Review – Guidebook, Washington Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes

Post by blogger | September 30, 2014      

Washington is wet, scrappy, and has more avalanche stable snow and alpine touring terrain than all other U.S. states combined. Martin Volken and his guide compadres (as contributing authors) fess up with the details. “Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes – Washington” doesn’t mess around. Forget crayon maps and pretty color pictures, instead this tome fills 342 pages with detailed prose along with numerous utilitarian greyscale annotated maps and photos (these do just as good a job as color, really, and keep the cost of the book down).

I’m not an experienced Washington ski alpinist but I’ve been around a bit. A few times playing on Baker, Rainier, Washington Pass, Cascade Pass have given me a love for the Northwest (as well as an appreciation of good layering systems). So I looked up some of the routes I’ve done to see how the Pro Guiding crew’s words matched my experience.

First up, the classic “Birthday Tour” that our family did this spring off Washington Pass. With enough supplemental map study I found the route description to be decipherable, but it includes too many options and reads complex. If a list of GPS waypoints was included you could plot things out on your own mapping software, but no “gyping” is included.

This spring, we skied the usual Birthday Tour descent down Madison Avenue with the intention of doing a fairly long day continued south over Copper Pass, where we skied quite a bit of vert down to a densely forested basin in the Twisp River drainage. We couldn’t see any logical way out of this so we climbed back up our route out of the drainage — a disappointment. The book fails to mention anything about this part of the route, even though it shows on the map. Perhaps it works in winter with deep snow opening up the forest. Other than this omission the rest of the details seemed adequate, though more information about the “Alternate Notch” option would be good. We exited that way and could have used some tips as first timers.

Next, Mount Rainier. The Camp Muir snowfields tour is the standard introduction to Rainier. I’ve done it a few times over the years and while the books advice of “follow the cattle trail,” while somewhat accurate, could use stronger caveats as there are times when the trail is way too multi-threaded — or might not exist due to a snowstorm. This is a situation where once again a few published GPS coords would be invaluable. In any case, the writer here does a good job of detailing which side of the Alta Vista terrain feature to stay on, as well as mentioning where to head if you encounter any avalanche danger. A good oblique aerial photo supplements the map, but doesn’t have Alta Vista marked on it.

I’ve not done the bucket list Nisqually Chute route off Muir. The book includes this (possibly amazing descent) as a bonus, and mentions that the entrance is hard to find (elevation is provided). Again, a simple set of GPS coords would take care of this nicely.

One of the coolest thing about “Washington… Routes” is the inclusion of the uber-classic Spearhead Traverse (which is not in Washington, but in Canada). Talk about bucket list. This fills my bucket. The description seems to give what’s needed for route planning, but it’s obvious you’d want a well marked topo sheet for this one, as well as a GPS with numerous waypoints in case the clouds closed in. Or hire a guide. Or both.

In all, I think the strength of this book is the fairly detailed written accounts of fully 81 ski tours and peak descents. Enough to keep you busy for a long long time. As with many guidebooks, at it’s most basic it’s an awesome hit list but you’ll need supplemental maps and information if you are self guided.

The book’s front material includes a nice surprise. “A Backcountry Renaissance” by Cascade skiing pioneer and historian Lowell Skoog provides a succinct summary of Washington backcountry skiing history. After that you get the usual guidebook introduction, with equipment lists along with equivocation about the book’s photos and maps. The route descriptions have ratings, and the essential descriptions of ratings are located here. I get tired of guidebooks using up valuable space with lengthy introductions; this one seemed perfect at 16 pages, though I’m wondering if the editors at Mountaineers Books are responsible for wasting a whole page on a basic equipment list you can find in 16 seconds using Google.

A few words in the Introduction solve the mystery of the missing GPS coords. The authors claim they left them out to stimulate readers to do their own research and planning. That seems weak. I’d suggest including most essential coords, a few less essential ones could still be left out. Thing is, sometimes you just don’t have much time to plan a tour. That’s why guidebooks exist in the first place. So, it’s a guidebook. Include coords. End of rant.

Overall, as a local or an out-of-state usurper of secret stashes, “Washington Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes” will give you the info to range far and work a seemingly endless checklist. Perfect gift, but make sure your beloved skier doesn’t already have it!


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11 Responses to “Review – Guidebook, Washington Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes”

  1. JT September 30th, 2014 5:09 pm

    I’m as pleased as punch when the seniors in the ski community embrace/rely on tech vs the old-fashioned ways the crusty tend to cling to (often for good reasons) but FWIW, I differ with the esteemed blogger on authors providing gps coordinates. I wouldn’t expect to see gps coordinates in a guidebook (even for trailheads), not in the US anyhow, and wouldn’t trust them without verifying in any event. Is someone likely to hold the author accountable for any variety of errors (including a typo during the book printing not caught during edit) including the possibility that the end user does not understand how to use a gps/map/compass and proceeds to get himself into trouble, esp. in hazardous terrain? I wouldn’t want to spend the hours negotiating this question with a lawyer but think it’s very likely to be more time than the few minutes it takes one to plot coords on a map/gps. I’ll also offer that this would be worthwhile education for at least a few in the BC ski community who might suspect back azimuths and resections sound more like surgical procedures than things done enroute to their buddy’s pow stash, etc…..and someone with sense is likely to at least run a visual check to validate each grid coord on the map to see if the guidebook is accurate, no? These guidebook writers do an unfortunately (semi-grin?) fantastic job getting the crowds into the terrain, I’ll let them off the hook for not providing gps info.

  2. Lou Dawson 2 September 30th, 2014 5:30 pm

    JT, if you have maps in your GPS and enter a set of coords, it is super easy to verify in most cases by just looking at the underlying map and associated guidebook route description. That’s basically what I do. I either get the coords myself or from a list or track that I find published. Publishing GPS information for use by the public is no big deal, it’s done literally millions of times a day, otherwise known as Google Maps. Lou

  3. kevin October 1st, 2014 8:29 am

    Excellent book for ski touring in Washington state. We have had a few guidebooks for Washington state go out of print. I understand there is not a lot of money to be made in ski touring books. The effort to produce them is quite high. Martin made use of his guide pool and got verified routes on all the trips listed in the book. I think the lack of gps waypoints is a bit of a weedout. Martin has served up some routes, that I personally would have preferred to keep off the radar. If you can’t find these routes without a gps, then maybe you should not be out there. Or better yet, hire Pro Ski to guide you. This book is pretty much a must have for anyone that is looking for new routes to ski in Washington state.

  4. Mike October 1st, 2014 2:34 pm

    This book rocks, and I’d bet most if not all of these routes have been skied without a GPS.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 October 1st, 2014 7:34 pm

    Mike, I’d say all were skied without GPS. Many were also skied on wooden skis. Probably most were skied without tech bindings. So?

    (please note the new anti-spam question)

  6. kevin October 1st, 2014 8:52 pm

    So, is this where we are at?? We just download the route onto our iphone and head out to the wilderness? Bummer.

  7. Doug Hutchinson October 1st, 2014 10:12 pm

    I am a little surprised there is not (yet) a commercially available app for backcountry skiing that you pay for by area (like Rakkup) that has the GPS coordinates for popular ski tours. I probably would have echoed Kevin’s sentiments a year ago, but I have since changed my mind. Last May, before skiing the Ptarmigan Traverse, I spent a few hours with maps and few guidebooks and manually created a series of waypoints that I loaded to my Garmin Oregon GPS. My partner did a quick Google search and downloaded a waypoint file to his Iphone. Guess who had the more accurate information? His was way better because someone created the file during a summer outing on the route and thus had exact waypoints which were critical when the route traversed really steep terrain and my waypoint may have been 1000ft off laterally which meant I could have been 500 vertical off. Yes, we could have (maybe) done the traverse w/o a GPS but we would have made lots of wrong turns and spent a ton of time second guessing our location. I skied without a transceiver the first five or so years (because I am older and they weren’t considered essential) but that was then, this is now.

    Another example is the Black Hole Couloir, which I am lukewarm about it’s inclusion in this book for access reasons even though I consider it the best cooler in WA that I have skied. Without a GPS, one would probably waste a lot of time heading up every minor gulley on the right because you can’t really see the right couloir until you are up it a ways.

    However, all the focus on the GPS issue detracts from the quality of this guide. I think Martin and his guides did an incredible job describing 80 tours in the best, and most vast, ski touring terrain in the lower 48. Thanks Pro Guiding!

  8. Doug Hutchinson October 1st, 2014 10:41 pm

    Ha! Immediately after I posted the comment above, I checked my email and a ski/climb and self-proclaimed Luddite partner (who is the most expert I know at GPS) emailed a scanned version of the following NY Times article:

    On the print version, the gist of the article was summarized as “Listening to a GPS (it was about auto travel in a foreign country) takes all the serendipity and actions out of travel.”

    I love to argue both sides in every debate!

  9. SteveG October 2nd, 2014 10:56 pm

    I happened to see the author riding his bike to work today and asked him about the omission of GPS coordinates. Seems that the idea was discussed quite a bit and the team felt that the essence of ski touring was exploration and discovery and that a connect the dots E-trail would take a big part of that joy away for many.

    OTOH, when I first read Louies critique, I though the GPS coordinates were left off to deter ski tourers like myself ( passion for the ski tour, no avy 1, no map skills, marginal fitness) from ignorantly and too easily getting harms way. I’m speaking as a skier who uses part of his Soc. Sec. check to pay for gear so I’ve already made enough “I’m so stupid I don’t even know I’m stupid” life mistakes that I can see them coming. Usually.

    Looks like both sides of the debate are valid. How unusual to consider these days.

  10. Lou Dawson 2 October 3rd, 2014 6:35 am

    Steve, I too can come from both sides of the debate. But having done quite a bit of traveling combined with self guided, I’ve become a huge fan of GPS. It has literally changed my life, for the good (though is in my opinion still quite primitive, especially regarding the devices).

    Prior, the amount of time, hassle and even money to suss out only one route in a strange location was sometimes exorbitant. A percentage of that was adventure, but most was just a pain in the rear. I’ve found that even with guidebook and GPS coords, there is still plenty of doubt and decision making to be had. It’s not like you flick the switch for a transporter beam. And even that, according to Star Trek, has its problems (grin).

    This holds for backcountry as well as road travel. Sure, it can be a crafty adventure to use a paper map to navigate through a South American city — or Munich. But GPS has changed everything, made it overall a lot safer, more enjoyable. And you can still get “GPSsssed” if you don’t verify what you’re doing and perhaps even look at a paper map now and then (grin).

    I’ve not spoken with Martin about this yet, but he’s a smart guy and I suspect that while an overall editorial philosophy is indeed behind the exclusion of GPS coords in the book, it’s also a practical matter.

    In many cases the coords need to be acquired in the field, while you’re on the ground, since a coord that’s even a few feet off can be dangerous in poor visibility. And the really important coords have to be done with good GPS technique, involving setting your GPS unit to the correct Datum as well as remaining stationary long enough for the signal to accurize as much as possible.

    Thus, in terms of practicality, including a bunch of safe-accurate GPS coords in a guidebook could be a difficult task.

    What is more, GPS is only so fine grained in terms of accuracy. The system is based on an imaginary mathematical model of the earth’s shape known as a “datum,” and the positioning of the GPS unit itself is only so accurate, at best within feet or yards, never inches.

    As a guidebook writer myself I’ve messed around with the GPS dilemma for years now. I tend to include more and more coords in my route descriptions as the years roll by, but doing so does continue to be an issue due to all I’m writing in this comment.

    As mentioned above, pulling coords off a map works ok in a general sense, but it’s not going to give you the optimal route that you’d mark while actually doing the route. Example, I’m thinking of that bridge on the approach to Cerro Arenas in Chile (see last few week’s trip reports). We had no idea if that even existed, having a guidebook description with a simple set of GPS coords would have avoided quite a few hours of needless stream crossing that got some laughs but was not necessary to the adventure or quality of the day.

    Overall, I’m of the opinion that yes, any backcountry skiing guidebook should provide some GPS coords to save the reader (and loyal book customer shelling out cash) the work of plucking the coords off a map. But again, I can see both sides of the issue. Main thing is that once you have good maps in your GPS and do include a few waypoints for the day, you can keep that puppy fired up and unless you’re doing some pretty fine grained nav you will be totally dialed on staying with your route. I’d add the caveat that this type of GPS use is only as good as the maps you have installed in the unit. That’s another important concept that tends to be ignored by the GPS marketing spreech.


  11. Jim Milstein October 6th, 2014 11:17 am

    Just got the Kindle edition, since I’m toying with the idea of relocating from the Rockies to the Northwest.

    The tours described look very worthy. The obvious drawback is the sometimes necessary trekking below the snow line. There may be other drawbacks and felicities. I’m eager to find out what they are.

    As for GPS route coords, I have no problem providing my own from maps, then refining them by skiing the routes. That’s what I’ve been doing in the Rockies since the dawn of consumer GPS.

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