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Skiing Mt. Washington

Visible from the Bend, Oregon skyline, the northwest face of Mt. Washington calls to all backcountry skiers. Follow along on our journey to ski it.

By: Ben Kitching + Save to a List

I’ve wanted to ski Mt. Washington for a couple years. It stands out on the skyline as I’m driving around town. Over fifteen hundred feet of open alpine skiing. Every time I lay eyes on the mountain, I imagine skiing it.

The snowpack over the entire run needs to be stable in order to ski it safely. I patiently waited for conditions to align and kept my eyes on the mountain. A week of clear weather hit. Melting and freezing cycles occurred each day and the snow stabilized. I called my buddy Ben and our plans were in motion.

We chose to do it as an overnight trip. Six relatively flat miles would bring us to an open valley below the mountain. That would be our camp. We could drop our overnight gear then continue up the mountain. From the top of our run, we could ski right into camp and enjoy a night at the base of the mountain.

We arrived at the trailhead and began preparing for our day. We filled our packs, put our skins on our skis, ensured that our beacons were working properly, and set off.

Our day began on snowmobile roads. The surface was fast and we glided forward with each step. Expectations were high. The sun was out. We were on our way.

Miles passed and the road ended in an old burn. We stepped off-trail and began our journey to camp. The snow had a strong, supportable crust. We moved on top of it and traveled the open highway between the trees.

As we moved, the temperatures began to rise. The sun shined down and reflected off all of the snow. It was getting hot in the middle of January. I started sweating as snowmelt began raining down from the trees.

The crust started to soften as we moved into the open and reached camp. We dropped our heavy packs, set up our tent, had a quick lunch, and headed towards the northwest ridge. The uphill climb was just beginning.

We climbed through the trees as they continued to rain refreshment down on us. Switchback by switchback, we made it to the ridge. The view opened up. We could see for miles. The path to the top was clear. Just follow the ridge. Each step took us closer to our descent.

Midway up the ridge I started to hit a wall. My initial excitement had waned. A too quick lunch paired with a thousand feet of elevation gain had started to work against me. So did the ridge. The direction of travel was obvious, but traveling was not. The ridge was covered with wind lips. The ripples were too steep to ascend with skis so I found myself traipsing through the snow with my skis on my back. Each step felt like a gamble. Sometimes I’d remain on top of the crust. Others I’d sink thigh deep. The inconsistency was maddening. Just as I thought I’d made it to easier terrain, I’d sink through. Extracting myself from the holes became increasingly difficult. Negative thoughts entered my mind. “We’re running out of daylight.” “My pack is too heavy.” “I can’t do this.”

I turned my attention to my steps. The old mantra of “one step at a time”. I aimed to link one hundred steps together before stalling for a ten second rest. Negative thoughts continued to interrupt, but progress ensued. Each set of one hundred steps took a chunk out of the ridge. Progress became clear.

Step by step, I made it to the top of the ridge just as the sun started to lower in the sky. It was lighting up the slope. I took a moment and enjoyed the view.

My excitement spiked. I had persisted. I made it to the top of our run and I was going to ski Mt. Washington. I let it sink in before turning my attention to the slope. It started at it’s steepest and I didn’t know what kind of snow conditions to expect. It was clearly a crust, but how firm was it. We’d intentionally planned to ski it later in the day in order to give it a couple hours of sun. Would that be enough to soften it so that our edges could hold? We wouldn’t know until we tested it out.

I cinched the straps on my pack, tightened my helmet, double checked that my books were in ski mode, and pulled on my goggles. I eased up to the edge and looked down. It was time. I dropped in.

I eased onto the slope to test it out. My edges held. I made my first turn and took in the environment. I was skiing through the sunset. A mountain lit up like cotton candy above. Over a thousand feet of skiing below.

I flowed through the rest of the run. Enjoying each turn. Taking it in. Living in the moment. Experiencing bliss.

We descended into the meadows below. Pockets of trees dotted our path. We weaved through as a drainage line took us right to our tent. We dropped our packs and turned around just in time to watch the sun finish setting on the mountain.

Images and Words: Ben Kitching

Skier: Ben Capelin

Ben Kitching is an adventure photographer, climber, and skier based out of Bend, Oregon. For more adventures and images visit benkitchingphotography.com.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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