Long Weekend Warriors at Mt. Baker

We almost didn’t go up. Toby’s shoulder, tweaked from a bad fall the day before, was hurting him. And we both felt like proverbial sacks of crap from all the hiking the day before.

But it was Saturday, the sun was out, the temperature was even colder and there was still two feet of fresh powder waiting in Mt. Baker’s backcountry. We’d spent all day Friday getting obnoxious, rallying around Baker, lobbing ourselves off whatever cliff, cornice or roller was in front of boards. It had been exhilarating, but by the days end, something was irritatingly unsatisfactory. All that anxiousness to get radical, and I hadn’t enjoyed even one decent pow turn.

The car was packed, and we were poised to drive the five odd hours back to Portland, our trip cut short to just one day. The sun was out, it was still early—nine am … and all that powder. “What the f—k?!” I declared; “We’ve got to get up there!” A little convincing, and Toby’s shoulder seemed rideable. We flipped the car around, I floored it, and we headed up the access road into the glare of the sun. It was the only option.

We pulled up to Mt. Baker resort a hair before 11 pm, parked, and tossed on our long johns in a lot packed full of weekend enthusiasts. Still plenty of time left. We ran off to Chair 7, rode up, and rallied down to Chair 8. A short fifteen-minute ride later, we faced the Hemispheres bootpack. First we checked in with ski patrol—avy beacons, probes, shovels, packs and a partner. Good to go, we set to the bootpack, steep enough to pass for a frozen ladder, with grimaces.

From our leg-burning vantage point, we gazed out at the rolling expanse of the Shuksan arm backcountry area. We watched as we hiked, spying a pair of riders drop in on a far-off flank of untracked-powder, their turns spraying back-lit snow high into the air. We’d hiked the arm yesterday, but hadn’t made the effort to get all the way out there—stopped instead by the all the distractions along the way; the cliffs, chutes and varied terrain that makes Mt. Baker famous.

The Shuksan Arm hike follows ridgeline undulations, extending out of bounds from Mt. Baker and into some of the most challenging and rewarding lift/hike accessed terrain on the west coast. The hike involves the initial straight-uphill bludgeoning of the Hemispheres bootpack, and then mellows out into a series of downhill traverses; short uphill hikes, and level walks.

45 sweaty minutes later, we’d reached our destination. Perched at the highest point on the Arm we surveyed our prospects. The bulk of Mt. Shuksan and its creeping glacier to our right, the 10,700 foot peak of Mt. Baker behind us, and the forests and peaks of the Mt. Baker National Forest all around us.

We breathed in the silence. Out this far, there was none of the racket of a resort packed for the weekend. And there wasn’t any plan to get rad. There were no cliffs to jump off, just a wide-open sea of snow. Bellow us was our route; a wide-open gut that lead onto the flank we’d seen the riders drop in on. Breaking the silence with the sounds of zippers, ratchets and backpacks, we got ready. We took in the scene for one more second before splitting the air with the slap of a gloved high-five, and dropped in. Diving in like a pair of speedboats, we rode so fast there wasn’t even time for a face shot. We were seriously hauling ass, building speed through the steep and wide-open untouched powder, the snow shooting up behind us in giant rooster tails. It was obvious what we’d missed in all our disjointed efforts to get gnarly air time the day before—our boards were still on the ground, and it felt just like flying.