I woke Saturday morning to my phone buzzing with a Crystal Mountain powder alert. Normally I’d be heartbroken to know I couldn’t go…but not today. I was about to participate in a challenging adventure. Krystin, Theresa and I were excited to take a quiet walk in the woods and experience a different kind of vibe on this February pow day.
What is this adventure you may ask? The one keeping us from letting snow repeatedly hit our face? You’d think it must be awesome and full of powder. Well, it is…but mostly involves walking on said powder and skiing on it with skins still attached to our skis.
The Patrol Race is a ~19 mile, 5000 foot vertical route tucked away in a somewhat remote area between Snoqualmie and Stampede Pass. The race originally started in the 1930s and ran for twelve years, “producing tales of both misadventure and great ski prowess”. In 2014, The Mountaineers and a few vivid enthusiasts decided to bring the race back into the 21st century. The race resurrected in 2014 and has occurred almost every year since.
Krystin and I participated in 2016, when we were blessed with a day full of rain. I remember saying that I’d never want to do the race again. But, here I was, psyched to give the race another go, feeling a lot more confident about the route and my options for travel decisions. Plus, my downhill skinning techniques have improved 100% after all of my adventures with Louie Junior.
To race, a team must be selected via lottery. Every member of the team must have completed an AIARE Level 1 course. We were lucky and snagged a spot. Yay, lady power! We named our team “Ski Like a Girafficorn” and prepared for nothing but magic.
Our team spent a considerable amount of time tracking the weather, talking about conditions and options as the race day quickly approached. Lots of snow was forecast for the day before the race. The weather and avalanche forecast was making me uneasy, ranking at “considerable” at all elevations, with a persistent deep slab as one of the primary avalanche concerns. Persistent slab is not a typical hazard for Washingtonians and thus not something we are that good at managing.
Generally speaking the terrain of the course is fairly low angle and tucked away in the trees, but there are a few small areas of avalanche terrain that must be crossed. Our primary concerns were: something big coming at us unexpectedly from above; as well as the hazard of racers skiing on top of one another to beat time in the the open areas of the route.
The organizers did an assessment of the route the day before the start. A few professionals helped scrutinize conditions and dig pits in areas of possible danger from above. After an analysis of results and summary discussion, they decided the race was a go. With that said, each team was given the option to drop out if they did not feel that the conditions would be safe for travel, with a full refund of racer registration.
Race day arrived with a “considerable” avy forecast above treeline, “moderate” below, and the anticipated 15+ incoming inches of snow over 24 hours shrunk to just 5 inches overnight. Our team made the call to give the race a go, with an agreement that we would turn around if we started feeling uncomfortable with the risk. That’s probably one of the unique and most fulfilling components of this race: the 3-person teams are expected to work together, make decisions together and support each other throughout the day. To complete the race, all three racers have to get to the finish line.
We started the race at 6:30am up at Summit West and quickly emerged into the snowy woods. The snow was still coming down, but the skin track was already set as there were volunteers who had broken trail earlier that morning, as well as teams who had started in front of us. Throughout the day we experienced heavy snowfall, light snowfall, overcast and even partly sunny conditions. Welcome to the PNW where the weather can never make up its mind!
We did see some old evidence of avalanche activity during the steep sidehill portion of the race, as well as a small slide on a rollover that was clearly kicked off the day of the race by someone eager to take a slightly higher traverse track to keep speed. Nothing that created big concerns for us or made us want to turn around. Overall, everyone in the race was very respectful of precautions taken by the other teams, and no one was trying to skin or ski on top of each other. It’s excellent to see our community come together for a race but still prioritize safety.
The race is long, challenging and gorgeous. 20 miles feel just about as long as expected. I might have found my true self coming out right about mile 15 on that skintrack, right as I realized that I had eaten all of my tastiest snacks for the day. I was blessed by wonderful teammates who supported me with their tasty snacks. With that said, it is truly an amazing experience I would recommend to everyone to really be one with your skis.
We crossed two checkpoints where stoked volunteers fed us cookies, and hot chocolate that may or may not be spiced with a little extra something to warm us up. This year, there was even a full pot over the fire with delicious elk stew. I love this community!
Our team completed the race in just over 8 hours, improving our time from the year prior. During the whole race, we transitioned three times, with two transitions happening about one mile from the finish. I did have snow hit my face at least once on the ski down towards the finish at Meany Lodge. (No, I did not fall, although my legs sure were tired.)
After beer and snacks at Meany Lodge followed by a brief awards ceremony, we piled up into the old snowcat that transported us back to the parking lot. What a day! Can I say I won’t do it again? I felt that way the day after the race, but now that it’s been a while, my guess is I’ll probably be back at it next year!
If you want to learn more about the race, you can check out the details here. Shout-out to the volunteers who helped make the race happen. It truly felt like a big family!
For those who are curious, a track of the route can be found here
It’s always important to reflect on decisions made during tricky conditions. Just the day after the race, in an area nearby, a number of snowmobilers picked a bad spot to have lunch and had an avalanche came at them from above. The avalanche occurred at 4600k elevation with average depth of 40 cm, SSE aspect and was quite large. There was one fatality. Reading about the incident struck up a discussion between Theresa, Krystin and me, questioning if it was safe to be out where we were just the day before. As I look back on the choices that we made and the things we saw, I feel confident and comfortable with the decisions made, conditions, and the route that we took. With that said, we had a well assessed skin track set in front of us that served as a solid stability test at times. I give a high five to those who broke trail and evaluated risk as they set the course.