If you’ve ever driven from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle, you’ve probably seen it. Counting truckers, families, hikers, skiers, newlyweds, kids driving home for spring break, grandparents, and State Troopers, the people who’ve seen it probably number in the millions.
There must be several thousand, just counting the skiers traveling back and forth to the pass. I bet that if someone laid all the skis that have passed below it end to end; there’d be a P-tex highway stretching from Alpental to Chamonix. And considering the popularity of extreme ski films, there ought to be a Chilkoot Pass-style line of hopeful souls heading for its summit, intent on mining skiing gold on its steep slopes.
The couloir rocketed up the north face of McClellan, narrowed to just a few feet in width at about the halfway point, and then disappeared around a corner.
Just look off to your left as you drive west from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle at milepost 41 and keep an eye out for a narrow twisting couloir, an improbable gash in the north face of a distinctive alpine horn (try to ignore all the clearcuts along the highway). You won’t mistake any other gully for the north couloir of McClellan Butte. It’s the one that twists all the way to the top of the most eye-catching summit on the south side of I-90. It’s only visible for a few seconds at 70 mph.
And then watch your speedometer because Troopers sometimes run a speed trap just before you get to North Bend. Traffic allowing, you’ll be in downtown Seattle about 40 minutes after you pass beneath the couloir.
The north couloir’s proximity to the Puget Sound megalopolis might be the reason for its obscurity as a ski descent. Don’t we often ignore the exotic aspects of familiar places just because it’s easy to access them? I must have looked at the north couloir a hundred times before I decided to ski it. When I finally did, the mountain’s familiarity made finding a partner for the descent difficult.
‘How would you like to do an amazing couloir only 30 minutes from Seattle, on McClellan Butte?’ I’d ask a friend. ‘McClellan Butte?’ The prospect would reply. ‘How about the Fuhrer Finger on Rainier? Something significant.’ Apparently, the Butte didn’t have any cachet among ski mountaineers since Burgdorfer’s Bible—published in the 80s ( I’m dating myself here)—contained no reference to it. Therefore, the backcountry ski crowd ignored it. I began to think I’d have to do it alone. Then I thought of Oleg.
Oleg is from Uzbekistan, that Central Asian Republic formerly part of the Soviet Union, and skis like one of Putin’s hypersonic missiles with a wire loose in the guidance system. The fall of Communism unleashed him on the West, and he emigrated to Seattle, where I met him. Oleg was no skier in the sense that he had anything resembling technique or experience on skis.
As a skier, Oleg had no discernable technique…and virtually no actual experience on skis. But he was an accomplished high-altitude mountaineer and rock climber with plenty of attitude, which is to say that he agreed to ski the couloir sight unseen. Oleg had never skied a ‘steep’ gully before but felt that since skiing is a recreational pastime pursued for fun, how hard could it be?
“First, we’ll have to climb it … it’s quite alpine and might require an ice axe and crampons,” I told him. “Gooood. I louff climb-bing steep ice. Just ah you will tell me where to start skiing”. I didn’t inform Oleg that I expected we would probably climb the couloir together, and then he would kick steps at least partway back down once he’d had a look from the top. I’d skied with him before and assumed he’d make the rational choice.
We began our adventure at a civilized hour, leaving Seattle at 8:30. No need to get up in the middle of the night when you live in the shadow of your objective. I’d neglected to obtain a map (this was in 1996 before GPS on phones) but assumed that we’d find the route to the base of the couloir by scoping out the area as we drove to the trailhead. Foreshortening made the couloir look pretty close, so we decided to head up the trail and cut off about where we figured the route most closely approached it. As we hiked the frozen trail, it dawned on me that not having a map might doom the whole trip because we couldn’t see the mountain at all. The forest was too thick.
Here’s where McClellan’s location on a major transportation corridor saved the day. The burgeoning population of the Puget Sound lowlands requires a lot of electric power, much of which arrives through high-tension lines traversing the Cascades, lines suspended on huge steel towers, one of which is located right on McClelland Butte’s waistcoat, taller than the surrounding thicket of second-growth trees. All we had to do was climb to the tower and plot our route to the base of the couloir.
Forty minutes later, after thrashing through the underbrush, we arrived at a clearing where we could see the base of the couloir emptying into a talus fan. It was a relief to put on our skis, and skin to the base of the gully, where we stopped to survey the route we were about to take. The couloir rocketed up the north face of McClellan, narrowed to just a few feet in width at about the halfway point, and then disappeared around a corner. The slope ahead was too steep to skin much further so we tied the skis to our packs and started to kick steps up the gully.
As we climbed the narrow twisting couloir, which varied in consistency from breakable crust to blue ice, we agreed that, in its own right, the climb was worth the effort. The narrow rock walls, at times no more than 20 feet apart, gave an intimate feel. Peering down between our legs, we saw the flat forested valley and the twin stripes of I-90 far below.
At a narrow pinch in the gully, as I chopped steps into a short section of ice, Oleg mentioned that he might skip skiing the steeper parts. I was glad to hear him say this because I had recently begun to fear witnessing him cartwheel down the alpine half-pipe after catching an edge, a thought that caused me a jolt of guilt. At a ski resort, a slope this steep would have a sign at the top reading ‘Long slides possible.’ Should I have suggested this ski descent to the Uzbek? I rationalized that we could now play it safe and assess the conditions as we climbed—no need to ski if it didn’t look good.
Once at the high point of the couloir, just below the true summit of McClellan Butte, we traversed over to a knoll on the border of the gully and sized things up. I gripped my self-arrest ski poles for security as I took it all in. We’d just climbed 1800 feet up a spectacular gully that dropped like an elevator shaft beneath us. As I pictured skiing it, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. I calmed myself with my steep skiing mantra: take it easy, stay on your edge, don’t jump through the fall line unless you’re sure you can land, note the icy sections identified on the ascent, don’t be afraid of sideslipping or kick turning. Then, I stomped out a platform and clicked into my ski bindings. As I adjusted my poles for the descent, I looked up to see Oleg, skis on, smile flashing, all set to go!
“Hey, you’re not going to ski the upper section of this, are you?” I was alarmed.
“Just I will ski, and ah, if I will lose control, then I will take off skis.”
Deciding to stop skiing after losing control sounded a bit cart-before-the-horse, but I decided that anyone who had climbed Peak Lenin must know something about his danger tolerance, so I cautioned Oleg to be careful and let it go at that.
The top section of the couloir widens into a slope where you can link turns on a 50-degree face consisting of slabby powder snow. I ski cut at the top of the upper section, and it seemed stable, so off we went.
The snow surface soon became highly variable, and I proceeded slowly, executing jump turns to reverse direction. Landing these turns was unnerving because there was no way to tell whether the landing would be hardpan, powder, or breakable crust. Each surface required a different strategy: edging if hard crust, desperately throwing weight backward to counteract the forward lurch if the crust collapsed beneath me. I never knew what would happen until a few seconds after each turn when I’d re-established stability. I stopped after about 300 feet to catch my breath and felt a sense of satisfaction at having managed the difficult terrain and snow.
Until I looked up and saw Oleg scooting madly across the face above me with a demonic grin, he already looked out of control; my worst fears were about to be realized. Just before he crashed into the rock wall of the gully, he lifted his uphill ski and, in one giant step, arms and legs akimbo, shifted onto it and managed to zoom across the face in the opposite direction, plowing through powder and skittering across hardpan. He repeated this amazing display four or five times before somersaulting in breakable crust, landing right side up with his skis below him, covered in snow and laughing like a demented hyena. So much for all my years of experience skiing steep terrain. Maybe this couloir wasn’t so extreme after all.
But a look down restored my sense of awe. It might not have phased Oleg, but McClellan Butte had my full attention. Further descent down the narrow slot between the rocks reminded me why I’d been so keen to ski this gully. In places, the couloir was so narrow my skis bridged from one steeply banked wall to the other. A few roll-overs steepened to the point that I couldn’t see the slope below until I’d skied over the roll. We sideslipped down several icy places.
Near the bottom, where the couloir widened before opening up to the alluvial fan below, I let myself go. Here, the snow was firm, so there was no breaking through, with a soft inch or so on top that allowed an excellent edge set. I linked thirty turns bounding from ski to ski. With his unique style, Oleg cut loose, too, and we both whooped for joy. All the while, I could see I-90 below, a reminder of everyday existence, all those vehicles passing safely along six lanes of engineered concrete. How many drivers or passengers noticed the remarkable chute of snow right over their heads, or had any inkling that two people were hurtling down at that moment?
Since that day, I’ve glimpsed the north couloir of McClellan Butte many times. I never fail to note its extraordinary singularity of line as it knifes upward through the north face of the pyramidal peak and shake my head in disbelief that it’s so close to Seattle. And often, I picture Oleg swooshing down, arms windmilling, legs flailing, grin as wide as the ribbon of concrete on which I’m driving. Having been up there and done that route with him adds magic to this oft-traveled route, and I know I’ll never drive west on I-90 from Snoqualmie Pass without casting my eyes up at milepost 41.
Brian Povolny is a retired orthodontist who indulges his love of moving through nature by rock climbing, backcountry skiing, cycling, and windsurfing. A long-time resident of Seattle, he also enjoys writing about his experiences in our beautiful region.
Tim Ahern is an avid hiker, backcountry skier, and kayaker, focusing mainly on the Pacific Northwest and East Greenland. In addition to writing travel articles, he is an artist, has published three books on James Joyce, and, most recently, 36 Ways of Looking at Mount Rainier.