April 14, 2002, Coal Pass (Mt. Baker backcountry)

WA Cascades West Slopes North (Mt Baker)
Posted by ema on 7/14/02 9:53am
For some reason no one wanted to go backcountry skiing today. Some people mentioned the predicted heavy snowfall, hurricane-force winds, atrocious visibility and plummeting temperatures in begging off, while others spoke of the four or five inches of rain that fell to high elevations on Friday and Saturday. One frequent skiing partner, obviously spoiled by years of living on the far side of the Cascades, said "This is the worst forecast I've ever seen," and allowed as how, while I might call him if I wished, he could in no way imagine finding any reason to go skiing under such heinous conditions.

So I went alone. As a precaution I slept late and woke up slowly, figuring that the longer I waited for conditions to improve, the better my chances would be. While I slept it stopped raining and started snowing, and the Mt. Baker Highway was closed due to trees which were toppled onto the highway and power lines by hundred mile-per-hour winds. After early-rising skiers were delayed for a couple of hours, the highway reopened just as I woke up and staggered into the kitchen. Around noon, waiting for my double latte in Maple Falls, I met Tim Place, who was on his way home already after skiing "a couple of inches of sludge over slush." Thus encouraged, I drove to the snowline on the Coal Creek Road behind the town of Glacier, geared up and began slogging up the road.

This route came highly recommended by a person who is normally quite reliable in such matters. "Avalanche safe," I believe he called it. This appeared true, for whatever that's worth, by virtue of being a long, flat logging road through untold thousands of acres of unappealing clearcuts, with occasional splotches of monocultured second growth inserted into the landscape at random. I had a few choice words for my informant during the three hours it took me to slog ever so gradually uphill-heavy skis, heavy bindings, heavy boots and all-from 2100 feet to the knob above Coal Pass at 5100 feet. Visibility ranged from pathetic to nil for most of that time, so I dared not strike off through the devastation on my own; instead, I followed the road wherever it took me, making only one unintentional detour (which is to say, I got lost), which fortunately cost me only a bit of time and a few hundred feet of wasted climbing. In the end, having found what I took to be a coal mine buried under 15 feet of snow, I put my faith in the USGS and headed straight uphill to the pass. A fifteen minute sucker hole offered some localized views while I de-skinned, but by the time I set off downhill it was blowing hard on the ridge, snowing like crazy again, and my fingers had turned to stone.

Skiing was actually remarkably good: 6-10 inches of dry, unconsolidated powder over a firm, wet base, with windslab only along the ridge, where there are also cornices reforming. I got some sluffing in the storm snow on a couple of steep rolls, but for the most part I judged the snow reasonably stable and well-bonded. However, the recent reports of size 4 naturals running in newly isothermal snowpack north of here should be all the caution anyone needs after so much rain.

With a slight uphill breeze to help, there were face shots on every turn all the way down to 3600 feet, and enough snow had fallen while I was out and about so that I skied directly to the door of my van, just as I prefer to do...though some of this "skiing" consisted of poling myself delicately across a half-inch of slush over plants, dirt and roadbed gravel. On the downhill run I had less opportunity to complain about the post-apocalyptic landscape, too.

More snow is predicted for tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow night. If I was a man of leisure, I'd be out skiing again without question 12 hours from now. Another four months or so and all this snow'll be gone: carpe diem.



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2002-07-14 16:53:25