John Stifter fighting through light North Cascades pow. PHOTO: BOB LEGASA

Words: John Stifter

I remember my first year as a season pass holder at Bridger Bowl in 2002. It didn't start snowing until February, and as we rode the lift early season, friends that had been skiing Bridger for years explained to me how rare it was to see rocks and alder scattered across designated runs. That memory resurfaced last January at Solitude. You could hear the scratch and grind of skiers hitting rocks every third turn amongst massive, icy bumps. In mid-January.

That night, starving for soft snow, I booked a last-minute ticket to Washington. I needed to feel winter. As I drove through the deluge of falling flakes and tunnel-like snowbanks in Winthrop, Washington, en route to North Cascades Heli, I felt transported to an alternative reality. That feeling was exacerbated when I stepped out of the car and blew snow off my hand. I'd read and heard from friends that the water percentage content of the 40-inch storm was in the single digits, atypical for the Cascades. As I watched the flakes flutter away from my hand, I mused to myself that the 2011-12 winter was weird.

Regardless, the next day was my first soft day of the year. And with 40 inches in two days, it was, undoubtedly, the deepest of my season. We skied four runs of pillow-laden terrain, with the Liberty Bell of the Cascades popping through milky clouds. Although I embraced the sensation of snow blasting my face for the first time all season, I noticed that it plumed much more easily than what's apropos for the maritime snow of the Cascades.

Indeed, it was an odd winter for a lot of reasons. But one fine January day in the North Cascades satiated my need. And I know the next time I ride a lift analyzing a low-tide snowpack in the middle of winter, days like that at North Cascades will keep me patient yet persistent in the search for soft.

(This summer, we’re looking back at our best days of the winter. Read about night skiing at Mount Hood,gang skiing at Sundance, and opening day at Killington.)