GeezerHiker

December 29, 2009

White Christmas – Bellingham style

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 8:49 pm

Up here in the Fourth Corner of the Lower 48, we take a civilized approach to the idea of a white Christmas – we always have snow in the nearby mountains at this time of year (and most other times, for that matter) so that we can enjoy it when we wish,  but we don’t see the point of living right in the midst of it. Snow can be very lovely, especially when it is falling in a silent night or gracing the slopes of a massive volcano, but it can be quite irksome to have to walk and drive on the stuff! So it came to pass, in the week before Christmas, that two small groups from the Mount Baker Club headed up into the Cascades with our snowshoes to visit our winter wonderland.

Shuksan in winter

On Saturday, the 19th, there were about a dozen of us. As usual, we didn’t know exactly where we were going – the conditions up in the mountains can vary widely from one place to another, and especially at different elevations, so it is hard to know where the snow conditions might be good or even where you can get to in a car. Information is scarce, since no one lives up in that area beyond the hamlet of Glacier – the only consistent human presence being at the Ski Area, and they are narrowly focussed on skiing conditions

The state DOT plows Mount Baker Highway, keeping it open as far as the Ski Area lodges (except during an active heavy snow storm). So you can pretty much always drive up to the Ski Area; but then, of course, so can everyone else.

And there is the question of avalanches. Within the Ski Area boundaries workers in the off hours reduce the danger to a minimum by watching for dangerous cornices and other buildups and triggering small slides to keep them from growing into big ones. Of course we can’t do any interesting snowshoeing within that area since there are all those pesky skiers!

Shoeing toward Table Mountain

One of our favorite treks is to follow the Wild Goose Trail (roughly speaking – there is no visible trace of the trail once a couple of feet of snow have fallen) up to the Artist Point area and out to Huntoon Point. This area is accessible by car during what passes for summer at this elevation – usually from some time in July to early October – and is a very popular destination for picnickers and hikers. Some of the very best trails in the region begin here and you can enjoy spectacular views of the North Cascades without even leaving the parking lot.

Clouds

Getting there in winter involves an easy to moderate hike, gaining about 1000 feet in elevation over 2 miles. There are a couple of short, steep sections but nothing too horrible.

And no matter how much time you may have spent up there in summer, you will be a stranger in the winter. The drifts of snow obscure all signs of civilized development – the large parking lot, the restroom building, signs and trails are nowhere to be seen. And the familiar views, especially of Mounts Baker and Shuksan, are transfigured.

But remember about the avalanches? Artist Point is outside the Ski Area boundary, so you have to be aware of a certain level of risk. A couple of years ago a party of shoers was coming down the road from Artist Point and had paused at the first big hairpin switchback when they were hit by a slide, killing one person. (That is one reason we follow the Wild Goose Trail rather than the road – the road follows a longer, gentler grade but it passes on the lee side of an impressive cliff that acts as an enormous snow fence, building up great, looming cornices.) So we keep an eye on the avalanche forecasts from the Northwest Avalanche Center and only venture out when the danger is at level 1 – Low Avalanche Danger. (There are four other levels: moderate, considerable, high and holy-s—get-me-out-of-here.)

When the avalanche risk is elevated in the alpine country, there are two good fall-back choices. If the snow level is fairly high, as it is so far this year, it may be possible to drive to some of the lower hiking trailheads, like Church or Goat Mountain. The trails are often protected from deep snow by the tree cover (in the woods a lot of the snow sticks to the trees and melts before it hits the ground), but you can haul your snowshoes up the trail until the snow gets deep enough to use them. If you have the energy to get above tree line you will find plenty of snow.

Sun breaks near Austin Pass

Another strategy is simply to drive up one of the side roads until you can’t go any further and get out and hike up the road. (Hint: take tire chains with you, but don’t use them on the way up – save them for getting back down. I’ve never had to use mine.) Hiking up a road can be pretty lame in the summertime but beautiful in winter. Coal Pass Road, Thompson Creek Road and Wells Creek Road can be good choices.

Anyways, back to Saturday the 19th. There had been some fresh snow in past days and the NWAC forecast was in the moderate-to-considerable range so we took a pass on Artist Point and settled on the fourth option: White Salmon Road. On Mount Baker Highway, at the last switchback before the turnoff to the lower ski lodge, there is a logging road. The DOT usually plows out the first hundred feet or so, making space for maybe a half-dozen cars. The road slopes (mostly) gently and (mostly) downward for a couple of miles toward White Salmon creek, a tributary of the Nooksack that lends its name to the lower ski area. The road is popular with both snowshoers and Nordic skiers and leads to some dramatic views of Mount Shuksan, Goat Mountain and Mount Sefrit.

Shuksan coming out of the clouds

It was raining when we left Bellingham but it was dry by the time we got to the foothills. The clouds gradually began to thin out and brighten up, allowing some nice views but never quite clearing up. In our group we had some newcomers, both to the area and to snowshoeing, giving me an opening (as if one is ever needed) to spout off and offer advice and point out the sights. There isn’t much to learn about snowshoeing – it’s just like walking in clown’s feet – but I did give a few pointers. Of course, I mentioned the main one: Don’t back up! Snow shoes are distinctly asymmetrical and heavily biased toward forward travel. About a half hour later, when the clouds began to lift and Shuksan began to appear, I saw what looked like a good picture. As usual, the composition wasn’t quite right, so I started backing up and promptly gave a vivid demonstration of the wisdom of my previous advice, landing flat on my back! Humbling, indeed. “Do as I say…”

Nooksack Falls

Admiring Mount Shuksan

All of the newcomers were riding with me, and none of them had been to Nooksack Falls yet, so on he way home we took the short side trip up Wells Creek Road to the falls.

On the following Wednesday, another group formed up at the gas station in Maple Falls for another snowshoe Expotition. I got my embarrassment off to a running start this time by forgetting to bring my snowshoes! Luckily, Herm had recently bought a new pair and had brought his old ones along, so I was rescued.

The avalanche forecast had come down into the acceptable range so we decided to brave the trip to Huntoon Point. Again we started out with cloudy skies, but it soon began to break up, allowing the sun to peek through. Actually, I don’t remember the sun ever shining directly on us, but it did light up Table Mountain and Mount Herman at times. It is beautiful up there even when cloudy, and even the clouds themselves can be splendid, but still even a little bit of sun is most welcome.

Looking toward Lake Ann from Artist Point

It was quite a bit colder than it had been on Saturday and about halfway along I realized that I’d forgotten something else: my fleece socks. I have a fair amount of trouble with my mildly deformed feet (hammertoes) and the fleece socks are the one thing that really works to keep my toes warm without squeezing them or cutting off circulation. My toes, especially the left ones, were pretty painful by the time I got myself up to the top of the hill on Huntoon Point. I replaced the sock liner on my left foot with one of the spare socks I always carry, but it didn’t seem to do any good. I also didn’t like the color of my big toe – a bit on the pale, yellowish side. (The temperature was just about at the point (25F) where it is possible for flesh to freeze.) So I ate very quickly and started back ahead of the others, hoping that the movement would encourage the circulation, and knowing that they would soon catch up with me, given my slowness.

Lunch on Huntoon Point

And in fact by the time the others caught up to me, just above Austin Pass, the toes were no longer very noticeable. One always hopes that is because they have warmed up, rather than having frozen and fallen off, and that did eventually turn out to be the case. The other good news was that, for the very first time snowshoeing ever, I didn’t fall on my fanny even once!

[P.S. You can always click on a photo to see it enlarged.]

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1 Comment »

  1. Nice! I just might need to venture out on snowshoes this winter, Al. You certainly got some great shots and I’m jealous! I especially like the picture looking toward Lake Ann.

    Comment by DJan — December 30, 2009 @ 7:08 am


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