Category Archives: Mount Baker

Out with a misadventure

It was the winter that began with a whimper, slumped into a coma, and ended with a misadventure. On what would turn out to be the final day, we set out with high hopes for Mount Baker’s Skyline Divide. After a brief moment of over-ambition on the access road when we almost sank the car in snow that was deeper than we expected, we found a safe parking spot and headed a short way up to the trailhead and a beautiful hike through a fairytale forest. A light breeze span snowflakes from the trees, and they glittered and sparkled in the sunlight like a reminder of better winters that had come before.

Skyline Divide trail

The snow cover on the lower half of the trail wasn’t great, and as we hauled our skis up half-exposed steps we all acknowledged that it might be a challenging exit. But then we came to open meadows where the snow was dense but thicker, and finally to the open ridge of the Divide where Shuksan hovered on the horizon and a series of progressively steeper drop-ins led to a huge, dreamy open bowl. The snow seemed very stable and we agreed that no pit was necessary, but we should ski one at a time for the first run.

Skyline Divide

It only took two turns for disaster to strike. I was fiddling with gear and had let the other three go slightly ahead, with M taking the first run. By the time I concluded my binding adjustment and joined them, M was down and clutching a knee a couple of hundred yards below us and D was on his way down to join him. J told me that M had fallen and was hurt, and that D was going to check things out.

After a few minutes of watching M rock back and forwards over his knee, I realised that we weren’t dealing with a trivial situation. This is a guy who’s tough as nails. Conscious that we hadn’t done any testing of the slope, I asked J to stay on the ridge and skied down to join D and M. A pale and shaky M explained that he’d hooked the back of his ski as he turned, and it had twisted his knee and he’d heard a pop as he went down. At that point I knew that our day as we’d planned it was over, and that whatever it had turned into was going to be long and hard.

J on the ridge

All three of us agreed that our initial priority had to be getting off the untested slope as soon as M felt he was able to move. D and I thought we were going to have to carry him, but he insisted that he could make it on his own if we were able to take his skis and backpack. One agonizing step at a time, he slowly and painfully crawl-hobbled back to the ridge. Once we were there he collapsed in the snow, and we began a proper assessment of our situation. M kept insisting he wanted us to ski at least one run before we began figuring out how to extract, but D and I were firm that the only remaining objective for the day was to get him down safely.

Blown knee hobble
We did a quick skills and equipment inventory. D was the best equipped to look at making a rescue sled from M’s skis; I had more first aid experience, particularly when it came to knee injuries. We had three decent first aid kits between us. J, unfortunately, didn’t have a first aid kid with him – a lapse that M would later note that he needed to address in trip requirements.

We pooled resources and I used adhesive bandage to strap M’s knee securely, and then used his ski skins, a powder leash and two triangular sling bandages to construct a splint that would hold the joint in place. With the splint secured he gingerly tried taking some weight on the leg and announced that he thought he could begin the walk down on his own. The snow was starting to soften in the midday warmth, and the seven kilometres between us and the car seemed like a very long way indeed.

Ski skin splint

It was a painful journey down. M was determined to make it under his own steam; the ski skin splint held together and gave his leg the stability it needed, but every now and then his foot would sink in the snow or he’d trip on a root or step and yell out in agony. J kept skiing far ahead until D finally told him he had to stay closer to the group in case we needed him. The snow was heavy and wet higher up and patchy and thin lower down, and even on skis it wasn’t an easy journey. M’s determination and courage was astounding, even as his pace grew slower and slower.

Eventually, amazingly, we reached the trailhead. At this point I went ahead to the car, which was only a few minutes down the road, and made sure it was open and ready for M to collapse in a seat as soon as he arrived. I shoveled ice into a plastic grocery bag so that he had a makeshift ice pack waiting. After that, it was just a case of speeding him back to the land of socialized medicine as fast as we could.

Wounded soldier

In retrospect, we did a lot of things right. We made sure we weren’t all on an untested slope at the same time. We prioritized getting off that slope. We overrode M when he wanted us to take a run before starting the extraction. We had the right mix of skills, experience and equipment to be able to deal with the injury and prepare for the eventuality that M might not be able to walk down on his own. And if the worst had happened, I was carrying a Delorme InReach that we could have used to activate a rescue.

We were also lucky. If M hadn’t been able to walk by himself and endure the pain that went along with that, the extraction would have been much longer and harder. And there were some lessons to be learned. J was really uncertain as to how to deal with the situation; we could have harnessed him better with some direct instruction early on. It was also not ideal that we had someone on the trip who wasn’t carrying even the most basic first aid supplies.

Overall, it felt like the right day to call time on a winter that fell so short of our hopes.

Desperately seeking snow

Oh, winter. It’s been a tragic start this year, with everything below about 1500m pretty much bereft of snow and most of what’s higher just shark’s fins and rain crust. The same pictures of bony terrain everywhere, from the Duffey down the Sea to Sky and all the way out to the Coq.

Heliotrope Ridge trail

But it’s winter, dammit, and we should be skiing. So last Sunday a determined group of us drove up Glacier Creek road, strapped our skis to our backs, and went for a long slog up the bare earth of the Heliotrope Ridge trail and an icy Hogsback in our ski boots. (Bad mistake on our part; we should have taken approach shoes.) The first part of our day was just a pleasant walk in the woods.

Tragic snowline

Then we crested the ridge, and there they were at last. The jumbled blue blocks of the icefall, the wind-rimed rocks of Colfax and above it all, the towering peak of Baker. A wind we couldn’t even feel tore spindrift from the summit, and I suddenly realised that the last time I was on skis I’d been standing up there, inside the sky, higher than I’d ever been.

Heliotrope Ridge

As we set out onto the Coleman the rain crust creaked beneath our skins and the deep green of the valleys behind us told the sad story of the snow that hasn’t come this year. But it didn’t matter. With each step the world fell a little further behind us, and I was finally back in the landscape I’ve been missing since the moment I left it. It’s such a wild, staggering beauty that we find out here in the mountains, in places that were never really meant for people.

Baker and Colfax

I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for the ski down, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. On the Coleman the rain crust wasn’t icy but very dense and chalky: a glacier groomer. We flew down as far as the Hogsback, then clattered over ice to the bare earth of the trail and a very uncomfortable 5km hike back to the car. It was a lot of walking and not the finest skiing, but that was the last thing I cared about. It just felt so incredibly good to be back in the mountains.

Heliotrope views

The grand finale

I’m not sure if winter’s really over; I think it’s just higher up.

Coleman Glacier

It started at a roadside cafe where we basked in shirtsleeves in the early morning sunshine and sipped strong coffee as we discussed plans for the next two days. With conditions and weather perfectly aligned the goal we set was as ambitious as it could be: the summit of Mount Baker. At the trailhead we layered on sunscreen and strapped our skis to our packs for a long slog up a dry trail. It didn’t seem remotely possible that by the end of the day, we’d be skiing.

Setting out, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest(Photo credit: Chris Duppenthaler)

After a draining 5km shouldering all our gear on our overnight packs, we reached snow consistent enough that we were finally able to switch to skis and skin the final stretch up to Heliotrope ridge. I’d been near this place before, but at the tag end of winter beneath a layer of snow it looked quite different. We scouted a few patches of bare rock, but they all led to sharp rollovers within a few metres. With no better options, we set camp on the glacier.

Camp on Heliotrope Ridge

I was very conscious that I’d be skiing at least part of the descent with a much heavier pack than I’d ever carried before, and so I chose not to bring a tent. After digging a snowpit and laying my sleeping bag in a bivvy sack that resembled nothing so much as a giant burrito wrapper, I started to question the wisdom of this decision. At this point, though, it was much too late to do anything about it.

We did an hour or so of crevasse rescue training, including self-arrest and setting up a ratchet system, and then with a couple of hours to kill before sunset we headed up to the Black Buttes for some glacier skiing before bed. Cloud closed in around us on the ascent, then blew away as we skied back to camp. It was a glorious place to be at the end of the day.

Twin Sisters from the Black Buttes

By dinnertime the temperature was dropping and the warmth of the rehydrated food was almost worth the horrible taste. With a forecast temperature of -5 overnight, I filled my Camelbak with hot water from the jetboil before wriggling into my burrito wrapper. I also put on every piece of clothing I had with me: puffy, shell, heavy gloves, toque, two pairs of socks, even my ski boot liners as extra foot insulation.

Sunset over the Cascades

It was a strange night. Cold and uncomfortable and lonely, but intensely beautiful. In one direction, the burning sun was sinking over the ocean behind the dark ridges of the North Cascades. In the other, Colfax and Baker dominated the horizon, glowing gold in the fading light. As the night wore on and I drifted in and out of strange metadreams where I was at home and rushing to get back to the mountain for the summit attempt, every time I opened my eyes I saw the tangled ribbon of the Milky Way sprawling across the sky and Baker peak stained silver by stars brighter than any I’d ever seen. It was stunning and surreal.

Baker dawn

Finally I woke to see a deep blue dawn seeping into the edges of the sky. In its indigo shadows we rose quickly, ate a swift breakfast, strapped our skis to our backs and began cramponing up the icy face of the Coleman. An hour or so later, the sun finally broke over the horizon. High on the glacier, with nothing but rock and ice all around us and the distant shadows of green valleys falling into darkness far below, it felt like the morning of the first day on earth. As though I’d never seen the world before, at least not like this.

Dawn on the Coleman

Then, the climbing. I’ve worked hard this season. I’ve done back-to-back days of 2,500m vert on a few occasions. I’ve pushed myself to new zones, taken my fitness to places it hasn’t been before. This turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done by some distance.

Climbing below Colfax

Up and up we climbed. Slopes that looked like one straightforward stretch actually turned out to be hiding two, three more steep sections. Seeing the tiny dots of other groups ahead of us, and the immense amount of ground still ahead of them, made me realise that I’d completely failed to understand the scope of what I’d set out to do. It was bigger, higher, longer, and on an exponentially larger scale than anything I’d ever contemplated before. Yet it was also the most dramatic and inspiring place I’d ever been. The towering ice cliffs of Colfax; the giant, jumbled seracs of the icefall; the gaping blue maws of incomprehensibly deep crevasses.

Seracs below Colfax

Right up until the ridge below the Roman Wall, I was doing great. I was feeling strong, skinning hard, happy to set the trail. We took a break below the ridge, ingesting as much food as we could and melting water to top up our supplies. Then we switched to crampons and ice axes and began the final climb that would take us onto the Deming and eventually, up the unbelievably steep Roman Wall to the summit.

Onto the Deming

I haven’t used crampons much, and not at all on consequential slopes, so I slowed down at this point as I figured out how best to place my feet and maximize upward momentum. Even so, I was still feeling reasonably good. But as we transitioned onto the Roman Wall and the grade steepened again, the altitude hit. Kicking steps into a 40 degree slope with skis on my back after seven hours of climbing would have been hard at the best of times; at 10,000 feet, it was exponentially harder. I kept going as steadily as I could, very conscious of the growing sprawl of the Deming and its open crevasses beneath me. I knew by this point that I was going to make the summit, but also that it was going to be the toughest thing I’d ever done.

Start of the Roman Wall

One step, two steps. Kick and stamp. Take your time, set your foothold; otherwise your crampon’s going to slide in the softening snow and your effort will be wasted. You’re almost there. One step, two steps. Breathe deep. Keep going. One more step, another step, another step. The top of the world is so very close. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Just keep kicking, one step after another after another.

Then somehow, in all the sweat and slog and gasping breath of it, there wasn’t any more up. Just a flat plateau, drifting in and out of view in the huge clouds of sulphur that were swirling across from the fumaroles. We jumped back into our skis and raced across the snowfield to Grant Peak, adrenaline giving us the burst of energy we needed.

Final steps to Grant Peak

And there it was: a little bump on this immense plateau in the sky. Just a few more metres of climbing to take us to our final destination, the highest I’ve ever been. Everything was below us; the entire world. The peak of Shuksan, which normally dominates the landscape, was more than a thousand feet down. Every direction I looked, there was so much beauty: peaks upon peaks, and yet this gaping chasm of vertical distance between them and the mountaintop where I was standing. It was staggering.

Baker Peak - on top of the world

I’d wondered for a long time about how this moment would feel, if I ever achieved it. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of for years, since the very first time I saw Mount Baker floating on the horizon and began to appreciate its immensity compared to the mountain ranges around it. In the end, there were no deep thoughts. I was too exhausted for reflection. It was just about being there and drinking in the sight of it all: these views so hard-won, so unique, so much more than I’d imagined.

Here’s what I didn’t imagine, though. That if and when this ever happened, I’d leave the summit on skis.

Skiing the Roman Wall(Photo credit: Chris Duppenthaler)

The initial descent was nerve-wracking. For the steep roll off the Roman Wall from the summit, I executed an ungainly sideslip. Then I coaxed my burning quads into a first turn, let it run out, and then came back for another. And suddenly realised it was okay, and let it fly. The run that followed was unbelievable, the mother of all ski descents. Ten hours of climbing disappeared in 45 minutes of beautiful spring corn. My legs were beyond tired and I had to pause periodically to let them recharge, but seeing the glacier disappear so fast beneath us and the green valleys drawing closer was pure magic.

Descent on the Coleman

The last stretch was tough. We stopped briefly at camp to pack up our gear, and then skied another couple of kilometres in deep, heavy spring snow before we had to put our skis back on our packs for the hike out. By this point my quads were a quivering, burning mess, and the final 5km on the hiking trail felt like it took a century.

Climber's trail, Heliotrope Ridge

It was a week before my legs felt like they belonged to me again. My face was badly burned in spite of multiple coats of SPF 50, and I learned the hard way that it’s very important to put sunscreen up your nose when you’re on a glacier. The night in the snowpit was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever had. But somewhere in there were moments of magic, moments of awe, scenes I never thought I’d see. Somewhere in there I stood on the roof of the world, not just touching the sky but actually inside it. The rewards were beyond measure.

And that’s the end, at least for this year.  Ski season’s over now. There’s still so much to reflect on, such a crazy amount of learning that went far beyond the things I did on skis, but the world where these things happened is going away for a while. It’s never easy to say goodbye, but that was a fine way to go out.

Happy skier(Photo credit: Chris Duppenthaler)

Inbounds Baker day

I’d planned to head to Whistler last weekend, but when I checked the snow forecast and saw that it had had three inches of snow to Baker’s two feet there wasn’t much of a contest. I grabbed my passport and headed for the border.

Slides on the Shuksan Arm

Outside the ski area numerous slides were visible, including the one in the picture above that extended across three ridges on the Shuksan Arm. However when I chatted to a guy on the chairlift who’d skied Herman Mountain that morning, he said the snow had already stabilized really well on that side of the bowl.

I arrived 24 hours after the storm ended, so there wasn’t much untracked snow left inbounds. I was lucky enough to grab one run through Gunner’s Bowl to the Canyon right after it opened, and a couple of subsequent runs where I was only crossing a handful of tracks. As the Canyon area tracked out I took a couple of runs through the Danger Zone and the Chute, where the snow in the lower part of the run was fantastic. Then I headed for Pan Face and spent the rest of the day happily charging through the deep snow, exploring new lines and finally getting some extended time on soft snow after the long, long drought at Whistler.

Baker views from Pan Face

 

Later in the day some light cloud drifted in from the north, shrouding Shuksan’s peak and casting strange light over Panorama Dome. I grabbed one last, quick run through the trees to the Raven Hut, then rode the final chair past the Legendary Banked Slalom course to the ski out. Given the snow at Baker and the fact that yet another dry week followed at Whistler, I had no regrets about my decision to head south for the day.

Beauty Baker day

Early last week some much needed snow finally arrived, only for high winds to chase it all over the mountains before high pressure returned at the weekend. With reverse loading and a rapid warming trend contributing to a fluctuating danger level and a special advisory from the CAC about the unpredictability of current conditions, we scaled back our touring plans. Friday was another fun day of shredding groomers in the sun at Whistler, and on Saturday we headed south to Baker for some backcountry laps.

It was a gorgeous drive down, with drifting fog in the Fraser Valley giving way to a golden sunrise that lingered behind the dark outlines of Baker and Shuksan. Even the huge speeding ticket I picked up on the empty streets of Sumas (no sympathy for Canadian plates) didn’t do much to dent our anticipation.  By the time we reached the Heather Meadows parking lot after breakfast at the Wake ‘n’ Bakery, the skies were blue and it felt like a spring morning.

Bagley Lakes bowlWe skinned rapidly up the cat track to the ski area boundary, and headed out toward the Blueberry Chutes. It was already apparent that it was going to be a very warm day, and on the south side of the bowl loose wet snow was already starting to slide. I somehow managed the last steep climb to the top of the chutes without falling on my face (unlike last time), and was rewarded with stunning views of Shuksan and the Shuksan Arm in the morning light.

Shuksan

While B took a break I followed the skin track toward where the peak of Baker rose tantalizingly above pristine snow dunes. After climbing over a couple of small ridges the landscape dropped away in front of me, revealing Baker in all its glory. It was the most jaw-dropping view I’d ever seen: Baker ahead, Shuksan behind, and blue mountains filling the horizon to the north.

BakerI skied back through the dunes to where B was waiting, and we prepared to drop into the Blueberry Chutes. B went first, and I followed once I saw him emerge on the valley floor far below. As I dropped over a steep roll at the top of the chutes I slipped into the backseat, my tips shot away from me and I flipped over into the snow. It was so deep that I didn’t slide far in spite of the slope angle. I dusted myself off, and proceeded a little shakily down the chute. The snow was fantastic, a little heavy but amazingly deep, but my turns were all over the place. On the apron I regrouped with B for a few smoother turns and a hop over the little creek.

Blueberry ChutesOn the skin back through the bowl for another run I developed a problem with my bindings about two-thirds of the way up. Once I took the skis off for the transition, I discovered that the culprit was a considerable amount of clear ice that had formed inside the toe piece and directly underneath the pivot point. It’s the first problem I’ve had with icing on the Guardians but I’ve heard this issue mentioned elsewhere, so I’m going to do some more digging on it. I chipped the ice out with my ski pole, clicked back in, and took off for a glorious second run.

Skiing the chutes

Runout from the loose slides on the south faces was starting to reach the skin track through the centre of the bowl, and over on the north riders were releasing some pretty large sluffs, so after one more run from the top of a small outcropping we headed back. We skinned along the valley floor in shirtsleeves with the sun on our faces, feeling like we’d stumbled into summer. It was easily one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever spent out in the mountains.

Baker backcountry views

Endless snow

Even though my home mountain is Whistler, and I’m insanely grateful to have the world’s number one ski resort in my own backyard, I have a very soft spot for Mount Baker. Baker has no luxury condos, no high-end restaurants, no massages or hot tubs or amenities. It’s a long drive on a mountain highway from the nearest town, with rickety chairlifts that risk taking you out at the knees if the lifties don’t slow them down. Baker is a true skier’s mountain, where all that matters is the terrain and the snow and the backcountry waiting past the gates. It’s something that seems to have become very rare in the modern skiing culture.

I love the drive to Baker. In the rain and the pre-dawn darkness, along Highway 542 past the whitewater of the Nooksack River to the heavy, moss-laden trees of Snoqualmie, it has a character all its own. A character that suits a ski area that really isn’t a resort. Baker days have their own traditions. Early starts, sneaking across the border long before the lineup begins, eating breakfast at the Wake ‘n’ Bakery in Glacier to a backdrop of fascinating conversations among locals and heroes reliving past tours and planning those to come.

We started this morning on C-7, with not a single track marking the inch or two of overnight snow on the groomers below us. Flat light made the first runs challenging, with little ability to tell how the terrain was changing in front of us. We’d start a smooth series of turns, and then find ourselves pitched wildly off kilter. It wasn’t until the third or fourth run that the visibility improved a bit, and we found some soft snow in the trees and really started to enjoy ourselves.

Baker day

From there, it just got better and better. A little wind-formed jump led down to the Canyon, where deep untracked fresh snow lay just to skier’s right of the main route in. The Canyon itself was glorious soft-tracked snow, almost a second natural half-pipe. Off the top of C-6 we ducked the ropes into the Extreme Danger Zone and found untouched, bottomless powder, the kind where you can’t even tell where the skis end and you begin. The Danger Zone (which isn’t all that dangerous if you don’t duck the second rope into the cliffs) spat us out into the lower half of the Chute, where we tore through deep soft snow to an unexpected ski-out to the lift.

After a morning of heavy snow, in the afternoon it really started dumping. This was the moment when I truly understood the magic of Baker, the reason this small ski area in the PNW regularly beats out the rest of the globe for annual snowfall. It pounded. The snow hammered us on the lifts, on the runs; it snuck under goggle rims and down jackets and up noses and into lungs and anywhere that it could find a home. It snowed in a way I’ve never seen it snow before, huge fat flakes tumbling down in a churning chaos of white that obliterated the world. And with every passing moment, this endless snow piled up deeper and deeper on the runs.

Heavy snow at Baker

We found a powder zone in the trees between C-4 and C-3, and lapped it again and again. On the edges of what had at one time been a groomed run, we found deep untracked powder that yielded huge, surfy turns. In the trees we found tiny pillows that dropped us from deep snow to deeper snow, so soft and floating that you almost couldn’t tell whether you were in the air or already landing. And still it kept snowing: hammering down, filling in our tracks the moment we’d left them, preparing our own private powder zone for yet another glorious run. It was the kind of snow I’ve dreamed of for a lifetime, and there was nobody there but us.

By the time we rode C-6 up for the final run back down to the White Salmon base area we were almost beyond speech. The snow coated us in white as we sat on the chairlift, and all we could do was shake our heads and utter cliches and grin like maniacs. The last run was a chaotic, high-speed blast down churned groomers and through a powder-filled halfpipe, back to a parking lot where the car was buried deep. It seemed only right that it was hard to extricate ourselves from this place, this snow.

Snow at Baker

Most of the way up the mountain

A couple of weeks ago we set out to climb Mount Baker. I’d just been through a serious relapse of the illness that laid me low earlier this summer, and J wasn’t sure how the night out on the Hogsback Ridge before summit day would go, but we were both determined to enjoy ourselves and get as far as we could.

Heliotrope Ridge trail

The Heliotrope Ridge trail was beautiful. We made our way steadily uphill through dense forests and past tumbling waterfalls, stopping here and there so our guide could point out a feature from our ski descent of the Coleman Glacier last winter. The forest was unrecognizable in summer green, the gully where we’d skied a perfect natural halfpipe now a chattering creek with narrow logs for us to cross cautiously under the weight of our packs.

Heliotrope Ridge climber's trail

After a while the trail emerged onto a steep, narrow ridgeline with glimpses of snow ahead and meadows of wildflowers sweeping down the mountainside to our left and right. The peak of Baker loomed like a towering stormcloud over the eastern horizon, and we crested a small rise to find a view to end all views ahead of us: the duelling seracs of the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers, with the blue blocks of the icefall behind them.

Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers and Baker Peak

Hogsback Ridge, our campsite for the night, wasn’t much further up the trail. Warm winds shook the wildflowers as we climbed a small snow patch and over loose shards of crumbling volcanic rock. The ridge itself was a strange spot, desolate and barren for the most part but dotted here and there with splashes of colour where the grass and lupins had ventured a little further up. We pitched our tents and headed up to the Coleman Glacier for some practice with ice axes and crampons.

Crampon practice on the Coleman Glacier

Just to the left of our practice area was the route I skied down back in the winter, now with exposed rock at the top of the face and a couple of enormous crevasses bridging it lower down. I hadn’t realised just how high we’d been that day, or how steep some of the lines were; the view was different with skis on my feet.

Self arrest on the Coleman Glacier

Practice over, we returned to the campsite for a revolting dinner of rehydrated food before most of the crew turned in for the night. J and I stayed up to watch the sun sink into the valleys to the west, painting the skyline with fire as it dipped below the horizon.

Baker sunset

We left our tent flap open during the night, which led to many of the small mice that live on the ridge tap-dancing on me as I slept but also to a view of the most amazing night sky I’ve ever seen. The stars were so bright they bathed the glacier above us and the peak of Mount Baker in silver; the Milky Way was a bright splash of ribbon twisting from one side of the sky to the other.  I wish I’d had a camera that could have captured it.

Baker at dawn

A strong wind whipped down off the glacier during the night, turning the tent into a giant drum. Between that and the mice, neither of us slept much. Joseph woke us at 4am, shortly before a blue dawn began to seep over the eastern horizon. Watching the sun rise over Baker peak was another experience I’ll never forget.

Sunrise over Baker

J was experiencing some migraine symptoms after the sleepless night, so we decided we’d be better off heading down rather than pressing on for the summit with dizziness a risk. Once it was fully light we struck the tent, loaded up our packs, and headed back down the trail. Descending the steep ridgeline so heavily loaded and in plastic mountaineering boots was an interesting challenge that gave my quads the best workout they’ve had in a long time.

Even though we didn’t make the summit, it was one of the most memorable hiking experiences of my life. The beautiful hike through the forest, the deep blue views from the ridge fading into sunset, and sleeping under the stars below the peak of Baker itself. Next time, we’ll make it to the top.

The day I skied down an active volcano

On Sunday the alarm went off at 5am, and after feeding three happy cats and three small foster kittens I set out for Baker. All cars were being stopped at an alcohol checkpoint on the highway entry ramp, but when the cop saw the skis in the back seat and I explained that I was headed down to the States for a tour she waved me onwards. Clearly I wasn’t heading home after an all-night party.

I arrived in Glacier at 7.30am, and had time for a leisurely breakfast with Zack Giffin before our guide Joseph arrived. My ski buddy B wasn’t able to make the trip, so I wasn’t sure exactly who I’d be setting out with. In the event my tour partners were Stephanie and Norman, an awesome couple from Vancouver who were infinitely better skiers than I am.

Heliotrope Ridge Trail views

We piled our gear into Joseph’s car, and he drove us up the Glacier Creek road. The snowline was still low enough that we had to leave the car a good 5km below the trailhead. A bike and trailer in a snowbank raised a few questions, but mostly we were just eager to get going. We strapped our skis and skins on, and headed upwards. For the first kilometre the snow came and went, and we found ourselves switching between bootpacking and skinning until the coverage got a little more consistent.

Skinning on Glacier Creek Road

The snow-covered road ended at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead, but we ignored the summer hikers’ trail and headed directly upward through the trees. The snow was a funky, crusty mess of leaves, moss and twigs, but the skins made it easy and before long we popped out at the foot of a drainage below the ridge. Cloud hung low overhead and Joseph pointed out our destination: a tiny notch of rock far above us, just below the place where the sky began.

Drainage

We started skinning straight up the drainage, with Joseph holding the pace slow and steady in the front. The snow was much wetter and stickier than anything I’d skinned on previously, and I was happy to discover that this made it much easier to keep going without slipping than I’d found on similarly steep lines. (I’m starting to understand what a backcountry gaper I was at the start of the season; as well as the issue of having skins too narrow for my skis, I also know now that I should have purchased nylon rather than mohair, which is better suited to gliding than climbing.)

Heading for Heliotrope Ridge

Skinning is a wonderfully mind-clearing activity. Once you get into a rhythm you simply keep moving – kick, glide, kick, glide – until suddenly you’re a thousand feet above your starting point. All the bullshit and stress falls clean out of your head, and the only things that matter are you and the mountain and the snow and the steady rhythm that keeps you moving forward.

At some point we crossed the freezing line, and the light rain that had kept us cool turned to snow. On a lonely island of grass and rock two ptarmigan bobbed their heads briefly, and then the cloud closed in around us and we skinned the final stretch to the ridge inside a white mist that hid the world away. On the ridge we stopped for a break and some food, and the shifting cloud gave tantalizing glimpses of the glacier and icefall ahead.

Heliotrope Ridge (Photo credit: Joseph Anderson, Peregrine Expeditions)

After a brief refuel we continued on a steady ascending traverse across the glacier. The cloud closed in tight around us, giving no hint of what lay above or below. The whiteout was so intense that when I looked back at Stephanie and Norman, it looked as though they were skiing down from above even though I knew they were climbing the skin track behind us. I literally couldn’t tell up from down.

We climbed for another hour or so before Joseph decided it was time to head downwards. We transitioned in a bubble of fog, with absolutely no idea what we were heading into. Fortunately Joseph knew the glacier even better than the back of his hand, so he led the way. It’s hard to find the words to describe the sensation of turning my skis onto the fall line as I left the skin track. Descending absolutely blind onto the face of the Coleman Glacier was both hugely disconcerting and enormously exciting. The slope was very low angle to begin with, which was probably just as well considering how little we could see.

After a half-dozen careful turns behind Joseph on the perfect corn snow, the miracle happened: we dropped out of the cloud and suddenly the mountain opened up in front of us. Directly downhill, there was nothing but snow. An insanely, immensely huge face spreading out before us and angling sharply downward just ahead of the roll where we’d emerged. To the left, a great white curve leading back up to the ridge. To our right, a crazed jumble of snow and the huge blocks of the icefall scattered across the glacier’s tongue. Behind us, a sudden break of blue sky and the immense, impossibly high peak of Baker itself.

Icefall

At that moment, I would have done the 5,000ft climb all over again to be exactly where I was. Hell, I would have done it twice if I’d needed to.

We skied down the steeper face of the glacier, and it was beyond words. Perfect spring snow, easy skiing, turns so huge and wide that it felt like I was in a different, larger dimension. A space where anything was possible.

Coleman Glacier

We flew down to the freezing line, where the snow got grabby and we bore hard left over a series of ridges. At the toe of the glacier we descended through a short, narrow gully and then into the trees, where things got interesting for me. I haven’t done a whole lot of tree skiing, and this was dense forest with a rotten, debris-filled snowpack. For the first part of the ski out I lagged badly behind the others, and found myself doing a fair bit of sideslipping and barely missing trunks and logs.

Gnarly tree skiing

After a while we reached a ridgeline, and put our skins back on to hike up and over. I hadn’t realized that my sodden skins weren’t sticking to the skis that well, and as we came down the other side of the ridge my skis suddenly lost their ability to hold an edge and I skidded and fell on a big pile of disintegrating snow. When I checked out the culprit, there was more than an inch of ice packed between the skin and the ski. I knocked it off, put the skins away, and prepared for the final ski out. This time I stuck close behind Stephanie, and as she did the route-finding I began handling the rotten snow and tight trees much better. By the time we hit the final descent down to a creek and bootpack back up to the trailhead, I actually felt like I had a pretty good flow going for the first time since we’d entered the trees. The final stretch was an easy cruise down the bumpy road.

Heliotrope Ridge trailhead

We also solved mystery of the bike in the snowbank as we arrived back at the car. The owner was strapping a pair of skis to the trailer as we passed him, and explained that he’d cycled from Bellingham the night before, camped on the trail, gotten up at the crack of dawn to climb, summited Baker, skied down, and was now preparing to cycle back to Bellingham before dark. Hardcore.

It’s nearly a week later now, but I’m still on a high from the tour. It was the perfect way to round off my first season in the backcountry. Joseph has an amazing knack for picking routes that push you the perfect distance outside your comfort zone: far enough to make you try things you would never have done on your own, but not so far that you don’t want to try those things again.

Monday morning seemed like a total anticlimax. At the same time, there’s something kind of awesome about answering the question “How was your weekend?” with “Oh, pretty good. I skied down an active volcano.” For all the backcountry skiing dreams I had when I lived in the UK, that’s something that never even crossed my mind. I’m pretty stoked that it’s now something I can say I’ve done. The only problem is that I really, really, really want to do it again.

Into the Baker backcountry

There’s an almost reverential note that enters skiers’ voices when they talk about the Baker backcountry. The scale of the lines, the sheer volume of snow, the accessibility of it all: for an aspiring backcountry skier, there are very few goals that compare. So when B and I saw a Living Social deal for a $75 ski tour with Peregrine Expeditions, we couldn’t sign up fast enough. Following our couple of mini-tours and the AST course, we thought Beginning Backcountry Part II would be pretty much perfect for progressing our skills.

And so yesterday morning we crossed the border at dawn and assembled at the Wake ‘n’ Bakery in Glacier, Washington, to meet with our guide and Peregrine Expeditions owner Joseph Anderson. (I recommend the Wake ‘n’ Bakery breakfast burrito without reservation: not only is it packed full of bacon, it fuelled me comfortably for many hundreds of vertical metres of skinning.) While we waited for the other two people on the tour to arrive, Joseph took us through some basic map-reading and route-finding skills. I hadn’t used a UTM grid before, so that combined with the GPS was really useful. Then we drove up to the Heather Meadows parking lot at Mount Baker for the start of the tour.

After a beacon check, we headed up a cat track to the boundary of the Baker ski area. From there we took a very choppy skin track (which foiled all four of us when it came to attempting kick turns on the steep switchbacks; we all fell on our faces and B and I ended up bootpacking the last stretch) to the Blueberry Chutes. The first run was a somewhat humbling experience. It always takes me at least a couple of runs to get my legs dialed in, and in this case we dropped into deep, chopped up snow in a moderately steep chute – not exactly your warmup cruise under Green Chair. The snow was much heavier than I expected through the first couple of turns and I instinctively fell into the backseat; I was immediately punished as both tips dived wildly away from me and I turned head over heels and lost a pole.

After dusting myself off I followed Joseph down the chute a little more slowly, and got a slightly better feel for the conditions. About a third of the way down we traversed skier’s left to a field of mostly untracked snow, where I did a whole lot better and caught some big, surfy turns down to the rubble on the valley floor. Then it was time to put on our skins and head upwards to Austin Pass, a tiny dot among the trees high above us.

We were very lucky in that a few days of clear skies and sunshine after the last storm cycle had left avalanche conditions pretty stable. There was a lot of debris from wet snow point releases, but no immediate risk given our objectives for the day. As we travelled upwards Joseph told us about some of the slides he had seen in the area we were progressing through, including days when the whole bowl had ripped loose and stories of past burials.

The sun was beating down by this point, and the higher we climbed the more incredible the views back to the Baker ski area and Mount Shuksan. The skin track wound up a shallow ridge and then across a couple of much steeper slopes, including avalanche runouts. There’s a beautiful rhythm you fall into when you’re skinning upwards: kick, glide, pole, kick, glide, pole…over and over while the views around you grown more and more staggeringly immense and the powder turns that are waiting draw closer and closer. You don’t even notice how hard you’re working because everything feels in perfect tandem. (At least until you get to the next switchback, and have to try another steep kick turn and fall on your face yet again.)

Shortly before the pass we reached a stand of trees where the slope grew considerably steeper, and the skier in front of me called back that the switchback was really hard and he was taking his skis off. After he’d moved on I did the same, and threw my skis on my pack to bootpack the last few metres to the ridge. When I reached the top it made every single upward step worth it. On one side was north-facing Mazama Bowl, where I could see the untracked snow waiting. Back the way we’d come was a jaw-dropping view over the ridge, the valley and the whole long skin track back to Shuksan, with Table Mountain to our right and the peak of Baker itself rising above it all. We ate lunch there with the sun on our faces and a cold wind blowing out of the basin; I couldn’t take my eyes off the view.

After lunch we packed our skins away and prepared to ski down into Mazama Bowl. These were the turns we’d been waiting for: glorious surfing arcs across wide stretches of untracked powder snow. At the top of the bowl I finally felt like I was getting it, moving the skis together and keeping my weight forward and riding through the snow in big swooping turns. Lower down things were a little more choppy and I took one wild bounce off the icy skin track, which I’d thought was just one more set of tracks to slice through. The last couple of hundred metres were on soft rubble, with little airs off the bumps and across the larger trenches. I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop grinning for a good half hour.

On the skin up I asked Joseph about handling the switchbacks a little better, and he gave me a very helpful demonstration of the proper technique for a kick turn with the heels unlocked. I won’t pretend I managed the subsequent switchbacks quickly or elegantly, but that was the last time I faceplanted on one.

Back at the ridge the other two skiers in the group decided to head home, and B wanted to take a break before the final ski out. Joseph and I hit Mazama a final time, with more amazing turns in the top part of the bowl. Lower down the choppy conditions and tiring legs put me into the backseat again, and I had to constantly remind myself to keep my weight forward to keep in control of my tips and my turns. It was a really good lesson; the deeper snow handed out immediate punishment for the same mistakes that I’m sure I’ve gotten away with regularly on resort days. It’s hard to say which I learned more from; the sloppy mistakes at the end of the run, or the stronger turns at the beginning.

Photo credit: Joseph Anderson, Peregrine Expeditions

(Photo credit: Joseph Anderson, Peregrine Expeditions)

By the time we reached the ridge the sun was dropping and the south-facing slopes that we needed to travel were icing over with a hard crust. We bootpacked down the steeper stretch directly below the ridge, then put on our skis for a jarring descent. Joseph gave us some excellent advice for skiing on the crust – weight forward, low stance with the downward pole close to the slope, and aggressive turns – and for a brief period in the upper bowl I handled it surprisingly well, but then the long climbs up and tired muscles took their toll and I started hooking up my tails on the turns. B and I both ended up sideslipping and traversing most of the remaining distance to the valley floor, but it was an excellent lesson in just how rough backcountry conditions can be when the temperature drops at the end of the a bluebird day. We skinned the home stretch in long blue shadows under the face of Shuksan, with a full moon rising above the snow-covered peaks in the distance.

All in all it was an excellent day. I didn’t ski particularly well, but I managed some memorable turns and I was really happy with how I handled the strenuous climbing. I feel like I learned a lot not just about backcountry travel, but also about some of the mistakes that have crept into my technique since the surgery and what I need to do to correct them. Joseph is a great guide and educator, and B and I are hoping to do at least one more full day tour with him before the end of the season.

As with our other backcountry excursions, on the long drive home there was one thought that dominated all the others: I want more of this.

Last ride of the summer

Last Thursday, the Cyclemeter app that I downloaded back in June ticked over the 4,000km mark. And as the damp grey end of September ebbed away into October and the year’s first snow dusted the mountaintops in Whistler, I wanted one last long ride to see out the summer.

So on Sunday I found myself at the top of Mount Baker ski area with two equally diehard friends, unloading our bikes as backcountry snowboarders geared up beside us in the parking lot. The ride down the mountain was an amazing way to start out: hairpin curves high above the valley, a chill wind whipping over the snowfields, and Shuksan peak towering behind us. The landscape around Baker is primordially beautiful: volcanic rock, ice that stays frozen all year round, and old growth trees heavy with moss.  Even at our rapid rate of descent, being on a bike gave me so much more time to take the landscape in as we passed through it.

As we swept down into the valley the road settled into rolling curves that took us through the dense trees of Snoqualmie National Forest, past tumbling rivers and waterfalls and into the village of Glacier. We stopped to snap a few pictures at the wall of skis, and then headed onward. The smell of woodsmoke lingered in the cool fall air, with a few rays of weak sunlight filtering briefly through the trees. It was another of those stretches that I wished could last forever, with barely a car to be seen and no sound but our tires hissing on the damp tarmac.

All too soon the trees thinned out and we found ourselves riding through rolling farmland toward Sumas. Back in Canada we looped back to Avenue Zero, where we hung out by a border marker and ate lunch with one foot in Canada and one in the States. We also hit an unexpected delay at a construction site near 248th Street, where we had to shoulder the bikes for a brief cyclocross style scramble over broken shale and across a small river whose bridge was still under construction. I got such a kick out of the long ride down Avenue Zero: flying along at speed with Canadian farmland on our right, American farmland on our left, and silver pillars marking the line between the two.

Photo credit: J. Caddick

At 216th Street we finally turned away from the border and rode up the steep hill into Langley, where we ran into our first real traffic of the trip. Small aircraft flew skyward at impossibly steep angles as we passed Langley Airport and headed along an unedifying stretch of suburban shopping malls that eventually brought us out on the long road through Surrey. On the far horizon, at the top of a steep hill, the tips of the Alex Fraser bridge supports were just visible above the trees. Dusk was falling as we finally reached the bridge, and by the time we crossed the Queensborough it was full dark. We took the 7-11 bike route through New West, cycling over bumpy asphalt beneath the Skytrain tracks. In Burnaby we detoured briefly through Central Park, where our bike lights blinked like fireflies in the pitch blackness between the trees.

Back in Vancouver J and P headed homeward as we passed through East Van, leaving me on my own in the quiet nighttime streets. It seemed somehow fitting that those last few kilometres were on the bike route that I’d gotten to know so well during my summer commutes to Fraserview. A fine rain started to fall as I rode through Kits, and when I stopped the clock outside our front door it read 171km.

The summer really is over now. There’s a chill in the air in the mornings; the days are grey and cold and the night comes way too early. And I’m watching the webcams where the snow just started falling, feeling that familiar impatience, waiting for the new season to begin.