Backcountry Skiing Snoqualmie Pass, Pleasant Surprises in Big Terrain

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It’s my first time in the Cascade Mountains on skis, and the forecast is for rain. Or more specifically, the forecast was for the morning’s snowfall to turn into rain mid-day.  As we skin past Source Lake, the group of locals keeps nervously talking about how the snow may turn into rain any minute. Their anxiety is contagious and I start to look up for any sign of rain too. Unlike these guys, I’m not used to this ritual of watching the thermometer dance around the “zero celcius line” like a roulette ball bouncing around your chosen number. 

I’m from the mountains of Colorado, where during the winter, we have two types of winter weather: sunny, or snowy. More specifically, I’m from Gunnison, where we have two types of winter temperatures: cold, or really really cold. So, even in the era of climate change, we still don’t look nervously up to a snowstorm for signs of rain. 

But as we strip skins and debate between the Cache Couloir, Middle Child, or a simple Snow Lake descent, a cold wind picks up and kisses our faces. The snow intensifies and we all look up at each other. Matt Schonwald slowly grinning, says: “there won’t be any rain today my friends” and then he laughs a deep triumphant laugh. Schonwald and I became friends a year before this day when our mutual friend Tom Murphy, co-founder of AIARE, introduced us. I was launching a publishing company based on my ski atlas for the Crested Butte zone and Matt was looking for a publisher for the atlas he’d been dreaming of for the Snoqualmie Pass zone. Hundreds of hours and a dozen drafts later, we’d created a “first of it’s kind” atlas. And after a full year of drooling over the hundreds of aerial photos of thousands of ski lines, I took the first excuse I could muster up to fly out and ski with Schonwald and friends.

We begin crossing the aptly named Snow Lake in a total blizzard, and the snow intensifies to a rate I have never experienced in my life. The flip side of living in sunny, cold Colorado, is that we rarely see rates of more than one inch per hour, and even more rarely see a single storm produce more than twenty inches. Though Matt was not an official mountain guide for the day, I can tell his decision making and wisdom do not waiver from his hundreds of days as a guide. We begin to question our plans. What had started as a mission to maybe check out the Holy Diver or Oyster Couloir effortlessly morps into a tree mission. Though our group is big, the decision is swift: It’s dumping, conditions are changing rapidly, and the tree skiing will be all time deep!  Enough said, we choose Moe Trees, and if the day would never end, I could do laps here for the rest of my life.

When we finally admit that the light is fading, we head back across Snow Lake, wet, tired and delirious over what we just experienced. Our friend Truc knowingly asks me “So Andy, what do you think of the Cascades?” Laughing, I reply “well, the secret is out: your rain is incredibly white and fluffy!” 

Backcountry Skiing Crested Butte Colorado by Andy Sovick

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Spend even a short amount of time here, and you’ll quickly learn that Crested Butte, Colorado is the quintessential ski town. In my early twenties, I was a typical backcountry ski bum. I was looking for the perfect place for backcountry skiing. My guidelines: Lots of snow (preferably fluffy!), accessable terrain from by back door,  safe routes and serious mountaineering objectives. I also required a ski culture, so that my employers would honor the “pow day” code. Backcountry skiing in Crested Butte meets each one of those qualities in spades! My girlfriend (now wife) and I were just a few of the countless powder seeking pilgrims who have come to this valley searching for the goods.

Andy Sovick way up the Slate River

Author Andy Sovick way up the Slate River

In the winter, Crested Butte is literally at the end of the road, snuggled into the south end of the mighty Elk Mountains. Looking down on Crested Butte from an eagle’s view, the backcountry ski terrain spreads out like a fan. Coal Creek, Slate River, East River, Washington Gulch, Brush Creek, and Cement Creek. All of these drainages meet in the upper valley, and all of these drainages hold phenomenal backcountry ski terrain.  The ski terrain varies over the entire spectrum. Steep and rocky fourteeners and thirteeners provide legitamate ski-mountaineering objectives, tight couloirs, big faces and ultimate adventure. The Anthracite Range, Schuylkill, Coney’s, and Snodgrass provide low angle glade skiing, classic steeper backcountry lines. The Majestic Mount Emmons watches over the town and is a 360 degree host of every type of terrain a backcountry skier can ever want.

Andy Sovick ripping around the Schuykill zone.

Andy Sovick ripping around the Schuykill zone.

In the winter, unique orographic snowfall can put the western edge of the Crested Butte Zone at the top of the charts for the most snowfall in Colorado; famous cold temperatures can make newly fallen snow billow from your boots like fairy dust. In the spring, when the snowpack is deepest and generally gains stability, long gentle slopes and big skimo lines take form as small spring storms linger and refresh.

Lurking in the shadows of this backcountry paradise is Colorado’s infamous “continental” snowpack. Persistent slabs, buried surface hoar, rotten ground layers and extreme wind events only scratch the surface of the avalanche problems that plague Colorado’s snowpack. Crested Butte is no exception.  As an avid student of avalanche snow science, I’m always amazed by the amount of variables that come along with avalanche forecasting. Conditions change, literally, every minute of every day. Forecasters and beginners alike are charged with doing their best to keep up on the information as it comes in, while remembering the past conditions, while predicting future conditions!

Matt shredding some quality Colorado fluff.

Matt shredding some quality Colorado fluff.

What is one part of the avalanche recipe that never changes? Terrain. Terrain is the only constant. One of the single greatest influences I ever had in my skiing carrer came from an instructor of a class I took when I was a teenager. The class was titled “Terrain and Route Finding in Avalanche Country”.  From this class, the idea was born to create a terrain based photographic atlas of all backcountry runs. I believe that just as a kayaker scouts his run and commits it to memory, a backcountry sker should too. With Backcountry Skiing Crested Butte and Rakkup’s powerful planning tools, you can read your run the night, week, or month before. You can refer to it as you travel through the field assess your conditions and adjust your plan.