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In July 1998, Martin Volken was sitting alone atop Forbidden Peak in North Cascades National Park. It was the first time the Swiss-born guide had summitted the 8,816-foot [2,687-meter] mini-Matterhorn in northern Washington State, and he saw at a glance that 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] below lay a potentially spectacular ski-mountaineering routea circumnavigation of Forbidden on the immense glaciers that sprawl across its slopes and those of its chiseled neighbors.
"Sometimes a wilderness speaks to you," says the 36-year-old mountaineer, who grew up near Zermatt and moved to the United States in 1990. "The Cascades are what the Alps were like a century ago, with hundreds of ski descents and traverses to pioneer."
The following spring, Volken blazed what he calls the Forbidden Tour, a three- to four-day circuit that winds 19 miles [31 kilometers] across as many as seven glaciers through an elevation gain of 10,315 feet [3,144 meters] and an elevation loss of 11,234 feet [3,424 meters]. It's one of the most challenging outings offered by Volken's company, Pro Guiding Service, and it's suitable only for experienced ski mountaineers in excellent physical condition.
Volken schedules just one trip a year, usually in May, for up to six participants. The outing has sold out all three years it has been offered, even though, says Volken, "it's not that easy to find people who can skin 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] uphill with a 40-pound [18-kilograms] pack and then ski down 40-degree terrain."
The North Cascades aren't especially highthe range tops out at 10,788-foot [3,288-meter] Mount Bakerbut the relief is huge: At least 77 peaks rise more than 6,000 feet [1,829 meters] above valleys tangled with dense undergrowth and toppled trees. The North Cascades also form the ice capital of the lower 48.
The mountains here turn the abundant moisture of the "Great Northwet" into about 600 inches [15 meters] of snow each winter, an accumulation that feeds half of the glaciated terrain in the U.S. south of Alaska.
For all its wildness, though, the Forbidden massif is remarkably close to Seattlejust a three-hour drive northeast of the city on Interstate 5, Highway 20, and the Cascade River Road. "It's like Alaska in our own backyard," says Volken.
Last year, I landed a spot on the tour, which usually starts at milepost 22 on Cascade River Road, just inside the boundaries of the national park, at an elevation of about 3,200 feet [975 meters].
Our group shouldered packs with protruding skis and switchbacked north up Diamond Mine Road, which peters out after about a mile [1.6 kilometers]. From there, it was a steep scramble up terrain snarled with thickets of slide alder and spiky devil's club.
An hour or so later, at an elevation of about 3,800 feet [1,160 meters], the route reached snow country near the tree line. For traction, we strapped our artificial seal-fur skins to the bottoms of our skis and shuffled up the Midas Creek Valley, bound for Quien Sabe Glacier, which drapes the shoulders of 8,894-foot [2,711-meter] Boston Peak.
The route weaves around gaping crevasses and dodges a small icefall en route to the ice sheet's northernmost tip. On some trips, Volken sets up the first night's camp at about 7,500 feet [2,290 meters] in a relatively flat area below Sharkfin Col, a saddle in the eastern ridge of Forbidden Peak.
Sites vary, however, with snow conditions and the weather. Our group, for example, never made it onto Quien Sabe. We ended our initial six-hour push near the top of the Midas Creek drainage and camped on a snowy knoll below 2,000-foot [610-meter] rock walls.
In all the miles of travel that day, we hadn't seen a single ski track to betray the presence of the millions of people living along Puget Sound in the shadow of the range. Although we were only 130 miles [210 kilometers] from Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, we felt as though we were a continent removed.
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The first order of business on day two of the tourproviding the weather looks reliableis to ascend a steep couloir, then make an easy, unroped scramble up bare rock to Sharkfin Col. From atop this narrow saddle, we looked north into a valley smothered by Boston Glacier's 2.5 square miles [6.5 square kilometers] of ice.
Sharkfin is the first critical junction in the expedition. If we rappelled 30 feet [9 meters] off the col onto Boston and the weather turned ugly, there would be no easy retreat. To trip leader Volken, it's this kind of commitment that makes the route so appealing. "Right about here," he said, "you can hear the mountains asking, Are you sure that's where you want to go?' "
Volken runs the Forbidden Tour in a surprisingly democratic way. He confers with clients, debates routes, reviews go-no-go options. The route is so demanding that he's with only experienced ski mountaineers, and so he feels comfortable sharing more of the decision-making than he would on other trips. But in the end, he takes full responsibility, especially when it comes to safety. Our group debated options up on Sharkfin, then committed: We rappelled onto the glacier.
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It takes about four hours to traverse northwest across Boston, with its crevasses of IMAX proportions, to another short, steep col that breaches Forbidden's northern ridge. From atop the bony rib you can get a bead on the tour's marquee skiing: a 3,500-foot [1,070-meter] descent among the crevasses and seracs of Forbidden Glacier, all the way down to Moraine Lake, just beyond the snout of the ice sheet.
If avalanche and icefall risks are too high on the glacier, you can head north into the trees for some outstanding 40-degree glade runs.
Our group's view to the west from the ridge exposed the deep-blue sky overhead for what it wasa sucker hole. Beyond our little pocket of sunshine, bruised storm clouds were heading straight toward us. We discussed retreating (difficult, due to Sharkfin Col), sitting tight (storm exposure), and camping in the Moraine Lake basin as planned (exit routes blocked by avalanche chutes).
"Here's another idea," said Volken. "We've got a few hours before the weather collapses. We could roll the dice and race." He pointed to a distant rib of Klawatti Peak. "We're gold if we reach that ridge by tonight," he said. "But we'd be closing the door. Once we're at the lake, we can't reverse the route."
No one in our type A group objected, so we locked down our bindings, cinched up our packs, and slid down Forbidden Glacier. After striding across Moraine's snowy oval, we skinned up 3,000 vertical feet [900 meters] on the far side of the amphitheater before the oncoming storm could load avalanche-prone slopes with fresh snow.
We hurriedly set up an improvised camp at 7,000 feet [2,130 meters] in a world of rock and ice surrounded by jagged peaks, then hunkered down as a rainstorm pummeled us all night.
In the morning, Volken surveyed our sagging tents and sounded genuinely appreciative of the tempest. "Don't you love this place?" he asked. "If it isn't the terrain putting you on the edge, it's the weather. And no huts to retreat to when the mountains show their fangs."
Day three of the tour features great skiing on Inspiration Glacier, made even more exhilarating by the views, especially of ice-mantled Klawatti Peak, which looks like a black spike driven into a white plate, and pyramidal Eldorado Peak, one of the grand summits of the North Cascades.
On our outing, Volken continued to improvise, adding an hour to our exodus with a detour that climbed the last thousand feet [305 meters] to the top of Eldorado. From there, about 6,700 vertical feet [2,040 meters] separated us from the valley floor, where our cars were parkeda phenomenal, uninterrupted last run.
Like the rest of the tour, the initial 45-degree slopes off the summit ridge were challenging, but the terrain wasn't steep for long, and soon we were carving wide arcs through Eldorado Glacier's heavy but quite skiable spring snow down to a notch on the divide between Roush and Eldorado Creeks.
The tour takes you through ice, breakable crust, Cascade cement, and bottomless glopstuff a heli-skiing operation would be embarrassed to offer its clients. But the wildness of the setting and the demands of the terrain rigorously test your stamina and technique.
Reid Sabin, a telemark racer in our group who has skied a lot of the world, looked at the turns we inscribed on Eldorado Glacier and then, from the notch, surveyed the drop into the valley below. He muttered to no one in particular, "This is the most amazing skiing of my life."
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