Summit at Snoqualmie has one less grooming machine than they used to. One of them caught fire and burned to the ground. Oops.
Twelve years ago, Jay patiently taught me how to ski. I had gone a couple times in my life before that, but he took the time to really get me going. I still look like a drunken ogre awkwardly sliding down the mountain, but at least I can get down most slopes without falling and I can enjoy it. We’ve spent a LOT of time riding a lift together since then, but after I moved away in 2006, those chats got cut way down. This past weekend, he came out for a visit and we spent three straight days skiing. The difference between now and 12 years ago is, well, 12 years of aging. We’re not as young as we used to be and we were reminded of that with each run.
Jay’s original plan was to come ski Thursday through Saturday. That ended up getting changed to Saturday through Monday and it’s a good thing because it rained all the way to the top of the mountain on Thursday. On Friday night, it dumped snow and we had about 10″ of fresh snow on Saturday. We spent the day at Crystal and had a great time with some pretty good powder runs. Day 2 was also at Crystal, and even though there wasn’t any fresh snow, it had stayed cold since the previous one so it was still fluffy and fun. With Jay skiing beside me, I finally explored the Right Angle Trees run. It’s a very infrequently skied double black diamond area that I’m hesitant to explore without a partner. It took us a while to pick our way down the run but there was literally nobody else around. At one point we just plopped down on the side of the hill for five minutes and enjoyed the silence.
I always take Jay to Crystal when he comes because it’s my favorite ski hill, but I figured it would be fun to show him something else. We headed to Stevens Pass for our third day of skiing. This was a Monday so the crowd was very small. There were maybe a couple inches of fresh snow and we found a couple spots off the runs that were still deep and fresh for a few turns.
I owe big thank yous to Jay for flying all the way out here, and to Juliet and Tyla who watched our kids the whole weekend while we played. That’s a lot to ask and without them, this wouldn’t have happened.
The entire west coast is having a very tough ski season. Total precipitation has been close to normal but we’ve had above average temperatures all winter. The meteorological features that are freezing the east coast are baking the west coast. The last couple years my plan has been to just pick a couple great ski days instead of going more often throughout the winter. Finally I decided that if I was going to wait for that to happen this year, I probably wouldn’t go at all. So last week I took a day off in the middle of the week and headed to Crystal to survey the carnage.
The first thing I noticed was that there was almost no one on the road with me. Even for a midweek ski day, the road is usually a line of cars in a long parade to the mountain. This time I only saw one other car. I arrived at the parking lot 10 minutes before the lifts opened and easily parked right in the front lot which I have NEVER done before even when arriving an hour before the lifts opened.
The base area had more grass than snow and the ride up the gondola didn’t change that much until we hit about 5500-6000 feet. However, once we got to the top, the coverage was actually pretty good, or at least it was better than I was expecting. Once the snow softened up, you could venture off the groomed trails if you took some care. Rock skis are a must as it’s nearly impossible to ski to the bottom of the runs without dodging rocks and there are places where you have a to carefully follow a path of snow that is just a few feet wide. Nobody is allowed (or able) to ski to the bottom of the mountain. You have to download on the gondola. Only the lifts on the top half of the mountain are open.
It’s not a pretty situation but everyone I rode the lift with was having a good time and enjoying it for what it was. The skies were perfectly clear and the views were amazing. It was worth the lift ticket just to remember how incredible the mountains look on a day like that. Sure, this isn’t a normal year, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had. You just have to go with the right mindset.
Last year was a huge change for me as I dropped from 15-25 ski days per year to just one. This year I had hoped to get out at least two or three times, but I’m wondering if that will happen. This year has been a horrible snow season and the resorts are still barely open. If you go, be prepared to dodge a lot of rocks and bare spots. This is what skiing is normally like in November if they open early, not in late January in what is normally the height of the ski season. How bad is it? Here are a photos from Baker, Alpental and Crystal, respectively. Lots and lots of rocks and trees poking through.
If you stay on the groomed runs, you might have some luck, but even then, it’s usually either icy or soupy. There’s just no new snow to make things nice. Stevens seems to be doing the best but even that is pretty tough. Anything off the groomers is not really an option. Here’s a shot from the back side and that doesn’t look like nearly as much fun as usual.
This doesn’t meant that every single day has been worthless. If you go with the right attitude, choose your day somewhat carefully, and have a good group of friends with you, there is fun to be had. Personally I know I only get a couple days a season now so I’m waiting for a day that will really be worth it. So far there hasn’t been anything close.
After a very dry start to the winter, February was one of the snowiest Februarys on record. Then, in the first week of March, we got more rain than we normally get in the entire month of March. Contrary to popular belief, rain doesn’t do much to melt snow. It takes almost an inch of rain at 40 degrees to melt an inch of snow. Most of the water goes into consolidating the snowpack and greatly increases it’s overall weight. So after all that rain, we had a huge amount of new, heavy snow on top of a sheet of ice from the limited snow we had in the first part of the season. The avalanche danger was extreme.
The ski patrollers at Crystal are always setting off bombs to create controlled avalanches. They regularly bomb inside the ski area, but for areas that see lots of skiing, it’s pretty rare to have a big slide. The skiers compact the snow and increase the stability of the snowpack. But this time was different.
On Monday after the ski area closed, the patrollers set off a charge that triggered an enormous slide which ended up taking out the base of the High Campbell chair lift. This chair has been a source of frustration (and fun) for skiers for years and was scheduled for replacement in the next five years. Those plans have now been accelerated.
One of the owners was in the ski patrol group that set off the charge and you can read her account on KUOW and an even better account on the ski patrol blog. There is also a good video on Vimeo showing the carnage, but it doesn’t show the actual slide itself. I don’t think anybody got video of that since they were all hunkered down in safe positions.
It sounds like they’ll be auctioning the chairs off for charity but it will take them a while to get that settled out. I already have one of the Mt. Baker chairs in the backyard. I wonder if I can convince Tyla that we need another one?