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)
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.