Hummel family lore holds that when my brothers and I were kids, my parents went to a garage sale and bought the entire family skis for $20. That was in 1983. I was 5 years old.
Unlike most kids who learn to ski, I didn’t make my first turns at a ski resort. Instead, they were made at Mount Rainier National Park, on Washington state’s highest peak, which to us was The Mountain. I was never alone on those early adventures. With my two brothers and parents, we earned each and every turn by hiking up and skiing down. No chairlifts, no warming up in comfy resort lodges drinking hot chocolate and no groomed runs. No matter the lack of creature comforts—we didn’t know any better. This was our sandbox and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
A window into the past. A collage of imagery on Mount Rainier of my brothers and I skiing near Paradise. Mount Rainier National Park, mid-1980s.
Turns All Year: A Definition
To ski on snow at least once every month, for twelve consecutive months.
Harnessing Winter: The Beginning
It was October 1998 and my twin brother Josh and I moved from Morton to Bellingham to begin college at Western Washington University. That 98-99 season, nearby Mount Baker Ski Area overtook Mount Rainier’s world record seasonal snowfall of 1,122 inches by 18 inches. I like to think it was because we moved there and brought all the snow with us. If anything, that incredible season taught me that Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with.
Mount Baker showing off her best attributes: snow, storms and slopes.
After that amazing winter, our turns didn’t end when flowers bloomed, boating day opened or summer break began. We were 19 years old—cocky, confident, wild and untamed. Most spectacularly of all, we were fearless. And that record-breaking year began our 200-month (and growing) streak with a bang!
The Third Man: Months 2–60
To capture Ben Manfredi in a paragraph would be impossible. He was the third initiate to our club. He was the leader of our merry band, insanely brilliant, and however much we appreciated those qualities, it was his inane ability at being a jokester that we remembered him most for.
During one of our hundreds of adventures, atop a peak, we pulled out our lunches from our packs. Nothing we carried then was lightweight, especially our food. When we saw Ben retrieve an unusual looking sandwich, Josh and I paused to ask him about it. “It’s a bread sandwich,” he explained. “Two pieces of white bread smashed between two other pieces of white bread.” Biting into it, his face perfectly serene, he never broke into a laugh.
The bread sandwich became a standby for Ben and would make its appearance often. To this day, I never knew if he was joking.
A Little Worse for Wear: Month 29
It was March 22, 2001 and Josh and I were graduating from Western Washington University on the 24th. Instead of celebrating near town, by drinking and carousing, we joined Ben for an adventure to celebrate the occasion.
Ben Manfredi is perched on the true summit of Luna Peak in the Northern Pickets, Washington.
That night we drove to Glacier Peak, our car halted by snow miles before the now-defunct White River Trail. Access has always been difficult on Glacier Peak. Among the West’s volcanoes, it is the most remote in the Cascade Range.
Our plan was foolproof. Climb and ski the peak in a day and return in time to meet family and friends for graduation.
Thirty-six miles later we skied back to our cars exhausted and near collapse. While the entire adventure had only taken about 15 hours, we hadn’t slept in well over 40 hours due to cramming for finals. Somehow, we wrangled the last vestiges of our reserves and drove home, just making our 8:00am graduation. Somewhere along the way, delusional, I swerved to a dead stop in the center of the road, brakes squealing on the silent highway. My depleted mind had thought a barn had slid into the road from the hillside.
How we made graduation alive, I’ll never know.
Suffice it to say, we were a little worse for wear. I wasn’t sure if we were graduating from college or the mountains. Either way, we raised our diplomas and beamed our smiles beyond campus back to Glacier Peak. Together we understood that we had really earned it.
Skiing in Slacks: Month 34
When Josh and I were close to giving up our ski streak, in August 2001, Ben suggested we go to Dome Peak during the last two days of the month. There is nothing easy about Dome Peak, whose summit towers among the hundreds of peaks of the North Cascades. It requires nearly 40 miles of hiking with skis. Fortunately for us, what few miles of trail there were had seen their first maintenance since 1975!
We were young. We were overconfident. We were stubborn and strong. A toolkit every youth wields, like kids do sticks. It’s fun until you get smacked in the face.
It took barely two days to climb and ski Dome Peak’s northwest face and return to our cars.
A highlight sticks out that I can’t help but share. There we were, perched on the steepest part of Dome Peak, staring down at the Dome Glacier far below, literally shaking in our boots. It was then I noticed Josh had forgotten his ski pants and was descending in dress slacks! All my worries scattered and I laughed. Soon, the snow improved and my fear slid away, bounding down the slopes like the snowballs my eyes chased.
This adventure was the first route I pioneered in the Cascade Mountains. Over 50 would follow. More importantly, it would be the last time I ever saw my brother ski or climb in slacks. It most certainly wasn’t, however, the last time I was scared out of my wits. That feeling continued to be a frequent passenger on my many mountain adventures.
As Ben noted in a story after the climb of Dome Peak, “This is a ski that you recommend to your worst enemies but it’s good to be shared among friends.”
Dancing with Fury: Month 56
Long considered to be one of the wildest corners in the contiguous United States, the Picket Range had gripped my imagination. I was obsessed with her serrated ridges, convoluted faces and magical aura. More specifically, I was hounded by the 5000-foot, unskied, northeast face of Mount Fury, arguably the jewel of the entire range. It shuddered my soul every time I thought of my skis biting into her tenuous slopes.
A nighttime view of the Northeast face of Mt. Fury, taken during the 1st winter traverse of the range. The Pickets, North Cascades National Park, February 2010.
During nearly a week in June 2003, with Ben Manfredi and Sky Sjue, dream molded into reality and the fears I’d had growing, suddenly ripened. Deep runnels lined the entire route and the snow ranged from rock hard to a rotten.
Midway down the face, I remembered clinging to the side of a giant runnel, sidestepping precariously around the leeward edge, legs quivering. Had conditions been better, there would’ve been no issues in regards to skiing it, but as it was, every skill was tested. I thought it comical that the name of the lake at the very base of the route was Lousy Lake. We’d joked that if we slipped, the next stop would be, “…Lousy Lake!” The answer kept us fine-tuned to the moment.
Jason Hummel, mid slope on the NE Face of Mt. Fury. Far below is Lousy Lake. The Pickets, North Cascades National Park, June 2003. Photo by Ben Manfredi.
At the bottom of the face, my heart knocked and mind buzzed. I numbly howled in triumph. Those cries of relief, happiness and stoke echoed in the wind, mixed with it and just as suddenly disappeared, swallowed by the spectacular wilderness air that surrounded us. I felt more alive then than ever before.
Many times in my life I have dreamt of that dance with Fury. Her steep slopes were matched against the brute force of my will, not the skills I had tuned over a lifetime. I was out of condition and perhaps even beyond my abilities at the time. This descent has lived on as a reminder of my mortality. Another reminder followed only a few months later. With them both, the last vestiges of my youth slipped through my fingers and never again would I blindly pound my life against the chest of fate.
Keeping the Fire Stoked: Month 60
It was a rain-soaked morning in October 2003. During that early hour, along with Josh and other family and friends, we skinned toward Hogsback Mountain, near White Pass Ski Area in southwest Washington. While the unseasonably early snow should’ve excited me, it didn’t. I fermented over a bitter tasting brew. Only a few weeks prior, Ben Manfredi, our third man and good friend, had drowned while whitewater kayaking the Grand Canyon of the Elwha, in Olympic National Park. Josh had tried to revive him, but there was no saving what couldn’t be saved. His heart had given out. Ben died on the river and was left alone on a cliff face, just above the waterline; the others, hypothermic and exhausted, escaped the canyon and sought help. Ben was 25 years old. We later learned that he had scheduled an appointment to see a doctor about his heart for the following morning. Sadly, he would never make it.
Warming up next to a fire on Day 13 of the American Alps Traverse. North Cascades, June 2013.
Ben loved the mountains, so much so, he couldn’t bear to be away from them, not even for a weekend. He once told me that the three of us were the perfect group of misfits. Of friendship, I couldn’t have had a better teacher. Of pushing it too far and paying the ultimate price, I couldn’t have been taught a more important lesson.
Back on Hogsback Mountain, these thoughts fluttered through my head. But after a time, they scattered. The cold, the battering winds I pressed against, and the stifling fog pulled me back into the moment. Eventually, I smiled for the first time.
Through an Office Window: Month 125
Five years after Ben’s passing, I found myself at age 30 looking through my office window. On the other side was Mount Rainier, perfectly framed. It was sunny. I was sweltering in my suit and tie, choking on the responsibilities that filled my desk and schedule. None of them appealed to me and I saw no end to it. I shook my head and realized in that moment that my life couldn’t be defined inside an office.
Since I was a kid, I’d been bred to lead an unconventional life. Over time, like Ben, I realized that I couldn’t escape the mountains.
At first, with Ben’s beloved Nikon FM3a, I took images and visually recorded every place I went. Nothing escaped my lens.
Five years later, in March 2009, I quit my job and took a year off to explore the mountains I loved. During those adventures, I slowly realized I could make a living at being an adventure photographer. I know, every time I say it aloud, it sounds like a fantasy job.
Looking out my new office window. Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska, April 2013.
Suddenly my office was no longer confined to a building but could be found outside. In a twist of fate, I’d often be photographing the very mountain that nurtured me into the man I’d become, the very mountain that taunted me from work throughout all those years filling out paperwork and meeting clients. Coming full circle, I’d returned back to where I’d begun—Mount Rainier.
The Future: Month 200
On June 20th, 2015, sparks flew from my skis edges as I left the snow and skipped over a band of snow-freed rocks. Josh followed me in our flight down Mount Rainier as we leapt from one patch of snow to another. We grinned and smiled, sidestepping up another snowpatch to see if we could ski even further. We couldn’t. This was the end of the line.
Josh makes his 200th month of turns all year on the Muir Snowfields. Mount Rainier National Park, June 2015.
While 1999 was a record-breaking year for the greatest amount of snow, 2015 was a record-breaking year for the complete lack of it. The contrast was comical, but it also was indicative of a future where the glaciers and snow we seek out are in a battle for survival.
As if to trumpet its agreement to my assessment of the snowpack, the Nisqually Glacier Icefall on Rainier groaned and spewed out rocks and snow. The debris thundered down the mountainside in great white waves. No matter how many times I’ve heard it over the years, I have never ceased to pause and appreciate that power.
Josh Hummel enjoying early turns above the Nisqually Glacier. Mount Rainier National Park, October 2014.
Looking ahead at my brother, I knew that Month 200 would be the end of an era. On the Fourth of July, Josh married Sally. But the adventure won’t end there. A few days before the wedding, Josh and I took a day to go into the mountains. This time, we brought our youngest brother, Jeremy, who’s 17 years old. Together we made our July turns.
At the car, after appreciating our tracks, Josh and I secretly hoped that Jeremy would continue in our footsteps and that he would carry on the hunt for the never-ending turn.
Tips to begin your very own streak
- Educate yourself on backcountry skiing and safety techniques such as avalanche detection and rescue. Classes can be found at local ski areas, retailers and with outdoor organizations such as the Mountaineers, Mazamas and REI.
- Begin gathering the necessary gear. Skins, skis, bindings, poles, avalanche gear (don’t forget your shovel), pack, safety gear, partners, etc.
- Find where the perennial snowpack is. Do you have nearby glaciers? Is there snow that lasts all year? Can you travel to snow?
Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington, May 2015.
Sometimes finding snow isn’t as easy as you’d think.