Words by: Kat Parks
Photos by: Cayman Waughtel and Kat Parks
We are currently sitting in the car stopped at mile post 56 on I90 while we wait out the avalanche control work happening at the pass so I figured that I’d do some trip writing. We booked our trip to the Rolling Huts back in the fall with our friends Mcevan and Aya not knowing what the Covid restrictions would be. Each hut is equipped with a bed, wood stove, microwave, fridge and electric heat while the guest provides the rest. We booked huts next to one another so if Covid restrictions still kept us from spending time inside with people outside of our household, we’d still be able to enjoy outside time with our friends. Because the restrictions changed in mid-January, we were able to plan our trip around being able to share a vehicle to the trailheads, hosting inside dinners, and in person route planning.
Our drive to Mazama was fairly uneventful but we did stop at a sno-park along the way to stretch our legs and get Pippy a quick disc sesh. Upon arriving in the Methow, we drove to where hwy 20 is closed for the winter and then headed up FS 5400 to scope the terrain for potential touring options. As we feared, Monday’s rain really did a number on the lower elevation snowpack and the word from the local bros we ran into was that the snow got better around 4000’ feet. We enjoyed the woods and sunshine before heading back into Mazama to stop at the infamous Mazama Store and Goat’s Beard. We got better beta from the guy working at Goat’s Beard and then headed to our huts. We volunteered to host dinner the first night since Aya and Mcevan weren’t getting in until later. As Cayman and I unpacked our things and settled in, it became immediately apparent that we had more food than 2 people would be able to eat in a week, let alone 4 days but we both like a lot of food options and if I’m going to run out of anything in my life, it will never be food. Our friends arrived and we ate brats, baked beans, and kettle chips while planning the next day’s tour.
I woke up early and watched the sun hit the nearby peaks while enjoying my coffee and book. As we loaded up the car with 4 people’s worth of backcountry ski gear, I questioned why we’ve chosen sports with so much gear but quickly pushed that thought out of my mind. We were in for a longish day as we had a couple thousand feet of skinning to do before reaching snow that was worth a darn but the bluebird views and company of friends made the time go by quickly and we were able to bond in a way that we haven’t been able to as of late. We found a spot that looked promising and transitioned. The skiing was interesting — at least for me. The top section was fun and the snow was decent but once we got into the rain crusted snowmobile tracked out snow, I was in survival mode as it’s not easy nor fun skiing. The FS road out was an iced over snowmobile track with random sets of bumps so the techniques I employed were as follows: the side slip, the pizza, nice smooth S turns, bending my knees and tucking to keep speed on the flats, and skating on the slight rises. All in all, we did just over 8 miles and definitely earned the mediocre turns we got. The coverage was bad enough towards the bottom that McEvan informed us that he pole planted in pine needles when he cut the switchbacks through the woods. We made the obligatory stop at the Mazama Store and Goat’s Beard once again before heading back to our huts. Aya fed us chicken shawarma topped with feta and homemade yogurt sauce for dinner while we planned to check in about the following day’s plans the next morning.
I texted Aya the next morning with: “We have a fun idea! Get over here.” In our research of things to do in Winthrop, we came across geodome reservations at Old Schoolhouse Brewery and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We also decided that a skin along FS road 5400 was the best choice for the day — the thing with backcountry skiing is that sometimes you plan tours knowing all along that skins may never be ripped and turns never made. It’s one of the things that I love about the sport and I have equal love and respect for both the up and downhill.
I never thought that I’d have Covid dreams but one of those dreams was fulfilled upon entering the geodome to enjoy snacks and beverages with our friends. It was also weird but not weird enough to say that I really hope geodomes are still a thing long after Covid. Probably the most treacherous part of our whole trip was the walk along the river with Pip once we got back to our huts. Aya threw Pip’s disc and it landed in a stream covered in thin ice. Knowing that Pip would search incessantly for it, I decided the best course of action was to figure out a way down the steep bank to retrieve it. Aya held on to me as I planted my beaver boots in the crusty snow so I could grab the disc. As she was pulling me back up, I yelled “My boot” as it began sliding off my foot and at the same time I heard a loud crash and splash as I looked over my shoulder and exclaimed “Oh my god. PIP” and saw my dog frantically swimming for the shore after falling into the stream and breaking through the ice with nothing but his little head above water. Aya and I were a ball of laughter as Pippy shook himself off. Cayman was relieving his bladder while this whole thing was happening and Mcevan was documenting the ordeal on his camera instead of jumping into the water to save his furry nephew. We ended the evening with pizza in front of a warm fire, reveling in sharing the same space and a trip with our dear friends.
We chose to split adventures for the drive out so while Aya and Mcevan stayed in Winthrop to ride fatbikes, we made our way to Blewett Pass which was a perfect halfway point to break up the drive and get out in the snow. Not knowing what to expect condition wise, we planned a conservative tour that easily avoided avalanche terrain and was relatively short. The snow was the best of the trip and we put in 3 quick runs through gorgeous blower before heading back to the car to continue our drive.
Now for serious talk. After arriving back at the car, I went to turn off my beacon and noticed that the screen was blank and not transmitting a signal. My beacon was LOCKED in “send” and when I switched it to “search,” nothing happened. I showed Cayman and then turned off my beacon and back on and everything worked as it should. Cayman and I did our beacon checks prior to leaving as we always do. I left with 2/3 battery which had just gone from 3/3 to 2/3 on the previous day’s tour. I did not crash or run into anything (which shouldn’t matter anyways since beacons are designed to survive avalanches) and I double checked that it was in fact locked in “send” before departing. I am thankful that this happened on a day that we never entered avalanche terrain but my stomach lurched as I thought about this type of malfunction happening on a tour where we were in avalanche terrain. I also came to the immediate conclusion that I would never be able to trust this beacon again and ordered a new beacon from a different company as soon as we unpacked the car. Just to be sure, I turned on my beacon and left it on our kitchen counter overnight in “send”. When I woke up, my beacon was still on with 2/3 battery and transmitting a signal.
The beacon in question is the Pieps DSP Sport (yes, I am already aware of the voluntary recall on this beacon but this issue is not related to that voluntary recall) and the new beacon I ordered is the BCA Tracker 3. I will never run a Pieps or BD beacon again and I have already submitted a warrantee claim. I also will not sell this current beacon if it isn’t replaced by the company as I couldn’t in good conscience pass this beacon on to someone else. As much as I recognize human error as a factor in most backcountry incidents, I wholeheartedly believe that my beacon malfunctioned not due to human error. It is a piece of gear that I trust both my and my partner’s life with and I am unwilling to take a chance with this device again.
Be safe. Stay diligent. Trust your partner. Know your gear. Never compromise.