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June 7, 2001, Skyline Divide, Mt. Baker

WA Cascades West Slopes North (Mt Baker)
Posted by ema on 9/15/02 9:06pm
Just a quick afternoon ski on Skyline Divide on the north side of Mt. Baker today. I left Bellingham around 4 in the afternoon and drove to the snow, about 3800 feet on the Deadhorse Road. I started walking up the road around 5:30, found the trail pretty free of snow at first, then suddenly completely covered at 5170 feet and vanished without a trace at 5200 (amazing how that happens). I got to the ridge crest a bit after 7, admired views for a bit, then skied here and there for a while on excellent corn just beginning to refreeze but still perfectly carveable. For my last run I thought I'd drop into a nice north-facing bowl, ski just 600 feet, then climb back out and return the way I came. Of course, the bowl was great, and it went on for a while, then narrowed into a little gully and rolled over steeply, then widened out again. I couldn't stop skiing - having too much fun - and next thing I knew it was 8:30 and I'd dropped rather far, and the woods were looking dark already. I added and subtracted and figured I'd be better off trying to continue on down the drainage, which would surely lead me out to the road near where I'd parked. If I climbed all the way back up I'd be trying to find my own original uptrack by headlamp, and there'd be the possibility of having to spend the night there. So I took off my skis and started booting down, following some bobcat tracks and making good time. 400 vertical feet from where I figured I'd intersect the road I ran out of snow in the little gully I was following, and it sounded like a waterfall below me, so I cut over into the woods. The sun was down and the brush was thick, but I didn't have far to go, and I watched my altimeter count down the vertical footage. A little after 9:00 I figured I was just a couple of hundred feet above the road. Now, you're all familiar with the forms, right? I mean, these stories follow predictable patterns, so you all understand that right around now there are only a couple of things that can happen: 1) impenetrable alder or willow thickets; 2) devil's club; 3) poison ivy; 4) broken bones; or 5) impassable cliff band.

I almost fell off the cliff. In fact, one leg did fall off the cliff, but I was able to stop before the rest of me followed. It was getting murky in the woods (which mainly consisted of thick slide alder anyway, all pointed downhill), and everything was damply covered with a coating of slimy green moss, and there were branches in the way so I couldn't really see where I was putting my feet, even when I wasn't too busy trying to thread my skis through the trees to bother watching where I was going. So I couldn't really tell there was a cliff, but once I realized my leg was dangling there I yanked it back. Then I had to climb back uphill a ways, and try and traverse to the right where it looked more open. At one point I looked down and saw the road 100 feet below me. Then I traversed for about 15 minutes, working hard, and moved another ridiculously short distance to the right. I looked down and saw my car, parked against a snowbank right there at the bottom of this little 50 foot cliff.

I thought a lot about what I'd tell the search and rescue people when they came yelling for me in the morning, and found me napping, tangled in the slide alder fifty feet above the road. I thought about that short length of 7mm line I sometimes carry, sitting at home by the front door in a stuff bag with a bit of webbing and a single biner for short rappels. I also thought a lot (and this is really humiliating) about how Lou Dawson is right when he says duckbill toes are really unwieldy and silly, since it seemed like I could've managed a lot better in the (mossy, slippery, downhill-pointed, increasingly dark) slide alder if I was wearing almost anything but tele boots. But in the end, of course, I found a place where I could toss down my pack (freshly sharpened ski edges rattling and clanking a bit) and follow it carefully down the cliff, mixing hand-over-hand on all these very suspect-looking bushes with judicious placement of my whippet in patches of mossy mud. I got to ! the car at a quarter 'til ten, and it was still light out and the sky was still all sorts of nice colors. Must be summer here in the PNW.



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2002-09-16 04:06:06