s warmth as we strip our climbing skins. We pack the climbing skins deep in our packs to incentivize our desire to ski the rest of the route via the no-wax solution our skis provide. Then we’re off following our county-line route in a northwesterly direction. The slopes below have several short but steep rolls and some flat benches where our respective no-wax bases allow us to easily stride forward to reach the next drop. On those drops my fish scales bases are considerably faster than the skinned bottoms of the Hoks and we work our way down with me making faster, tighter turns, Kyle making slower, larger turns.
Before long we are past Carnage Hill, a slope very easily handled with our backcountry rigs. We reach the Beehive-Liberty road system, the road the standard Hog Loppet route follows, where we find the tracks of the other four. We follow those tracks for several miles and catch our companions…just in time to leave them again. Their route on the road contours around the hill before us; we stick to our line by skiing up and over the 200-vertical-foot bump. This is one of the many places and one of the many snow conditions during the day where we test whether Kyle’s skinned skis outperform the fish scales imprinted in my ski bases. Surprisingly, in the warm wet snows of late morning, the Koms climb almost as well as the Hoks.
Our next descent threads tight trees and we navigate this in different styles, me relying on tighter turns to slow speed, Kyle letting the skis run straighter to maintain speed. At the base of this descent we transition instantly to the next climb without the fuss of applying climbing skins – we simply stride upward. On this ascent my Koms reveal an advantage. The morning’s warmth has formed a film of wet snow that sits over underlying powder snow and the partial skin on Kyle’s Hoks is being wetted by the wet surface snow and then collecting clumps of the underlying powder. Kyle is walking uphill with a few extra pounds of snow stuck to his skins, “This really improves my uphill grip,” he says as he shows me what’s going on.
The same wetness against the ptex composition of my fish scales is not creating the same problem for the Koms. At the top of this rise, Kyle scrapes off the excess snow and rubs ski wax into the skins to restore their snow-free nature and off we go again, me gliding fast, Kyle sliding efficiently but more ploddingly.
By midafternoon we reach one of the longer climbs of the day taking us 800-vertical feet up the southeast ridge of Mount Lillian. The road that the standard route follows is well below us in the forest as it makes a three-mile long
semi-circle around this obstacle. The ridge we switchback up is capped with sandstone towers and cliffs creating beautiful frames for the hidden views of the distant peaks. We’re happy to be among these rock sculptures with our backs brushing the sky rather than plodding through the cloistered forest down below.
On the summit of Lillian we enjoy the jagged profile of Mount Stuart which has grown in size over the course of the day’s westward travel. Studying the map we realize we have an important decision to make: If we follow the county line we will make an inconvenient mile-long detour to the north and then a mile-long swing to the south to encompass the headwaters of Naneum Creek. We shorten our travel but, more importantly, increase our fall line skiing by skiing due west down into Naneum Creek. Whores to gravity rather than saints about the purity of our line, we point the skis westward and drop.
An hour later we have rejoined the county line west of Haney Meadows and are standing atop Tronsen Head, a 5980-foot highpoint buttressing the southern end of Tronsen Ridge. The sun is sinking and will kiss the western horizon in about an hour. The air temperature has dropped noticeably and all the sun softened snow around us is gelling – in the hour ahead corn snow will metamorphose into a glazed crust. Following the county line will entail two short climbs and descents to reach Diamond Head where a long final descent will deliver us to Blewett Pass. Likely it will be nearly dark and the skiing could range in quality from breakable crust to bulletproof ice.
But from Tronsen Head there is a variant route that will take us to Blewett Pass much quicker. We can descend the steep north-facing slopes off Tronsen Head, intersect the Upper Tronsen Road Trail leading to Highway 97, and shortly before hitting the highway ski cross-country to Blewett Pass proper.
Rather than sticking to principled purity, we whore ourselves again to quick pleasure. In truth we think it’s a wise decision. Powder coats the north-facing steeps and my slick Koms carve smooth, effortless turns downward. Kyle is enjoying his turns on the Hoks but I detect a bit of envy in how easily the slippery boards cleave the powder. On the two-mile road leading toward Blewett Pass, the envy grows. Kyle must stride to make his skis glide forward, while gravity does all the work for me — I glide effortlessly with just the occasional flick of the pole to generate more speed. At one stop I wait four or five minutes for Kyle to catch up. “Isn’t this where we switch skis so we can each make informed decision about the ones we like best?” he asks.
I pretend not to hear and shove off again. I reach the car good seven or eight minutes before Kyle. I’ve racked my skis, put on extra clothes, and am snacking by the time he arrives. As he puts his skis up on the ski rack he studies the Koms enviously, “How much did you say those things cost?”
We wait another hour before the entire Gang of Four skiing the standard route arrive. Aaron Seaman is first in. “That was fun,” he tells us as he clips off his skis. “But you guys got a lot more turning in. Next time, I’m taking your route.”
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…
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