by Andy Dappen
After two miles of gentle skiing up the Iron Creek Road, I’m thinking this would be a good road system to ski with my wife. She no longer backcountry skis, but does enjoy cross-country skiing on quiet forested roads or roads leading to expansive vistas. “Next week,” I think to myself, “I’ll bring her here.”
Road skiing, however, is not the agenda of the day. It’s simply the gateway to a variety of ridge systems backcountry skiers (or adventurous snowshoers) can use to enter the Blewett Pass high country. There are two ridge loops I’ve mapped out, the longer Ironman Loop and the shorter Half Iron, and two miles of road skiing have brought Tom Janisch and me to a decision point.
“What’s it going to be, Tom, the longer or shorter loop?”
You never give Tom a choice if you really want to go short – you just say, “I’d like to do the short route,” and Tom will agree. However, if you want to go long, it’s nice to give your partner a choice—because it’s always nice to have someone else to blame if the day goes terribly sideways on you. “Darn it, Tom! If you hadn’t insisted on going long, we wouldn’t be benighted now.”
Tom responds as expected, “If we do the long route, we’ll probably be home too late to do any chores.”
The snow is firm today and we attach ski crampons on our skinned skis and then start the climb up a south-facing feeder ridge accessing the high divide above us that forms the Kittitas-Chelan county line. Initially our feeder ridge is something of a thicket. Tom always likes a sprinkle of vegetation with his main course and waxes poetic about the occasional tree branch slapping him in the face, “Ahhh, the green lure of Cascadian skiing.” After 40 minutes of wandering around vegetative obstacles, the trees thin and the views thicken. For another hour we climb open slopes or pleasantly gladed forests as we continue shuffling skis skyward.
And then, on a knoll giving us much longer views to the north, it’s apparent we’ve reached the divide forming the county line. We turn left and begin a several mile long yo-yo ride up and over a half dozen vertebrae forming the backbone of the divide. We climb up 400 vertical feet of a bump, glide down 200 vertical feet on the opposite, and repeat this process until we reach the trip’s high point — a point identified on our topo map as Peak 5,510. Here we leave the county line by veering left again on another feeder ridge that will return us to the valley floor and the road bordering Iron Creek.
The descent ridge proves to be massively entertaining and hugely diverse. At times we turn on a sharp ridge crest with left turns cutting powdery snow, right turns carving through creamy corn. At times the ridge is wide with open turns, at times the slopes sprout of vine maple, and we slalom around their leaders, and at times thicker forests pepper the ridge and we jump turn inelegantly through tight openings. And then we find ourselves at the top of the Iron Creek Road where three miles of gliding and double poling whisk us back to the car.
By the time we reach the car, we’ve been gone seven hours with little stoppage except for several transitions to switch our boards, bindings, and boots between uphill or downhill modes. Sitting down on the tail of Tom’s car, I let out a sigh. “Oh that feels good. The Ironman tuckered me out.”
Tom smiles, “good to hear. I was worried I was the only one feeling that way.”
Details, Details: Iron Creek Options
Access. The Iron Creek Road (FS Road 9714) branches off Highway 97 about 5.7 miles west of Blewett Pass at milepost 158.3. A small pullout (elevation, 2,940 feet) is plowed on the north side of the highway. The parking and the Iron Creek Road itself is maintained as a Voluntary Wintertime Non-Motorized Area (VWNMA) by the Forest Service. It’s possible visitors may see snowmobiles here but this is a relatively rare occurrence, partly because the Forest Service road system beyond the parking is not extensive enough to interest snowmobilers, partly because the roads are not groomed.
Difficulty: Easy to advanced trip options are all possible here. Easy to intermediate road systems exist for Nordic skiers. All road systems would be considered easy for snowshoeing. The skill level for the ridge systems backcountry can travel are advanced options because they require good terrain-reading skills and good navigation skills to travel efficiently.
Fitness: Easy to advanced options are possible depending on the trip option chosen. The road systems described below for Nordic skiers and snowshoers range from easy to intermediate, while the ridge systems described require intermediate to strong fitness levels.
Trip Options. The Iron Creek watershed offers skiers and snowshoers a variety of outings of different difficulty and different length.
- Cross-country skiers and snowshoers looking for outings novices and beginners will enjoy can simply follow the Iron Creek Road 3.1 miles upstream until the road ends. The road climbs very gently uphill, gaining a total of 700 vertical feet over that distance. Another easy trip option is to follow the Iron Creek Road for 0.9 miles and then branch left on Spur 112, which follows the West Fork of Iron Creek another mile before ending.
- Cross-country skiing options of intermediate to strong-intermediate difficulty exist here as well. The following two options are best suited for those with skinny climbing skins (skins that are roughly an inch wide) and on general-touring cross-country skis that are wider and stouter than the light touring skis used on the groomed trails of a Nordic center. The shorter option follows the Iron Creek Road for 0.9 miles, branches left on Spur 112 to follow the West Fork of Iron Creek for half a mile, and then branches right on Spur 114 and follows this another 2 miles until road’s end at an elevation of 4,000 feet. A slightly longer alternative follows the main Iron Creek Road for 1.85 miles, branches right on Spur 113 and zig zags uphill for 2.5 miles before ending at the 4600-foot level.
Backcountry Outings. For skiers using Alpine touring (AT) gear or telemark gear (or for experienced snowshoers interested in some peak bagging) consider completing either the Ironman Circuit or the Half Iron Circuit.
- Ironman Circuit. This longer circuit travels in a counter-clockwise direction and leaves the Iron Creek Road after 1.9 miles. Follow a ridge system up in a northerly direction until reaching Peak 4,429. From here, follow the ridge in a northeasterly direction until reaching the summit of Peak 4,685 on the Chelan/Kittitas County line. Now follow the county-line divide in a northwesterly direction for 2.5 miles, traveling up and down five small peaks along the county line, until summiting Peak 5,510, the high point of the route. From this high point, follow the ridge system leading in a SW direction to gain the summit of Peak 5,489. Now follow the southeast-trending ridge system leading back down to the valley floor and the Iron Creek Road.
- The Half Iron Circuit. This loop starts 3.1 miles up the Iron Creek Road (basically at roads’ end) and is best traveled in a clockwise direction. Ascend Peak 5,510 using the same ridge system used as the descent route for the Ironman Circuit described above. Once atop Peak 5,510, follow the divide composing the Kittitas-Chelan county line for 0.7 miles to Peak 5,459. Strip skins here and start the descent, first by skiing ESE for a very short distance (200 yards) and then hooking sharply right to ski the prominent ridge system heading downward (first in an SSW direction and eventually in a SW direction). After dropping nearly 1,900 vertical feet, rejoin the Iron Creek Road in the valley floor.
Note: Both of the Ironman Circuit and the Half Iron Circuit have some vegetation to deal with on their lower stretches that entail some creativity to work through. Despite the occasional obstacle to circumvent, all routes up and down ‘go’ without being overly brushy or overly unpleasant. Even with these bits of brush, the routes are scenic. As you climb, the vegetation thins out to yield clearer sailing and clearer views. Also note that these routes are less about finding long, open slopes yielding glorious turns and more about exploring, navigating, and honing one’s skill at moving efficiently across the landscape on skis.
Avalanche Hazard. Both the Ironman and Half Iron circuits follow ridge systems whose terrain offers generally safe winter travel conditions. Nonetheless, there are short slopes along the routes that must be climbed or traversed that could slide when snow conditions are hazardous. Those who travel these routes should know how to evaluate the risks and be prepared for those risks.
Land ownership. Forest Service.
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 may not know all the issues affecting a route. You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.