Mt. Baker Backcountry in Grayscale


It’s easy for me to get distracted away from cycling this time of year.

Although January and February 2011 didn’t amount to much for skiing, as is often the case, March delivered prodigious snowfall and (mostly) outstanding skiing. It had been a while since I’d ventured into the backcountry, and last weekend turned into an opportunity for a little adventure with old friends. On the plus side, these are guys I’ve skied with off and on for about 15 years, so it is familiar and comfortable for us to move in the backcountry together. On the negative side, age is noticeably affecting us all–and our physical disintegration was apparent under the highly variable conditions one can encounter while backcountry skiing.

Jim Lapp gains on a group ahead of us on the approach to Herman Saddle.
Isn’t it interesting how the definition of “old friend” changes as you get older? I’m realizing that the timeframe I’ve known people I consider “old friends” has stretched into the amount of time it takes for a human to become a full-blown adolescent or even an adult.

Our skiing plan was pretty simple. Given the recent weather and snow history, we hoped to be able to ski soft powdery snow on north facing slopes that had not been touched by sunlight. We didn’t expect to find decent snow anywhere, so plan B was to tour around Table Mt.

Gigantic intimidating cornices cap Table Mt.
I was driving from Seattle and didn’t see a compelling reason for an alpine start, so we didn’t start moving uphill until about 11 AM. Which is about the time of day when the morning coffee has completely permeated the body’s tissues and one is mentally ready for strenuous activity.

Jim jumped to the head of the line and followed an established up-track towards Herman Saddle. There were crowds ahead of us, and even despite our small groups’ relatively geriatric demographic, we caught them all. Insecure middle-aged men must tally success whenever they can. As the terrain steepened, Jim and I climbed a bit towards Mt. Herman to get enough elevation to do a test run. The first half dozen turns were passable, but confirmed our suspicion that this was going to turn into more of a tour than a ski outing.

Stunning rime ice covered trees near Artist Point.
Unlike the snow at ski areas, which is relatively consistent, the snow in the backcountry can be completely different from one turn to the next. Backcountry snow doesn’t get the benefit of grooming machines and people compressing it, so the snowpack is usually quite variable. In the backcountry, even very slight differences in pitch and aspect expose slopes to different amounts of wind and sunlight, which results in major differences in the snowpack from one spot to the next. This means that one turn can be on a firm surface, the next turn can be on a soft surface, the next turn on a surface that has a slight firmness to it, but breaks under the skier’s weight. This latter condition is mostly what we experienced on Saturday–“punchy” breakable crust, and is probably one of the most difficult snow conditions to ski.

While we were able to make occasional turns, eventually we’d break through the crust, get out of balance, and auger our arms or heads into the snow. Amusing falls and grunting noises echoed from the trees and rock walls as we navigated around Table Mt.

The most memorable part of the day was the (mostly) gray light, which seemed perfectly aligned with the characteristics of my “old” skiing companions.

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