Here in the PNW we are having what I would refer to as a below average snow year. Snoqualmie Pass doesn’t have enough snow to open and the other resorts are still a little spicy down in the lower elevations. Back in November everyone was starting to get the itch to ride. Some early low elevation snow helped drastically increase the stoke and people were getting out to make turns. Even the resorts were getting in on the early season goods, with some impressively early starts; though it is understandable if you don’t consider spinning a single chair and throwing a few rails in a patch of lingering snow an actual “opening day”.
The excitement of the early snow gave way to anticipation that is yet to be fulfilled. An occasionally front moves through, bringing just enough snow to maintain the marginal snowpack that exists. Normally the fronts come mixed with sleet and freezing rain to dissuade any potential thrill seekers from getting too excited.
All that being said, I’ve had some awesome day’s so far this season, each one seemingly better than the last and it is in no way thanks to mother nature. So, it’s my goal to provide you with the insights that you need to have fun out there.
Step One: Take whatever your expectations are for the day and lower them.
If the weather report claimed 4-5 inches in the last 24, I don’t want to hear anything about an epic pow day. The 20-30 mph winds inevitably scoured the 4-5 inches, which were sitting on top of a bulletproof crust anyways. So instead, think to yourself, “if I hunt for some protected leeward slopes, I might find some pockets of still fresh snow if I am lucky.”
Or, “sure, it hasn’t snowed in the last week, but it hasn’t rained either. So there’s a chance that I may still find something.” This is a good start, but again…lowering your expectation can never hurt. Try something more along the lines of: “Well, the sun might break through, so at least I get to stretch my legs and hopefully we will get a pretty view.”
The important thing to remember is that your starting expectations, no matter how well intentioned, are still laced with optimism. I applaud the optimistic outlook and yes, we are going to have a fantastic season, no worries that it is already late December; the season is still early and there is still time! But, if you want to guarantee yourself to have a fun day, I promise this will help.
In fact, that’s about the only advice I have right now. Sorry for not having anything more insightful. I will say that in the last three days of touring, I’ve lowered my expectations to the point where just the other day I was thinking, “as long as I find something that isn’t ice, I will be happy.” Sure enough, the snow we found on a north-facing bowl was superb. I mean, in reality it wasn’t anything to write home about, but in comparison to the ice I’d set myself up to expect, this snow was the most incredible conditions I’d seen all season. Maybe we really did get lucky. Maybe the snow really was better than I am giving it credit for.
Maybe, that’s not the point at all. Last fall I tried to take an early season lap on the Muir snowfield. No matter how low you set your expectations for the day, Mother Nature was hell bent on making you lower them even further. To give an idea, it felt like I’d bundled up in my snow gear and jumped in a pool. Upon climbing out of the pool, I was in the middle of a monsoon with sheets of rain somehow managing to make me even wetter. And if that isn’t bad enough, the wind picked up with unrelenting gusts blowing the rain more sideways that up-and-down. Amidst it all, we were all laughing and in good spirits.
So maybe, the point is actually to shift your expectations away from the snow entirely.
When you go out with the expectation of having fun with friends and strangers, to get a little exercise and to have an adventure, then there is no way you are going to have a bad time. No matter what snow you do find, if you find it while smiling, I think it is safe to assume that you’ll meet your expectations and come home feeling pretty good about what you found.
My North Cascades trip ending a day early was almost a blessing of sorts. While I would have loved to stay there longer, it was a good time to leave. When we got back into town, I had a text from Stuart asking if I wanted to hike Rainier on Sunday. Seeing as it was 8pm on Saturday and I was still a solid hour from Seattle, I had to think about it for a few minutes. Rainier meant an early morning and my gear was all still soaking wet and in disarray. It seemed like a silly idea at first.
One thing you should know about me, if you haven’t already figured it out. I like adventures. Especially the spontaneous, unplanned variety. I tend to use the term adventure liberally, like “I’m going on an adventure to the grocery store!” It helps get me in a good mindset for mundane tasks, for instance if this paper I am writing were truly an adventure, perhaps I would find the writing process entertaining.
I do however think that my latest escapades in to the mountains fit well within the realm of “adventure” in a more traditional sense of the word. This weekend has been no exception.
Franklin, one of my roommates, is moving down to California this summer to start a new badass job. Before he leaves, he made a bucket list of things that he wants to do. I am not entirely sure of the full details of his list, but spending time in the mountains is definitely a part of it. So, early last week, Franklin approached me about going hiking this weekend. Fortunately for him, it was not long after returning from the Tatoosh’s, and Rainier was on my mind. In fact, I think I had just finished hanging up the map of Rainier on my wall. Half joking, half serious, I threw out the idea of hiking up to Camp Muir. After spending a few minutes chatting about it, the half serious idea was transforming into a half serious plan. Somewhere over the next couple of days we convinced Ethan to join us (though the plan was still minimal). So, this weeks foray into the mountains, while something I have been wanting to do for some time, was for Franklin and was a HUGE check mark on his bucket list.
To start, none of us were particularly fond of the idea of waking up super early to drive to Mt Rainier so that we could get a reasonable start. We came up with the brilliant plan of camping. In the park, camping is relatively lax while the snow is deep. The only real requirements are you have to be over a half mile from the trails and roads (it gets a little more strict in high traffic areas like on the Muir Snowfield, but for our sake, we could camp pretty much wherever we wanted). This brilliant plan came about before we all realized we had obligations in Seattle on Friday. Thursday night, we made a half-assed attempt at packing and opted to just throw everything in the car Friday evening. We had a strict deadline to make. The park gate closes at 8:30pm. We made it through the gate a little past 8:20, so we were cutting it close.
Fortunate for us, by the time we rolled up to paradise lodge, a thick fog had set in and it was starting to snow. We spent a good half hour actually packing our gear (about 2/3 of it was probably mine) and getting our bearings since it was a little tough to see anything considering it was night and foggy. We eventually hopped on a trail, followed it for a ways and to the best of our ability ventured off of the trail, to the top of a small hill that was far enough away from the trail and hidden from any hikers, but not too far that we would get lost. Again, not necessarily the most ideal situation to be in.
We set up our tents and decided to call it a night early (well, not that early), what with it snowing and all. Some of us were a little more equipped for camping in the snow than others, making the night a little unpleasant for at least one of us (not going to mention any names here). In fact, none of us had ever camped in the snow, so I think we all learned a lot. We ended up waking up early, breaking camp and heading back to the car. This was sort of the plan we had worked out, directed by our lack of preparation and organization.
I had been following the weather and so far, it was exactly what I was expecting for the weekend. As we were getting ready to start the hike, visibility was limited and it looked like the mountain was pretty socked in. Fortunately as we were getting ready, the clouds started to dissipate and visibility was improving. It was still a chilly morning and from what we could tell, it was going to be a chilly hike up to the camp.
We couldn’t have been more wrong on our weather prediction. Not more than 20 minutes in to the hike we got above the clouds and realized how incredibly lucky we were. Yet again, it was going to be another sunny day on the mountain.
Soon, we were starting to regret the miscalculation of the weather as above the clouds, it was actually quite warm. We stopped at a scenic point for a few pics and to adjust for the newly discovered sun.
Rainier is an absolutely stunning mountain and a view that I will never get tired of. I should point out that no, we did not hike shirtless. As one girl pointed out on the way up, “you don’t want to do that because sunburnt nipples aren’t fun.” So, after putting clothes back on, lathering on the sunscreen, and taking a few more random pictures, we continued on.
On the hike up, we stopped periodically for food, sunscreen, and to take in the spectacular views.
We made great time, getting to the top of Camp Muir around 1pm. Since we weren’t in any hurry, we took our time and enjoyed ourselves up at 10,400′.
Some of us enjoyed ourselves just a little more than others….
I took my split, Franklin and Ethan both just hiked. So we parted ways on the way down. I ended up joining a group of skiers on the way down. The snow was, well not the best. But I don’t think anyone does Muir at this time of year just for the riding. The storm from this past week had left a few inches of snow that has not had time to settle. For the most part, the Muir Snowfield is mellow terrain and the snow wasn’t reacting. It made for some spectacular turns.
Instead of following the snowfield the whole way down, I joined a group that was dropping a chute into the Nisqually Glacier in hopes of finding some steeper, more technical terrain to ride down. We ended up in a bowl where the snow just didn’t want to stick. We set off 5 or 6 point-release slides that all funneled down to the same spot. It was only a couple of inches that were reacting on top of the bed surface and it was all predictably sliding, so we were safe, but it made for an interesting ride down. By the time we got to the toe of the debris pile, it had built up a solid 7-8 feet tall.
After that one section, the terrain mellowed out and we got in a few more fun pitches before having to skin back up to the main trail back to paradise. (None of us were particularly fond of the idea of riding all the way out the Nisqually to the bridge. That turned out to be a good decision, because the snow was incredibly wet and slow at the lower elevations.
With my short stint off of the Muir snowfield, I ended up getting back to the car not much sooner than Franklin and Ethan, who were both a little cold and very wet from the long hike down.
It was definitely an adventure and a somewhat impromptu one at that. I really enjoyed getting to take Ethan and Franklin out in to the mountains with me, so that some of my friends get a chance to see what I do when I disappear of the weekends. The pictures and these posts really don’t do justice to the beauty, serenity, and sense of adventure you get by being out in the mountains.