Into the Heart of Cascadia

A journey through the middle of the Cascades, America's snowiest range

Photo by Nic Alegre

The lost boys and former circus freaks stand on Shuksan Arm, waiting for the light to clear. We’re on the lip of Beast Ridge. The glaciated face of Shuksan, the spine-striped ridgeline synonymous with Mount Baker, fades in and out of fog in the distance. I cannot see shit. Finally, the sun breaks through the soup and hits the top of the ridge. I push off over the edge, point my tips, and luck into the kind of sustained vertical, deep snow turns that make it feel like gravity is bending around me.

This is the epitome of skiing in the Cascades: steep, snowy, solid, but still, somehow, scrappy. Weather-battered and variable, the 700-mile span of mountains splits the squall-soaked Northwest coast from the arid plains rolling toward the Dakotas. The Cascades stop storms, make their own weather, and receive more snow than anywhere in the world—as long as the snow line is high enough. You never really know until you pull into the parking lot. But when it’s deep, it is the deepest.

Despite all the snow, despite the Amazon-funded hordes thronging Seattle just a few hours away, the mountains feel empty more often than not. Like today. Sure, it’s Wednesday, but it’s been snowing, and even though we lingered over burritos and futzed with an airbag for a while, we still got third chair behind a crew of retirees on scratched-up Volants. If we were in Colorado, we’d be screwed. I’m a stranger here myself. After several winters, I feel like I’ve only seen the edges. I moved to the Cascades after getting suckered by a deep week at Crystal Mountain. The snowy peaks that break through the green of the Pacific Northwest still feel like a mystery—like I don’t really have a sense of their scope and scale. Maybe I just have to look a little deeper.

Mount Shuksan stands tall in the Northern Cascades. PHOTO: Grant Gunderson

I started my vision quest to find the Cascades 327 miles south of Baker, on the shoulder of Mount Hood. They technically start in California, at Lassen Peak, and span Mount Shasta and, in central Oregon, the Three Sisters. But the Cascades come into their own and start to feel like a range as they roll up into the evergreens surrounding Hood. From here they get denser, steeper, and bigger as they shoot north toward Canada, where they meet the Coast Range. Since they start, essentially, in the Pacific Ocean, the relief can be huge.

It is a Tuesday, technically ladies night at Mount Hood Skibowl, which means tickets are $20 (they’re a bank-breaking $34 on other nights, or if you self-identify as a dude). I’d driven down from Seattle, and my friend Katie Matteson had come over from Portland, breaking out of the rain-soaked city for some night laps. By the time it goes fully dark we are the only ladies, and pretty much the only people, out.

Everything feels old school and simple. You can picture what it was like when Norwegian settlers in the area first started ski jumping in the ’20s, or when the mountain first lit the slopes for night skiing in 1966. Government Camp—the closest thing Hood has to a ski town—is a goldmine for history. People have been skiing Mount Hood since the late 1800s. It was home to the first ski patrol in the country. A flying bus, suspended from a cable as a makeshift tram, took skiers up to Timberline. In the ’30s, as part of the New Deal, FDR commissioned the Timberline Lodge and a network of ski trails.

Skibowl, which opened in 1928, sits at the heart of that. In the misty dusk, as the lights flicker on, it feels like we’re riding with ghosts of skiing past. Matteson and I lap the steep shots of Upper Bowl, edging through rain-smushy snow. We take a break and dip into the mid-mountain warming hut, where there’s a group of grandma-aged women drinking hot wine by the fire. That’ll be us, we claim, and I can understand why people ski here forever.

If you drive by the Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp without getting a huckleberry shake—well, don’t. PHOTO: Rick Schafer

The next morning, we have donuts the size of your face and straw-clogging huckleberry milkshakes for breakfast at the Huckleberry Inn. I want to see steeper mountains and colder snow and head north toward the Columbia River, the only natural break in the mountains from here to Canada. A huge amount of water pours out of the Cascades, down rivers like the Stillaguamish and the Snoqualmie. When you head into the mountains here, you’re almost always following a river.

The visual centerpiece of the Cascades is Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the range at 14,410 feet. The National Parks Service calls Rainier an episodically active volcano. It punched through the 12-million-year-old mountains around it 500,000 years ago. That’s why the Cascades look jagged and uneven: They’re the product of constantly changing geology, scrubbed out by glaciers and up-thrust by inbound tectonic plates. Subduction and seismicity brew below the surface. That impeding Seattle earthquake everyone talks about is real. Rainier last erupted less than 200 years ago—nothing in geologic time. Where I live in Seattle, it feels ever-present, hanging over the city any time you look south. From my bathroom window, I can stare at it as I brush my teeth, a reminder the mountains aren’t far away.

Where I live in Seattle, Rainier feels ever-present, hanging over the city any time you look south.

If Hood was the start of skiing in the Northwest, Rainier is where it got serious. In 1936, the mountain hosted the first Olympic trials, and since then it’s become ground zero for ski mountaineers, alpinists, and the weird Northwest cult of year-round skiers who skin up volcanoes all summer. In Seattle yuppie fashion, to which I have now become accustomed, I make Saturday plans to head into Mount Rainier National Park with some of my local ski buddies—Jon Loevner, Andrew Marsters, and Jeff Byl. They’ve all lived in mountain towns, from the Tetons to Telluride, and like me, they ended up here because it feels like they can hit a happy medium between living close to skiing and not being a total skid.

There’s high avalanche danger, so we scrap our premade plans to go into the Tatoosh, the steep ridgeline just south of the main peak, and instead settle for a mellow tour around the Paradise area. The wind is ripping, loading cornices and smearing boogers across our faces, and the visibility goes to zero the higher we get. We lap the ridge off Alta Vista, and because of Cascadian unpredictability, which I never understand, the snow is dry and light. We float weightless turns down the ridge before heading out of the park and hitting a gas station taco bus in Puyallup for a late lunch.

The bedroom/closet/refrigerator. PHOTO: Garrett Grove

When it’s clear—rare in the Northwest—you can see the full span of Rainier from the top of the gondola at Crystal Mountain. Crystal might be the most resort-like mountain in the region (it has lodging, for instance), but of the 21 Cascadian resorts in Washington and Oregon, it also seems to engender the most hardcore, lifer, multi-generational skiers. Crystal is home to the Sunnyside Sliders, a gang of old-school freeskiers who wear patched jean jackets; an RV lot that has the know-your-neighbor vibe of a suburban cul-de-sac; and one of the best bars in skiing, the Snorting Elk.

I find Dale Karr and Darrell Johnson, two of those long-timers, at the top of the gondola and we set off toward the steep, cliff-littered terrain off the Northway lift. Trailing the old guys, trying to keep up as they wiggle through tight trees into a high-walled chute they call Water Tastes Like Wine, I’m immediately in terrain I’ve never skied before. We ride up again, and, since Karr seems to know everyone, link up with a bigger crew and head farther out on the ridge. Crystal is 2,600 acres spread across steeply pitched old-growth trees, and the ridge to the north is lined with tight, steep shots. The dads smoke me down an avy path they call Employee Housing (or Twisted Sister). Johnson can’t exactly remember the old story, but it’s something about Gene Simmons.

In the Northwest, home sweet home is the ski area parking lot. PHOTO: Matt Small

It’s all old stories around here. I probably couldn’t have found most of the sneak lines we ski, but that’s what makes it good. It’s what keeps these guys coming back year after year. The snow in the Cascades changes quickly, maybe because it’s always just on the edge of melting, so you have to appreciate subtlety, to always know which direction the slope faces. Around here, if you’re tenacious and don’t mind fighting through knee-ripping glop, or billy-goating rock-peppered chutes—sometimes in the same run—you’ll get rewarded.

I could stay at Crystal and ski new lines for weeks, but instead, I loop through Seattle and northeast to Stevens Pass. There are no straight roads up the range, and few that cut across. Sometimes Route 2, which goes over Stevens Pass, is the only road open. I follow the Skykomish River past the low-lying farms on the west side of the range and the old mining towns of Gold Bar and Baring. I meet up with Ingrid Backstrom under the clock tower. It’s a sunny Wednesday and the peaks of the North Cascades gleam in the distance. I follow Backstrom out the ridge and down Pro Chute where we sideslip between some rocks, then open up into the steeps. I mimic her turns and realize I’ve been trying to ski like her my whole life. She is super pregnant—she’ll have her first kid less than a month later—and she’s still graceful and fast.

Crystal is 2,600 acres spread across steeply pitched old-growth trees.

Backstrom grew up outside Seattle, skiing at Crystal, but she left and lived in Tahoe for a while. She moved back because her husband, Jim Delzer, loves Leavenworth. She likes how much there is to explore in these mountains. She’s not the only PNW native who has settled near Stevens. The next day I roll into the RV lot to meet up with Shane Wilder, Rex Flake, and Buck Cobb (all their real names). When I show up they’re in Cobb’s ’77 Argosy trailer, where he lives fulltime with his girlfriend, Robette Schmit. I scooch onto a bench seat, his dog, Riley, leans into my leg, and I get sucked into a slurry of stories. Cobb has a beard with a ponytail in it and a ring of long gray hair. Later that day while skinning, Wilder tells me Cobb is the best skier he knows. Another under-the-radar, unassuming local legend living in a parking lot so he can ski.

Alex Schenkar slips into unconsciousness aboard the Crystal ship. PHOTO: Ian Coble

Wilder, Flake, and I head out the gates toward the Rooster Comb. We gain the ridge, then drop down the next one, skiing a line called Coulda Shoulda through pillow drops steep enough that Wilder has to assure me they go through. The touring around Stevens is deceiving. It doesn’t look big, or like you can go far, but we end up several drainages away skinning through dense, soggy forests, then bootpack up the pyramid of Josephine Peak.

The North Cascades, which, according to the USGS, are steeper and wetter, mile for mile, than any range in the U.S., start at Stevens Pass and span out to the Canadian border. North Cascades National Park alone covers more than 780 square miles. The mountains get tricky, vertical, and hard to access. There are few ways to get in, especially in the winter, because the approaches are long and the logging roads aren’t maintained. They still feel relatively unexplored, despite the fact that they’re stacked with peaks that look skiable. There are traverses across the range that have only been skied once or twice. But if you’re persistent and prone to winter camping, or have a snowmobile, or spend a lot of time at Mazama-based North Cascades Heli-Skiing, you can start to pick off the edges.

When people talk about the Cascades, I think the vision they have in mind—at least the one I had in mine—is of the craggy northern section of the range where the peaks spike 8,000 feet up from sea level. It’s easy to feel hemmed in by moss and mist there, but up high the peaks are layered and endless. When the fog clears, it’s shockingly sunny and Shane points to everything he has skied. We can see the tip of Mount Baker in the distance, and about a million different mountains in between. Who said the more you know the more you don’t know? Aristotle? Did he get FOMO in the backcountry? Because from here it feels like you could never fully understand these mountains.

When it’s deep in the Cascades, it is the deepest. Stevens Pass delivers for Eric Balken. PHOTO: Garrett Grove

Maybe it’s the depth of the snow or the dead-end road that gets you there, but Mount Baker has a reputation as a vortex for skids. Baker opened in the ’20s and is predominantly owned by a group of local stakeholders. The mountain comes with a dose of independent weirdness that probably wouldn’t fly at other places. There’s a cat roaming the lodge and at some point in the après hour a stranger sits down at the piano and starts playing. He doesn’t stop until they shut down the lodge. Did I mention that there’s a piano in the lodge?

I’m skiing with three generations of Baker skiers, legitimate circus freaks. Dean Collins, who moved here in the early ’90s after a stint as a stunt skier in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus; Adam ü, a multi-hyphenate marine biologist-slash-musician-slash-tele-skier who came here from California and never left; and Mattias Evangelista, who grew up in Glacier and is now finishing college at Western Washington University, down the road in Bellingham. “I kind of wish I wasn’t from here so I could have found it on my own,” says Evangelista.

Inbounds Baker is full of steep mini-golf lines, but the mountain’s best attribute is its easy-access backcountry, which can be intimidatingly steep. In 1999, after two people were killed in a Valentine’s Day avalanche just outside the ski area boundary—during a record-breaking snow year in which it snowed 1,140 inches—the Baker ski patrol put into place a progressive open boundary policy that underscored education and appropriate gear. You can’t go out without a beacon, partner, and shovel, and a probe is recommended. Baker became a lodestar for lift-access backcountry. “On a good year, there’s no place better,” says photographer Grant Gunderson. “If it’s good, even if I get invited to Alaska, it’s hard to leave.”

We watch Evangelista drop out of sight into a line called 50/50, and ü says he doesn’t know, exactly, what makes Baker the blend of epic and empty it tends to be. Maybe it’s the fear of rain, or that it’s just far enough away, but for as long as he’s been here, it’s stayed in this state of stasis, still hanging just below the radar.

Later, as the afternoon warms up and the snowpack starts to cook, we skin toward Hemispheres, where the snow is still cold. We get a couple more steep, solid turns that make it feel like the pitch of the mountains and the snow and your skis are all exactly in the right place. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, there are so, so many things to ski between home and here. My exploration has only revealed how much I don’t know, but if I have to spend the rest of my winters chasing the edge of the snow line through the Cascades, I think I’d be all right.

This story originally published in the November 2016 issue of POWDER (45.3). Subscribe to the magazine here.