Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter of Discontent

The winter of 2013-2014 is showing signs - signs of a climate of discontent. The weather in the West was dry - drier than most could remember in the last 40 years, warmer in Alaska, colder in the mid-West and raging winter storms through much of the east and southeastern US.  The jet stream was "stuck" for several months pulling warm air north to Alaska, then driving cold air from the arctic into the center of the continent. Extremes in weather are one of expectation of global warming - not that every part of our planet is going to be consistently warmer, but overall, the average temps are climbing.

What does the future hold for our snowy playgrounds? We can expect wider fluctuations in snow coverage in the decades ahead as our planet continues to warm.  However, we are heading into uncharted territory as our climatologists have no experience in predicting a climate when the CO2 levels we have now are twice as high than our planet has ever seen over the last 40 ice ages and subsequent warming cycles.  

The spring and summer this past year was full of sunshine, an early snow melt in the West and raging fires in the mountain states.  Let's hope the rain and snow that has suddenly appeared in the West this past week will pile up enough to prevent another drought. For those of us who love the snow - both for its beauty and it's pleasures, let's hope this winter of discontent is not the norm but an exception.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Frontcountry Dreams

For every backcountry skier, there is a dream.  A dream of an endless supply of untracked snow, soft powder, and cold days with pristine conditions.  Every winter, the die-hards scour the weather reports, read the snow telemetry gauges online and look for the magical conditions to appear.  Mostly we are not so lucky to find them but on one or two days a year, when you actually don't have to work your day job.

In the Methow Valley on the east side of the Cascades, there is a culture of skiing that has evolved over the past 150 years since it was first settled by the white man from the east.  The snow here is not like the snow 30 miles to the west in the middle of the Cascade range.  The snow is far drier, less voluminous and the terrain is less dramatic as the Cascades transition into the central Washington plateau.   The Methow Valley rests at 1800 ft elevation and its surrounding mountains touch the cold clear skies between 3 to 6 thousand feet.  There are numerous slopes to be explored right along the valley when conditions are right.

In the early 1900's, when free heel skiing was all that there was to do in the Methow, if you wanted to go downhill and the only way to ski downhill was to climb whatever you wanted to ski.  One of the local favorites was Lewis Buttte, a small peak just outside Winthrop with many slopes to choose from for descents that dropped about 1000 feet.  The Butte was the local ski area at one point - with ski school kids from the local schools climbing the slopes to get their turns in.  The Butte's south face is often sun-baked breakable crust if the temperatures warm up within a few degrees of the freezing since the last snow. However, before New Years of 2013, there were weeks of clouds, snow and cold temperatures that never formed the dreaded crust.

January 2013 will be remembered.  The dream came true in the Methow this season.  The December snows covered the mountains and the valleys with enough snow to bury the sage and the bitterbrush and the continued snow in the first week alternating with sunny cold days led to superb conditions on nearly every aspect of every mountain side. Another phenomenon in the Methow is what the locals call "frontcountry" or "sidecountry" skiing.  That is, ski touring the mountains overlooking the valley either from your home or just a short drive away.  No long drive, no long approaches, just looking for great snow in your back yard.  That was the first two weeks of January - every day, great snow.  We toured a number of "frontcountry" areas - picking the routes that had great snow day after day. It was a celebration of the sheer pleasure of climbing, skiing and experiencing the mountains with friends.  I wonder how long it will be until we have the same perfect conditions for two straight weeks again.

Check out the short film on Amazon's Createspace E-Store  or Amazon's Video on Demand (will be available by mid-April, 2013).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Summer Snow

After a long, cold spring this past year, I was ready for the summer ski season. The massive accumulation of snow in the spring promised excellent coverage for the early summer and possible extending the season into August. By early July, the snow depth around the Mt. Baker Ski Area was over 30 feet in places. That led to a July 4th ski tour up Herman Saddle with plenty of coverage of the route from start to finish. The next on the list was Mt. Adams. I had not climbed to to summit since 1995- 16 years ago. I had been training on the stairs at the local park in preparation for the climb but was unsure if I would be fit enough for the challenge.

The rest of weekends in July were socked in with rain and clouds, making the trek to Mt. Adams not very appealing. So I waited.

The forecast for second weekend of August was perfect- sunny, light winds, and still enough snow to ski on the South Face of M. Adams. None of my ski buddies were available or similarly motivated to climb this 12,276 ft. peak, so it looked like I was going solo. Loading up my gear, skis, boots, and camp necessities, I set off up the mountain on Friday afternoon to get to my high camp at 8100 feet that evening.

Summit day started at 5 AM -a clear, blue sky day. The rest of the story is unveiled in my short film "SOLO". I hope it will be shown at a mountain film festival this fall or next depending on the submission cycles. Needless to say, it was an outstanding climb and ski descent that I will always remember.

The Trailer for Solo

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Winter's Surprise

Some winters come and go with little fanfare. Some backcountry ski seasons are the same. The last two years (2009 and 2010) were pretty uneventful as far as great mid-winter touring as the snow was sporadic, the coverage mediocre much of the season in the Cascades and no "perfect" days in the backcountry that coincided with my days off. We had a good late season making for decent spring skiing but the powder days were hard to find.

This year has been something a bit different. Out of 8 days of ski touring in the past 2 months, 7 were in powder conditions. Seven. I can't remember getting 5 good days of powder even when skiing in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies for a week.

Needless to say, the camera has been humming. I've produced more short video tours of the places we have explored then in any past season. Some of the explorations were true surprises. Like Bear Mountain and the north side of Cougar Mountain in Okanogan county. We climbed these mountains with no clue at the beginning of the tour of how the conditions would be on the way down, only to be delighted by the depth and quality of the snow. Then there was Heather Ridge. The forecast was for 2 inches of new snow and the telemetry data said the same on Steven's Pass that day. But as we climbed we say the snow was much deeper as we climbed up, only to find a full 18" of fresh, light, cold powder at the top. Doesn't get much better than that on a day when expecting "dust on crust".

That is one of the great things about ski touring. You find new places, new routes, unexpected snow conditions - all are treasures. In a world where it feels that discovery is rare and a thing of the past, winter can surprise us with this fresh new world of snow and light that bathes our visual and kinesthetic senses with the beauty of freshly laden slopes with supple and voluminous powder.

Check out my YouTube Channel to see the results:

DrTelemark's YouTube Channel

Friday, July 2, 2010

Spring Into Summer

We had an amazing late snow season after a very mediocre winter accumulation. By mid-May, the snow in the mountains had piled up to the normal levels seen in early March in most winters. After dismal late winter conditions, the snow conditions have been one of great coverage above 4500 ft. Since many of the lower tours dip below this level, I have spent most of my free weekend days on Mt. Rainier, my favorite place to backcountry tour anywhere in the Cascades.

The weather has ranged from complete whiteouts to brilliant sunshine on the days we made it up to Paradise. The trip in May was memorable only in that is was, for a good part of the descent, truly skiing by braille. The June tours yielded some excellent snow conditions on the Muir Snowfield, especially above 7000 feet elevation. The
videos of these tours are located on my Vimeo site at: Stop by and view the movies and see what a difference the weather makes over the same exact route on 3 different occasions with very different conditions.

It's time for summer to roll in, though for me and most of my family, we will be in Kenya for a good portion of it. Within few weeks of returning, the first snows will likely drift into the North Cascades yet again. The cycle continues.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


It is during this kind of season that I get impatient for snow. It seems we have been tempted by an early snow fall into thinking this would be a great season of skiing. In early November, a deluge of snow hit the Cascades, loading the slopes with 6-10 feet of snow. This has been followed by nearly 6 weeks of cold temperatures and sun, creating less than ideal conditions in the backcountry.

In the Methow, where we have sought refuge from the city and access to the high country in the winter, the meager early snow fall has stayed on the ground but the 4 inches that covers our place is no where near the 2-3 feet we usually have by Christmas. The days of skiing out the back door to nearby Lewis Butte for some great touring are memories from past seasons and not a part of our current reality. Fortunately, there has been just enough snow to cover the roads and tracks that make up the a good portion of cross-country skiing system in the valley.

So we wait. For fresh snow, hopefully of significant volume to truly cover the landscape out here before spring comes and during times we can actually be here. Patience is required - to wait for the snow and wait for the chance to get away to the mountains. Patience is also needed for the time when Peg and I can be here full time, to pick and choose the time to explore the backcountry on our own time schedule. Someday that will come.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sage Advice

It's a late snow season and a cold one out here in Washington State. I waxed my skis in late October hoping for the usual November snows and a few ski days before Christmas. Instead, the days of sunshine continued then a few weeks of warm clouds with no appreciable snow in much of the Cascades - at least not enough to ski down any slope without carving intricate sanskrit marking with rocks on the bottoms of your skis.

Out in Winthrop, where track skiing abounds and the famous cold, dry snows allow for early X-C skiing, there was no snow at all on the ground until 10 days before Christmas.

Then winter arrived - not only to the Cascade range but to the lowlands with actual freezing temperatures and snow that stuck around for more than 24 hours. In fact, it will be a winter storm remembered with the snarls of traffic in downtown Seattle from cars and buses unable to climb its many hills. It was snowing everywhere, it was actually piling up. Entire neighborhoods came out to sled, ski and snowboard on the city streets. Nevermind that if you fall on concrete with 6 inches of snow cover it hurts like hell.

So we return to Winthrop while the snow is falling heavily on the west side to try to break out our ski touring gear for the season. We ski up one of our favorite local routes towards Lewis Butte and find that the sage is only half covered with the 12 inches of snow on the ground instead of the usual 30+ inches this time of year. It is dicey to attempt a few turns in the dry, nearly granular snow. None the less, I've been out every day, checking out the 2 new inches of snow that has fallen every night, hoping that the coverage will grow to allow for some skiing on something other than flat terrain.

Skiing in low cover conditions has many exciting moments. First, the sage snags the tips of your skis and prevents any turning or unweighting of the ski until you have blown through it (at 5 mph since the snow is deep and slow on flat terrain). Second, some of the low mounds of snow that look like sage are actually ROCKS. The thought of a nice deep tele turn with your trailing knee smacking one of those babies really is enticing.

Alas, our vacation's end is looming near. I feverishly scan the weather reports that promise new snow but will it be too little to late?

Dr. Telemark