Mount Baker is way out there. It's basically Canada. Or at least it's closer from a bird's eye to the border than it is to Bellingham and it's definitly a haul from Seattle. Which is why we left the Seattle suburbs at 5:30 a.m.
Seattle was dark and raining and wet. Usually in those conditions, I turn my alarm clock off, roll over, and sleep in to ski another day. But Pacific Northwest skiers are believers. They have the faith. They know that rain down here means snow up there. And they keep their faith, they hold on to the 11 inches of fresh proclaimed in the snow report, even when it's still raining three hours and several thousand feet of elevation gain later.
The temperature displayed on the car dash hovered at 33 degrees, and then 34, and then 35. The air was humid. The road was a slick black. Thick, saturated globs of moisture plunked on the windshield. A few degrees colder, we kept hoping. Our convictions hardened. We drove upward, snaking turns stacked on top of each other like a paper clip. Dense forest walled each side of the road. Then, finally, white-laced trees appeared in the distance.
The ski resort is at the end of the road. From Glacier--the nearest town, population 211--Highway 542 dead-ends at the parking lot. We followed the stream of cars to the base area and filed into a spot. The moisture globs below were fat flakes up here, and the berms were taller than our car. In the Northwest, because it is so remote, because there are no villages and hotels and condos, and especially so in Baker, parking lots are a central tenet of ski culture. RVs were settled in for the long wait. Skiers zipped up jackets, buckled ski boots, pulled on hoods, shouldered skis, and walked up to Chair One. The storm kept pace.
Mount Baker is one of the snowiest places in the world. In 1999, the ski area set a world record for the most recorded snowfall: 1,140 inches. That's 95 feet of snow. A pyramid-shaped active volcano, it's also a mass of ice--not including Mount Rainier, the volume of snow and ice on Baker is greater than all the other Cascade volcanoes combined. The ski resort is known for the vast terrain just beyond it's boundary line. If you ski here, ski with a full backcountry setup, especially a beacon, probe, and shovel. The backcountry lures skiers out the gates on a near-daily basis, except for when the avalanche danger is high, like it was on this particular day. So we stayed inbounds and kept to the stack of rocks, pillows, chutes, and steep rollovers accessed off of Chair 1. The offerings were plenty, served up with more than 400 inches of snow accumulated so far this season.
The skiing at Baker is not obvious. As my friend kept repeating, it has a lot of pockets, so if you don't know where to look, it's easy to skip over the good stuff. Find a local to follow around and show you the spots. The locals we found were a crew of 19-year-old boys, led by brothers Mattias and Micah Evangelista, who grew up down the hill in Glacier.
To be 19 and a skier at Baker is a dream. With so much snow, and such distinct features, and limbs that rebound like rubber, the possibilities are infinite. The boys eyed pillow lines and tree taps. They threw front flips off wind lips. Sometimes they landed. Sometimes they belly flopped. The consequences of impact were negated by how much snow was on the ground.
We lapped Chair 1, which starts at the Heather Meadows Lodge and climbs to the top of the resort. The lift's mid-station was an easy pick-up for another lap, and a natural gathering place. Soon the crew grew to a dozen deep, and we skied until our Gore-Tex soaked through to our skin, which was about 1:30 p.m. In classic Baker sense, the snow is deep, but it's also wet. The ski resort is so low elevation--the top is a step higher than 5,000 feet--that rain is a common occurrence here. It rains or it dumps pow, there's not much for the in between.
I had hoped to ski until last chair. After such a long drive, it felt required to ski as much as possible. But when you can wring water out of your gloves, you're easily persuaded to call it early and grab a beer in the lodge. I ordered a berry cider and chili cheese fries with all the toppings. Had I known better, the salmon chowder at the Baker lodge is famous. Another iconic detail of the Baker lodge: there's a piano open for the playing. A musician with a blonde mullet was bent over the piano, waving his arms furiously up and down the keys like a legit Mozart. The lodge was steamy. Cheeks were flushed red and hair wet. All the tables were taken by stoked and soaked skiers. It was a classic end to a classic Baker day.
Photo: Micah Evangelista showing what it’s like to grow up at Mount Baker ski area. By Grant Gunderson