A perfect forecast for Saturday led us to Bellingham on Friday night, so that we could get an early start the next morning. Arising at 5:30 a.m., we ate the customary cheap motel continental breakfast of plain bagels and bananas, then headed for the high country along WA 542, the Mt. Baker Highway. We drove past groves of Vine Maples wearing vivid green moss coats. Then past a rustic ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Upward, the road wound, through the woods of Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. We finally encountered the first snow, which got ever deeper as we drove ever higher.
We arrived at the parking lot of the Mt. Baker Ski Area as the sun was peeking from behind a ridge. Then we strapped on snowshoes and headed up the edge of a ski run, as snowboarders and skiers whooshed past us. We were heading beyond the boundaries of the ski area, and into the winter backcountry of Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. Our starting elevation was about 3,500′, with our ending elevation at Artist Point at 5,200′, so we had a steep uphill climb ahead of us.
Our goal was to climb to Artist Point, a stunning ridge with unobstructed views of Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker, two of the most beautiful peaks in Washington State. Artist Point is normally accessible in summer by a road; last winter there had been so much snow that the upper reaches of the road stayed snowy all summer, and was never plowed out. That is unusual, but not unheard of, as the Mt. Baker area gets some of the heaviest snows on earth. In fact, during the winter of 1998-9, the Mt. Baker Ski Area recorded 1,140″ of snow: the heaviest winter snowfall ever recorded anywhere on earth.
As we trudged upward, we again realized why this snow is known as “Cascade Concrete;” it falls under relatively warm and moist conditions and compacts quickly into a hard surface. Still, the snowshoes helped. We panted up the mountain, trying to accustom ourselves to the higher elevation and steep slope.
When we first moved to Washington State from Upstate New York, we used the traditional bent ash snowshoes that we were accustomed to and that had worked so well for us in the snows of that region. What we found here was that those snowshoes were actually dangerous in the mountains, because they had no grip on the often steep and hard-packed snowy slopes. Eventually we got the newer aluminum snowshoes that have a built-in metal cleat on the bottom, which allows a snowshoer to get a grip on steep snow. Without these new snowshoes, there is no way we could have climbed to Artist Point on the steep route we planned.
As we climbed higher, we were passed by an orderly group of backcountry skiers wearing heavy backpacks. When we reached them later, they were digging a dozen Hobbit holes into the snow, where they planned to spend the night. We were accustomed, in our flatlander days, to snow caves made of piled snow, where the winter traveler uses a shovel to build a 6′ high pile of snow, lets it set for a while, then excavates a snow cave from the pile. Here, making a snow cave means burrowing into a snowdrift, making sure to mark the uphill side of the drift so that skiers and snowshoes don’t cause the whole thing to collapse.
The group of cave builders that we observed were a winter mountaineering class from the Seattle Mountaineers organization (of which we are members). There were also lots of other winter campers up here (perhaps 30 caves and tents that we saw), some using four season tents, and some using a kind of hybrid shelter, with a tent top and a snow floor.
We chatted with one of the cave builders, and he said they had observed lots of avalanche evidence up here. We are wary of avalanches, but know very little about them. When I looked up “avalanche” on Wikipedia, I noticed that two of the photographs used to illustrate the article are from the very place we were snowshoeing, so this area is certainly well-known for its avalanches. We were supposed to be carrying avalanche beacons, but like many of the casual winter people up here, we weren’t. We should also have been carrying an avalanche probe and a lightweight shovel; these are for finding a person trapped under the snow and digging them out. I hope that by next winter, we invest the $1,000 (for the two of us) that this equipment costs. The problem, of course, is that it is really expensive for the one or two winter trips we do each year.
Another hazard faced by winter explorers is that of tree wells. Around the trunk of each tree, there is a big hole in the snow created by the sheltering branches above and by wind whipping around the trunk. These tree wells can be up to 20′ deep, and are especially dangerous to fast-moving snowboarders or skiers in the backcountry, who can accidentally plunge into one face first and not be able to get out. For an excellent description of this hazard and some horror stories to go along with it, go to Wikipedia Tree Wells.
Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any major hazards along the way, and we had a glorious view from Artist Point. We decided, as we did last year at about the same time, to hang around the point until after sunset, so we could watch the last light disappear from the mountains. Far from being a wilderness experience, the little summit we were on took on a party atmosphere, with lots of college-age kids enjoying a winter day away from their studies. They were so noisy that other people came up and joined the party. Everyone seemed to be loving this sunny winter day away from the depressing clouds and rain of Puget Sound.
At twilight, we started down. One man, who had asked if we had seen his companion (we hadn’t), then asked to join us for the trek down, as he wasn’t sure of the way in the darkness. So for the second year in a row, we escorted an unprepared person down from Artist Point to the parking lot, the route illuminated by our bright headlamps. I struck up a conversation with the man, and it turns out that he is a Microsoft lead engineer working on Windows 8, so we talked about future computing interfaces as we snowshoed down. I just can’t seem to get away from computers!
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