Cascade Confidential - Ski Mag

Cascade Confidential

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Parking Lot

A Northwest chronicle of deep snow, weird weather, and livin' La Niña loca.

July 15, 1999
The Seattle Times was just about the last thing I would have expected to help pull me out of a dreary, soggy midsummer slump. But there it was, in 18-point type: LA NIÑA EXPECTED TO KEEP NORTHWEST UNUSUALLY WET THROUGH WINTER.

Oh yeah, La Niña -- the wet-weather pattern that hammered the Cascades in 1998-99, dealing out even more of the weird weather that makes skiing around here so, uh, unique. I remember three- and four-foot dumps in December and measurable precipitation on 26 of 28 days in February. Mt. Baker ended up receiving 1,140 inches of snow -- 95 feet! -- enough to earn the world record for the most snowfall in a single season, ever.

Even in "typical" winters here, it snows so much that sheer cliffs disappear, becoming open powder fields overnight. The average storm dishes up a mixture of rain, snow, and graupel, leaving in its wake conditions that range from sublime to virtually unskiable. And at places like Alpental, Baker, and Crystal -- places that have refused to buy into the claptrap of the usual "resort-oriented" experience -- we crazy Northwestern skiers have always been there tearing it up, enjoying it no matter what.

But La Niña took it all to a whole other level. And now they're saying she's coming back to give us another spanking. All I can say is, "Thank you, ma'am, may I please have another?"

November 23, 1999
Baker opened today. As usual, it was the first ski area out of the gate; as usual, it was snowing. With just 26 inches at the base and 56 inches up top, there were exposed rocks, logs, and cliffs everywhere, but that just meant more hits and bigger airs.

At least that's what I heard. I missed the festivities, thanks to a surprise Thanksgiving visit from my in-laws. Thanks for nothing.

December 22, 1999
Driving past the low-angle, low-elevation slopes of the Summit at Snoqualmie, it's hard to believe there's one seriously kick-ass mountain tucked away in a nearby side canyon. But as I was heading up there this morning, I was thinking that that mountain, Alpental, with its untamed terrain and easily accessed OB, is like a little La Grave.

Too bad my Euro fantasy was quickly shattered by the krrrr, krrrr, krrrrof a snowboarder sideslipping the frozen hardpack on the lower mountain. I almost considered heading home, until I hopped on Chair 1 and shared a ride with a local patroller named Jason.

"How's the skiing?" I asked dejectedly.

"Head to Internationale," he said. "Don't bother with anything else. Just head up Chair 2 and hit 'Nash."

'Nash, huh? Seemed a bit dicey, but what the hell. Essentially a snow-covered cliff and scree slope, 'Nash is Alpental's signature run, a top-to-bottom descent of sheer walls, double fall lines, and pitches that push 50 degrees. But today it also turned out to be mogul free and covered in three or four inches of day-old powder. Just like that, I was edging fast turns down the face, blasting through the crud, even finding small patches of untracked along the edges. Of course, as soon as I dropped back down to the lower mountain, it all went to hard, crusty hell again, but it was worth every death cookie and icy bump. For four hours, I yo-yoed that run, grinning like an idiot and reminding myself that, around here, you just never know till you go.

December 29, 1999
Yo, La Niña, enough already with the arctic fronts and high-pressure systems. I want snow.

Then again, it would be hard to beat the sunshine and packed powder I found at Crystal today -- a typically atypical Northwest day. The slopes were almost empty, and the sun was blazing. Every time I hopped off the Rainier Express lift (a.k.a. Rex), with Mount Rainier less than 15 miles away and towering 7,000 feet into the sky above me, I had to remind myself that I didn't come up here to stand aroundnd gape at it.

I came to ski Crystal's sprawling expanse, which flows over half a dozen peaks and basins and lends itself to seemingly unlimited variations. Today, that mostly meant cruising the groomed -- pulling major g's on Lucky Shot and straight-lining Little Portillo -- along with the occasional detour through the bumps on Iceberg and Bull Run. By two o'clock, though, I was toast; it was all I could do to stumble over to the Snorting Elk, the rathskeller in the basement of the Alpine Inn, for some stew and a couple of cold ones.

January 3-4, 2000
I swear, pulling into the town of Glacier (17 miles from Mt. Baker) on a foggy midwinter night was like cruising into an outtake from Twin Peaks. Moss hung from the alders, vacancy signs flickered through the mist, and as I stepped into Milano's, the only real restaurant in town, I half expected to run into Agent Cooper or the Log Lady.

They'd probably fit right in at Baker, which may just be the lumpiest, bumpiest, quirkiest ski area on the continent. Panorama Dome, for example, is a huge, hulking hemisphere where inviting powder fields lead to a Russian roulette of long bump runs, steep chutes, and life-threatening cliffs. Even over on mellower, more civilized Shuksan Arm, there are enough knobs, knolls, and natural halfpipes to keep the hardcores happy.

Especially when it's all covered in 10 inches of fresh -- albeit dense -- snow like it was today. Starting out on Shuksan, I cruised blue-square highways like Daytona and picked my way down the multiple fall lines on Gabl's. Later, I headed over to Pan Dome, where a strip of tape on a lift tower marked last season's high-snow line -- it had to be 40 feet above the current pack -- and the whole place was like a massive terrain park. For awhile, I managed a few decent moves -- a little air here, a terrain hit there -- but by midafternoon, the dense snow was more like deep doo-doo, and I skied it like you know what.

January 21, 2000
Is there such a thing as too much snow? A few days ago, a skier hiked into a closed area at Crystal during a storm and was killed in an avalanche, almost a year to the day after a snowboarder got swept away at Baker. It's enough to make you think twice about stepping off the groomed at all -- not! When it's a sunny afternoon, it's snowed 16 inches overnight, and the Alpental backcountry is open, it's like Bob Weir said: "Too much of everything is just enough."Which may explain how I ended up with a couple of locals standing at the far side of Nash, drooling over a snowscape of cliffs, bowls, and timbered ridges. Fortunately, we all had shovels and beacons, and the ski patrol was okay, so we headed out through the gate and into what is easily one of my favorite places on the planet.

We traversed beneath massive cliffs -- out past Sharon Bowl and Mach's Couloir -- until we reached a knoll above Martin Bowl, as wide open as it was untracked. One by one, we dropped in, each of us picking our own line and flowing downhill through knee-deep snow that billowed up to our waists. Eventually, the open slopes gave way to big timber, and we linked turns by the dozen in an evergreen slalom all the way to the valley floor and back to the lifts. We only got three runs in before they closed the gates, and since each one was a bigger blast than the one before, I knew quitting was not an option. There was only one thing to do: Grab a bite and go night skiing.

I know, I know -- night skiing?The way I've always figured it, the problem with skiing at night is that you never get to ski the good stuff, just endless laps on the intermediate trails of the lower mountain with hordes of people who don't have the sense to have their days off. So why bother? Because it's still better than another night with Regis, Raymond, or those silly friends at the Central Perk.

Following a faint cat track that led through the trees at the top of Chair 1, I was amazed to discover a tiny tea-cup bowl just barely illuminated by the night lights. In the half light, I could see that the snow was still mostly untracked and offered up all the resistance of latte foam. I couldn't believe it: fresh tracks on the lower mountain at 8 p.m. I think I've changed my mind about night skiing.

February 29, 2000
You know it's bad news when the lift op on Crystal's Chinook Express clears off your seat not with a broom, but with a squeegee. Then again, considering the early-morning snow report had said 35 degrees and snowing, I should have known the weather could go either way. Personally, I was ready to wait it out with a few snorts over at the Elk, but my ski partner, photographer Carl Skoog, insisted we give it a try, soggy butts and all.

What do you know? By the time we reached the top and skated over to Rex, the drizzle had turned to snow. It was coming down sideways, backed by a 40-knot wind, but, hey, at least it was white. And for Carl, who has skied here since he was six, it was just another Northwest day. The blowing snow and howling wind didn't faze him in the least. For several hours, we hit the gladed trees of Northway, the bumps in Powder Bowl, and a couple of sketchy chutes in Bear Pits, occasionally finding freshies but mostly battling snow that was more like bad baked meringue. "I like this kind of skiing," deadpanned Carl, "'cause it feels so good when you stop."

March 30, 2000
Last night in Glacier, it poured for hours; today, Baker was bathed in brilliant sunshine, draped in fresh snow, and, surprisingly, as quiet as a ghost town. That's cool. While everybody else was out boating or golfing, I had one of the best days of the season.

The hardcores, of course, spent the day going OB -- hiking up to the big, pillowy slopes of the Hemispheres, leaping into Rumble Gully -- but since I'd somehow misplaced my transceiver, I wasn't about to join them. Especially after I noticed the cartoon someone had plastered throughout the day lodge: Standing next to a boundary rope, the Grim Reaper was talking to a group of antsy skiers and snowboarders. "Me?! A ski patroller here to confiscate your passes??" read the caption. "Noooo. Think of me as your welcome wagon, boys!"

Fortunately, I ran into John Adams, a local tele skier who assured me there were still plenty of freshies inbounds. He had just opened a ski shop in snowboard-centric Glacier, a move that seemed akin to opening a kosher deli in Cairo. "Oh yeah," he said with a shrug, "there's been some heckling." Even so, having moved up from California a few years back, he was hooked on the place. "This reminds me of Tahoe in the '70s," he said. "Slow lifts, cheap tickets, and real skiers."

And, of course, deep snow. Working our way from Shuksan Arm to Pan Dome, we picked off line after line of surprisingly good pow, John kneeling and leaping in true tele style, me in midfat surf mode, and both of us amazed at how light and dry the snow was so late in the year. Spring may have sprung down in the city, but it was still winter in the mountains. That bit of tape marking last year's high-snow mark was now less than 10 feet off the deck.

April 16, 2000
Ahhh, spring in the Cascades. Grassy patches down low, slush bumps up top, and schizophrenic skies shifting from sun breaks to snow showers to drizzling mist every few minutes. Still, with most of the local resorts about to close, I figured I'd better get some turns in while I could. So when Dale Boehm, owner of Cascade Powder Adventures (Crystal's backcountry-guiding service) invited me to go out for a tour, I wasn't about to wait for better weather.Instead, we rigged up some randonnée gear and headed for Pickhandle Peak, a snowy crest a good 45 minutes out of bounds. We made good time, skinning up one basin and then locking our heels down for a few dozen turns over to the next bowl. The skiing itself was okay -- an inch of spring corn on smooth, rolling slopes -- but what I really likowl just barely illuminated by the night lights. In the half light, I could see that the snow was still mostly untracked and offered up all the resistance of latte foam. I couldn't believe it: fresh tracks on the lower mountain at 8 p.m. I think I've changed my mind about night skiing.

February 29, 2000
You know it's bad news when the lift op on Crystal's Chinook Express clears off your seat not with a broom, but with a squeegee. Then again, considering the early-morning snow report had said 35 degrees and snowing, I should have known the weather could go either way. Personally, I was ready to wait it out with a few snorts over at the Elk, but my ski partner, photographer Carl Skoog, insisted we give it a try, soggy butts and all.

What do you know? By the time we reached the top and skated over to Rex, the drizzle had turned to snow. It was coming down sideways, backed by a 40-knot wind, but, hey, at least it was white. And for Carl, who has skied here since he was six, it was just another Northwest day. The blowing snow and howling wind didn't faze him in the least. For several hours, we hit the gladed trees of Northway, the bumps in Powder Bowl, and a couple of sketchy chutes in Bear Pits, occasionally finding freshies but mostly battling snow that was more like bad baked meringue. "I like this kind of skiing," deadpanned Carl, "'cause it feels so good when you stop."

March 30, 2000
Last night in Glacier, it poured for hours; today, Baker was bathed in brilliant sunshine, draped in fresh snow, and, surprisingly, as quiet as a ghost town. That's cool. While everybody else was out boating or golfing, I had one of the best days of the season.

The hardcores, of course, spent the day going OB -- hiking up to the big, pillowy slopes of the Hemispheres, leaping into Rumble Gully -- but since I'd somehow misplaced my transceiver, I wasn't about to join them. Especially after I noticed the cartoon someone had plastered throughout the day lodge: Standing next to a boundary rope, the Grim Reaper was talking to a group of antsy skiers and snowboarders. "Me?! A ski patroller here to confiscate your passes??" read the caption. "Noooo. Think of me as your welcome wagon, boys!"

Fortunately, I ran into John Adams, a local tele skier who assured me there were still plenty of freshies inbounds. He had just opened a ski shop in snowboard-centric Glacier, a move that seemed akin to opening a kosher deli in Cairo. "Oh yeah," he said with a shrug, "there's been some heckling." Even so, having moved up from California a few years back, he was hooked on the place. "This reminds me of Tahoe in the '70s," he said. "Slow lifts, cheap tickets, and real skiers."

And, of course, deep snow. Working our way from Shuksan Arm to Pan Dome, we picked off line after line of surprisingly good pow, John kneeling and leaping in true tele style, me in midfat surf mode, and both of us amazed at how light and dry the snow was so late in the year. Spring may have sprung down in the city, but it was still winter in the mountains. That bit of tape marking last year's high-snow mark was now less than 10 feet off the deck.

April 16, 2000
Ahhh, spring in the Cascades. Grassy patches down low, slush bumps up top, and schizophrenic skies shifting from sun breaks to snow showers to drizzling mist every few minutes. Still, with most of the local resorts about to close, I figured I'd better get some turns in while I could. So when Dale Boehm, owner of Cascade Powder Adventures (Crystal's backcountry-guiding service) invited me to go out for a tour, I wasn't about to wait for better weather.Instead, we rigged up some randonnée gear and headed for Pickhandle Peak, a snowy crest a good 45 minutes out of bounds. We made good time, skinning up one basin and then locking our heels down for a few dozen turns over to the next bowl. The skiing itself was okay -- an inch of spring corn on smooth, rolling slopes -- but what I really liked was knowing we were the only ones around for miles. It was like Dale had said when we first headed out: "If you're looking for solitude, it's right here."

Later, over lunch on Pickhandle, I got to thinking about that. Thanks to La Niña, the local ski areas have gotten a lot of publicity lately. Likewise, over the past few years, several have been bought by multiresort corporations that have invested millions in an effort to provide a kinder, gentler, more resort-oriented experience. Sure, I like nice lodges and fast lifts as much as the next guy, but as we packed up our lunch, I pictured flocks of skiers on the slopes across the valley and couldn't help but think that it could start getting pretty crowded around here.

A few turns later, I had to smile when it started to rain.

DESTINATION: NORTHWEST

As it turns out, the winter of 1999-00 didn't live up to the epic sessions of 1998-99, but the Cascades still fared better than almost everywhere else. Odds are it's snowing -- or raining -- on the Northwest's slopes right now.

ALPENTAL: Part of the four-resort Summit at Snoqualmie complex, 47 miles from Seattle
Average Snowfall: 400 inches (440 in 1999-00)
Vertical Drop: 2,200 feet
Skiable Acres: 750, with 750 more in the backcountry
Chairlifts: 4
Prices: adult weekend, $37; midweek, $29; youth/senior weekend, $20; midweek, $24; child/super senior, $7.
Lodging: One motel, a Best Western (about a mile away)
Info: 425-434-7669; www.summit-at-snoqualmie.com

CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN: Washington's biggest ski resort (owned by Boyne USA), 76 miles from Seattle
Average Snowfall: 340 inches (367 in 1999-00)
Vertical Drop: 3,100 feet
Skiable Acres: 2,300
Chairlifts: 9
Prices: adult, $40; youth, $35; senior, $10; children under 10 (with adult), free
Lodging: Three hotels and assorted chalets and condos
Info: 360-663-2265; www.skicrystal.com

MT. BAKER: 140 miles from Seattle, 56 miles from Bellingham (and really out there)
Average Snowfall: 647 inches (720 in 1999-00)
Vertical Drop: 1,500 feet
Skiable Acres: 1,000
Chairlifts: 8
Prices: adult weekend & holiday, $33; $23 midweek; youth (7-16) and senior (60-69) weekend & holiday, $26; $19 midweek; super senior (70+), $10; children under 6, free.
Lodging: Assorted condos, cabins, and B&Bs 17 miles away in Glacier
Info: 360-734-6771; www.mtbakerskiarea.com

For more photos from the Great Northwest, check out CASCADE CONFIDENTIAL: THE SLIDESHOW in the related links above. liked was knowing we were the only ones around for miles. It was like Dale had said when we first headed out: "If you're looking for solitude, it's right here."

Later, over lunch on Pickhandle, I got to thinking about that. Thanks to La Niña, the local ski areas have gotten a lot of publicity lately. Likewise, over the past few years, several have been bought by multiresort corporations that have invested millions in an effort to provide a kinder, gentler, more resort-oriented experience. Sure, I like nice lodges and fast lifts as much as the next guy, but as we packed up our lunch, I pictured flocks of skiers on the slopes across the valley and couldn't help but think that it could start getting pretty crowded around here.

A few turns later, I had to smile when it started to rain.

DESTINATION: NORTHWEST

As it turns out, the winter of 1999-00 didn't live up to the epic sessions of 1998-99, but the Cascades still fared better than almost everywhere else. Odds are it's snowing -- or raining -- on the Northwest's slopes right now.

ALPENTAL: Part of the four-resort Summit at Snoqualmie complex, 47 miles frrom Seattle
Average Snowfall: 400 inches (440 in 1999-00)
Vertical Drop: 2,200 feet
Skiable Acres: 750, with 750 more in the backcountry
Chairlifts: 4
Prices: adult weekend, $37; midweek, $29; youth/senior weekend, $20; midweek, $24; child/super senior, $7.
Lodging: One motel, a Best Western (about a mile away)
Info: 425-434-7669; www.summit-at-snoqualmie.com

CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN: Washington's biggest ski resort (owned by Boyne USA), 76 miles from Seattle
Average Snowfall: 340 inches (367 in 1999-00)
Vertical Drop: 3,100 feet
Skiable Acres: 2,300
Chairlifts: 9
Prices: adult, $40; youth, $35; senior, $10; children under 10 (with adult), free
Lodging: Three hotels and assorted chalets and condos
Info: 360-663-2265; www.skicrystal.com

MT. BAKER: 140 miles from Seattle, 56 miles from Bellingham (and really out there)
Average Snowfall: 647 inches (720 in 1999-00)
Vertical Drop: 1,500 feet
Skiable Acres: 1,000
Chairlifts: 8
Prices: adult weekend & holiday, $33; $23 midweek; youth (7-16) and senior (60-69) weekend & holiday, $26; $19 midweek; super senior (70+), $10; children under 6, free.
Lodging: Assorted condos, cabins, and B&Bs 17 miles away in Glacier
Info: 360-734-6771; www.mtbakerskiarea.com

For more photos from the Great Northwest, check out CASCADE CONFIDENTIAL: THE SLIDESHOW in the related links above.

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