Category Archives: Winter

La Nina

December has been… very good.

Dec 4 – Deep powder at Crystal Mountain

I can’t imagine a better opening day to my 2016 lift accessed season than this. 20″+ of fresh snow overnight and reasonable small crowds for a Saturday made for one of my best days on skis ever. By the end of the day I was chest-deep in the Chinook Express lift line. Too bad my GoPro crapped out early!

Laps in Snorting Elk bowl and Stockholders off the Green Valley chair were the order of the day.

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Snoqualmie Nordic – Opening Weekend

Cold, clear evenings and plenty of snow made for fast and smooth conditions, both at the Snoqualmie Nordic center and for downhill runs at Silver Fir. After two powder weekends in a row it was good to break out the good form, cruise, and get some exercise.

Here are some shots from the Rockdale Lake area of the Nordic Center. Hidden Valley loop is open and in very nice shape but the Mount Catherine loop isn’t open yet.
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How to Start Hiking in Washington

Friends and colleagues ask me all the time about how they can get into hiking safely. But Seattle interns and new hires, this post is for you! Hiking here in the Cascades may be very different than hiking back home (it was for me, coming from the Midwest).

It’s easy, and over time one can build up a base of experience to move from easier to the most challenging hikes in the area. But there are a few prerequisites to hike responsibly.

Understand the risks:

Almost every day of hiking in the mountains can be a mellow experience but things can go wrong. Hypothermia (exposure), falls on snow or rock, and snow avalanches kill several Washington hikers every year. You can mitigate these hazards and other less common ones with common sense, selection of appropriate trails, equipment, and knowledge.

Find a friend:

It’s much safer (and more enjoyable) to enjoy the wilderness with one or more other people! Even better, find a mentor or someone with outdoor experience to show you the ropes. I gained experience by joining the Wasatch Mountain Club when I lived in Utah – the Mountaineers would be a good choice around here and they have a strong hiking program – no “mountaineering” required.

Find a trail:

You can locate great trails on the Washington Trails Association hike finder map. The homepage will also recommend seasonally appropriate hikes. In general, elevation gain is more challenging than mileage. Washington’s trails change a great deal from month to month, and snow can make trailhead access impossible and backcountry travel much more serious – WTA trip reports can help you check conditions in advance. Most high country trails melt out by June – July depending on the area.

You will likely need to purchase a pass to park at the trailhead and in general the WTA hiking guide will tell you which one you need. You may not be able to purchase one early on weekend mornings so plan a couple days ahead.

On National Forest trails in Washington, the Northwest Forest Pass ($30) is often required. On WA State Park land, you’ll need a Discover Pass ($30 plus vendor fee). Both are good for 12 months from date of purchase. Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic NP have separate daily and annual entrance fees. If you think you’ll visit more than one national park and plan on purchasing the NW Forest Pass anyway, you can purchase the annual America The Beautiful pass ($80) at one of the national parks – that will work on all federal land and works everywhere the NW Forest Pass is also accepted (but NOT for the Discover Pass / WA State Parks!)

Get the 10 essentials:

The Seattle Mountaineers developed the Ten Essentials list and it remains a tried and true minimal set of equipment carried by responsible day hikers. This is the bare minimum that anyone should carry when venturing onto anything but the shortest forest or mountain trails. It should fit into a small bookbag or daypack.

  • Navigation (map and compass)

First: navigation tools don’t work unless you have the skills to interpret your surroundings. Get a real compass (with declination adjustment) and learn how to use it (or take a class to practice your skills). You can print custom topographic maps for free using CalTopo. I always hike with a paper map as a backup but often use the Gaia GPS app ($20) for my iPhone and download maps of the area before I leave cell service (TopoMaps+ is a good free alternative).

  • Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)

Particularly critical if venturing onto snow, believe it or not.

  • Insulation (extra clothing)

I generally carry enough clothing so that if I had to spend the night out I could survive (if not comfortably). Generally, in the cascades this always includes a waterproof jacket and either a fleece or a lightweight puffy jacket, even in summer. Give yourself some margin – water and wind can chill you in a hurry and the Cascades supply both in great amounts.

There’s a saying – “cotton kills” – because cotton clothing cools the body when wet and can contribute to hypothermia. If possible, find synthetic or merino wool hiking clothes.

  • Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  • First-aid supplies

I always carry gloves, ibuprofen, some sort of blister treatment such as moleskin, some small bandages, and something to cleanse wounds like alcohol swabs and antibiotic ointment. I also carry Benadryl/diphenhydramine in the event that someone in my party gets a sting or allergic reaction. For longer trips I carry a bigger kit. I only ever end up using blister supplies.

  • Fire

Even if I carry a lighter I keep matches in a small waterproof canister.

  • Knife

I keep a small but sharp single blade. If I’m skiing or might need to repair anything I take a small multitool.

  • Nutrition (extra food)
  • Hydration (extra water)
  • Emergency shelter

I have to admit I could do better on this one. For dayhikes I typically rely on my clothing outerwear to keep me dry in an emergency. In winter conditions I carry a shovel and have the skills to build a snow shelter (this has been a lifesaving technique for several people I know when caught out in bad weather).

Pick your footwear:

I often hike in running shoes, but if you are concerned about the possibility of rolled ankles or if you are doing a rugged hike, you may consider purchasing hiking boots. Don’t let a lack of hiking boots hold you back from moderate summer hikes though.

On the other hand, waterproof boots are almost a necessity for snowy or wet spring hiking. The top features I look for are:

  • Good fit (a store like Second Ascent or REI can help – Mountaineers members get 10% off at SA)
  • Gore-Tex waterproof membrane
  • Light weight (don’t get very heavy, full grain leather backpacking boots or mountaineering boots)

And treat yourself to a pair of wool hiking socks – your warm, blister-free feet will thank you.

Check the weather:

While mountain weather can change rapidly, it’s important to have an idea of what to expect. Weather.gov has the most accurate, location-specific forecasts. You can pick an exact spot on the topo map and it will calculate altitude-appropriate temperatures (it gets about 2-3F colder per 1000’ of elevation). There is an excellent forecast generated specifically for Mount Rainier NP here.

Leave a plan:

Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Tell them to contact the county sheriff of the location you are hiking if they don’t hear from you after your return time.

Go!

Get out and enjoy the Cascades!

Washington Inbounds

I’ve been awfully silent on here for a few months: I’ve been busy skiing, often sticking to in-bounds terrain at our fantastic resorts where a full blog post feels like a little bit of overkill – I’ll compile them all here instead. There have also been some good downhill and XC ski tours that will appear on here separately.

November 22: Mt. Baker

Mt. Baker is always a great choice for the early season because of the volume of snow they get – it builds up the base super quickly. Becca and I had a solid day skiing on and off-piste on springlike snow under blue skies and open clouds. The best part of a blue sky day on Baker is the view of Mt. Shuksan, the mountainiest mountain of them all! Run of the day: Austin

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Early Dec: Mt. Baker repeat

This was supposed to be a snowy day but it got a little warmer than anticipated and fell sticky and drizzly instead and the visibility was pretty poor. We still had a pretty good time lapping Chair 8 and Chair 6 while the rest of Washington’s ski areas stayed closed. Run of the day: Oh Zone to Daytona

Also early Dec (12?): Crystal Mountain

Headed up to Crystal Mountain with a friend to take advantage of a free pass that would only be valid through the end of the year. It was my first time at Crystal so I explored the resort a bit but the visibility was pretty bad. Run of the day: Green Valley main bowl.

December 19: Crystal Mountain POWDER

Ohhh man was Crystal great. Knee deep powder was harvested in the hike-to Northway and Southback zones. The video captures it best:

We started in Northway with 3-4 runs in Morning Glory and the trees on the ridge skier’s right of Penny Dawg’s, then did a few runs in Green Valley before travelling over to the Southback to finish the day.

Run(s) of the day: Morning Glory Bowl to Brand X, Southback Traverse to Silver Basin headwall (The Beach)

January 9: Stevens Pass

Stevens was odd today. It was sunny on the West side but a cloud loomed over the pass from the east side and made the light flat all day. Parking and lift lines were a mad house but some of the groomed trails were okay. There was pretty hoar frost on the trees on the backside runs. Everything was pretty chunked up and crusty though off piste and it wasn’t the best day of skiing. Run of the day: Pegasus

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January 16: Crystal Mountain

Today greatly exceeded expectations! It was too warm in the parking lot but the temps were pretty decent up high and it was snowing big flakes which refreshed the off piste terrain a little bit. We had a mixed group today so I spent some time cruising groomers around Forest  Queen and some off piste in Green Valley and Campbell Basin which was actually really great. Run of the day: Campbell Basin and Powder Bowl.

February 20: Crystal Mountain POWDER

Best day of 2016 so far! About a foot of powder fell over the prior 48 hours and Southback had not opened in two days due to avalanche danger. The day opened in full sun as we did laps off Chair 6 while watching the Southback gate. It finally opened up in time for us to harvest the goods with a couple of laps off the Beach in Silver Basin (quickly becoming my favorite run in WA). Video turned out pretty great too.

Run of the day: Silver Basin (duh)

Feb 26-27: Whistler Blackcomb

I split a condo with some really solid skiers and boarders to enjoy a long weekend up at Whistler. I wrote about Whistler last year; it is crazy large and I’m always blown away by the amount and variety of terrain to choose from. I’m hoping to hit it with better snow conditions one of these times.

We divided our time pretty evenly with Blackcomb in the mornings and Whistler in the afternoons. Friday was cloudier but conditions had stayed fairly cold and the groomers skied well. There was some packed powder and conditions weren’t too icy for the most part. Run of the day: Spanky’s Ladder. Saturday started off with blue skies and about an inch of new snow to freshen things up. Runs of the day: Blackcomb Glacier, Harmony Ridge to Low Roll

 

Norse Peak Overnight Ski Tour

Jeff, Becca and I headed up to the ridge east of the Crystal Mountain ski resort for some winter camping and skiing in the Norse Peak Wilderness. We toured up from the Upper C parking lot along the snowshoe track into Bullion Basin before ascending to the ridge on the W/SW aspect of the basin.

My relative inexperience showed as I found the kick turns on the steeper lower slopes of the basin to be surprisingly sketchy with the couple inches of light snow on top of the Thursday rain crust – the track kept sliding out and it would have been possible to take a long slide over some steep rollovers and trees. I ended up booting the middle 1/3 which was significantly more secure.

Once on the ridge, we made an surprisingly sheltered camp south of pt. 6654 and took a quick lap on the highpoint before it got dark. We awoke to beautiful blue skies and 3-4 inches of light snow that had fallen overnight!


After breakfast and coffee we ducked over into Cement Basin for some beautiful turns with enough new, light powder to smooth over the crust.

Rain runnels were evident up to the highest point on the ridge, building confidence that the weak layer problem had been successfully nuked on Thursday. We then toured north along the ridge, bagging the unnamed high point south of Scout Pass and continuing along to the moderate south ridge of Norse Peak. We stuck mostly to the west side of the ridge and were able to find plenty of clear spots in the trees to navigate without much trouble.

I spotted a party of two in Cement Basin in the early afternoon:

After a summit snack, the visibility began to diminish as clouds rolled in from the south. We skied our uptrack along the ridge but ducked west along the PCT after Scout Pass. We broke camp, then enjoyed creamy afternoon turns all the way down the main line on East Peak. This was especially satisfying after having spent several afternoons at Crystal admiring tracks on the open slopes.

Beautiful area, great weather, and I hope to spend more time in the future exploring farther out into the wilderness and MRNP!