Last March I had the opportunity to travel Fairy Meadow and the Bill Putnam Hut in British Columbia, Canada for some backcountry skiing. The hut is located deep in the Adamant Range on the other side of Rogers Pass, and is only accessible via helicopter. And since heli rides are expensive, we only paid for two: one to drop off us, and one to pick us up 7 days later. On these flights we took everything we would need for a week of skiing, principally ski gear, food and booze. Doug, Megan, Gus and I shared the hut with 16 Canadians who we didn’t know prior to this adventure, but after a good amount of time bonding on the slopes and in the sauna, we became fast friends. Our week was essentially perfect: great snow, blue skies, delicious food and wonderful company. We took down some monster objectives, and played around in the trees searching for pillow lines to surf. The absence of electricity, let alone any sort of connectivity, helped us all focus on one of the most important aspects of life: shredding the gnar.
The email arrived in my inbox last Tuesday.
Short notice, but tomorrow night there will be clear skies and a waxing gibbous moon with 99% of of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated. So you know what that means…. skiing by the light of the moon!
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a moonlight ski tour, and tomorrow night we just happen to have an almost full moon AND clear skies. If anyone is interested I’d totally be down for an easy tour from the Alpental parking lot to Snow Lake and back. If we can get organized enough we can even do JetBoil s’mores on the moonlit shores of Snow Lake.
Besides wondering WTF a waxing gibbous moon was, I was in for sure. Seldom do I miss an opportunity to ski tour with buddies here in Seattle, and this was a once in the season kind of opportunity. If you’re unfamiliar with the Pacific Northwest winters, the mountains here get feet upon feet of snow. The only downside to this blessing is rarely do we enjoy clear skies. Needless to say, no cloud nights with a full moon during the ski season practically never happen. Wednesday night just happened to be the exception.
One of my favorite lines from last season was descending The Shuksan Arm just outside of the Mount Baker ski area. Ryan and I rode chair 8 up, and after getting grilled by a ski patroller, were allowed to leave the resort and skin along the ridge. It was late March and the snow was nearly perfect. Baker had been getting hammered all week, and this Sunday was the first time in days that the avalanche conditions were moderate enough to make a safe journey out onto the arm. After spending a little more than hour traversing the ridge, we ripped skins and charged down to the valley. The snow was light and crisp; turning was effortless.
With memories of this day in mind, Ryan and I returned to Shuksan Arm 8 months later, this time bringing along Keith, Beau, Gus, Megan and Austin. An early season storm had just cycled through the Mount Baker zone, and conditions looked ripe for a late November pow day. As always, I toted my Olympus Pen E-P3 camera for still photographs. This time out I brought along a new toy: a GoPro HD Hero2 video camera. Once we reached the top of the Arm, I strapped the camera to my dome and hit “REC.” I let it run the entire time we descended, about 25 minutes. The edit above compresses our descent to about 5 minutes, and uses still photographs I took on the skin up. The skiing at the top is steep, fun and deep. The skiing near the bottom is also steep, but our pace slows considerably as we try to maneuver treacherous cliffs, trees and rocks. The video is not intended to be a highlight reel; it’s a visual narrative of our approach, ascent and descent.
Only two weeks after our icy adventure up Mount Baker’s Coleman Glacier, we returned to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead for round II. Even on the drive in it was evident that we would be dealing with drastically different conditions. The snowline is now well below the parking lot (3,650′), making the last mile or so treacherous. I was happy to let Gus maneuver his Subaru along the winding road; had we been in my Volkswagen I would have chained up. Stepping out of the car at the trailhead the first thing that struck me was how cold it was. Keith, Gus and I quickly geared up and started hiking the Hogsback. The mud and rocks of October were now covered with snow and ice. We gladly endured knowing that less than a couple hours up the trail would be our first taste of powder for the season.
Sunday’s ski down the Coleman Glacier on the northwest slopes of Mount Baker was literally a bloody mess. Inspired by a trip report published on TurnsAllYear.com; Gus, Tristan, Megan and I designated October 23 as the day we would Occupy Baker. While we didn’t find boot deep pow; we did encounter a liberal amount of rocks, ice and treacherous terrain.
I woke up in the dirt and cold at 6 AM on Saturday morning. Despite the fact that I’m not following around Phish, sleeping in parking lots is starting to become a familiar trend. We had every intention of pitching a tent, but when we arrived at the trailhead on Friday night neither Ryan nor I had the urge to monkey around with it. We’d only left a bar in nearby Leavenworth 30 minutes earlier and were ready to just get some sleep. Thinking we’d be just as well off under the stars, we laid out our bags in the parking lot while Doug and Greta pitched a tent. Overlooking the fact that our sleeping bags were covered in a layer of morning frost, the night passed without incident. I stayed squarely on my closed cell foam pad and Thermarest; and my decade old 15 degree Mountain Hardware bag kept me toasty. Climbing out of the bag in 30 degree temps to start hiking 18 miles wasn’t exactly easy, but I suited up anyway. Several minutes later a Subaru full of Gus, Lauren, Justin, Carolyn, Dave and Becky rolled in to join Ryan, Greta Doug and me. The crew was all here now; the only thing left to do was hike from Stuart/Colchuck Lake trailhead to the Snow Lake trailhead. Only 18 miles, Aasgard Pass and 5000′ feet of climbing, a dozen or so lakes and 7500′ of descent separated the two.
Gus parked his Subaru in the tiny parking lot about a mile east of the Paradise Inn and Visitor Center at Mount Rainier. It was a familiar routine for the both of us: unloading gear and strapping skis to our backpacks. It’s just a little funny doing it when it is September and the temperature is in the 70s. (continue reading…)