Mount Baker is an anomaly to the modern ski area archetype. There is a distinct lack of corporate bullshit from the mountain management offices. Presumably due to the exhausting amount of snowfall, employees have developed a “get-’er-done” attitude. So it’s no surprise that the Department of Transportation crew has managed to keep Highway 542 open every day, no matter what, despite being one of the snowiest roads in the world.
March 14, 2012, was different.
We were in the midst of being hit by one of the largest and strongest Northern Pacific cycles ever. It snowed a record 260 inches in the month of March—nearly 22 feet. Cornices made tunnels over the road. The 30-foot blade on the 988B Caterpillar snowplow worked nonstop.
On our way up the dark mountain highway, we stopped several times to wait for the DOT to cut old-growth trees that had fallen and blocked the road. Yet my friends and I still managed to arrive at the ski area parking lot at 6:30 a.m. Noticing the weighted trees and chairlifts, it was easily one of the deepest days any of us had ever seen.
Soon, we were out on a dawn patrol lap in the old growth. Neck deep was an understatement—whenever somebody made a turn, they were engulfed with overhead powder.
“We call those reverse powder days,” says Mount Baker Marketing Manager and Spokesperson Gwyn Howat, “because it’s snowing so hard that tracks keep getting covered up, and the powder keeps getting better as the day goes on.”
When we returned to the ski area, we were taken aback by the eerie silence of an empty lot at 9:30 a.m. I learned the highway closed in Glacier, 20 miles from Baker. Nobody made it up the road aside from us and about 40 others.
We were sitting around planning on skiing road laps all day, assuming the lifts weren’t going to open, when patrol director Andy Sahlfeld shocked us with the best news of my winter. “You guys want to go skiing, or are you just going to sit there?” he asked.
The ski area decided to open the lifts just for those lucky enough to be there.
“People were there and our staff was there, and the conditions were appropriate for operation,” says Howat. “So we operated.”
We skied countless untracked laps off Chair 5, hitting every variation off the steep, playful pitch of Gables before we headed over to Chair 1. It felt like our actions were criminal, as we pillaged Sticky Wicket, blindly hitting every one of our favorite airs.
Every lap, our tracks from the previous run were gone. With such an intimate knowledge of the place, the absence of others amplified the gravity of what we were experiencing. Alongside a few good friends, I had the best ski day of my life. —Grant Gunderson
Lift Ticket: $52
Vertical: 1,500 feet
Annual Snowfall: 701 inches
Best Deal: Free RV camping in ski area lot.
Closest Good Beer: The Tap Room