Journey to Mysterious Mt Baker
It didn’t need to be a full-on powder day for me to recognise Mt Baker as a hidden gem in a world of powder options. I arrived on one of the busiest days of the season, with foggy, overcast skies, and several days since fresh powder had fallen. However, these conditions didn’t detract from the fact that Mt Baker had (and often has) the deepest snow base in the world.
I was initially drawn to Mt Baker, by one of my heliski operator counterparts, Tim. He’d road-tripped down from Canada one year and couldn’t stop raving about it. An avid heliboarder who raves about a resort. Ok, worth checking out. So when I had the chance to celebrate Christmas 2012 in Seattle, (prior to my own Heliski season), I felt compelled to explore. Although there are many formidable alternatives (Crystal, Alpental etc), I just had to see what the resort that held the world record for the greatest recorded snowfall in one season: 1,140 inches (95.0 ft; 29.0 m) during 1998-99, could offer me.
I soon came to realise that ‘Baker’ as it’s known to locals, is really not much more than a ski hill. However, it’s not just any ski hill. The ski area is situated in a National Park, and as such there is no base accommodation. There are cabins for private rental scattered on the road up from the nearest city, Bellingham. So, as a solo traveller, I soon discovered that the trip viability depended on me obtaining a reservation at one of the two B&Bs in the nearest town of ‘Glacier’. I was praying that the one with good trip advisor ratings (‘The Winter Creek B&B’, as opposed to the alternative whose were terrible), would have a vacancy. I was in luck, a small single room became available at Winter Creek. So, I set off from Seattle in my rental AWD car, with a post-Christmas full belly.
When I ski a new resort, especially if I only have a short time, I always like to have an ‘in’, i.e. a local to show me around the hill. In the case of Mt Baker, the local was really needed because so much of what it means to properly ski Mt Baker is actually the side country (some call it slack country), i.e. the lift accessed off-piste where you have to skin (climb on touring skis with skins and carrying avalanche safety gear), back up into resort again. So, my ‘in’ was a young, enthusiastic, powder skiing college student called Jason, who had spent most of his youth exploring the back and side country of the Mt Baker area. Jason was very knowledgeable about snow and avalanche conditions, and very accommodating of my rusty skinning skills, he does some part time guide assisting on the side. He was well on his way to his dream of becoming a Heliski guide. I told him to finish his physics degree first, it might come in handy one day. But we also chatted about the Heliski industry and the career paths of Heliski guides I know.
Jason advised me to rent some touring gear (it was my first day of the season, I hadn’t factored in I’d be hiking out of bounds, so hadn’t brought mine). However, I managed to get a good quality setup from Aaron and the friendly staff at the conveniently located Glacier Ski Shop. It had very interesting bathroom decorations, I noted.
As we took the first slow quad lift up from the base, Jason explained to me about the Mt Baker terrain. Mt Baker ski area is surrounded by Mt Baker, and Mt Shuksan, mountains, all of which are skiable, I am told. This huge collosis of rock, makes it a weather trap, enabling it to break the snowfall records. ‘In fact’ Jason proudly told me, ‘An overcast day at Baker is usually as good as it gets’. I’d rather it be snowing, than just overcast, I thought to myself.
Jason firstly took me on a few resort runs (the chairs aren’t named, just numbered funnily enough), and I was immediately impressed with the size and scope of the terrain. There were steeps (I mean properly steep ‘no fall zones’) like the Canyon, not far from the lifts. I also took note of the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, and impeccable powder snow base. Having skied at all of the notable resorts in BC Canada, Colorado and Utah, (and with Squaw Valley as my recently adopted US home base), I was really quite surprised that Mt Baker wasn’t more well known or talked about on North American soil. It seemed to be off the beaten track by all but the locals. I gather this is as a result of being in a National Park without commercial development, rather than because of the quality or size of the area.
After skiing those warm up runs, Jason pointed out our side country options, given the weather and snowpack stability. Mt Baker is sadly known also to have had it’s fair share of disasters, owing to the amazingly tempting off piste, mentioned earlier. We decided on a few runs down to Swift Creek. ‘It’ll be just like a heli run Hayley’, Jason told me to coerce me. Well, he was right. Definitely nice, powdery, minimally tracked and just like a couple of pitches of a shin deep powdery Heliski run. Only a 25min walk up out of the bottom back into the resort. And so, we did that again.
As the day ended, whilst we were taking a couple more inbound runs, I reflected on Mt Baker and where I felt it’s status lay in the world of the more renowned resorts. Well, it sure had the steeps off the lifts like Kicking Horse and Squaw Valley have, it had the powder snow to skier ratio that was off the scale positively (if you compare to Alta or Jackson Hole), and the almost quaint, unassuming nature of the skiers and staff that I’d seen at Revelstoke, and smaller European resorts like Bormio or Flaine. Sure Mt Baker will never be a Whistler, a Vail, a Val D’Isere, or a Zermatt. But Mt Baker will always be ‘our mountain’, as Jason, and my Seattle buddies referred to it. Thank you Tim for the inspiration to visit Mt Baker, to Jason for a great day out, and to Mt Baker for a wonderful first day of my ski season. I'll be back...