Backcountry Riding at McClellan Butte

Yesterday was my first “real” backcountry snowboarding adventure – a trip to McClellan Butte a few miles from North Bend. It was a pretty epic day, but not because of the primo snow conditions.

The day started with a 7:30am meetup at the Mercer Island P&R to sort out rides. JJ and I packed in the legendary Super Truck, and Ming, Matt, Andre joined up in Shawn’s Range Rover. About ten miles from the destination, when JJ and I were chatting about gear, a few neurons fired in my brain reminding me of essential snowboarding equipment, which resulted in me emitting a loud “Oh F….”. I left the climbing skins for my Prior Splitboard in the garage!

We discussed options ranging from trying to rent from Proski in North Bend (closed), JJ and I splitting skins (bad idea), ditching me (I offered but my friends graciously declined), to, finally, turning around and retrieving the skins while the rest of the crew got breakfast in town. The detour set us back an hour, but I also took the opportunity to grab my soccer referee cards (a post for another day) so that Matt could issue me a red card.

The day was back on track – we met up at Exit 38 around 9:30 and drove to the start of the trail. We weren’t sure how far along the snow covered road we could go, but we geared up and all packed into the Super Truck to give it a go. The further we could make it meant less climbing and hiking. Fortunately we got a mile or two in along the switchback road before the snow and steepness compelled us to stop.

We chose to do BC riding because it initially looked like it would be a sunny Saturday, but the forecast changed. The overcast sky was now hinting at rain, and the temperatures were starting to warm up.

Progress on the initial climb through the switchbacking fire road was good, punctuated by progressive layer shedding as we sweated our way up hill. The next of the series of incidents involved Andre losing his breakfast (I guess this wasn’t a bonus to the morning after all, but it did explain why the most experienced climber in the group was lagging a bit behind…). Shortly after that, Ming lost the loop ring for one of his skins (fixed with a ski strap from Andre).

Then the fun really began. We hit a fork, and not entirely sure which direction to take, continued to follow some skin tracks up through the trees. This turned out to be the wrong call. The route was dodgy in many spots, with a slick rain crust and little snow on top making the steeper switch backs a royal PITA, particularly for my novice skinning skills.

Over the course of the day I got better at trusting the skins and putting more of my weight on my heels (with frequent yelling/encouragement from Andre), but on this section, it was rough. At one point, I slipped a few feet off the trail with my legs contorted in a less-than-fun position. Off with the skis then. Bootpacking was a little better, but it was really easy to posthole though the snowpack in several places, and hiking on the icy trail wasn’t exactly trivial.

But, eventually we made it through that section onto a more open ridge, where the group re-convened. After munching on some Clif Bars, rehydrating, and fixing Ming’s other lost skin ring (this time with parachute cord), we continued onward. We generally headed up and to the left. There were a few more tricky tree sections to be navigated, but either they were a lot easier, or my skills were improving, since there wasn’t nearly as much cursing involved.

We crossed a few chutes before arriving at the target couloirs. The final section involved a somewhat gnarly bootpack climb to get to the ridge where we’d begin our descent. The original plan was to climb all the way to the top, but since we had reached our turnaround time of 2:30 and weather was becoming a possible concern, we got ready to head down. The crampons and ice axes a few of us purchased and packed would have to wait another day.

I’d like to state that the reward for the multi-hour, hairy ascent was a glorious ride through untracked powder, but the warm weather and thick trees had other things in mind. The snow was super thick and sticky, making each turn an effort (particularly after the climb!). After the initial short bowl, there were lots of tight trees to navigate. At one point JJ dropped his ice axe but fortunately turned around and found it. Shawn wasn’t quite as lucky with his.

We continued bushwhacking through the trees for a bit before the track bottomed out, leaving us with a long, hour-plus traverse to get back to the truck.

I alternated between hiking (which involved even more frequent post-holing than on the climb up – or as someone put it, “I’m up to my balls in snow.”), skiing without skins (let’s just say I’m a bit of a disaster on splitboard skis), and cross-country snowboarding with poles (the poles help prevent “Scooch leg!”). X-C snowboarding proved to be the best option, although the handful of creek crossings and uphill sections did require strapping out. The last incidents of the day befell Andre, who lost the basket on one of his ski poles and was also having contact lens trouble.

Finally though, we made it back to the fire road, and the last few switchbacks of turns proved to be some of the best of the day, as we hightailed it through the faster snow. Nevertheless, I was quite happy to be reunited with the Super Truck since it meant my legs would finally get some relief.

We threw the gear in the truck and drove back into town. Beers were on me after my early morning mental lapse, so we headed for North Bend Bar & Grill. Their pulled pork nachos are pretty stellar actually – and I’m always a fan of housemade potato chips. The brews and food were a welcome end to a long day.

Despite the fact that the snow and weather weren’t the greatest and the climb up was a little rough, it was still a pretty damn fun day. It’s hard to go wrong with friends and the outdoors. I’m psyched that my Splitboard has some more miles under its belt and looking forward to doing more – hopefully with some more snow next time!

More photos from the day on Smugmug.


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