NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK - Sometimes there is truth in advertising.
The boldface words leapt from the trip brochure like a dare, or a warning: "The Forbidden Tour."
Martin Volken, Swiss-born owner of Seattle's Pro Guiding Service, watched my eyes grow wide as I read the temptation - a four-day backcountry ski tour through some of the burliest terrain the North Cascades can throw at you. A spring circumnavigation of 8,815-foot Forbidden Peak by traversing seven hefty and ill-tempered glaciers, with none of the summer's assurances of stable snowpack and bluebird skies.
"You should sign up," Volken said. "You can handle it."
I later would wonder who would rue his confidence in me the more.
Four months later, I am slouching across the crevasses of the Boston Glacier on skis, all sweat and blue words, wondering who slipped the bowling balls into my rucksack. My fancy new skis are too heavy for the backcountry, while my climbing skins are too narrow and grant no purchase. My heart pounds like Tito Puente on benzedrine, and I curse again the patsy workout regimen that has left me an hour behind the others.
Topping off my suffering is the self-scolding soundtrack that plays on infinite loop inside my skull: "They don't call it the Forbidden Tour for nothing, dummy."
Every seasoned mountaineer can point to some disastrous tenderfoot foray that was a turning point in his outdoor education. Six thousand feet up and three days from home in the North Cascades, I was getting schooled.
The fault - let it be clear - was no one's but mine. Extended Cascade ski tours are frequently arduous, but are far from unusual or undoable. Washingtonians have spent years tracing new and sometimes hairball routes through this, the most glaciated state in the Lower 48.
The Forbidden Tour is a Cascade ski tour on andro. Everything's bigger here, from the mammoth glaciers, to the taxing uphills, to the raw scenery of the park's southern mountains. This wild and sublime country can only be savored if everything - lungs, equipment, and attitude - are up to the task. That explains why, each spring, Pro Guiding Service leads just a few trips of strong men and women into the maw.
As a group of us drove far up the Cascade River Road last May, however, I was a bit naive - and a bit more out of shape, thanks to too many dates with chocolate tortes and too few with the Stairmaster.
From the gate, we hiked and skied up about 4,500 vertical feet to the foot of the Quien Sabe (Who Knows?) Glacier. The other bucks surged ahead as my slow implosion began. My new, shaped downhill skis that I had converted to backcountry use were pounds heavier than the latest feather-light touring skis. My old climbing skins were narrow for the new skis. The result: backsliding and lots of it.
My over-packing made a tough situation worse. Everything in my 50-pound pack - ice ax, clothes, food - was heavier than my comrades' gear. As I slowed down, they seemed to float in their sub-40-pound packs. That night, I finally limped into our tent camp only with the patient encouragement of co-guide Shane Wilder.
The evening clouds cinched tight, obscuring views. But I was too tired to enjoy anything but bed, anyway, and fell asleep to the sound of unseen Johannesburg Mountain glaciers calving into the valley below.
Day 2 was stunning. Skiing 1,400 feet up the Quien Sabe glacier, we skirted Sahale Peak and got great views of Sharkfin Tower, an 8,120-foot dorsal of rock that's popular for summer climbing. Kicking steps up a steep gully, we rappeled down the other side onto the massive Boston Glacier.
The sun broke through. For a guy more accustomed to enjoying his ice in manageable cubes - preferably in a gin and tonic - the scenery awed and terrified. It reminded me what the poet Byron called glaciers: frozen hurricanes.
"You can see why it's the Forbidden Tour," Martin said, pointing around at the unwelcoming aretes and seracs.
Down the slushy Boston we skied, then up again to a far col, always keeping the classic horn of Forbidden on our left shoulders. Everyone else was having a grand time, but the dust on my Suzanne Somers ThighMaster now haunted me. I dropped further behind, which only made things worse. Nothing adds to the weight of a pack like humiliation. I had begun to jettison bags of gorp like a desperate balloonist dropping ballast. To their credit, Martin and Shane were extremely professional and patient with me, the team's growing liability.
From the col, skiers get a spectacular, 3,000-odd-foot ski descent alongside the icefalls of the Forbidden Glacier. At the bottom, sunk like a garnet in a ragged setting, is Moraine Lake and the next night's camp.
Here, however, things really got interesting. A cell-phone call told us the weather was going south - very south. If we didn't want to get trapped by rain-triggered avalanches at the lake, we needed to bypass the lake and climb another 2,500 feet, to a plateau near the Inspiration Glacier.
I skied into camp hours later, a broken man. Martin carried my pack atop his own. But apologies for my anemia had ceased hours before; shame had been cast aside with the gorp.
Then the weather arrived. It rained all night. Everyone was wet. The 50-mph winds blew too loud for sleep. A tent pole snapped. Here on the Forbidden Tour, Mother Nature seemed to be punishing us transgressors.
Day 3 of the tour is usually grand - a short ski to a col near Klawatti Peak (actually a nunatak that pierces the eponymous glacier), then a side trip to Austera Peak and seldom-seen views into the teeth of the crumbling, 1,000-foot McAllister Icefall.
But the weather forced sightseeing to take a back seat to discretion. We knew we had to cut and run. Crossing the crevasses of the Inspiration Glacier with dainty ski-steps, the weather broke a bit, however. Some of the group dashed up Eldorado Peak, with its classic whale-back summit.
From Eldorado, it's a nearly 7,000-foot ski down to the Cascade River. I led the way home. My fat, heavy skis - such a burden going uphill - plowed through the corn snow. People noticed and tossed compliments, which both embarrassed me further and were salve for a thoroughly traumatized ego.
The clouds parted completely. Forbidden Peak appeared to take a final bow, or perhaps to tell us good riddance.
Giving the mountain a deep mental bow of respect, I pushed off down the slope. I'll return with Martin to taste its forbidden fruit one day. But only when I'm worthy - and only when this beast of burden learns how not to pack like an ass.
Chris Solomon's phone message number is 206-515-5646. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
If you go...
The only guide outfit that leads trips on the Forbidden Tour is Seattle-based Pro Guiding Service. The company, owned by Martin Volken, a UIAGM-certified mountain guide, also teaches backcountry ski clinics and leads trips throughout the Cascades and in Europe. Cost of the tour, which includes guides and use of group gear such as tents, is $495. Rental of backcountry skiing equipment is extra.
Participants should be strong skiers in excellent physical condition. They should also be comfortable skiing with a backpack and snow camping. For more information, call 206-525-4425 or on the Web at www.proguiding.com.
For information about other backcountry skiing courses and trips, contact The Mountaineers 206-284-6310 or Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute 360-671-1505.