By: Jason Tross
Alaskan transplant Sarah Gottstein told me about something she and her friends call the Baker Vortex. Itâ€™s a figurative point where everything just gets different traveling west along Mt. Baker Highway. I must have been in that vortex for about four days last week while on assignment to Bellingham and Mt. Baker because my idea of skiing is completely redefined.
My trip was really an extended weekend with skiers Zach Davison, Erich Kunz, photographer Joe Briggs and a host of other Western Washington University students who choose to spend their hours outside the classroom about an hour east of Bellingham at Mt. Baker More snow falls there than any other ski area in North America.
Friday Day 1: Weâ€™ve Got an Addiction! // 10-13 inches New Snow
My original plan was to carpool with Zach Davison to Bellingham for a story on Mt. Baker, but the Cascades got about 13 inches of new snow last night, and we donâ€™t want to miss any of it while driving. Plans change.
Zachâ€™s red-eye flight from Alaska lands around 6 a.m. at Seattle, where he meets friend and photographer Joe Briggs and heads straight for Summit at Snoqualmieâ€™s Alpental.
Our timing couldnâ€™t have been better. We hit Alpental just as the upper mountain opens around 11 a.m. The highest avalanche risk in decades keeps us in-bounds, but Alpental is notorious for serving up enough difficult terrain to surprise anyone. Zach and Joe are no exception. We find it more than a foot deep in most places and incredibly steep with plenty of cliffs and trees â€“ the perfect warm up for Mt. Baker.
Weâ€™re wasted from a day of skiing harder than expected and ready to drive more than an hour north along I-5 to Bellingham, where Zach and Joe live.
They head straight home to unpack while I meet with Gabrielle Brockett from the Bellingham Whatcom Tourism Agency. She shows me around the local area and brings me to a shop to get some skis mounted. Iâ€™m pleasantly surprised to find such an impressive and creative snow and skate shop â€“ especially when I meet Corey Warren who just graduated Western Washington University. He started what he named In8 to help cultivate more community among the large number of snow, skate and art communities. My skis are among the first to be worked on in the shop.
Joe, Zach, Gabrielle and I all rally at In8 and head for some needed Cabin Fever Ale and killer food at Boundary Bay Brew and Bistro. My steak is bleeding the way I like it an the beer is out of this world and the food coma starts to set in. Iâ€™m in need of some sleep and head toward my Condo in Glacier â€“ 30 minutes from Bellingham along Mt. Baker Highway. Itâ€™s dark, snowing and Iâ€™m really overtired. Five hours of skiing with someone like Zach around Alpental and spending three hours looking for my Glacier lodging was enough to send me to sleep â€“ not for long though.
Saturday Day 2: Hit the Ground Running // 4-6 Inches New Snow
Less than four hours later Iâ€™m checked out of my condo and ordering coffee and a breakfast bagel inside Grahamâ€™s convenience store waiting for Zach and Joe. Outside, the snow hasnâ€™t stopped falling for nearly a week. Mt. Baker is reporting six inches of new snow with more to come all day. Like everywhere else in North America, avalanche danger restricts my tour guides, who were leery to show me all the goods at first. Soon Iâ€™ve proven myself worth and we start ducking ropes and hitting the trees.
Iâ€™m quickly learning Mt. Baker is pretty intense in a lot of ways. The snow is deep, terrain is steep and natural dangers lurk everywhere. Thatâ€™s what most people come looking for, but donâ€™t be surprised to find flat light, sticky snow, slow lifts and everyone just charging through it. Zach, Joe and their group pay this price for the most snow in North America. With that said, you just have to keep searching and you will find the goods â€“ especially when youâ€™re with my guides.
We hunt the in-bounds leftovers all morning before convince them I am trustworthy. Then I see and ski every spot I heard about and saw before coming to Baker. Doing the in-bounds stashes is great â€“ as is seeing and skiing the notables. But the out-of-bounds Arm and Elbow of Mt. Shuksan and more really take me back. For everything I see to be unskiable, someone has a great story of the last time it was hit. I find it hard to tell if we are in bounds or not. I only know my quads canâ€™t handle another flat-light drop â€“ so we continue lapping the trees for a while and call it a day.
The ride along Hwy. 482 from the lodge to Bellingham is a great part of the Mt. Baker experience. Zach and I are talking Armada and catching up on the few years since weâ€™ve seen each other and Iâ€™m getting to know Joe. I spend the better part of the trip laughing â€“ Joeâ€™s a former NCAA tailback or something, Zach has clear corner tail lights on his Expedition (from high school he claims) and Iâ€™m just taking it all in.
I stop laughing and realize weâ€™re back in Bellingham where I check into the Bellingham Best Western. I can smell a pool or hot tub while walking down the hallway to my room â€“ thatâ€™s because the pool and hot tub are part of the hallway. This isnâ€™t what I am expecting from a Best Western. Turns out this hotel is one of the nicest in Bellingham. I get settled in and ready for my all-grass-fed organic bison burger with Gabrielle at Fiamma Burger. Afterward, I meet the gruesome crew of riders from my earlier Baker tour at the Up and Up.
Day 3: Keep Running // 7-9 Inches New Snow
Enter Erich Kunz. He spent the last seven years skiing Baker and going to school while providing a fresh perspective â€“ think George Carlin in goggles. Whether the weather is good, these guys and gals have more fun than anyone I know. Itâ€™s the personal dynamic between riders of all ages and abilities. Everyone with a good attitude is welcome and itâ€™s refreshing.
Weather rapidly deteriorates on us all morning so we lap the Elbow skierâ€™s left off Chair 5. We manage to find a lot of great snow all over. The more things stabilize, the more we terrain we can access. Suddenly the weather destabilizes. Light goes flat in minutes, followed by flurries and eventually enough wind to stop me mid-descent. Time to haul ass. The storm cuts our day in half and leaves me wanting more, and Baker is about to deliver.
I guess we all overlooked it â€“ even the experienced locals. The storm turns out to be the third and biggest low-pressure system cruising through the Strait of Juan De Fuca in a week packing nearly two feet for Monday morning.
I start realizing leaving on the eve of a big storm, while on assignment for Freeskier, is a really bad idea. I meet up with my long-time ski buddy and Baker local, Lance Rottger, and head out to Casa Que Pasa to let him help me commit to stay. Thanks Lance.
Day 4: Going into Overtime // 15-20 Inches New Snow
I just canâ€™t bring myself to leave. Everything is done by now. Iâ€™ve done a bunch of solid interviewing, met a lot of great people, skied incredible snow on consecutive days – game over. Time to thank everyone for an incredible last couple days and jam out. What better way to do it than another couple hours smashing pillow lines in the trees? I officially postpone departure and it is absolutely worth it. We part ways in the trees and I hitch a ride back to the car while they play. I donâ€™t know it yet, but my perspective is very different on a lot of different things.
Terrain parks look odd to me now â€“ almost silly. I feel like someone just let me in on the big secret â€“ why thousands consider Mt. Baker the best skiing in North America. You could call it enlightenment via dream come true. Iâ€™ve dreamed of the pillow lines I saw in the movies. Thanks to some great new friends â€“ I will ski those pillows again. Try just as hard to find this group of people as you do the terrain. After all, every mountain has good terrain. Good people are harder to come by.