GeezerHiker

February 5, 2013

Winter Potpourri

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: , , , , — geezerwriter @ 1:02 pm

I’ve been kind of lazy about posting lately, so I have a backlog of weather-related things to spout about.

The Great Inversion of 2013

A couple of weeks ago western Washington experienced a protracted temperature inversion. Usually the temperature of the air decreases as you go to higher altitudes (during the daytime, at least) due to the fact that the sun’s energy heats the ground faster than it heats the air, whereupon the warmer ground proceeds to heat the air from below. This situation is a bit like a pot of water on the stove: the lower layers are warmer, but warm things (generally) are lighter, so we get an instability where the warm stuff rises and the cooler falls, and everything gets all stirred up and burbly.

At night the opposite situation often occurs, since the ground also cools off faster than the air, giving the common situation where there is a layer of cooler air near the ground, often causing fog and frost or both. Sometimes you’ll even see frost forming on the ground when a thermometer a few feet higher reads several degrees above freezing

But the thing that breaks that cold layer down and makes our daily atmospheric pot roil and boil was that business about the sun heating the ground – which doesn’t happen so much here in the winter. We sometimes forget what the sun looks like for extended periods of time. Anyways, now and then conditions converge that allow that frosty layer to persist for days and grow to hundreds of feet thick. And that layer is quite stable, with the heavier, colder air at the bottom and warmer at the top. Usually we think of stability as a good thing but in the atmosphere it has the downside that the air just sits there, allowing all the dust and nitrogen oxides and other crud that we are so good at spewing to build up and form a low-lying smoggy cloud that further inhibits the sun from warming the ground, and so on, and so on.

[You read further, and more authoritative words about this and other meteorological phenomena on Cliff Mass’ weather blog.]

Another side effect of the inversion was that it gave us an extended period without new precipitation, allowing the snowpack in the mountains to settle and consolidate and bringing the avalanche danger down into a comfortable range. Just a day before the inversion was broken by the arrival of a strong Pacific storm Amy and Jan joined me as we left the gloom of the lowland smog for a snowshoe outing near the Mount Baker Ski Area. We were only a few miles from town and a few hundred feet in elevation when we passed out of the inversion layer and the sun broke through.

Snow or Frost?

Snow or Frost?

As we continued up Mount Baker Highway along the North Fork of the Nooksack River just before the road turns and climbs steeply to the Ski Area, we were admiring the heavy layer of snow on the trees along the road when it occurred to me that there hadn’t been any noticeable precipitation for about ten days. Snow on the trees is a pretty common thing up in the mountains, but we were seeing something that you usually see the morning after a heavy snow – these evergreens are shaped to shed the snow pretty quickly. Furthermore, the trees on the surrounding hillsides, and even the tops of some of the taller trees, were completely bare, so the snow was not fresh – how had it hung around for so long?

I puzzled about this most of the day and it wasn’t until we were on our way back to town that it made some sense. Maybe that snow wasn’t snow at all but a heavy layer of hoarfrost that had built up for days. Or maybe a combination of both. There is a phenomenon in the mountains called “cold air drainage” which results in localized inversions – the cold night air drains down the river valleys and picks up fresh moisture from the unfrozen river. While we were above the level of the coastal inversion, the calm stable weather meant that there were no windstorms to knock the snow off the branches. The sun had melted the tops of the trees but the snow had persisted or even grown with hoarfrost in the shade along the river.

Southern Sky

Southern Sky

I wish now I had spent more time trying to get some better pictures since this was such a combination of things that I might just never see it again.

We had a beautiful day for snowshoeing although the weather system that would ultimately break the inversion down was heading in from the west, making for some interesting skies. On the picture on the right you can see in the clouds a dark V-shaped pattern pointing toward the sun – just one of a number of odd fantastical shapes that we saw.

I will tack a picture gallery at the end of the post.

A Return to Normalcy

The "View" Point

The “View” Point above Cedar Lake

Loons on Cedar Lake?

Loons on Cedar Lake?

That snowshoe outing was on Tuesday, January 22, and by Thursday the inversion was pretty much gone and we had a nice sunny hike to Alger Alp. [As always, you can read about that hike on Jan’s blog, D-Jan-ity.] But another week later we were back to full-blown normal, a bunch of crazy geezers hiking in the chilly rain to Pine and Cedar Lakes. After visiting the lakes we hiked on over to Raptor Ridge, not so much for the view but because of the overhanging rock ledges that form shallow caves and provide some shelter from the wind and rain.

The State of the Snow

This morning I dug out my spreadsheets from last year that I had used to compare the snowpacks for the last several years and updated them with this the current Year-to-Date data in an attempt to get an idea of what this year’s hiking season might be like. The last two years have seen abnormally high snowfalls in the mountains which have delayed and disrupted our high country hiking. Here is the new graph:

Snow Depth (Water Equivalent) at 4900' near the town of Glacier

Snow Depth (Water Equivalent) at 4900′ near the town of Glacier

The blue line is this year so far and the red is an average for the last ten years or so, with the most extreme years (2006 was very low and 2011 & 12 were very high) omitted. [That “moderation” of the average seemed reasonable last year when I started doing this, but maybe there is a new “normal” developing?]

This year’s line is a little above “normal” but not enough to make a prediction – it seems to be the late season snows that have the most effect on the hiking season. Notice that in 2011, the year they couldn’t open the road to Artist Point, the snow depth was pretty average until well into March but then it snowed like crazy through most of May and it didn’t clear until mid August. Last year was a bit on the high side at this point before the ceiling fell in and it snowed through April.

Snowshoe Gallery

Swift Creek Valley from Artist Point area

Swift Creek Valley from Artist Point area

And one in the bush

And one in the bush

A bird in the hand

A bird in the hand

taking flight

Trudging uphill

Trudging uphill

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February 28, 2011

Another kind of energy shortage

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 3:59 pm
Saddling up

Saddling up

What a day to forget my camera!

After two Thursday hiking washouts in a row, on Friday I decided to join a Mount Baker Club snowshoe hike led by Marjan, since it looked to be a beautiful sunny day. Up in the mountains the temperature was only expected to climb to about 10 degrees F,  but you can’t pass up a beautiful sunny in February around here, can you? Can you?

A lot of people can, as it turned out. The day before, another sunny but cold day, only Marjan, Frank and I showed up at the Senior Center for the scheduled hike to Goose Rock. I had already given up on driving to Goose Rock that day, since Skagit and Island Counties had borne the brunt of last week’s late winter storm – on Tuesday evening the Deception Pass Bridge, which is adjacent to Goose Rock, had even been closed by snow. There was some snow in Bellingham but the roads weren’t too bad, so I figured we could find somewhere local to hike.

But the only ones who showed up were from the northern part of the county, near the Canadian border, where there was no snow at all. Since it was cold enough for all prudent people to bring their brass monkeys indoors, we three decided to bag it, do some shopping and return to our burrows.

You think it's cold and windy down here?

You think it's cold and windy down here?

The turnout was bit better the next day for the snowshoe outing – eight hardy souls met in Maple Falls and decided to head for the White Salmon trails, one of the less avalanche prone areas. It took us quite awhile to get started but then we had delightful, if not very exciting, hike. Which is good, since a lot of the forms that “excitement” can take in those conditions are not very pleasant, to put it mildly.

But I didn’t have my camera – I had been careful to attach it to the waistband of my pack the day before, but then I changed packs and missed it during the swap. But Aha! I keep my old Sony camera in the car for just such emergencies. I took it out of the console, turned it on, and before I could even aim it the flashing battery-with-a-slash-through-it icon appeared and it shut itself off. I thought maybe I could get off one picture if I really hurried, so I set the dials carefully, choosing the scenery setting so that it wouldn’t need to try to focus the lens, wishing that I had enough time to turn off the LCD display since that uses a lot of power, pointed it roughly toward some waiting hikers with Mount Shuksan in the background, pushed the Power button, and as soon as possible pressed the shutter release. I heard the reassuring sound of a click, and the camera immediately shut itself off.

On the way back

On the way back

I couldn’t look to see if I’d really gotten a picture, since that would surely burn up any chance of squeezing out any more. And there was still some hope of that, since some types of batteries can recover a little bit of vigor if they sit unused for awhile. I know that was true of the old-fashioned carbon-zinc batteries we used as kids, but did it apply to modern super-super “Info-Lithium” energy packs? What the heck, it was worth a try, so I took the camera along with me.

After we’d been hiking past some gorgeous views of Mounts Sefrit and Shuksan, some seldom-used part of my brain got my attention and reminded me that battery output is generally very much affected by heat, of which we had very little, indeed. Certainly the outside pocket of my jacket, where the camera had taken up residence, was only marginally warmer than the great outdoors and was probably still well below freezing. And my pants pockets would probably be worse, since legs don’t really heat up much. A shirt pocket would be great, but neither of my shirts had any. If I just tucked it inside my coat it would almost certainly fall out into a powdery drift.

And besides, even though the camera is a small one it is still a pretty decent block of metal and would soak up a bit of heat before it got to the battery.

OK, dummy: So take the battery out of the camera!

Now we’re getting somewhere. The battery pack is a dainty little package, less than an inch and a half square and about a quarter-inch thick. It would fit in my mouth, even, but I was looking for a somewhat drier environment than that. Of course, just about any place on my person that was really warm was not going to be very dry since I sweat like a horse. It would fit in my glove, but I needed my hands for my trekking poles. I could stick it in my armpit, but that wouldn’t be very secure as long as I’m moving my arms. And if it did drop I might not be able to find it in my clothes.

Sherry, Frank & Marjan below Mount Shuksan

I decided to wait until we settled down for lunch and then try slipping the battery into my armpit while I ate. I stuck it between my two shirts and that worked fairly well, but it was very hard to keep it in place and I dropped it several times. It wasn’t too hard to find it since I was sitting still and it only fell as far as my waist. I managed to grab another picture that showed the snow whipping off the summit of Mount Shuksan.

It was pretty clear that the armpit trick wasn’t going to do for the rest of the hike, since it had barely worked while sitting still. I will spare you the details (which would fall into the sphere popularly known as “TMI”) but suffice it to say that I did manage to get several more pictures on the return trip.

The day was capped nicely by a stop at the ever popular North Fork Beer Shrine, Pizzeria and Wedding Chapel.

February 2, 2011

Three Winter Hikes

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 2:43 pm

Ruth Mountain

Ruth Mountain

Snowshoe Loop

We have had a break from the rain in the last week or so, allowing for three beautiful hikes. The first three weeks of January were very wet – I measured over 7 inches of rain, well over the average for the whole month, which is generally one of the three wettest months of the year. It is also about one-fifth of our average annual rainfall. Between the 5th and the 24th there were only two days without rain.

Shuksan

Shuksan

Last Wednesday the forecast looked great, so a bunch of us headed up to the the Mount Baker Ski Area, hoping to snowshoe up to Artist Point for some of the superb views. The weather didn’t quite live up to the forecast but there was some sun when we arrived – unfortunately the higher elevation areas were closed for avalanche control work. Ironically, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center had listed the avalanche danger for the day at its lowest level.

Frank at lunch

Frank at lunch

So Marjan led us on a loop down and around the ski area. Most of the time we were away from the built-up areas and had a nice hike in the woods with frequent views of Mount Shuksan.

The most excitement came about midway when we had to cross the highway. Normally this would be pretty uneventful, but the eight-foot-high vertical walls of packed ice and snow on each side of the road spiced it up a bit. Getting down to the road wasn’t exactly easy, but hauling ourselves back up onto the snow was a real struggle. I finally got a chance to use the plastic scraper-shovel thing I’d been hauling around for about 8 years.

There were some other places where we had to struggle up some pretty steep slopes and the sun withdrew some of its support as the day went on. By the time we got back to the cars it was pretty chilly and windy. But the sun still peeked through now and then, lighting up the snow in places and making for some eerie, almost monochromatic scenery.

Looking toward Artist Point

Looking toward Artist Point

Mount Erie

The next day was even nicer for the weekly hike of the Senior Trailblazers. We would have gladly settled for just a dry day but after driving through some fog we found full sun at the Heart Lake trailhead in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands on Fidalgo Island. We enjoyed a nice strenuous climb through the woods to the summit of Mount Erie where we were greeted by a view that was truly spectacular, even by the standards of our glorious Fourth Corner.

 

Campbell Lake - Skagit Bay - Mount Rainier
Campbell Lake – Skagit Bay – Mount Rainier

We were standing in full sun but there were high clouds adding color interest to the sky. To the south, looking over Campbell Lake and Skagit Bay, the sky had a salmon-colored hue; the fog still lingered over the lakes and bays; and that lump on the horizon is Mount Rainier, almost 120 miles away. It is rare to see Rainier at all from this distance, considering that we are looking over or through the smog a major city, but on my telephoto pictures you can even see distinct detail on the mountain. A first.

Further to the west the Olympic Mountains, only about 30 miles away, were glowing in full sun, but I neglected to take a picture.

Glacier Peak and friends rising above the fog

Glacier Peak and friends rising above the fog

To the southwest was a rank of western Cascade peaks, including Three Fingers, White Horse and White Chuck Mountains, presided over by the least known of the major Cascade volcanoes, Glacier Peak. It is as tall as Mount Baker but it is very rare to get a good look at it, since it is sits well away from the populated sea level strip of Washington and is surrounded by medium sized mountains.

Glacier Peak

Glacier Peak

Mount Baker

Mount Baker

From another overlook a short distance away we could look out over Anacortes and its oil refinery (famous for a recent explosion) toward Mount Baker, the local favorite.

Huntoon Point

After a bit more rain over the weekend we were promised almost a week of fine, cold weather. So a group of 7 set off Tuesday for the Ski Area and another attempt to reach the Artist Point area. The day was sunny and cold and the avalanche danger was rated at the lowest level, so we were eager to get to that spectacular scenery that had been denied us on our last two snowshoe trips. It was only the second snowshoe outing for two of our hikers, so I really hoped we wouldn’t get snookered again.

The gang

The gang

Linda on the way to Huntoon Point

Linda on the way to Huntoon Point

And the Weather Service nailed this one – just a perfect day! The only possible complaint that anyone could come up with was that the sky was a bit too blue – not enough clouds to add interest to the photos.

[Which reminds me of a time when I was first getting to know my first wife’s family, who owned and ran a fairly prosperous farm in the fertile Lake Erie bottomlands of southeastern Michigan. I had heard my father-in-law complain about the weather being too dry or too wet or too cold or whatever. It was always something. Then one summer we had warm, sunny weather with enough spring rain to germinate the crops but not enough to flood the fields, etc., etc. Perfect, right? Surely Tony would be pleased.

Huntoon Point

Huntoon Point

So the next time I asked him how the weather was going, he said, “The crop’s too good. The prices are down!”]

We made it to Artist Point and on to Huntoon Point, a hill that rises about 300 feet higher and gives 360 degree views of Mounts Baker and Shuksan, Baker Lake and a broad panoply of the North Cascades.

The stone bridge on Chain Lakes trail

The stone bridge on Chain Lakes trail

On the way back down we took a small side trip down into the Bagley Creek valley, where I got a picture of the small stone bridge that carries the Chain Lakes trail over the creek. You can almost see the bridge, if you look closely.

Elk on the Nooksack

Elk on the Nooksack

On our way back down the Mount Baker Highway, my sharp-sighted passengers saw a small herd of 5 or 6 elk sunning themselves along the bank of the Nooksack River. Unfortunately, they saw us, too. By the time I could get out of the car to take a picture, they were moving off into the brush.

The weatherman is now reneging on that week of fine weather – it is still nice today, but our Thursday hike on Blanchard Mountain, and most of the weekend, will likely be soggy, again.

For more on this outing, see Djan’s blog.

Shuksan

Shuksan

Baker

Baker

Odd lumps of snow on a slope

Odd lumps of snow on a slope

DJan

DJan by Bagley Creek

January 12, 2011

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.

June 15, 2010

June bustin’ out all over? Not so much.

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 4:14 pm

Our approach to summer proceeds at a pace that honors the beloved State Inveterbrate of Washington – the slug.

Thursday a group of 13 set off on the Excelsior Pass Trail in a light mist that grew into a light rain as we hiked. As on Goat Mountain the week before, we reached the snow at about 4300′ of altitude, but since there was zero chance of getting to any views we did not persist far beyond that point. We “enjoyed” one of the soggiest lunch times in recorded human history and toddled back down to the cars.

But it was a good workout! Getting in shape for summer…

Table Mountain

On Sunday a small group headed east with snowshoes to enjoy the last of the snow. Of the many available treks, we decided to go to the Baker Ski Area and head up to Herman Saddle along the Chain Lakes Trail (or as much of it as we could find.) It was sunny and gorgeous. which was a great antidote to the gloom of Thursday. But the snow conditions were not wonderful – it was well packed, without an icy crust, but the top layer was soft and a bit wet. Our crampons would seem to get a good grip, but then the top couple of inches of snow would break loose from the lower layers and you’d slide down a bit, kind of like a micro-miniature slab avalanche under your foot.

We headed up from the parking lot toward Table Mountain, looking for a safe path across Bagley Creek to the trail. We got down to the creek near the little bridge that crosses at the outlet to Upper Bagley Lake, but we couldn’t see a safe path. We would have to walk on snow sloping to the side at nearly 45 degrees – it might have been manageable with fresher snow, but not on this day.

So we changed gears and decided to head up toward Artist Point along the Wild Goose Trail, our most common snowshoe route and always good for views of Mount Baker. But we were now a couple of hundred feet below the visitor center and the trail. After a bit of backtracking we managed to climb back up and then faced the issue of the famous “Cardiac Hill” – a very steep cat-track at the edge of the Ski Area that is used as a return run during the ski season. It goes from one point on the road to another, but it cuts off a long set of switchbacks, and so is about three times as steep as the road. Given the slippery conditions we considered staying on the road, but in the end we just slogged up the hill – it went OK, but no one was too crazy about coming back down that way. (And we didn’t.)

Heading to Pan Dome

At the top of Cardiac Hill, you get the choice of heading for Panorama Dome instead of Artist Point. In ski season Pan Dome can be like Grand Central Station and the approaches full of skiers and boarders flying by at freakishly high speeds – a snowshoer takes his life in his hands to venture among them. But on this day there were only a few hard-core boarders dragging themselves around on the hills, and Mike and I had never been to Pan Dome, so Marjan and Frank led us up.

Shuksan from Pan Dome

Shuksan from Pan Dome

The sun was beginning to hide itself but we still had some great views. It was interesting to learn that it is in fact possible to at least see Mount Baker from some points within the Mount Baker Ski Area. (I’ve met people who have been skiing there for years and believed that they were actually skiing on Mount Baker itself.)

I took some bracketed pictures (several pictures of the same scene, but at different exposure levels) so that I could experiment with some High Dynamic Range photography (HDR) software that I am trying out. The idea is that some very contrasty scenes, such a snowy mountain in the sunshine with dark trees in the shade, are not handled well by most cameras. Our eye-brains can average things out and see detail everywhere, but a photo will either show the trees with the mountains all washed out, or a lovely mountain with a black, featureless foreground. To use HDR you take two or three (or more) pictures at different exposures (if you camera permits) and the software somehow finds the area of greatest detail in each picture and attempts to blend them together. Like magic!

By the time we got to Pan Dome and I had time to fiddle around with this, the sun was mostly gone and the lighting was getting flat, so I don’t think that day was the ideal test. But I’ve included a view to the northwest which was improved a bit by the HDR trickery.

North Cascades from Pan Dome

February 21, 2010

Coal Mine Snowshoe

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, Mining, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 1:14 pm

I hadn’t been out on the snowshoes for awhile and was feeling the onset of a case of cabin fever, and the weather forecast was good, so on Monday I went up into the mountains to see what conditions were like on Coal Pass Road. I hadn’t been up there in quite a long time since there has been too much snow at low elevations for the last few years – you have to be able to drive up to an elevation of about 2500′ in order to make it a reasonable hike up to the end of the road in the vicinity of Coal Creek, where there are some great views of Mount Baker.

The road is one of several in the area built back in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I attended a presentation about the CCC several years ago sponsored by the WWU Lifelong Learning program where these roads were discussed. Lately I have seen it referred to as “Coal Creek” Road, but that seems to be another bit of the local geographical silliness – anyone would expect a road with such a name to travel up the valley of the eponymous creek (e.g. Canyon Creek Road) but this road runs up a ridge between Davis Creek and Deep Creek for most of its seven mile length before it even approaches Coal Creek. The road does lead to Coal Pass (or it did at one time) so the old name makes at least some sense.

I was able to drive to 3200′ before the snow covered the entire width of the road. After parking the car I packed up and carried my snowshoes, assuming that this first patch of snow wouldn’t stretch very far. And in fact it extended just beyond the next curve in the road. Aside from one more pretty good snow patch at a creek crossing, it was just bare road for almost a mile, where I was within spitting distance of the end of the road. The snowshoes were still optional at this point, but at least there was enough snow to justify hauling them up the road. (BTW this is at an elevation of 3800′, considerably above the level of the White Salmon lodge at the Ski Area.)

Coleman Glacier Area

The first viewpoint was a bit disappointing. The trees have grown a bit, and although the day was lovely and sunny, Mount Baker was mostly obscured by clouds, with just a few peek-a-boos up into the Heliotrope Ridge / Coleman Glacier area.

I called this “the end of the road” but it is just decommissioned at this point – the old roadway continues on toward the site of the old coal mine that gives the creek and the pass and the road their names. Since it was still quite early and I hadn’t gotten much exercise yet, I headed up toward the mine. It is a bit of a slog since, in addition to the young alder saplings and the occasional fallen tree, the roadway is cut several times by ditches marking the sites of removed culverts.

Chute leading up from mine site

Chute leading up from mine site

A hundred yards or so from the mine, you have to leave the roadway and go downhill for awhile. The tangle of alders gets worse at this point and the trek devolves into a true bushwhack. Not in the sense of getting lost, since you can see the destination all the while – you just have to whack a lot of bushes. And all of a sudden I came across a cleared out channel running right down to the mine site – almost like a mini-half-pipe. (The picture looks back up the “pipe” from the mine.) I have no idea why it it there, but I took advantage of the absence of “bushes” and headed on down.

Part way down the chute the snow had melted from one side, exposing a pile of shiny black rock with brownish-gold frosting on some surfaces. I’m no expert, but I took this to be coal of the high-sulfur persuasion. It didn’t look very much like the stuff we had in our coal bin when I was a kid, but who knows how much that had been processed before I saw it? (And then there is just the remotest possibility that my recollections, sixty-odd years later, might be ever so slightly less than perfect.) I brought home a couple of small pieces with the intention of trying to see if it burns, nut I haven’t gotten around to that.

Coal?

I had intended to poke around the mine site but it all of a sudden dawned on me what a stupid idea it would be to walking around near a place where there might be very deep holes with the ground obscured by snow, even if seemed to be only a few inches deep.

So I kept to the high ground as I headed back to the old roadway and further on up toward Coal Pass. But the roadway quickly turned into such an impenetrable thicket that I couldn’t be sure if I was still on it. At one point I even circled back onto my own tracks. So I acknowledged defeat and headed back down.

Mount Baker summit in the clouds

Back near the “end of the road” there is a spur that heads up to a logging yard and provides another marvelous viewpoint. By this time the clouds had thinned out a bit but the view was still quite limited.

So the trip was a bit of a bust by a number of objective assessments – very little actual snowshoeing, no exploring the mine, no trip to Coal Pass, not much in the way of photography – it was still wonderful to be out in the sun and the fresh, chilly air. And whenever I stopped clattering around on the crusty snow, the silence was almost perfect, except for a brook here and there or the rare birdsong. That’s something you’re not likely to enjoy at Heather Meadows.

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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