Words and Photos by Dave Mcrae
Like most good alpine adventures, this one starts in the dark. A winter ascent of Broken Top demands 14 round-trip miles of cross-country skiing as well as a 3,000 vertical foot gain. Hopefully, it won’t end in the dark, too.
A dim glow rises over Dutchman Flat snowpark, I split my snowboard into cross-country mode and begin the journey from dense forest, through sub-alpine firs, toward ice-encrusted alpine glory.
An hour and a half after sunrise, I cross the moraine at the base of the Crook Glacier and enter another world. In contrast with other cascade volcanoes- singular cones rising above treeline. Broken Top’s crater surrounds its’ visitors. The ancient blast created three separate summits. To the west, different layers of stratified rock splash brilliant colors across the vertical walls, the only surfaces not coated with snow or ice. To the East, unlikely rock towers create a rugged skyline. And straight ahead, to the north, the main summit- A proud pyramid cleaved by two gullies named for the corresponding position of a clock’s hands: the 9 o’clock and 11 o’clock couloirs.
I strap the board on my pack and head up the relatively shaded 11 o’clock couloir. Perfect conditions make for easy booting. I top out the steep gully and leave the board at the notch.
Traversing to the northwest facing slope, conditions abruptly change. Crunchy, windblown, gargoyles of ice replace the consistent powder. Two steps stay on top, the next punches through- a taxing mode of travel.
I reach the base of the summit pinnacle and search for the route. Everything’s plastered with ice. Investigating a weakness, my feet flap around, kicking for good ice on the underside of an overhang- unacceptable.
I head back down and check around the corner to find a mostly ice-free, fifteen-foot vertical step of rock. I shove a gloved hand in a frozen crack and scratch upward with my ice tool while my crampons teeter on small edges. Topping out this short step, I crunch across the rime ice to the summit ridge and check out the final pinnacle- another fifteen-foot step of mixed rock and ice.
The only thing separating us? A fin of rotten rock overhanging the sun-baked, south facing, mega-exposed crater wall. Damn it!
An exploratory plunge of the ax confirms the conditions- total slop. I take another look and then take one more. A bunched up traverse under the fin is the only feasible option. I think of a quote from Mike Zimmerman, “If your bet’s in your pocket, you’re not playing the game”. I sack up and climb it like a man. A scared man, on all fours, crawling under the fin on a narrow ribbon of gooey, mashed potato snow, using shins and forearms to create greater surface area and stay on top. After the traverse, solid ice with exhilarating exposure leads up the final step.
Standing on top brings a sense of accomplishment, but not relief. This very spot is the farthest away from civilization that I will travel today. Within a few minutes, I snap photos, soak in the 360-degree view, and begin to trace my steps downward.
Arriving atop the notch above the 11’oclock couloir, my snowboard is a welcome sight. I strap in and stand perched on the heel edge, thoughts of apprehension race through my head. The first exploratory toe side turn cuts deep and true. A shift of weight and the heel side responds equivalently. As confidence and momentum simultaneously build, the thin boundaries between man, board, snow, and mountain seem to blur. The board feels like an extension of my body, cutting deep into the snow that melds with the mountain. The fear left behind at the notch can’t catch me now. For this brief instant, the voices in my head quiet down, the wind fills my ears, and nothing else in the world exists. Without fighting it, one turn arcs into the next, and I’m hauling ass!
A few minutes later, gravity runs out and the euphoric ride ends. A tidal wave of endorphins floods my entire circuitry. I throw the snowboard in the air, let out a primal yap, and hold my hands up as if I’d just won the Super Bowl. But there’s no roar of applause, not even a buddy to high-five. My pristine house of worship only responds with the serene hymn of silence.
Check out the Broken Top adventure: