August turns – check! Boulder Glacier and Park Headwall, Mt. Baker

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

I keep telling myself ski season is over, and I need to start doing summer stuff like climbing and mountain biking. Somehow I keep finding my self skiing corn. The excuse for this last weekend was the need for August turns.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

Zach takes a break on the lower part of the Park Headwall.

I’ve been wanting to get up to Glacier Peak for forever, as it is the most remote of the Cascade volcanoes, and promises solitude and amazing scenery. Zach and I had a trip all planned out, and at the last minute I found out that the road to the trailhead had been washed out this winter, adding an additional 7 miles to the approach. We deemed the unknown snow of Glacier Peak not worth the effort, and instead made plans to ski Mt. Baker.

I still craved some backcountry solitude, so we opted for the Boulder Glacier, on the SE side of Baker, where I have never been. The approach trail is quite a bit longer than most of the others on Baker, so this side sees few people. Indeed, we saw only two other souls the entire day, and that was while we were hanging out on the summit. Not bad for a Cascade volcano on a Sunday!

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

Zach skins below the Boulder Glacier on Mt. Baker. The Park Headwall can be seen on the right skyline directly bellow the summit.

We drove to the trailhead early Sunday and left the car at about 4:00 am. The trail was long, however it went by quickly, and before I knew it we were standing on snow in the sun gazing up at the Boulder Glacier. We switched to boots and skins, and continued up toward the north side of the Boulder Glacier.

We were able to skin from a lower elevation than I expected, raising high hopes for a long ski run. As we climbed higher, a few clouds moved in below us, eventually covering much of the Cascades. Skiing above the clouds is always beautiful. We were able to make it about halfway up before we roped for the last section. The Boulder Glacier is tumultuous, with cracks like slot canyons, especially this late in the season. We skirted a few impressive rifts, and tiptoed across some thin snow bridges.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

Zach climbing the Boulder Glacier, with Sherman Peak behind.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

Nearing the summit.

We climbed next to the crater, and after more crevasse weaving made it up to the summit. We were pleasantly surprised by little wind and no people, so we hung out for a while. We had briefly discussed skiing the Park Headwall, so I walked over to check it out. I’ve looked down the headwall almost every time I’ve been on top of Baker. It drops directly from the edge of the summit plateau. It’s always exhilarating walking to the edge, as you can’t see any of the face until you’re a foot or two away. It looks like there should be a cornice, but for some reason there never is; the snow just forms a 45-50 degree wall.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

Looking down the Park Headwall from the top of Mt. Baker.

The face was already half in the shade, so the snow was sloppy corn with an icy crust, not the best, but skiable. The crux would be the bergschrund at the bottom. We couldn’t see it clearly on the way up, but I knew it was a massive one, and spread the width of the face. It was still hard to see, and I couldn’t definitively tell if we could get over it. The face was tempting, so we decided to go for it.

We hung out on the summit for a little longer, and then headed down. The face was now entirely in the shade, and was getting icier. I headed down first, and scraped down to just above the bergschrund. Zach had an exciting descent with his soft powder board, and joined me. The schrund was bigger than it looked from above, and the spot I was planning to cross was wide open. I briefly considered jumping it, but instead found a snowbridge to the far right. We skied quickly across, and it held.

We roped up at the base of the headwall, and navigated the crevasses to make it back to our uptrack. We reached it in a few minutes. Below us stretched more than 5,000 feet of crevasse-free skiing, and we wasted no time. As we got lower the snow turned to hard suncups, which were fun, in their own challenging way. This route holds the most direct fall line skiing from the summit of Baker, and it made for perfect skiing.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

Zach boards the upper Boulder Glacier.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

There's still a lot of snow out there.

Backcountry skiing in the North Cascades

The views weren't bad.

We made it back to our hiking shoes quickly and hung out for a bit, not eager to start the muddy trail back to the car. Eventually we got going. I must have really been zoning out in the morning, because the trail seemed 10 times longer than it did then. My mind drifted to thoughts of the Twilight Zone, and we half expected to emerge from the woods next to Baker Lake, at the valley bottom. The headlamps came out, and eventually we made it back to the car.

This year I’ve been up (or down) nearly every major route on Baker. It’s been great getting to know the local mountain so well. I’ve been looking at this route for years, and I’m glad I finally got on it. It starts with 1,000 feet of nice steep skiing, and then progresses to another 5,000 of cruising corn, all fall line. I think it might be my favorite line down Baker. Now maybe I can kick the habit and take part in some “real” summer activities.

Comments

16 Responses to “August turns – check! Boulder Glacier and Park Headwall, Mt. Baker”

  1. Dan August 9th, 2011 9:52 am

    Gee Whiz Info for future ref: In early summer, or later (obviously), the Park Glacier headwall can have significant sections of rock hard gray ice that the skier may not be able to see from above…a fall on that ice would probably find most skiers being deposited in the shrund. If in doubt, climb it first.

    Wow, what a fabulous ski season it has been. I still haven/t gotten my biking legs yet…keep getting interrupted with skiing…poor me.

  2. Nick August 9th, 2011 10:18 am

    Wow – sounds like a great day out! Excellent.

  3. Mark W August 9th, 2011 10:24 am

    Louie, you’re decidedly a turns all year guy now. Great report.

  4. Lou August 9th, 2011 10:36 am

    Dan, thanks for keeping the boys in line! Everyone take note…

  5. Louie August 9th, 2011 10:50 am

    Dan, thanks for the advice. We were able to check out the face from below, as well as from above. I dug down about 3 feet at the top and didn’t find any ice. I felt pretty confident skiing it, and I skied it cautiously. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to climb it first. I’ll probably do that next time.

  6. Scott August 9th, 2011 10:57 am

    Love the ‘nearing the summit’ and ‘looking down the headwall’ pics. Makes me want to get in my truck and drive up there, but it’ll be snowing here soon enough.

  7. Lou August 9th, 2011 11:30 am

    I was just over at the sled shop. They said the phone was ringing. Hmmm….

  8. Dan August 9th, 2011 11:45 am

    Louie,

    I wasn’t thinking of you when I made the “gray ice” comment. I was thinking of all those other skiers drooling over your images and description. Especially, since others may not use the Boulder G. approach (where it is not hard to get a decent look at the Headwall), which, as you know, is a bit longer and can have more crevasse issues than the Squak, Easton, etc. Of course, with your TR, one doesn’t need to climb the Headwall at this time, but a peak at that shrund can be sobering and possibly motivate some folks to re-evaluate their descent choice. It can be a serious “no fall zone”. Keep up the good work.

  9. Louie August 9th, 2011 12:09 pm

    Dan,

    Yeah I’d be much more hesitant dropping onto the park head wall after not seeing from the bottom. I’ve chose a different way down twice this season for just that reason. That bergschrund is definitely sobering, it gets absolutely massive on skiers left! Good stuff to keep in mind.

  10. Lou August 9th, 2011 12:43 pm

    I was toying with my bottle of Xanax, guess I can leave it alone for now (grin).

  11. Skyler Mavor August 9th, 2011 11:42 pm

    Very nice. Now put some scratches on that trad rack.

  12. Zachary Winters August 10th, 2011 1:05 am

    Great write-up Louie!

    As Louie emphasized, the solitude made it well worth every near ankle-sprain on the long PNW (read: wet) approach … not to mention the backyard discovery of a new area with bountiful skiing potential.

    Skyler, if you can find anything remotely shiny on that rack… or anything made since y2k for that matter…

  13. Greg Louie August 10th, 2011 6:31 pm

    August turns?

    You’re beginning to sound like a “PNW’er.”

  14. Brian August 10th, 2011 6:56 pm

    Just do what you want to do when you have the time!

  15. Lou August 10th, 2011 6:58 pm

    Wet and scrappy, baby.

  16. skier666 August 15th, 2011 4:14 pm

    Love love love the ‘looking down the Park Headwall shot’

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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