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!