This was the start of the second outing for the 1999 Boealps Intermediate class. The plan was to climb the west peak of Mt. Higgins, and then find some good steep snow in the valley on the north side of the peak to practice ice axe arrest, snow anchors, snow caves, crevasse rescue and avalanche transceiver recovery. Well, the snow conditions didn't quite allow the weekend to work out as planned.
We all rendezvoused at the 128th Street Park and Ride at 6:00 Saturday morning, and headed north on I-5 towards Arlington. I'd heard that it was a little tricky finding the road to turn off of the Mountain Loop highway to get to the Mount Higgins trailhead, so I had written down very specific instructions - the turnoff is just before mile marker 38. Unfortunately, our instructors didn't have as accurate instructions, and they ended up missing the turnoff and going a few miles too far before returning. The turnoff isn't really that hard to find - after you pass mile post 37, slow down and investigate every left hand turn available. We pulled into 2 driveways before turning on to the correct road - once you turn and see the bridge over the Stillaguamish River, you know you've found the right one! Not knowing our instructors weren't ahead of us, we followed tire tracks on the snow covered road until we found the vehicle that was making them, and realized we'd lost our instructors. Having complete faith in their navigational abilities, we turned the truck around and parked at an elevation of about 750 feet and waited for them. A scant 30 minutes later (to be fair, they did have to stop and chain up) our instructor's truck showed up, and we could begin our outing. We all geared up as the snow continued to come down, and then we started heading up the road, knowing that our trail began at the upper corner of a barrow pit, and wondering what the hell a barrow pit looked like! I'm still not sure what one looks like, but after a couple of miles we came to a large birm across the road, and about 50 feet before the birm we were able to spot the outline of the snow covered trail.
We headed up the trail, which was actually very easy to follow, limbo-ing under some fallen trees, and hopping across some stream carved gullies. As we came around to the south face of the hill we were crossing, the forest opened up to a clear-cut, and the snow started to get interesting. I'd never seen snow like this before - there must have been high winds above, because it had formed perfectly round pellets that had almost no water content in them. It was like walking through a box full of Styrofoam BBs! The snow barely supported our weight, with or without snow shoes, and after you lifted your foot up to take the next step, the snow would flow back into your footprint, leaving almost no indication of our passing - very weird. We continued contouring around the south face of the hill until we came to a gully at about 2200' filled with this kind of snow, and very unstable. After tossing around a couple of ideas on how we might continue safely, we decided the correct choice would be to bail. Even if we were to cross this gully and get to the ridge top, it was unlikely we would be able to find snow that would allow us to practice the skills we needed to for this outing. Instead, we quickly descended and headed back to the cars, and stopped in Arlington for lunch on the way to Stevens Pass, where we were sure we'd find plenty of snow, and much better snow conditions!
Instructors: Mark Hicks, Brad Walker Students: Heather Naughton, Kurt Nelson, Matt Robertson