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Blue Lake Couloir and Birthday Tour, April 20-21, 2004

With the spring melt coming on fast, Mike, Kevin and I made a fast push to ski the Blue Lake area off of the North Cascades Highway on the 20th and 21st of April. After a 12:30 PM start from Seattle, we arrived at the Blue Lake trailhead around 4:00, and immediately set off under beautiful spring weather toward Blue Lake following several sets of established skin tracks.

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The warm sun made for some nice corn turns down to the lake, but skinning up toward the east cirque the snow was quickly turning to mush. Kevin and I quickly came up with a plan to test the shaded Blue Lake Couloir just south of the lake, which lay in shadow and had a north-facing exposure. After skinning about one third the way up, O'Brien's knee flared up as Kevin and I reverted to crampons/boot packing to ascend the couloir, which had an average gradient of about 45 in the middle and approached the high forties in sections. The descent, which had looked to be rather off-camber from the lake, actually had a reasonable fall line and good turns were had on about 6" of fresh over frozen avy debris.

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Not wanting to seek shelter in Winthrop, we ignored the "No Camping" signs and set up tents on the snow immediately adjacent to the half-buried restroom. Dinner was sardine hand rolls liberally doused with wasabi, after which the three settled in to a cozy night under the stars.

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Day two began under heavy snowfall, which subsided somewhat during the oatmeal course. As the visibility improved, plans to do the Birthday Tour got the green light, and the team once again skinned up from the Blue Lake Trailhead directly under the Early Winter Spires. The last face above the South EWS once again required a short boot-up section, where I struggled with the quandary of whether to whip out my new Grivel crampons (I didn't).

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The long descent down the back side bowl was smooth and untracked, with conditions ranging from wind packed pow at the top to perfect softened corn toward the bottom. We switched to skins again as the weather closed in and a hard snow began to fall, and started the final long climb to the north, which would lead us back to SR 20.

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Conditions were near-epic for the last ski down to the highway, with about 8" of fresh over consolidated corn on top and slightly less down low. The final flat section of the ski out to the highway was marred somewhat by frozen snowmobile tracks that made for rough going, but nabbing a ride with the first car to come along about 30 seconds after our arrival at the road made up for it, and the team celebrated back at the car with ice-cold lager and chips.

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