Not Plan A…or even C — Wildsnow PNW Spring Break

Post by blogger | April 8, 2014      

I had a week off school for spring break this year. Plan A (Alaska) slowly turned into plan B, which morphed into plan C… Although initial plans fell through it still was a fun time, with incredible skiing in new places.

I’d been planing on heading up to Alaska this spring break, for a repeat of the amazing trip we did last year. The season in Alaska got off to a strong start, but a few weeks before our trip it became evident that the conditions were taking a turn for the worse. A nasty persistent weak layer began to develop and didn’t show any signs of stabilizing. A big attraction of Alaska is the combination of stable snowpack, good snow, and awesome terrain. With the stability lessened, the Glacier Bay/Haines area looked to be less attractive than it could be. About a week out, we switched our tickets to Anchorage, hoping to head to the Valdez area, as they had a bit better snowpack. However, a few days before we left, a big wind event created wind slabs and destroyed the powder in that area. We agreed to bail on Alaska altogether, in favor of a cheaper trip in closer mountains.

Hiking out toward Shuksan while skiing near Mt. Ann in the baker backcountry.

Hiking out toward Shuksan while skiing near Mt. Ann in the Baker backcountry.

After getting out of class on Thursday, I spent a great few days in the Baker backcountry. First came a classic deep Baker storm day, then a rare cold and clear day (that was still pretty deep). Wanting to explore some different areas, and after researching options, I heard Washington Pass only had a few days before it would start to be cleared for the summer (effectively closing it to snowmobiles). Wanting a repeat of the rad skiing we found a earlier in the season (here), it was an easy decision to head out there. My good friend Zach unfortunately had a season-ending injury a few weeks previously, but still graciously allowed us to borrow his sled, and hung out with us in the evenings. Once again we found some incredible terrain, with beautiful surroundings. Although the conditions were a little warm and gloppy, it proved to be a great time.

Skyler psyched on the incredible terrain on the way to the top of Washington Pass. We headed up the distant valley on the left later that day, and skied some of the sunlit slopes in the center of the photo.

A ski trip with a snowmobile isn't complete without a little bit of sled issues.

A ski trip with a snowmobile isn't complete without a little bit of sled issues.

Making some turns above highway 20 on Washington Pass

Making some turns above Highway 20 on Washington Pass.

Skiing a tight chute on our last day on Washington Pass

Skiing a tight chute on our last day on Washington Pass.

After a few days we decided to head up to Nelson, BC, as they seemed to be having colder weather and great snow. After getting another day of skiing in, we headed out in the evening for the five hour drive. Four hours in we arrived at the border, shortly before closing time. One of our group had some minor border trouble in the past, so he went inside in an ultimately futile attempt to talk with the border guards. Unfortunately (and unexpectedly), the guards refused our entry into the country. While this was all happening, the guards had us unpack our stuffed-to-the-brim car (allegedly so they could search it), pile it on the ground, and then promptly load it all back up. Slightly miffed by the pointless busy-work, we pulled a quick u-turn, and headed back to the USA. Another bug in our plans, but we were determined to make the best of it. After a night camping in a redneck junkyard/pasture in nowhere Washington, we decided to head south towards Stevens Pass and Leavenworth.

High Camp is a group of cabins in the Chiwaukum mountains located between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth. Although focused on cross-country skiing, the surrounding mountains have promising terrain for backcountry skiing. My friend Eric is one of the caretakers of the camp, and graciously invited us up for a few days. Although I’d never been, everyone else on the trip had, and they were able to show me around. The skiing proved to be excellent. The weather was cloudy, so we stuck to trees, but were still able to find good snow at higher elevations.

Skyler finding some deep snow in the trees above high camp

Skyler finding deep snow in the trees above High Camp.

Classic northwest glop

Classic northwest glop.

Although the plans I originally had lined up didn’t work out, plan G proved to be a great time nonetheless. I prefer detailed plans; they tend to make trips easier, cheaper, and ultimately more carefree. However, you also have to be willing to abandon them and go a totally different direction. This certainly applies for ski mountaineering objectives, as we experienced on this trip.

After returning to Bellingham, I spent a few days enjoying the good weather up on Mt. Baker. Perhaps another TR on that?


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19 Responses to “Not Plan A…or even C — Wildsnow PNW Spring Break”

  1. Rod April 8th, 2014 8:55 am

    Hi Louie, how deep if the snowpack around washington pass?
    I am thinking of spending 3 weeks there in june to bc ski, and I’m wondering if there will be enough snow left.
    Finally, any recommendations for steep couloirs around there?

    Thanks for your great posts.

  2. Lee Lau April 8th, 2014 10:54 am

    Good call Louie. There’s several PWL’s in Haines. I scrubbed several alpine trips into North-Central BC (Stewart/Terrace) area also due to PWLs. I’d daresay there’s PWL concerns too in this area near the Coast this year and this week’s high temps might get them active again. This season’s not the season to get rowdy in the Coast imo

    Otoh – Fidelity in Rogers Pass had a record March snowfall. Their spring is setting up well

  3. Pete H April 8th, 2014 12:37 pm

    Hey Rod,

    To answer in lieu of Louie, thanks to a wet February, WA Pass snowpack is pretty robust right now at around 100″, which is average for this time of year. Whether skiing will still be good in June depends on what the weather is like between now and then.

    Last year we had a pretty similar snowpack at this time but after a warm spring, skiing there was on its way out in June. That said, its a pretty safe bet that even if we have another warm spring, we’ll have good skiing in June somewhere in the Cascades, whether its at WA Pass or volcanoes, etc.

  4. Pete H April 8th, 2014 1:01 pm

    Hard to find the data online, but after some recollection I believe last year the snowpack was a bit thinner below 5000′ or so, which allowed for an earlier opening date for the pass (April 16) and probably a quicker meltout of the snowpack around pass level. Perhaps someone has the data or at least a better memory than me.

  5. brian h April 8th, 2014 2:57 pm

    That’s rich. Cannucks keeping ‘mericans out. Where do they get the nerve?

  6. Bryon Neufeld April 8th, 2014 3:21 pm

    Dear Lou,

    Which of your books is the best resource for those wanting to do Winter 14ers? I have found standard routes are often not so standard in the winter/winter-like conditions. Is any of the material available online, or is it best to buy the book?

    Best, Bryon

  7. Lou Dawson April 8th, 2014 3:41 pm

    Sheesh, I wonder how it compares to Mexican/American border? The Canadian border guys do seem a bit extreme, but perhaps they’re watching for insurgents coming up survivalist enclaves in Oregon and Washington?

  8. Lou Dawson April 8th, 2014 3:43 pm

    Hi Bryon, I put a ton of info in the two “Dawson’s Guide to Colorado Fourteener” books. Other than the trailhead info, the routes are pretty much current in terms of ideas for winter. That being said, I’m pretty sure you can find good winter route ideas by participating at, which is pretty much the future of guidebooks, IMHO. ‘best, Lou

  9. Jeff April 8th, 2014 6:06 pm

    Ahh, good to hear time spent from school was time for skiing!!! Missed you guys up in Haines this season. As funky as it’s been, the skiing has been phenomenal with an intermittent warm January spell. A meter of snow at sea level mid-March did set up some PWL on high-angle slopes and yet another heli-ski fatality. However, it’s been adaptable to seek out a variety of terrain and snowpack. Spent some time in Glacier Bay at the top of the McBride Glacier and Mount Krause, as well as did a traverse of the Davidson Glacier to Lynn Canal skiing along the way. Also made a 5K descent out at the yurt last weekend!!! Always welcome to track me down next time you’re through!

  10. brian h April 8th, 2014 7:21 pm

    Well, it aint really ‘spring break’ until the man shows up and turns out yer rig…

  11. Louie III April 8th, 2014 8:50 pm

    Good to hear from you Jeff! I’m glad to hear you’ve been getting in some skiing! Definitely will be headed up there next season.

  12. Patrick April 8th, 2014 11:09 pm

    Louie. Hold it now, you say you went to the Cdn border just before closing time and that you had a guy with you who’d been turned away before. Hmmmm, I thought you were a guy who was into trip planning.

    At the US/Canada border years ago, south of Nelson, I saw a car (US Plates) pulled over by the US border officials. All 4 doors 4 were open, ditto the trunk and hood. Stuff scattered across the lawn. The shakedown could have been triggered by the dude’s attitude-laden bumper sticker that read “Insured by Smith and Wesson”.

  13. Lou Dawson April 9th, 2014 4:57 am

    Modern trip planning: run background check on all potential partners (grin).

  14. XXX_er April 9th, 2014 3:46 pm

    Tight borders are a result of homeland security … an American idea

  15. Lou Dawson April 9th, 2014 5:01 pm

    I’m pretty sure they thought up tight borders in the middle ages, or before…

  16. Louie III April 9th, 2014 6:49 pm

    Patrick, yep, it could have easily been avoided, but for reasons I won’t get into here, we thought we had it figured out. Turns out we didn’t.

  17. pete h April 10th, 2014 9:56 am

    Ironically I would think a Smith and Wesson bumper sticker would get you back into the u.s. a lot easier.

  18. Patrick April 10th, 2014 4:30 pm

    Truth is — it’s Homelands Insecurity

  19. Zach W April 13th, 2014 10:41 am

    Hi Rod,

    As Pete mentioned, the weather between now and June will really determine how the skiing will be through the late spring and summer. That said, there is some good telemetry you can keep your eye on. There is a snotel site at WA Pass that is linked to from the NWAC site. Other telemetry sites of relevance are Harts Pass, Rainy Pass, and Swamp Creek. They are all found through the NRCS website. Spring skiing is looking hopeful, as the road is still closed, indicating that there is at least average snowpack up there. As far as steep couloirs go, I’ll mostly keep my mouth shut on the topic in respect of other locals who prefer outsiders to put in their time to find them. That said, some popular chutes that are no secret can be found around Blue Lake, on the Birthday Tour, and in the Hairpin/Kangaroo Ridge areas. Also, make sure to check out the Goats Beard in Mazama – a great gear shop with loads of knowledge. Hope that helps, see you out there.

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