This semester has been notable for many reasons, most good. One thing that I have struggled with is a lack of outdoor recreating. The climbing season was a hard one. Overuse injury and start of classes made scheduling trips difficult. I had almost resigned myself to a semester without much in the way of personal trips, when winter struck.
Thursday: A usual day. Woke up went to class. Contemplated a paper due the next day; while intending to hand it in the day after making use of one of the free “bank days” we are given. Taught a climbing class and rushed over to a climbing club pot-luck. The usual people were all huddled around various climbing books and ogling over the photos. As I was preparing to leave and get started on said paper, a friend, Nathan, mentioned in passing the possibility of 20 inches of snowfall in the Cascades Friday night. I certainly didn’t think anything would be able to come of it, too much homework, yet the seed had been planted.
After many strenuous hours of paper writing. I woke on Friday and needed to ski, no matter what. I spent the morning looking for partners. I found them in Nathan and my constant always-down-for-an-adventure friend Jack. We would head to Stevens Pass (a “local” ski area 4 hours away) early in the morning and be back sometime after dinner, or at least that was the plan as we loaded into the car at 6 a.m. on Saturday.
The plan was going accordingly till we checked the weather report. Not only did they get 20 inches they decided to have opening day two weeks early! With this in mind our excitement levels began to boil. By the time The easternmost slopes of the Cascades were in view we were whooping at every snow covered tree. Then we started to climb into the Cascades and shouts of excitement turned to momentary stunned silences turned to yelling at the top of our lungs and banging our fists on whatever was around. Snow covered everything!
Then plans changed. As if the question was thought of simultaneously by all of us, we decided to spend the night in Seattle (much closer to Stevens) and drive back to Stevens in the morning for another half-day before heading back to Walla Walla. That was quickly agreed upon. Then another idea was birthed. Why stay in Seattle when we can stay in Bellingham, home of Mt. Baker and the deepest snow in the U.S. and drive back Monday morning. Once it was said a quick silence as we all double checked that we had nothing too pressing. Then the excitement boiled over and we had to roll down the windows.
We arrived at Stevens Pass 2 hours before the lifts were scheduled to open. So we got our gear on and started hiking. The first run of the season was glorious. Low-angle endless Pacific Powder. In some places the snow was so deep and heavy that even when pointed directly down the fall line, you could still come to a stop. The lifts opened and after a brief moment of utter chaos we were on the chair. After a half dozen runs we decided we wanted to hike again to get higher for a longer run and more untouched snow. So we did. Jack and Nathan leading the way, I boot-packed and post-holed behind them. In retrospect teleskis would have been a wise decision for this weekend. When finally we got as far up as we were able to reasonably go, visibility was non so we strapped on our planks and went for a ride through endless snow, with uncountable face shots, and mile high rooster tails. Great way to end day one of skiing.
We piled back into the car tired and ecstatic. We headed for Bellingham where we spent the night with one of Nathan’s friends at Western Washington University. We woke way too early for the time we went to bed, but a cup of coffee and a plate of eggs soon fixed that. I got to sleep in the car as we drove to the wonderland of Mt. Baker.
Baker is huge! We didn’t ski at the actual resort area of Baker, but parked our car in the upper lodge parkinglot and skiied the side country there is no doubt that the expanse is unparalled. Though visibilty was low due to the snowstorm that kept filling in our tracks there could be no doubt about how huge the place was. When we first pulled in we asked some locals where they recommended we should go. They might as well of just waved their arms in 360 degrees… There is skiing everywhere.
When we finally decided where we would go it turned out that is where half of the local ski population decided to go as well. Who knew the back country could be so crowded. But it was nice for the walking as at least we weren’t the only ones to break trail. We skinned for about three hours as we tried to decide where we wanted to ski and were thoroughly enjoying the experience. We eventually decided the best line we saw was behind us. So after some laughs of frustration we turned around and walked back to the big open bowl of Artist’s Point. I was scouting a line to skiiers left, when Oliver (a friend/Whitman alum we met up with in Bellingham) said he thought it might slide. We talked it over, and watched as another party approached the line cautiously from the other side of the bowl. Sure enough just as the first person got close a fracture line appeared. Nothing slid and she decided to ski anyway (a decision we felt was not wise) but that was the first of several small near accidents that we encountered.
After skiing about 1000 ft. We took off our skis, they put on their skins I put on my snowshoes and we walked back up to the top. We did this about four times. The last time was, unanimously, the best run of the day. Instead of hiking to the top of the same bowl as we had with the previous runs we decided to try to take a walk to see if we could find a run that would take us closer to the car. We followed a boot pack that took us on a windy tour through the snow covered conifer forest on the side of Baker and spit us out in a beautiful bowl 800 vertical ft from our car. Untouched snow and a consistent angle took us to a little cat track that had been skiied so much that day it was practically groomed. We followed that out and walked to our car. What a day. After a round of hugs, high fives, and exclamations of awe and excitement we unanimously agreed that we had definitely gotten after “it” and “won the weekend”.
(A not so quick disclaimer. Nathan, Jack, Oliver and I were constantly accessing potential avalanche concerns throughout the weekend. All of us have at least basic avy training and Oliver and Nathan have a tremendous amount of backcountry skiing experience, making them invaluable in any conversation about safety. We spent time researching the safest slopes and made sure that we stuck to them. We generally avoided anything that seemed particularly steep after watching that fracture and avoided all gullys and drainages. While there are certainly risks to skiing in the backcountry they can be mitigated with a concentrated effort among a team to watch out for one another’s safety. We did this very well and I would like to assuage any fears that my family, reading this, may be feeling.)