Sunday, June 18, 2006

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Mt Baker Ski

Mt Baker, WA
10,788 feet
Easton/Squak Ski
June 10, 2006

Picasa Photo Album

by Marcus
Schreiber’s Meadow Trailhead; 6/10/2006; 3:30 a.m.
God damn, it’s early. I’m not cut out for this. Inevitably, these are my first thoughts of the day when I’m on one of these trips. It doesn’t really matter how often I do it, or what the destination is – I’m a second-rate underachiever before four o’clock in the morning. This time, I’m hoping my ear picks up the sound of rain on the sheet metal roof of my Chevrolet tent, but I’m disappointed.
“It’s time to get up!”
Ask my wife to get out of bed before 7:30 on any given workday and you’ll be lucky not to get kicked in the stomach. Ask her three hours earlier when there’s a chance she’ll get to ski that day and it’s like you’re sleeping next to a 7 year-old on Christmas morning. I exaggerate a bit, maybe – still, she’s already getting dressed while I’m still waiting for the van to start flooding. It’s in my best interest to get moving now, or she’ll start poking me in the eye to get me going.
Easing back the slider, I hear the muffled conversation from Big Top – Nate, Kirsten and Becky are awake. As usual, Kirsten and Becky are laughing in counterpoint. It makes me wonder if I’m the only second-rate in the group, but it also makes it a little easier to pull on my shoes and get out of the van. Nate hears the slider and gives a greeting. I’m the first one outside, so I offer the weather report – overcast skies, no wind, no rain, much like it was when we rolled in the night before and set up camp. The forecast for the day was not the best, but when you’re pushing into June and still skiing from the car, a 40% chance of showers doesn’t really dissuade, especially in the Cascades.
I had packed my bag the night before, leaving only a few things to wait until morning. Choking down breakfast is mandatory, no matter how much the body dislikes food that early in the day. I’m sure Nate and Becky would agree, however, that the body will eagerly accept espresso, milk and sugar from a can. Mine accepts two, happily.
As everybody gets situated and finishes their morning rituals, my mood begins to change. It usually takes longer than this, but it’s already quite light and the temperature is pleasant, so I’m warming up to the idea of climbing a big lump of rock for the next eight hours. I lash my skis to my backpack for the short stretch of bare road before the trailhead, taking up the rear with Nate as Anastasia, Becky and Kirsten chat about the coming day.
We stop briefly at the snow-covered trailhead and click into our skis for the rest of the day. Anastasia is quite taken with a woodpecker, banging fruitlessly on the metal chimney of the trailhead bathrooms. I’m not convinced we’ll be able to pull her away, but skiing wins out in the end. Had it been a penguin, she’d probably still be standing there.
As we climb into the wooded hills above Schreiber’s Meadow, my mind begins the familiar slip into neutral, allowing passing thoughts and scenic views to spin up the motor, but glossing over the slippery skinning and the occasional complaint from my body. It’s this that allows me to do these trips over and over, I think.
Around 7 a.m. we begin to see the forest thinning, though we seem to be climbing into the cloud layer that’s kept us so warm. But after a brief spray of rain we pop out, finally getting a view of the surrounding peaks, nestled in the cloud deck like rock candy in spun sugar. The snow covered slopes of the Metcalf Moraine rise above us, eventually giving way to the smooth, silky surface of the Easton and Squak Glaciers.
The snow is firm, with a soft coating on top. Just enough to let the skins bite and make the climbing easy. We spread out as we mount the glacier. Somewhere below this flawless white blanket the crevasses are looking up at us, but for now they’re choked with snow, making our passage easier. We take turns playing the rabbit, breaking trail up the glacier and giving the rest of the party someone to chase.
As the hours roll by the weather remains unpredictable. Periodic gusting winds and fast-moving clouds keep the Roman Wall at the Easton’s head shrouded in fog, while the cloud deck in the valley slowly rises. I stop every few minutes to look around – a convenient excuse to take a quick breather. The rabbit runs on, so I continue the chase like a good dog.
The snow begins to get thick and heavy – evidence of a low freezing level and a foot or more of new snow earlier in the week. Here, today, it’s 43 degrees at 8,000 feet, so what once might have been powder has become loose mashed potatoes. We climb on, but I’m beginning to wonder how much farther we’ll go. The summit looks socked in and the wind hasn’t died down – I don’t care much for white-out glacier skiing. It’s that second-rate thing coming back to bite me in the ass.
Finally, the rabbit hits a wall. After another 40 minutes of progressively more difficult trail-breaking, we ski up between the arms of a curving crevasse, perhaps 25 feet across. Two sagging snow bridges span the walls. You couldn’t pay me to ski across them without a rope, but nobody’s breaking out their wallet, so I think I’m safe. We discuss our options.
If the weather looked more promising we’d rope up and find our way around this crack easily. With a summit unlikely and only the skiing to look forward to, we decide we’ve reached our high point, our personal finish hold. The skins come off and we prepare for the first 1,000 feet of wet glop, hoping we haven’t missed all the good corn snow below.
Once we’re through deep stuff, the turns are great. I’m hard-pressed to complain about any skiing, really, and the company and atmosphere only add to the long, fall-line run back to the top of the Metcalf Moraine, where we take a lunch break in the sun. It’s 12:30. We still have 3,000 feet to go, so we get to it after politics, health care and tax law discussions have run their course. I talk most about these things when I’m in the mountains with these people, perhaps because it’s easier to face the realities of the world when you’re not staring it in the face from an office window.
Back at the car, the chairs come out and the skis dry in the sun, while we cool our throats with the first round of beers. This is what I’ve been thinking about since we started. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, within the first 30 minutes of one of these long days, someone will say “You know what I’m looking forward to? A beer and a sausage sandwich.” It’s like the icing on the cake.
The Easton Glacier stretches out on Mt. Baker’s southern flank, rolling from the Roman Wall down past the crater and into the lowlands toward Baker Lake. It’s a popular, easy glacier climb that makes for a brilliant ski trip, especially in the spring when you can ski all the way back to the car. Doing it all in a day is even better, since the packs become wonderfully light