â€œGet down!â€ Zach yells and slides into the pickup bed â€” again. Iâ€™m staying hunkered near the cab from here on. This is the second cop weâ€™ve passed in just a few hundred feet. Theyâ€™re looking for people like us. I keep thinking of how Iâ€™m going to explain blowing the story on a moving violation, not to mention that I cannot afford a ticket. The three other law-breakers in this truck donâ€™t seem fazed. Nor can they see how concerned I am, probably because I canâ€™t get rid of this shit-eating permagrin. We really should be going slower, but I canâ€™t wait to drop in again.
Iâ€™m en route for another lap in a top-secret tree stash at Mt. Baker, Washington. This is definitely not what I expected when I heard stories about Mt. Bakerâ€™s backcountry access. Weâ€™re nowhere near any of the cliffs we saw in the morning â€”now itâ€™s just trees and tons of snow. Whenever I think everything is tracked out, my guides â€” Armada Team Rider Zach Davison and Seattle-based photog Joe Briggsâ€” prove me wrong, finding new stashes with every run.
We fought off vicious powder hounds at the ski area all morning. Now the late afternoon is like a VIP or friends-only after party â€“ and somehow I got in. The scenery is better here and the snow is intoxicating. Meanwhile, parking lots are thinning out at the resort as the weary head home and lifts shut down. A few more of these and Iâ€™m about to pass out. We havenâ€™t even discussed partying in Bellingham tonight and maybe we shouldnâ€™t. I just know the light is fading. We ainâ€™t gotta go home, but we gotta get the hell out of here. As we depart I begin to realize the truth to this placeâ€™s legend.
Mt. Baker is the epitome of a Northwestern ski area: low-profile, hardcore, and authentic to the bone. Itâ€™s located almost on the Washington/British Columbia border, about two hours east of Bellingham. Thereâ€™s not much in the way of amenities at the ski area. The lodge is new, with a respectably-priced cafeteria and one very, very, small bar. But people donâ€™t come here to drink. They come for their piece of the legendary dumps and dicey terrain it falls on. And more of those people are getting a piece thanks to an upgrade on Chair 1, now a fixed-grip quad that shuttles about twice as many skiers up the mountain.
Baker is also the proud owner of the world record for annual snowfall, with1,140 inches in the 1998-99 season.
Mind-blowing snowfall is just part of the equation. Baker has 1,500 vertical feet served by eight quad chairs, notoriously steep tree lines, monster cliffs and virtually unlimited backcountry. This place is for riding. You wonâ€™t find wi-fi or television at the lodge. Nearly all aprÃ¨s-party happens back in Bellingham â€“ via Grahamâ€™s Market for beer or food along the Mt. Baker Highway.
On our way back to town, I get to know my new friends. Zach talks about growing up as a Junior Olympian downhiller in Alaska and how it feels to finally see graduation on the horizon next year as a certified personal accountant. Joe, at over six feet tall and 250 lbs, was an NCAA tight end. He hung up his shoulder pads for a camera just a few seasons back. Before I know it, the guys are dropping me off at the Bellingham Best Western Lakeway Inn. Time for aprÃ¨s!
My in-town tour guide is Whatcom County Tourism Marketing Director Gabrielle Brockett. She shows me around town businesses for a bit before landing at the new In8 snow and skate shop. Owner Corey Warren hooks me up for a binding mount and shows me around his new facility while we wait to meet up with Joe and Zach.
We head to the Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro, everyoneâ€™s pick for a beer and steak. The brewery reflects Bellinghamâ€™s local population. There as many Patagonia jackets, dreads and waterproof hiking boots as there are UGGs, Major League Baseball hats and bearded fishermen. The food is killer and nearly everyone here knows each other, making it very comfortable. Just one of Boundary Bayâ€™s Cabin Fever winter beers is all any of can do with the prime rib. Weâ€™re all wasted from skiing. An early night is in order.
â€œI couldnâ€™t sleep last night,â€ Zach says when he arrives to pick me up in the morning. I tell him I didnâ€™t sleep either. No partying â€“ just total ski anxiety. This morning we move a little slower and snag Erich Kunz for some added fun and cruise to Grahamâ€™s Market for a breakfast bagel and coffee. Zach and Kunzpass the time on our hour-long trip to the mountain explaining how to add rocker to their old skis with a blow torch and shaping. I want to try this as soon as I can. Itâ€™s all I can do to hold my guts in from laughing so hard.
This morning looks much different without yesterdayâ€™s heavy snow. Iâ€™m awe struck with views. The glaciers staring back down at me from Mt. Shuksan make me feel microscopic, and I understand how the in-bounds â€œFly On the Wallâ€ cliff zone got its name. Iâ€™ve never seen anything like this in my life. And itâ€™s like this everywhere I can see â€“ especially traversing above Rumble Gulley, where avalanches roar on a regular basis. Nearly every cliff in this area starts as steep as it ends. I cannot find any mellow breaks and the visibility is going to shit again as we meet up with more people.
We venture onto The Elbow â€“ an out-of-bounds area just skierâ€™s left of Chair5. I notice several backcountry-equipped people waiting near the out-of-bounds gates. We pick up one of these guys quite often. The Elbow is quickly losing its goods and Iâ€™m losing interest again. Thatâ€™s when Mother Nature laughs in your face â€“ just when you think youâ€™ve had enough. Now comes the wind, snow and bitter cold no one ever mentions when they talk about Mt. Baker.
Riding in-bounds by now is basically like brail skiing. People are using their legs to read terrain. Itâ€™s still snowing and blowing and I canâ€™t see shit. Every powder hound scoured for the last fresh scraps of a season-opening, two-week long, 50-inch storm series that ended last night. That said, the avalanche risk is the highest itâ€™s been in 30 years and keeping everyone in bounds â€“ hence why everything is so chewed up.
The winds are now at gale force. Theyâ€™re quickly gaining until we are literally standing tall, arms out, and racing each other across the flats with wind at our backs. Our day is over. And we couldnâ€™t be happier. That wind is the beginning of the 24 inches to come overnight. I am supposed to leave in the a.m. I know where my heart is, but my brain says to go back home. My new friends tell me to join them for some beers to consider my options.
Zach reminds me no self-respecting ski journalist could leave now. Heâ€™s right. After all, I did risk my life in the bed of that truck just to get the story. Thereâ€™s no way in hell Iâ€™m leaving now.
Itâ€™s painful to wake up on my last morning â€“ only because I know Iâ€™m going to leave. I meet with the guys one more time in the trees.
â€œYou see that over there?â€ asks Zach.
Of course I see it. And as Iâ€™m realizing I skied this place in a dream, he speaks my thoughts.
â€œThatâ€™s where Pep â€œMorrisonedâ€ that backflip in Idea. Actually this is exactly where they were that whole time,â€ he adds.
Enough chit-chatting, Now we just ski. And even though weâ€™ve been skiing this locationfor days now â€” thereâ€™s still plenty to be had.
Zach, Joe Briggs and Kunz could sell guided Mt. Baker tours. Because of them, I saw about every square foot of Mt. Bakerâ€™s more than 2,000 in-bounds skiable acres â€“ and skied a lot of them.
Mt. Baker exceeds its reputation in every sense. Movies, stories and photos cannot do the place justice. The mountain is bigger. The terrain is more intimidating. It snows more than you think. Itâ€™s scarier and more humbling than you think â€“ just what each of us is looking for. You just donâ€™t know it till you go here.