Today Eric and I headed to Erling Stordahl, the xc ski trails of Crystal Springs Sno-park near Easton, WA with the Mountaineers. The passes had been closed most of the week due to high volumes of snowfall and avalanche danger. Snoqualmie Pass, although open, was still a hazardous near the summit. Slush and some slick ice cover Highway 90 and chains were required on vehicles without all wheel drive. Luckily, drivers were playing it safe and traveling slow to avoid any issues. We arrived at the sno-park in about 1.5 hours after leaving Everett.

Snow drifted through the air as we walked to the trail head. Crystal Springs is mostly a snowmobiling area of gas exhaust polluted the parking lot air. Erling Stordahl is away from the snowmobile routes however, so we quickly got away from the noise and smell. The trails were groomed yesterday, but a layer of about 8 inches of sticky powder had already covered the tracks. And it was sticky. Almost immediately folks in the group had to stop and smear quick wax on their skis since the snow kept sticking to the bottom. Eric and I eventually had to do the same, though it took us about 3 hours to get to that point.

We took the up and down Roller Coaster Trail and skied back and forth on a big hill before heading down a very steep potion of the track. I had to side step it. We later discovered that we were actually going the wrong way on a “one way” trail… you were supposed to climb up the steep part, not come own! We then too the Forest and Meadow Loops and passed over the Troll Bridge, before climbing back up the Roller Coaster Hill and skiing back down to end our outting.

It was still snowing when we got back to the parking lot at 2:00pm. We traveled about 7 miles by ski… now it was time to travel back over the pass another 85.

The past 8 days have been marked by the  “pineapple express” (that is… weather systems coming in from Hawaii) bombarding the Pacific Northwest with heavy rains in the lowlands and hefty snowfall in the mountains. The increase in white precipitation led to high avalanche danger according to NWAC (several folks have already died in avalanches) so Jeff, Eric and I avoided backcountry adventures and headed for Mt Baker Ski Area on today, Sunday… the day before President’s Day.

As could be expected, deep powder in combination with a holiday weekend made for a very crowded slope. We waited for about 25 minutes to board Chair 7 from the White Salmon Lodge. Snow feel heavily though it wasn’t overly cold. My hands were chilled though as I discovered upon our arrival that I had packed my OR Northback right hand glove and Eric’s OR Northback right hand glove (he was wearing a different pair today). Thus.. I ended up wearing two glove liners under a mid-weight, non-waterproof glove meant for autumn temperatures that I had with me for some strange and lucky unknown reason. After getting passed Chair 7 the other lifts didn’t have as long a wait… though there was a wait; rare for Baker. The except to this was Chair 6 as many folks wanted to get onto the Experts Only slopes for some deep powder action. And deep it was! Most of the time it was hard to believe we were on groomed trails. The powder was calf to knee high! I am not used to sinking in the snow as I ski.. most of my technique was developed with Cascade Concrete snow and there was a bit of a learning curve to get through when it came to dealing with powder. If i didn’t move fast enough I got lodged in it!

Heavy Snow at Mt Baker

After our lunch break the snow grew even heavier and by mid-afternoon the winds picked up causing white outs. Sometimes I had to paused on the way down and wait for the wind to die down so I could see… and sometimes the wind blew so hard against me that I stopped moving forward! We called it a day at 3:00pm hoping to beat the typical vehicle backup on the way down the mountain at the official closing time. The weather as also still deteriorating making it difficult to ski safely and the roads possibly more treacherous.

All in all… a good pow day, but the weather and crowds made things a bit iffy.

 

 

Yesterday Eric and I awake at 4:00am and drove South to Mt Rainier National Park for a N4 XC Ski Field Trip run by the Mountaineers. The focus of the trip/class was to work on off-track Nordic skiing. Eric and I met with the rest of our group in Longmire just as the gate to Paradise opened at 9:00am. By the time we reach Paradise it was about 9:45am. The sun was shinning the Mt Rainier towered above us, completely visible except for one low cloud hanging below the summit. After a brief discussion of the days plans for clicked into our skinny skis and headed up the track. The plan was to do the Skyline Loop which heads with Edith Creek to the base of Panorama Point and then ski back down the regular trail to Panorama back to the Visitor Center.

The beginning of the route was on a freshly plowed cat-track, but it quickly converted to a narrow trail cut by snowshoers with steep snow banks. This was easy when the ground was level but there were, of course, some rolling ups and downs that were steep… with the high walls getting a decent herringbone was challenging. The side walls grew shallower after some time and we reached a steep broad slope. After discussing avalanche potential  and route selection,  Henry, our leader, had us get off trail at this point and create switch backs up the slope using the kick turn technique. It’s awkward of course, but after repeating it all the way up the hill we were all rather proficient… and jealous of the AT skiier with climbing skins!

Clouds began to roll in around this time and the sun vanished. Thick mist now covered the lower portion of the Tatoosh Range, but all the summits were still visible. We gathered up the remains of our energy and headed for the final steep slope to the base pf Panorama Point. The ground was well trodden by snowshoers and some members of the group opted to walk up. I herringboned up the slope. I didn’t find it too tiring if you managed your energy and took rests every few yards. At the top we took a quick lunch break before descending.

Our decent must have been hillarious to watch. It involved the entire group falling as we tried to keep balance on a steep powdery slope, with free heels, in skinny skis. We all got very good at getting up efficiently! The usually, Rocky Mountain type, powder concealed large chunks of ice beneath that our skis got hung up on causing us to topple even when the terrain wasn’t as steep. Winds had been picking up and snow stung our faces in near white out conditions. We made it back to the Jackson Visitor Center in decent time though considering how much falling we did.

The rest of the group headed back home. Eric and I hung out in the VC as the winds continued to pick up and howling outside. We could see heavy snow swirling through the windows… we we could see the heavy snow for about 5 meters, beyond that was a whiteout! We moved our car to overnight parking at 4:30 when the VC closed and slide clumsily into our sleeping bags. It didn’t take long for a crust of ice to form on the inside of the windows and for the outside to get covered in snow and ice. The wind whipped around us all night.

We awoke to 2mm of frost on the inside of the winders and perhaps 3/4cm of ice on the outside. Plus some snow cover as well! The wind had died down though snow still fell. Eric and I headed to a nearby hill to practice two person crevasse rescue and avalanche beacon searching. We arrived back to the parking lot just in time to catch a convoy of vehicles lined up to be escorted to Longmire by LE Rangers. The gate had not been opened that morning… and when we left Longmire at 12:30pm it was still closed!

 

Jeanelle and I woke at the Mt Baker Ski Area White Salmon parking lot at 6am.  Jeanelle and I were reluctant to emerge from our cozy sleeping bags. But, after some difficultly, we clamored out of our warm cocoons and scrapped the sheets of ice from inside the car windows.  We drove our cars to Heather Meadows Lodge three miles up the road. The lodge is closed weekdays, but several cars were in the parking lot near Austin Pass Road and several folks were getting ready to backcountry ski probably to Artist Point. Jeanelle and I layered up as it was reported to be 4 degrees Fahrenheit at the base that morning.  Feeling a bit warmer we slid into our mountaineering boots and shouldered our packs.

Pan Dome Falls is easy to find. After walking down the groomed Austin Pass Road for several yards the falls are clearly visible to the left. We turned off the road and cut across the slope going up and down some steep but short rolling hills until making the final push up the slope to the ice. A platform had been dug out by previous parties some 4 or so meters for the base. We dropped our gear here and slipped into our harnesses. A nice stairway was also dug out leading to the falls. There is a large moat at the base with some snow pileup on the inside that at first glance looks stable. With my ice ax I poked at the snow and cautiously stepped into the left of the moat on stop of the snow. I dug my ax into the outside of the bank and stamped around a bit. Nothing shifted. Satisfied and I moved to the right and did the same… the snow pack gave way about 3 centimeters. I quickly moved back to the left.

The ice appeared to be of decent quality. It was clearly fused to the rock wall and was probably a foot or so thick. There was white, sun bleached ice over the top, but several swings with my tool revealed good ice beneath. Tied in I began to climb… but not far. About three feet off the ground it became obvious to be that the white sun bleached ice was pretty thick and it took about 6 plus swing to remove it before getting a good stick. Snow also filled sections of the ice making it hard to tell if the “thunk” of the ax was ice or thick snow. It sounded the same I discovered. There were some thin and hollow glass-like formations about two feet above my head as well; revealed as I brushed the snow away. Jeanelle and I reexamined our position and opted that, although the ice might be good for someone with more experience, it would not be safe for us to proceed with the climb. So I down climbed and we spent the next half hour practicing out swing and cleaning the first 1.5 meters of the climb of sun bleached ice.

Jeanelle and I spent the next hour reviewing glacier travel techniques on the rope and practicing ice ax arrest from every position. By then we were freezing and headed back to the White Salmon Lodge for one of their delicious giant brownies before driving back home.

After having such a great time skiing at Mt. Baker I decided I couldn’t wait very long to do it all again. I had gotten a distant view of the frozen Pan Dome Falls and, with the sudden cold snap, I thought it would be a great time to check out the ice climb.  Jeanelle was game to drive down from Canada to ski and attempt the climb so I shoved my new ice screws into my pack and drove back to Mt Baker Tuesday morning.

After telling me how the border patrol had heavily questioned her regarding who she was meeting in America Jeanelle and I squashed our feet into our constricting ski boots and hit ski lift 7 from the White Salmon Lodge. I had never been Mt Baker Ski Area mid-week and was pleasantly surprised at how empty it was. There were only two rows of cars in the lot all day and we were lucky if we ran into another group on the slopes. The Canyon was closed again due to avalanche danger. The half pipe and runs near Chair 6 were also shut down in preparation of the Banked Slalom occurring this coming weekend. Snow conditions were not as powdery as Friday had been and some spots were icy, but the skiing was still very good. It should be noted that the black diamond runs from the Expert Only Chair had shallow moguls in large stretches. Clouds covered the ski most of the day, but they were mostly and we were treated to glimpses of the mountains and Shuksen appeared late afternoon. Temperatures were extremely cold and we were forced wear more layers than normal along with a full face baklava.

Jeanelle and I stayed in the lodge after the lifts closed well after everyone had gone; savoring the last of civilizations warmth and comfort until we had not chose but to venture back into the chill for the night. We boiled water for dinner over my MSR Universal Stove after some issues getting it ignited (I didn’t pump the fuel tank enough at first) and enjoyed couscous and freeze dried veggies with cans of half frozen tuna. We put the seats down and struggled into our sleeping bags until we resembled caterpillars in our cocoons. We the windows cracks to prevent major frosting we chatted until it was time for sleep.

Eric and I awoke for a lovely sleep in my car in the Mt Baker Ski Area parking lot at White Salmon Lodge. After breakfast we drove three miles up the road to park at the Heather Meadows Lodge. Here we walked a Cat track beside the ski area that offers access to Mt Baker Ski Area’s backcountry. I had my XC Ski book with me which described a great tour to Artist Point via this Cat Track and then along a ridge. We clipped into our skis and began to follow the track.

All went lovely at first. It was another great day. The clouds were still around to block the sun, but higher so the mountains were more visible. The track was freshly groomed and gently rolling. We stayed the the far right as downhill and back country skiers use the trail coming down at high speeds. And then we hit the first hill. The hill was steep, but not too long. Eric side stepped and I simply herring boned up. Then things were flat again for a few yard before we hit a BIG hill. I would have rated it as a Blue Trail if I was coming down it. Slowly we herringboned up the slope. At the top we could see were those with climbing skins and snowshoes turned off the track on onto the ridge to artist point. We could not cross the steep side of the slope in our skinny ski so we continued up hoping to gain the ridge on the next switchback. But we were greeting by more downhill skiers whizzing down from the top of Pan Dome… and herringboning for the next hour just did not sound delightful so we decided to turn back. We had to walk down the hills as they were too steep to get down with our Nordic skis, but once at the bottom were had a nice glide back to the parking lot.

Eric and I drove back to White Salmon Lodge and took a short tour up The Flat Cat Track just to the left of the main ski area. It’s a groomed snowmobile trail with gentle up and downs perfect for xc skis. It was short though and the round trip took about 25 minutes. Salmon Ridge, the larger Nordic area down the road did not have enough snow so we ended up heading home early unfortunately.

The Northwest has been deprived of snow this year to a massive extent. For example, The Olympic Mountain only have 25 percent of the snow they usually have at this time of year and Mt Rainier resembles its June snow cover. Thus, when snow was in the forecast on Wednesday and yesterday this week, Eric and I celebrated by driving out to Mt Baker Ski Area to get in some downhill time. After all, we might not see fresh powder for another month!

The  trails were in great conditions. Fresh soft powder (not concrete) was layered nicely over the runs in early morning. It was clear that there was less snow cover than normal for those who chose to weave in and out of the trees and around the exposed rocks, but for folks like us who stay on the groomed tracks the snow cover was great with nothing sticking up out of the ground. The weather remained mild throughout the day with low clouds that broke every now and then to reveal views of the mountains. We never got full sun exposure which was great.

I saw many folks using the backcountry areas surrounding Mt Baker which concerned me since the Cascades were on a Considerable avalanche alert. The Canyon run was closed due to avalanche danger as well… this saddened me as I consider it the best trail at Baker. At one point Eric and I took a wrong turn and ended up in the trees beside the Canyon. We had to take off our skis (well my skis and his snowboard) and fight our way up the hill back to the main open slopes. Hard work with the horrid ski boots!

All it all it was a wonderful day out on the slopes. Now it is time for a nice freeze dried dinner and a good night sleep in my car!