Rider on the Storm at Mission Ridge

Chair3
Skiers on the Chair 3 run Toketie at Mission Ridge.

Day 15: Jan. 29, 2016

There’s something I love about skiing in a major storm.

When the winds are howling and the snowflakes are flying sideways, you’ll find me with a huge grin on my face.

SkiZer’s Day 15 at Mission was like that. A wild Pacific storm dumped several inches onto the slopes of this gem in the eastern Cascades by the time I arrived. And it just kept dumping through the day.

MissionBase2
Riders in the base area of Mission Ridge.

As luck would have it, I rode with a ski patrolman on the first chairlift. I asked him for a run recommendation and he pointed me to the Bomber Bowl area of Chair 2, the “Liberator Express” quad that takes skiers from mid-mountain to the top of Mission Ridge.

“Seems like it’s really blowing in over there,” he said.

With 30 mph winds pounding the top of the ridge, I headed to Bomber Bowl on one of the area’s primo cruisers, Katsuk. About four inches had fallen over a very hard base. The low-angle intermediate run was fast and fun as I floated on the new-fallen snow.

Bomber Bowl is named after a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber that crashed on Mission Ridge in 1944. A piece of the plane’s wing is displayed on the slope with a large sign that commemorates the crash.

Legend has it that if you touch the wing, you’ll bring more snow to the mountain. Consequently, riders are constantly swinging by to give it a lucky pat. The mojo seemed to be working on this day.

SkizerBomber
SkiZer gets ready for his first drop into Bomber Bowl.
BomberWing
Skiers pat the lucky wing in hopes of bringing more snow.

As I dropped in, swirling winds buffeted the impressive Bomber Cliffs, dumping more snow into the bowl below. It was mid-shin deep and I even got a few face shots.

Wow. This was still my first run.

I spent the morning doing laps on Chair 2, skiing various lines in the accumulating fluff. A sparse crowd — which is the norm at Mission — was there to share the wealth.

As the day wore on, I headed to Chair 3, the other lift that accesses the upper mountain. The raging storm had turned what had been a bullet-proof base into effortless powder skiing. The best runs tended to be the cruisers, which Mission has in abundance.

MidwayLodge
Midway Lodge offers riders a break from the storm.
MissionJPG
Click on the map to expand.

After a quick stop at Midway Lodge to get warm, I found the storm had picked up. Winds were gusting to 5o mph on the ridge, so I headed back to Chair 2. It was a full-fledged blizzard now, and the chairlift swung precariously as we ascended.

“Yee-oww! That was fun!” I screamed in the gale to my chairlift mates as we got off the swinging lift. The wind was making a loud moaning noise and it was hard to stay upright.

It was now a race to get in as many runs as possible before winds closed the lifts. I did one on the Bomber Cliffs, a stunning out-of-bounds hike into a large side-country bowl that brings skiers back onto Chair 2. And then I made another run under the cliffs, hitting a line I had skied earlier in the day. Nobody else had touched it and I laid down a nice set of parallel tracks.

SkizerTracks
SkiZer sets down some tracks under the Bomber Cliffs.

Then it was over. Chair 2 closed in mid-afternoon, and I managed to get three more runs on Chair 3 before the storm took it down too. Snow was falling harder as I skied back to the base area.

Wow, that bomber wing really does have some magic.

The Quest for Vertical

People ask all the time, “SkiZer, what’s the deal with counting your vertical?”

The SkiZer struggles to explain this rather esoteric practice, but here goes.

It started way back in 1984 when I was traveling in Europe with my wife-to-be, Mrs. SkiZer. It was July and we were in Austria. We stopped in the resort town of Zell am See and shredded in the soft summer snow.

“A little wet, but really fun!” the 25-year-old SkiZer wrote in his travel journal. This was the first time SkiZer had ever written about skiing.

skizerHorizontal
When I had hair: The SkiZer shreds at Zell am See, Austria, in 1984.

Over the years, SkiZer continued writing about his ski days. The entries gradually became more and more detailed.

“It’s an epic day!” SkiZer wrote about Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho, in December 2001. “Fabulous powder skiing. I score 34,000 vertical.”

Before that season, my journal entries didn’t have any numbers associated with them. Counting vertical seemed to be a good way to measure what kind of day I was having. And over time, the SkiZer ended up keeping a running tally of vertical feet skied during a season.

You may ask, “What does ‘vertical’ even mean?” Every chairlift rises a certain number of vertical feet. Let’s say it’s 1,700 feet. If you ski that lift twice, you’ve skied 3,400 vertical feet. Three times? 5,100 vertical feet — and so on.

The SkiZer isn’t the only one doing this. Many Northwest skiers record their vertical, including the people in this Outdoors NW story SkiZer penned in 2013.

And Whitefish Mountain, Mont., actually helps pass-holders keep track of how much vertical they’re racking up by scanning their passes each run. This has led to a fevered competition to become the resort’s vertical champion each year.

So there you have it. Their quest for vertical — and mine — continues.

This ‘Norse God’ Comes Back to Earth

SkiZer readies
Easy access: After a quick drive from Seattle, SkiZer hits Cabin Creek.

Day 14: Jan. 25, 2016

  • Cabin Creek Sno-Park
  • Kilometers skied: 20K
  • Season total: 108K

It’s not often that you feel like you can ski forever.

With icy conditions at Cabin Creek Sno-Park on Day 14 of the SkiZer season, it felt like that. Horrible conditions for alpine skiing, but great for skate-skiing.

I hit the trails by 8:30 a.m. Only one other car was in the lot when I arrived. It had been warm the previous day, then it froze overnight, leaving the trail ice-rink firm.

I skied “The Road” — a 4.6K flat trail — in a record sprint. Every pole plant translated into power, every skate movement into speed. I hit the Viking trail and proceeded to burn up the rolling 6.2K loop, then charged onto the 2.2K Berg trail. It was all too easy.

What next? After a brief water and food break, I decided to hit the Viking trail again. I roared around the trail and passed a couple of other skaters.

“Isn’t this great!” I said. They agreed. My skill was incredible, I thought as I rounded the next bend. I’m a Norse god!

Then I lost my balance and proceeded to fall on my egotistical ass.

I hauled my bruised butt back onto my skis and came back to earth. I managed to skate out the rest of my day with a little more humility.

Overall view
View from the Viking trail of the meadow and surrounding mountains.
TrailStart
Skiers prepare to hit the trails at Cabin Creek.

Almanac Calls NW El Niño

Nobody really saw this coming. Well almost no one.

The Pacific Northwest was supposed to be in the grips of the dreaded El Niño this winter. Typically, that means warmer-than-average temperatures and below-average snowfall. Skiers hate El Niño because it can mean horrible conditions in the mountains.

Instead, regular storms have pounded the Cascades this winter, creating a well above-average snowpack. Crystal Mountain currently has 95 inches piled up at its top elevation. Mt. Baker Ski Area currently has 168 inches on top.

StevensDoubleD
Snow piles up at Stevens Pass.

Earlier this season, most meteorologists were fretting that things would be horrible for then drought-plagued Washington state.

According to Newsweek magazine in October, “The force of El Niño will bring particularly bad news to the Pacific Northwest” in the form of continued drought conditions.

“The bottom line is that El Niño … heavily weights the atmospheric dice for a less stormy, warmer and a bit drier Pacific Northwest,” wrote Cliff Mass, the UW weather savant.

 

 

Welcome to Mt. GoodVibes, Powder Fans

SkizerCanyon
SkiZer readies for his first drop down The Canyon.
  • Jan. 19, 2016
  • Mt. Baker
  • Vertical for the day: 27,000
  • Year total: 228,000

A few years ago, I was riding on a chairlift with an acquaintance. We were talking about our favorite Northwest ski areas.

“I like the vibe at Mt. Baker,” she said. “It’s relaxed and doesn’t feel ‘resort-y’.” Later that season, on her recommendation, I went to Baker and had a great day skiing fresh snow among easygoing locals.

It had been a few years since I had been back. As I drove up for my 13th day this season, I wondered if Baker was still full of good vibes.

I pulled in to a nearly empty parking lot and clear skies. So far so good.

If you can hit Mt. Baker on a clear day, you’re in luck. You’ll have incredible views of the North Cascades and 9,131-foot Mount Shuksan, one of the most iconic peaks in the Northwest.

Usually, storms are the norm. This place gets pounded and is famous for collecting huge snowfall totals. On this day, there was about 3 inches new. Not a typical Baker dump, but plenty to shred and have fun.

I headed to Chair 6 on the Panorama Dome side of the ski area to check out some of my favorite runs. Good karma ruled as I unloaded — untracked slopes were abundant.

Shuksan boarder
Mount Shuksan dominates the view on the slopes of Mt. Baker Ski Area.

I skied several unhurried powder runs among the sparse  crowd. Unlike most places on the west side of the Cascades, there was no intense competition to beat others to the best snow. Plenty to go around.

One highlight was “The Canyon,” one of Baker’s signature runs. The top, called Gunner’s Bowl, leads into a narrow canyon with huge cliffs on each side. It’s dramatic and fun to ski between those mountain walls.

Canyon
Skiers and boarders in The Canyon.

But the highlight of the day was Pan Face, a wide open and at times steep run down to the Heather Meadows side of the mountain. On weekdays, the Heather Meadows base area is closed, as are some of the lifts on that side of the mountain. But you can still ski Pan Face and then traverse back to chairlift access.

An hour into the morning, I headed to Pan Face. Amazingly, I had first tracks. Throughout the day, I returned several times to ski different lines down this incredible landscape, and each time found freshies.

After an excellent morning on Chair 6, I ate my customary packed lunch along with a quick cup of lodge coffee — not great, but caffeine all the same — at the Raven Hut. The coffee might have been a letdown, but everything else at this mid-mountain lodge is cozy, complete with a welcoming fireplace.

RavenHut
Entrance to Raven Hut.

Afterwards, I traveled to the more intermediate Chair 8 side of the mountain. With Mount Shuksan looming above, I found lots of untracked powder and fast groomers.

 

Besides offering exceptional intermediate terrain, Chair 8 is the gateway to the famous Mt. Baker backcountry. Skiers and boarders climb from the top of Chair 8 to Shuksan Arm, a ridge extending from Mount Shuksan. The ridge offers access to big-mountain style drops, that eventually lead back to the ski area.

Shuksanbackcountry
Mount Shuksan and some of the Baker backcountry (right).

You need a partner, a transceiver, probe and shovel to ski this out-of-bounds terrain. Mt. Baker Ski Area doesn’t patrol it or control for avalanches.

On this day, the in-bounds slopes offered plenty of challenges for the solitary SkiZer. I eventually ventured back to Chair 6, where Pan Face was calling. As afternoon wore on, I found myself returning again and again for fresh tracks and powder thrills.

It didn’t disappoint.

Chair4 halo
Chairlift at Mt. GoodVibes.

When Bad Luck Won’t Take a Break

BaseArea
The base area of Stevens Pass.

Day 12: Jan. 15, 2016

  • Stevens Pass
  • Vertical for the day: 23,000
  • Year total: 201,000

I have a complicated relationship with Stevens Pass. I want to like it, but bad things always seem to happen to me there.

This trip was no exception.

I’ve encountered more rainy days at Stevens than I can count. Even on good days, I’ve taken bad falls. Once, I caught a flu bug while skiing at Stevens and ended up being sick for two weeks afterwards. Last year, I bought a season pass at Stevens only to be shut out by a horrible winter.

This day started with freezing rain. Par for the course, I thought as I walked to the ticket window. I’ll make do.

TreesOnDoubleDiamond
Skiing Double Diamond at Stevens Pass.

First thing, I headed to the Mill Creek side of the mountain. The snow was mediocre — I skied a couple of cruisers and then headed back to the front side. I launched into Double Diamond, a steep, north-facing run, and found good snow. I explored more steep drops and found decent snow in Big Chief Bowl and the narrow double-diamond run Wild Katz.

So far, so good. After a quick coffee break (an excellent Americano, courtesy of the T-Bar Market), I headed to 7th Heaven on the Cowboy Mountain side of the ski area.

RideUp
7th Heaven chairlift.

The ride up 7th Heaven is a thrill in itself. The chairlift ride seems to go straight up a 500 foot cliff. Once on top, you’re able to ski a variety of expert runs back to the base area, or if you want a quick rush, you can take a hike and drop into a series of chutes under the chair.

I did the chutes first. The snow was good and the runs, while short, were fun. Things were going my way.

I took a run back to the base area on the double-diamond Cloud 9 and headed back for those chutes.

Bad luck hit when I dropped into Bobby Chute.

While turning, I buried a tip on the steep slope and felt myself going into a somersault. “Release!” I screamed at my binding. Finally, it did, and I took a header downhill.

The damage was done. It wasn’t too bad — a strained left calf — and I was able to ski down and regroup.

TreesonKatz
SkiZer, after the fall.

I took it easy for a couple of runs. That calf was hurting as I made even the easiest right turn. I popped a couple of Ibuprofen (every skier should carry this wonder drug), ate some chocolate and pondered my next move.

The SkiZer rule about a bad fall is as follows:

If you are able to ski, you MUST go back and ski the same run where you fell. I call it “Payback time.”

I rode the 7th Heaven chairlift and told myself, “You have to do this.” I unloaded, did the short hike and dropped into Bobby Chute. I wasn’t super aggressive, but I skied it well. Take that, Bobby, you little bastard.

TreesSeventhHeaven
Tree skiing on 7th Heaven.

Feeling a little better, I skied a few more laps on Nancy Chute and Solitude Chute. Midafternoon,  I called it a day, and limped back to the car.

 

 

 

Stick With It: From Buzzkill to Big Day

SkizerUglyArrival
Wet and ugly in the parking lot.

Day 11: Jan. 13, 2016

You gotta have faith.

Sometimes it’s hard. Like when you’re expecting a foot of new powder and instead you arrive to heavy rain falling on that foot new.

That’s how it was Wednesday at Crystal. A Pacific storm blew in the previous night and started dumping. I checked telemetry stations before going to bed and everything looked good, with temps in the 20s. “It’s going to be a Pow Day!” the Crystal website promised.

As I pulled into the Crystal lot the next morning, those hopes were crushed. It was pouring and a parade of cars was heading downhill. The bailout had begun. Buzzkill.

SkizerRainOngoggles
It’s raining as SkiZer heads up.

Should I do this? I had to wonder whether spending $72 would be worth it on such a questionable day. At the ticket window, I was told it was snowing at midmountain, so I ponied up and hit the chairlift.

Wet snow started falling about 5,000 feet and the top of the mountain, while not great, was at least below freezing.

The snow was heavy, but if you could find consistent lines, skiable. A little dangerous too — the kind of snow that tears ligaments and breaks bones.

CrashOnCampbell
SkiZer takes a header in the heavy snow.

I figured it was a day for Campbell Basin, Crystal’s highest chairlift. I proceeded to put in 10 laps, mostly through the cliffy chutes nearest the chair. The highlight was Rabbit Ears, skier’s left of the chairlift, where I got first tracks.

“Today is a day to hit it and quit it,” said a chairlift partner during one ride. He and lots of other dudes took off early. I hung in, and took a tentative run down Powder Bowl. Horrible visibility, but fun, with uncut lines still available in the white abyss.

“Today is a day to hit it and quit it,” said one chairlift partner

After some coffee and a dry-out period in the Campbell Basin Lodge, I skied off West Face in Green Valley, did two more on Powder Bowl and was about to call it a day when a lifty told me, “Northway just opened.”

Westface Crystal
Preparing to drop into the trees on West Face.

It was 2:15 and I had given up hope that Northway would open at all. I’d been hearing Ski Patrol bombs go off in area all afternoon.

Why not? I figured I’d try one and then head out if it was bad.

It was spectacular. The first run in Paradise Bowl was thrilling and another quick run down Bruce’s Bowl was even better, with uncut lines and only truly dedicated skiers still on the slopes.

Those two runs made the day. As the gates closed on Northway, I skied down to the car with a huge smile on my face.

 

Aches – What a Pain

Today, sadly, there’s no skiing.

Instead, I’m going to the physical therapist to work on a chronic Achilles tendon injury. As I close in on age 60, aches and pains are to be expected.

But they still suck.

As this ski season began, I knew I had to do something. The 10-year-old tendon injury hasn’t prevented me from being active, but it does cause a fair bit of pain. It seemed to be getting worse and I didn’t want it to eventually stop me from skiing, so I finally sought treatment this month.

For active seniors (hey, I guess I’m joining the club!) it’s a fact of life. There will be aches and pains — we just need to take care of them so we can keep going.

That’s my plan anyway. Therapy today, skiing tomorrow.

NelsonSkiingWhitefish
Wish I was here: SkiZer at Whitefish Mountain last year. (Brian Schott)

Skate-Away for Easy Access at Snoqualmie

Keechelus skate 1
Skate-skiers on the Iron Horse Trail along Keechelus Lake.

Day 10: Jan. 9, 2016

  • Hyak Sno-Park
  • Kilometers skied: 25
  • Season total: 88K

It’s tempting to dismiss the Iron Horse Trail near Snoqualmie Pass.

Thousands of people use it every weekend. The trail is shared by classic skiers, skate-skiers, snow-shoers, hikers, sledders and even dog-sledders. Snowmobiles roar along nearby roads into the backcountry, adding to the chaotic feel.

On the other hand …

If you’re willing to overlook the crowds, the Iron Horse Trail offers easy access to some decent skate and classic Nordic skiing. On a weekend, get there early and leave by midday.

Keechelus skate 2
SkiZer rocks the King Felix hat on the Iron Horse Trail.

I think of it as a workout ski. Not great by any means, but what other major metropolitan area of the U.S. offers such easy access to Nordic skiing? I’m feeling pretty lucky it’s there.

The trail is flat and fast, great for skate-skiing. I pushed hard for 2.5 hours and got back to the car feeling tired and happy that I’d gotten in another day.