Thursday, December 13, 2007

It Comes...

The unmistakable scent of fall is in the air. Wet, dead leaves have a certain woody smell that means one thing: it's cold, wet and somewhere up in the mountains, the snow is already falling. It has now been a couple of weeks since the first real dump of snow has blanketed the Cascades and the telemarkers have been out breaking trail and carving their first turns.

Shakedown tours are always a good idea and we did one at the Cutthroat Lake Trail just off Highway 20. It was a cold, cloudy morning and we arrived at the trailhead with great anticipation of a day of touring up a valley floor then up to some slopes with just enough coverage to make some turns. Part of the process of the first ski of the season is making sure you have all of your gear that you need, followed by putting it to use for the first time since summer (the non-ski season is blessedly short around here). Here is where the first revelation occurred - my skins had died over the summer. My trusted Ascension skins that were 4 years old and always bonded well to the bottoms of my skis were suddenly hanging from the cold surface of my skis like a sail hanging from a mast. I attached the the skins under some tension but after a 1/2 mile on the train, it became apparent that I was going no where fast and Peg's patience wouldn't last for ever as a slipped along behind her. The rest of the tour was on foot, fortunately on a well packed trail that kept one from post-holing, most of the time, through the 3 feet of snow that had accumulated.

Now with skins, reglued and cleaned, we face the rest of the season. It's time to track down some fresh, cold, light, early winter snow and float down some mountainsides. Winter has come.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Summer Runs

The days are long, and the sun beats down on the melting snow from winter over 16 hours a day now. Yet, the snow lingers in the high meadows and steep slopes that face away from the snow's powerful foe. It is on these slopes, where suncups are measured in centimeters instead of inches, where we find the great runs of summer.

One of the great advantages of summer skiing is the incredible stability of the snow. The wind, weight and waning snow depth make for a solid base here in the Cascades that will only rarely slide off its underlying rock. As a result, you can ski steep runs that in the winter would make you think more than twice whether or not your life insurance policy is paid up.

Newcomers to the Northwest are often stunned when they drive up to Mt. Baker Ski Area in July to go for a hike, only to find that the 6 feet of snow still remaining just south of the main parking lot is only the beginning. At Artist Point, a mile south and about 1000 ft. up, the snow is over 12-15 feet deep still.

So with tank tops, shorts, crampons, skins and skis, several people every day seek out the north facing slopes of Table Mountain and the Blueberry Chutes and take their shot at their sublimely steep faces. We don't care to fall, as the summer corn on bare legs and arms can give you a road rash you won't forget. We do love the adrenaline rush of looking down a slope where the first turn becomes a leap of faith. You must trust your skis to stay on edge, lest you'll slide forever down the firmly packed face of these northerly slopes.

It's a shame it melts.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Cascade Spring

There are a few days in May, like today, when the sun blasts through the dreary Seattle spring skies and the mountains open up for viewing. From the city, you can clearly see Mt. Rainier, often for the first time in months, blanketed with its thick coat of winter snow that in only now starting to recede every so slightly. If you make your way to the quiet peaks, after the ski areas are closed and only the die-hards roam the slopes, you step into a world of incredible brilliance. Sunlight reflecting off the snow at altitude will envelope you in a world of white warmth that overwhelms your eyes should you uncover them.

I have memories of the mountain in spring – an April when I thought the ski season was over and drove to Paradise for a last fling only to be met with a wall of snow over 20 feet high at the parking lot. My naivety about winter in the Cascades was clear to me at that moment. I had no idea that I could be skiing through July if I wanted to. I remember many a May trip, where the sun was brilliant, the snow a perfect compacted corn and the combination of cold mountain air and intense solar heat that made T-shirts the ideal garb for climbing Rainier’s south flank.

After the months of snow, cold, clouds and storms, this splendid sunlight beckons the summer season to arrive. You also learn that you cannot always count on sun for 2 more months as our spring storms make their last assault on the mountains. But the days like today blaze the path for the next season above the snow line.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Coming of Spring

Spring has arrived in the Northwest. Many of us are busy cleaning up from this winter's storms in the lowlands of Western Washington, while some are still looking over our shoulder at the mountains that surround Puget Sound. While new leaves bud and flowers bloom, April in the Cascade Mountains doesn't look any different then it might in the dead of winter. The days are longer, so the ski tours can go longer each day before darkness settles in from the east.

Last weekend, the faithful from the Washington Ski Tour Club made their annual trek up to the Scottish Lakes cabins at 5000 ft. in the Central Cascades south of Highway 2. Fresh snowfall, winds, clouds and brilliant sunshine all coalesced over the high ridges through the weekend. The great coup was the complete lack of rain.

Now its time to eye the summer ski tours - Mt. Rainier opens in under two weeks. There will be a mad dash for fresh tracks on May 5th. Hope to see you there.