A daring snowboarder goes airborne!

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.

Backcountry skiers heading to the ridge, where they will excavate snow caves

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.

Hills between Table Mountain and Mt. Baker covered with sensuous curves of snow

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.

Table Mountain with cirrus cloud

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.

Excavating a snow cave using a lightweight shovel

Seattle Mountaineers group learning about winter camping in snow caves and tents

Young woman in the final stages of making her snow cave comfortable

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.

Look carefully at this view of the south side of Table Mountain: virtually the whole mountainside shows the evidence of loose snow avalanches

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.

Snowboarder zooming down one of the groomed runs in the Mt. Baker Ski Area

Snowshoer descending the steep slope of Artist Point, stirring up a blizzard of backlit ice crystals

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.

I wish I could stretch like this!

Last light on Mt. Shuksan; one of the most beautiful mountains anywhere

The sun descending behind Mt. Baker, a high and beautiful volcano

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!

Mountain Hardware Kiva tent, designed for winter camping, with Mt. Shuksan towering behind

Blue shadows at the end of the day

Notice the tents in the lower left of this picture

Raven patroling the ridge of Artist Point

Snowboarder sending up a cloud of powder as he carves the slope

Icicles at a frozen seep in the basalt

Graceful ski trail descending from the end of Table Mountain

Backcountry skiers and campers in Heather Meadows

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

NORTH CASCADES SNOWSHOEING: Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker in Winter

Alpenglow on the tip of Mt. Shuksan, high in the North Cascades

Deep twilight came early high on the slopes. Karen and I had just finished photographing alpenglow on the high peaks and sky surrounding the Mt. Baker Ski Area, and had strapped on our headlamps in anticipation of the darkness we would encounter as we descended the slopes from Artist Point.

“Have you seen my Dad?”, asked a teenage girl who snowshoed up behind me. I replied that I hadn’t, and she said she had planned to meet up with him after they had taken different routes in the mountains. She, with youthful energy, had ascended a steep slope to see what was on the other side; he, with less energy, agreed that she could go alone if she agreed to meet back at the base of the slope. Well, time went by and it was soon getting dark, and she was still high above their proposed meeting place.

I asked her if she would come with us, since we were heading back to the same parking area, and she agreed. She didn’t have a headlamp, or car keys, or the necessary emergency supplies should she be stuck in the mountains after dark. We stopped and asked several groups if they had seen a man looking for his teenage daughter, but nobody had; we asked them that if they did encounter him to let him know that she was heading back to the parking area. She also called out, in case her father could hear her, but he didn’t. She didn’t have a cell phone, so I lent her my iPhone and she twice tried to call her dad, but his phone was switched off (AT&T actually has a great signal at the Mt. Baker Ski Area).

We switched on our headlamps and eventually made it to the parking area. I asked the girl to ask people in the parking lot if they had seen her dad, while I went to get our car (we told the girl that we would stay with her, in a warm car, as long as necessary).

Just before I got back with the car, the girl’s father appeared at the parking lot, clearly upset with and worried about his daughter.

It had a good resolution, but what would have been the next steps if the father had not shown up?  It turned out that the truck camper where the girl first asked if someone had seen her father was the overnight camp for a ski patrol member. He said that if the father hadn’t shown up soon, they would have quickly mounted a ski patrol search for him, including people on skis and snowmobiles. They probably would have found him quickly, but you never know.

Moral of the story?  Stuff happens in the mountains, despite best intentions. It is always good to “Be Prepared!”, as the Boy Scout motto of my youth always commanded.  When in the mountains, have a headlamp, firemaking ability, extra warmth, food, and a plan. Always. Which reminds me, I’d better add some matches to my pack …

There is a warning sign at the parking lot that is intended to scare the daylights out of winter travelers. It warns people of avalanches and cliffs, and ends by saying “You or your heirs will be charged for any rescue a minimum of : $500.  RESCUE MAY NOT BE POSSIBLE.” Good point.

Hey, this means you!

Okay, enough of the gloom. There was also a human story of joy. While snowshoeing at Artist Point, we came upon a young couple who asked me to take their picture with Mt. Shuksan in the background. I did, and the photo looked great on the LCD screen.  Then the young woman said that they had just become engaged to be married. I asked when they had become engaged, and she said “Just now!”  So we were the first to hear the happy news.  Artist Point, one of the most beautiful viewpoints in North America, was a lovely place to pop the question. On the other hand, had she said no, it would have been a long trudge back to the car.  We told them that we have now been married for 38 years and wished them well.

Okay, now that I’ve spent all my time talking about our human encounters, perhaps I should spend a moment talking about the wild nature we encountered. Actually, maybe I’ll just let the photographs speak to that. Suffice it to say that it was really cold and really windy, and we were glad to be wearing our red Antarctica parkas.

Graceful snowboard tracks descend Mt. Herman

It was simply amazing how winter sports have changed in the last two decades.  There were hundreds of snowshoers and almost no cross-country skiers, and a good share of the snowshoers were wearing little plastic MSR snowshoes that seemed to work really well. Snowboarders have taken to the incredibly steep backcountry slopes in huge numbers. Everywhere there was a 70% slope, boarders had carved graceful sloloms down the expanses of snow. I admire these fearless young boarders, especially now that I am at an age when I can break an ankle while stepping off a curb. There were also lots of winter campers; I counted 18 tents in several areas, and other people were digging snow caves like winter Hobbits.

Winter camping in the basin below Mt. Herman

It was great to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, getting away from their Facebook, Tweeting, (and blogs!) for a day.

Snow blowing on a wind train straight from the Arctic

This is me snowshoeing at Artist Point (photo by Karen Rentz)

Blowing snow on the lower flanks of Mt. Shuksan

In these snow conditions, a snowshoer would compress the snow, making it denser. Then the wind would come in and scour the loose snow around the compressed snowshoe track, leaving a raised imprint of the snowshoes.

Rime ice covered all the trees at the highest elevations

Look carefully at this precipitous slope to see the snowboard track leading down the mountain; these snowboarders have a healthy dose of crazy courage!

Sun star and beautiful blue shadows

Karen Rentz snowshoeing with Table Mountain distant

A group of snowshoers descending from Artist Point

Conifers and rime ice on the lower slopes of Table Mountain

Blowing snow on the lower flanks of Mt. Shuksan

Steam from a volcanic vent on Mt. Baker catching the last rays of sun

The summit pyramid of Mt. Shuksan at  day’s end. This mountain’s sculpturing was done by glaciers, not volcanic action.

Alpenglow turns the sky into otherworldly shades of purple and blue after the sun has set

For further information about the Mt. Baker area in winter, go to:

Mt. Baker Ski Area

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. I also have some inexpensive, smaller pieces for sale at an Etsy Website.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.