A true Bonanza

1844, Amer.Eng., from Sp. bonanza "a rich lode," originally "fair weather at sea, prosperity," from V.L. *bonacia, from L. bonus "good".
Since I first visited Holden village seven years ago, I have been eager to get back. The whole swath of mountains between Glacier Peak and Lake Chelan has fascinated me for some time, and few places are more remote in the winter. But where to begin? The access isn't easy, with washed out forest roads and boat schedules to contend with, not to mention the usual car shuttle problems. For an introduction I decided to forego any kind of traverse and instead just do some good old fashioned ski mountaineering. Without the commitment of a traverse, I would be free to enjoy the place and get a feel for the possibilities.

Last week I saw a window of fair weather overlapping with some time off. I had the Lake Chelan ferry schedule tucked away on a corner of my desktop, and I had Jason Hummel on the line as I thumbed through it. Of course he had five days free. More impressively, he had two MORE friends with time off.

So with a lot of driving and schlepping of baggage, not to mention a lot of sitting and waiting, we all found ourselves skinning out of Holden late on Monday afternoon. We barely escaped the gravitational pull of fresh bread and industrial toaster, and it felt good to be muscling through a few scrawny aspens in the failing light. But things quickly became interesting.

Kyle Miller, the prolific splitboard mountaineer, stopped the crew with a cry of dismay. We gathered around him and took turns inspecting his binding. Broken. Very broken, in fact. We debated trying to enlist the village blacksmith, but all agreed that  the faulty piece was beyond help. But Kyle is determined. We all went back into Holden and Kyle borrowed some snowshoes. It was a little heartbreaking to watch him snowshoe along with his board--split--on his pack. We made a simple camp out beyond the west Holden suburbs and called it a night.

Over breakfast our fourth teammate, Tom Murphy, investigated a throbbing toe. We tried to avoid eliciting any unappetizing details, but it didn't sound good. But we all packed up and hit the trail.

The sun came out and we followed the path of the Holden Lake trail. With only a meter of snow on the ground at 4,000', it wasn't too hard to follow. Kyle was lagging, but we had all day to make camp. The sunscreen made its rounds, along with the Crystal Light and a little skin clumping; a fine winter ambience prevailed. Finally though, things began to unravel. Tom decided his toe was too swollen to allow any enjoyment. Shortly thereafter, Kyle came to terms with the limitations of snowshoes. We sent them off with heavy hearts. I was enjoying the festive atmosphere of a larger party. Jason and I couldn't help but feel eerie echoes of our Pickets trip one year ago, when Kyle turned around at the edge of McMillan cirque. Bonanza and the Mary Green Glacier loomed above us as we plodded on, now only two in a wild, empty place.

Bonanza might be best described as a small massif. When you get close to it, the individual buttresses and sub-peaks have identities all their own. Whole tours and climbs suggest themselves from the flanks of the peak, and the summit is easily forgotten. I have stared at this mountain countless days: it's unmistakeable from Washington Pass and from all of the Sawtooth-Lake Chelan Wilderness. If you have never seen it in its winter splendor, take a look at John Scurlock's brilliant photos. It is hard not to feel compelled.

Jason and I made camp in the pass between Holden Lake and Sable Creek. We dug into the slope beside a few larches and hemlocks, and crashed out early. The weather forecast on the radio sounded perfect, and although we went to sleep with cloudy skies, there was Orion when we rose, standing guard high above.

My biggest concern on this trip was the snowpack. Well east of the crest on a low snow year, I expected we might get shut down by poor stability. But as we rose above 5,000', I was delighted to find that the snowpack rapidly grew to 2.5 and then 3+ meters in depth. We remained cautious, knowing that we had little information relevant to elevations above 6,000'; but everything pointed toward a stable, fairly uniform snowpack.

Our route took us over the divide and into Company Creek. A little bench led over to the Company Glacier at about 6,000', where we donned the rope and proceeded upward. A bit of booting up the steep headwall--and not a little anxiety--led to the broad Northwest ridge (visible at right in this Scurlock photo). Here we climbed past fantastic rime sculptures toward a steep, narrow pinnacle. We crawled onto the very top of the SW peak, where the views down the south face and the Company Headwall are impressive, to say the least.

We kept the skiing reasonable. Creamy wind buff lured us out onto the upper headwall, but we traversed off when it turned to ice. The lower headwall, where we booted on the way up, offered excellent powder. Those five or six turns alone were worth the whole journey.

The glacier served up a typically variable mix of wind affected snow. It's hard to convey the silence of that enormous, cold cirque, with the sinister convolutions of the Company headwall up above us. We skied past seracs and down some rather pleasant avalanche debris, past crevasses and out past ice-glazed rolls of rock. I wanted to stay be a part of the grandeur, but the comforts of camp were calling. We skinned slowly back toward camp, crossing pine marten tracks and gazing out toward the inviting slopes of Martin Peak.

Thursday dawned fine and clear once more. We lazed around camp and took in the views before gliding back down Railroad Creek to Holden Village.

Holden is inexplicably neglected as a backcountry ski destination. On a typical year you can ski from the village at 3,000' up into a number of magnificent valleys. Due south of the village is Copper Creek, a truly inspiring arena of big lines; any of these would be a day trip from the village. Any number of loops could be imagined into the Entiat mountains to the south, out around Bonanza, or to the north, over hill and dale to Stehekin at the end of the lake. But for some, the skiing may be a secondary to the experience of Holden itself. The mining village was taken over as a retreat center by the Lutheran church over fifty years ago; it is truly a unique Cascades mountain community. Run by volunteers, the place experiences a steady and purposeful turnover of residents. If spending time in wild mountains is meaningful to you, you may have a great deal in common with the folks at Holden. You can find out more about their mission, history, and offerings at their website.