GeezerHiker

January 12, 2011

A fine kettle of fish

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 4:45 pm

Church Mt in morning light

Church Mt in morning light

More la niña

Last Thursday, as the Senior Trailblazers slogged through the la niña rain on our regularly scheduled hike in the Chuckanuts, we hatched a plan to take advantage of a predicted break in the weather and go snowshoeing on Tuesday, which had the best looking forecast: just plain “Sunny”, a rare thing this winter. Several who had never snowshoed before expressed interest in trying it out, and yesterday morning our cohort had grown to 13. That’s a very good group, about as big as I ever care to lead.

The weatherman, however, did not play his part so well. The splendid forecast held until Monday, when it was rudely withdrawn and replaced by something like “mostly cloudy, with snow moving in late in the afternoon.” But it can be pretty special up in the mountains even without the sun. And snow is not a horrible problem while snowshoeing (Duh!) but it can cause serious problems if you are planning to go home afterward. This area, at 4000 feet, in a bowl on the lee side of the 11,000 foot Mount Baker, which acts like a snow fence on steroids, is one of the snowiest places on Earth (the Ski Area is one of the few in the country that doesn’t even own snow-making equipment) and the road leading home is tortuous and steep. When it snows up there, it really snows!

The inevitable pit stop

The inevitable pit stop

But the expected weather was a warm front moving gradually from the south and forecasts are generally pretty good when limited to about 24 hours, so we felt it was still worth a shot. All the cars had four- or all-wheel drive so we could make a run for it if needed.

And it turned out to be a grand day. There was even some sun early on – as we gathered in the town of Glacier I grabbed a nice picture of the summit of Church Mountain in the early morning sunlight (It was after 9AM, but the days are really short here at the 49th parallel.) I always enjoy looking up at this peak and patting myself on the head for having hiked to the top of it. Well not the absolute top – the trail leads to the site of an old fire lookout which is on top of the ledge near the right edge of the photo.

A pause on the trail

A pause on the trail

And the drive up to the Ski Area was gorgeous. There had been a fresh snowfall on Sunday. But when we stepped out of the cars, we found that the sun was not having a whole lot of effect on the temperature. Add a little biting wind and you won’t be surprised that we were all pretty eager to get moving.

Pretty soon some high clouds moved in, allowing views of most of the surrounding mountains, but increasing the need to keep moving. At about noon we reached Artist Point, the place where the road ends in summer, but as usual the parking lot and the restroom building were nowhere in sight, buried under the drifts. The clouds were already cloaking Mount Baker, the major scenic payoff on this hike. Often we continue this hike on for another quarter mile or so and up another 300 feet to Huntoon Point, as most of the group had done the week before, but with the wind and the cold and the clouds and the impending storm we agreed to cut it short. We huddled for a while in the lee of a small snow cornice and grabbed a snack while we made plans to have our real lunch at the fabled North Fork Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel on the way back to town.

Life is rather like opening a tin of sardines – we’re always looking for the key*

The trip down was uneventful and we got back to the cars at about 1:15, which gave us just about enough time to make it to the Beer Shrine for their 2:00 opening. Everything was going swimmingly, and two of our cars had already left when Mike realized that he couldn’t find his car key. He never locks his car, so he didn’t notice the absence when we got back.

I should point out how easy it is to lose things when snowshoeing. Stumbling and falling is very common. And even dramatic tumbles that would bring an ambulance in the summertime are scarcely even noticed in the marshmallowy fluff. And it you drop anything more compact than a glove, you won’t hear it land and it will disappear instantly.

So forget about going back and looking for the keys. They will not be seen again until at least next summer, and probably not then, since we were not on any sort of established trail.

Ghostly sunshine

Ghostly sunshine

So we needed keys. Luckily there is a cellular tower at the ski area, so Mike could call his wife — but he got a busy signal. They live in the country south of Bellingham and have one phone line and a dial-up internet connection – it could conceivably be hours before he got through.

Now it is getting close to 2:00. The only nearby outpost of civilization is the lower ski lodge, about 3 miles back down the road, and it closes at 3:30. (This is a day use ski area, with no overnight accommodations.) Even if we reached his wife, it would take her two hours to get here. And there were six adults plus packs and snowshoes and just one measly little 2001 Subaru Forster in operable condition.

Did I mention that two of our cars had already left? It finally occurred to me to try to call them. I didn’t have a cell number for anyone in the car the most extra space, but I tried Fred and got no answer (of course, he was driving and couldn’t have legally answered even if his phone wasn’t buried in his pack somewhere) and then I found Peggy’s number and she answered. I described the situation as quickly as I could, since there are no more cellular facilities for 30 miles, and sure enough, I could just hear snippets of her replies and then lost the call completely. So I hoped she’d heard, but…

So we waited and ruminated and searched the car and the ground around it a couple more times, when DJan announced that she had just talked to Peggy and that they were on their way back. That was an enormous relief, since it meant that we could at least get all the people off the mountain before the storm hit. There was still no snow, but the second tallest mountain in the area, Mount Shuksan, was disappearing into the lowering clouds, too.

We packed Mike and Amy into the cars and agreed to regroup at the Beer Shrine. There was a chance of getting cellular service there, or a land line at least, and would be past the worst of the mountain driving.

The other carful of hikers was waiting for us at the Beer Shrine and we all had a nice quaff while Mike was successfully contacting his wife and arranging to meet her at the Sunset Square mall in Bellingham, where we had all gathered that morning for carpooling. So all would get back to their own cars before dark (sunset: 4:30). And it still wasn’t snowing.

Only one small problem remained. The car we’d left on the mountain was his wife’s all-wheel Suzuki (I think); Mike’s car is a rather elderly minivan (1980’s?) with rear wheel drive and no weight on the drive wheels. He uses it most of the year to haul a bunch of us geezers to the trailhead, but it is a terrible car in snow. So it seemed best for me to drive him back up in my Subaru.

Heading for Mount Baker…again

The second trip of the day into the mountains went well, considering, but was a bit more nerve-wracking than the first. Setting out at sunset to drive 55 miles and 4000 feet up into the mountains with a winter storm approaching is not something that any sane person would do without a pretty good reason. (In past years I’ve seen cars in that parking lot barely visible in a snowbank, and now I had an idea how they got there.)  I’m not absolutely sure about either my sanity or the quality of the reason, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. (Great epitaph.)

The snow held off for the first 47 miles, but shortly after we passed the DOT building at Shuksan station we started to see a little snow, and gradually more as we climbed the last 2000 feet. But it was cold and crunchy snow, with no melting or slushiness, and the traction was OK. We had chains, just in case, but made it to the car by about 5:30 with no scary episodes. It was snowing heavily, with about an inch on the ground, so we didn’t dawdle to catch snowflakes on our tongues.

Since Mike usually drives slower than I, he led the way so that we would stay together, at least until we got back to Shuksan station. And the weather followed our directions quite well – the snow decreased as we came down and at Shuksan the road was clear and dry to damp. Mike pulled off to let me pass and we both headed home at our respective speeds.

Later that evening...

Later that evening...

Epilogue

The drive home from Shuksan was uneventful. I got home about 7:00 and the roads were still clear, but by 9:00 it was snowing big flakes of graubel snow. (Notice the two enormous flakes caught in mid-air and casting big shadows in the picture on the left.) By 11:00 there was four inches in the driveway and as of 6:30 this morning, the ski area reported 10 inches of fresh snow. At 4:30 almost all the snow is gone from our yard, and the high for tomorrow should be around 50.

*The sardine line is a quote from one of my all-time favorite recordings: “Beyond the Fringe” a hilarious 1960s British review, possibly a parent of Monty Python (almost certainly unwed).

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The two faces of la niña

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 1:42 pm
Table Mt

Table Mt

The weatherman has predicted that this will be a la niña winter which here in the Pacific Northwest means that we should expect colder and wetter weather than usual. I think it is safe to say that he hit this one right on the button.

 

Struggling uphill

Struggling uphill

Our customary winter weather consists of a lot of gentle drizzly rain and temperatures in the forties. The most common encounter with snow amounts to some overnight flurries that may accumulate to an inch or so and generally melts by noon. Snow remaining on the ground overnight only happens a few times a year and it wasn’t until last year, after ten years in Bellingham, that I first saw fresh snow falling onto old snow.

 

Northeasters

We are subject to occasional bouts of true winter weather due to a peculiarity of geography that allows frigid polar air from arctic Canada to spill over the northern Rockies and drain down the Fraser River valley, which points straight at Bellingham. The river is blocked by a small ridge near the border and makes a sharp right turn toward Vancouver but the ridge is not high enough to stop these air masses. The cold air just barrels right on across the border despite the best efforts of the CBP and when it hits the warmer, perpetually moist air along the coast we have the fabled Northeaster. There have in the past been some truly epic storms that would even make people from Buffalo and Syracuse take notice.

Toward Lake Ann

Toward Lake Ann

But these are extremely rare. The episode I mentioned from last year was a fairly mild one, and the first of any significance at all in ten years.

 

Remnants of a horizontal snowstorm

[By the way, there is a range of foothills just south and east of town, including the Chuckanut mountains where we do most of our winter hiking, that is high enough to divert the polar air out into the Salish Sea. So these hardly hardly ever (but never say never) continue on south into the Puget Sound region and Seattle.]

 

Baker in sunshine

Baker in sunshine

But back at la niña

Right now we are experiencing our third or fourth significant snowfall of the season, which is two or three more than usual for the whole winter, so la niña seems to be here for real. These have not been true Northeaster events, although some may have enhanced by some Fraser Valley outflow. They have been just what la niña predicts – colder and wetter that usual and just enough colder to turn some of our copious winter moisture into snow.

Camp Robber - Gray Jay

Camp Robber - Gray Jay

[Note to “Climate Change Deniers”: Colder weather is not evidence that global warming is or is not taking place, and certainly not evidence that human development is or is not causing it. Global warming is a phenomenon of climate, not weather. “Weather” is about deciding if you should wear your rubbers tomorrow; “climate” involves average conditions that abide over decades and even centuries. No weather event, I repeat, NO WEATHER EVENT whatsoever could disprove or prove a scientific theory about climate. Apples and oranges. By the way, this applies as well to the lefties who’ve been making hay lately about last year’s warm summer.]

The good news for the Northwest about a la niña winter is that it serves to build up reserves of the snow and ice in the mountains that provide our water supply during our arid summers. [People in other parts of the world may not be aware that we have dry summers but we do, indeed. And don’t tell to many people about it – if they knew how spectacularly beautiful and temperate our summers are they would all want to move here and spoil everything.] And for those who love the great outdoors that means snow sports!

On Huntoon Point

On Huntoon Point

Skiing (both Alpine and Nordic), snowboarding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing are all popular here. Ice sports like skating and ice-fishing are not a big deal, since it doesn’t stay consistently cold enough to develop usable ice near where people live. But even if we don’t have snow in town, we can always get to it if we are willing to drive and maybe hike a bit.

Baker, again

Baker, again

The old geezers I hang out with have to a large extent settled on snowshoeing as the best way to get out and play in the woods in the winter. Many have skied in past, but the possibility of broken bones, especially in downhill skiing and snowboarding is not at all attractive when you get to our age and a broken bone can easily turn into a permanent life-altering event. There are also a lot of steep hills, which can cut into the fun and the safety of cross country skiing or limit it to specially groomed trails. That leaves snowshoeing, which is not exactly flamboyant or exciting, but with some effort can take us safely to some truly marvelous places.

Recent Expotitions

In the last ten days I’ve joined two groups on snow shoe expeditions to the Mount Baker Ski Area. The first was last Monday, January 3. My friend Marjan led a mixed group of 21 members and friends of the Mount Baker Club up the mountain on a spectacularly clear and sunny day. There had been fresh snow about four days earlier and it was pretty well trampled in places, but the trees that managed to poke out above the surface were all dressed in white. (The pictures I’ve sprinkled around above are all from this hike.)

This is getting long and I haven’t even gotten to the main event, so I think I’ll post this much for now.

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