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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.