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!” 

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Backcountry Skiing Crystal Mountain Washington by Matt Schonwald

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Every December my excitement rises in anticipation of that chest deep blower run off Exterminator followed by a run out Northback then Southback then a few laps in FF Forest and Bullion before I hit the Elk with a perma grin. My first run in the NW over 30 years ago was the deepest day I had ever seen and I forgave the long lines and slow chairs as each run seared my brain like a brand that Crystal now owned my powder consciousness. Crystal sit in the sweet spot of the PNW, on the NE side of Mt Rainier giving it fantastic views and on the Pacific Crest straddling the East/West Divide. The altitude gives Crystal over 1,300’ above the rest of WA ski areas with its long ridge lines running from 6-7,000’, which is its best kept secret. Cold, stable, and even blower powder make touring worthy.

Skiers designed Crystal, they explored the area, took a few rides in avalanches before settling on the current spot. The founders brought over some Austrian to help develop the terrain and they even hosted a World Cup and National Championships in the 60’s. Like the story of Tatooine in Star Wars, Crystal faded from the public eye and as the lifts grew slow and unreliable, locals looked around the boundary and saw a gold mine. I spent 6 years living there as a ski patroller, waking up before sunrise to do control work excited to look out a see where I would tour next Year after year exploring a new bowl, a steep chute, and the Apres kept getting better as my friends would gather around the pitcher hatching the next adventure.

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Backcountry Skiing Mount Baker by Matt Schonwald

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How does a solid 7500 vertical foot ski descent from the top of a steaming volcano, with views of Canada, the San Juan Islands, and the heart of the North Cascades sound? If this sounds like your kind of thing, Mount Baker is your kind of mountain. Mount Baker, originally known to the Lummi as Komo Kulshan, aka the White Sentinel, was first sighted by the Spanish in 1790. 2 years later Captain George Vancouver discovered passage into the Salish Sea and the great renaming began with giving Kulshan the name: Mount Baker, after his lieutenant Joseph Baker who was the first of his crew to spot the volcano.  Locals discovered powder skiing in 1927 and the ski area opened in 1929.

The first uninterrupted climb and ski descent was achieved in 1933 by Hans Otto Giese and Don Fraser of the Seattle Ski Club. Apparently, they summited in 6.5 hours, and descended 6,750 feet in 30 minutes. Looking back on the particular gear they must have been climbing and skiing with, it is certainly humbling to think of the challenges men like these had to face in order to accomplish such high adventure with success. 90 years later passion to ride now is shared from Vancouver BC to Seattle driving up hwy 542 every weekend from November thru April to ride the biggest storms in the NW!

The Mt. Baker backcountry extends east to west from Mt. Shuksan to Mt. Baker connecting ridges of Shuksan Arm to Ptarmigan Ridge with expansive glaciers, powder bowls, technical couloirs, powder-filled glades and plenty of lower elevation trees. Many ski routes begin directly from the Mt. Baker Ski Area averaging the deepest snowpack in North America guaranteeing you can find fresh tracks somewhere.

What is one part of the avalanche recipe that never changes? Terrain. Terrain is the only constant. With Backcountry Skiing Mount Baker and Rakkup’s powerful planning and execution tools, you can read your run the night, week, or month before. Refer to it as you travel through the field, assess your conditions, and adjust your plan as necessary.

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