Posts Tagged ‘backcountry’


I live by four seasons, except mine are dictated by snow and not astronomy.

Tease season (Usually late September until mid-December): This is when I alternate between bull-rushing the first faint hints of snow to ski grass, rocks and glacial ice, leaving my skis looking like they’ve been lapped by a road grader, and telling people I enjoy trail running in 45-degree rain with a straight face. Like Radiohead’s recent work, there are a few nice moments you feel almost obligated to like, but in reality it mostly sucks.

Winter (Dec.-May 5): Defined by the opening and closing days of my local ski area, Alpental, winter always comes too late and ends too soon. No one needs to ask what you’re doing this weekend, only where. It ends with Cinqo de Mayo, which is the Fat Tuesday of winter around here: an atavistic embrace of everything skiing, fermented and grilled.

Volcano or touring season (May-mid July): The roads accessing the higher routes begin to melt, the snow has thickened and become less avalanche prone on steeper slopes and the sun has returned. It’s Eden here in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of vertical feet of dream skiing to the car and your flip flops and cooler EVERY WEEKEND (saliva on keyboard).

Trail Running/Backpacking season (August and September): The snow that’s hanging around usually resembles a jackhammered  sidewalk by this time, so the trail shoes and tent come out. Sure, you can ski during this time, but you can also mow your lawn with nail clippers. This season is like a family visit: It’s incredibly cool for a short period of time (“Man, this is great, we should do this more!”), but then you wake up one morning and realize you need to get the hell out or you’re going to kill someone.


This past Sunday, Brandon and I went up to Heliotrope Ridge on Mt. Baker’s northwest flank to get tease season fully launched. After missing the apparently excellent September tease while goofing off in Arizona, I’d have skied on a thick frost.

Thankfully, that spectacle was averted thanks to a foot or so of new snow above about 4,500 feet.

The play in tease season is to get onto permanent snow or glaciers where it only takes about six inches to cover up the old junk. There are also some meadows or grassy slopes that don’t need much coverage to be skiable.

The downside of this is that these places tend to reside at higher elevations on featureless slopes. This being the Pacific Northwet, there’s also a very strong chance that poor weather will leave you with visibility akin to having a sheet over your head.

Therefore, a typical tease season run is blindly hurtling down barely-covered rocks and snow that might as well be rocks. Getting back uninjured is the goal.

So when big patches of sun began appearing on the drive north from Seattle, it felt like a cruel joke.

“We should have run around Green Lake today.”

Ascending toward the trailhead on Glacier Creek Road, the snow began to pile up, and the sun remained.

There was barely enough snow to skin from the 3,650-foot trailhead, but we did anyway, stomping around dirt, blown-down trees and open streams that caked slush on our skins to annoying effect.

About three miles and 1,500 vertical feet later, the snow got deeper and the views better. While there would be plenty of rock-dodging, we’d at least have visibility on our side.


We’d not have solitude, however, as Heliotrope is among the most popular early season spots. This was mostly fine (save the couple times people decided to fully lie down on the skin track) as there was plenty of space to find fresh tracks.

After a couple hours of skinning, we reached the 6,200 ridge crest and ripped the skins. The view of Baker and its surrounding features was incredible. An ocean of cotton candy clouds heaved and rolled just below our sun hole while ghostly branch-like clouds clawed at the main peak, beaten back by wind only to return again.



Turning downhill to ski for the first time since mid-June, my longest gap in several years, I took a couple tentative turns off the ridge … then took another maybe eight definitely not tentative turns and was down entirely too fast. It’s very likely there was some screaming.

The snow was a smooth eight or so inches of slightly wind-packed powder that begged you to go faster. Perfect.


In those eight turns, everything else in the world vanished. Mountainous areas are often described as vast, and spatially that’s often true. But when I’m skiing or running in them, no matter how remote or grand, I’m blanketed with a sense of completeness and comfort that feels close and almost small, as if everything I want is in easy reach.

What was immediately within reach was another lap, which we quickly burned through before doing battle with the barely covered middle slopes. This is not the place to bring new skis.

We soon switched to boots and quickly hiked back to the car as the setting sun sprayed orange pink over western slopes.

The requisite beatdowns are sure to come before winter arrives, but a tease this good is as good a way to start things off as I could ask for.




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