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.
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.
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.