by Pat Kennedy & r & Every skier and boarder knows they're at the mercy of the snow gods, and last year, those gods frowned on the Inland Northwest. Sure, you could get in some decent days if you paid close attention, but it has to go down as one of the toughest years ever. Good things come to those who are forced to wait, and this season is already starting out well. Keep your fingers crossed, because it looks like it could be our turn to get dumped on.
This is the story of how a group of friends, united by an obsession with fresh powder, stayed after it all season long -- never giving up on the possibility that snow might just be around that next weekend. Our story begins last December, when we were supposed to be covered in snow -- but as we all know, we were not. Ben and Ann Finch are on their way back from Snoqualmie Pass, where the coverage was a little less pathetic.
Driving through central Washington to Spokane sucks. It's flat farmland that's only interesting for the first five miles. After arriving home late, unpacking and getting ready for work at 4 am, Ann checked the phone messages and discovered that their boss was is need of bail money. Finch listened to the message from his employer of 11 years and knew his employment was now temporary at best. As they learned later, their boss had assaulted his wife over the weekend and was in jail.
"I can't bail him out! Furthermore, why would I bail his dumb ass out for doing something that stupid!" exclaimed Finch.
The next messages on the answering machine were from employees, a bail bondsman and his manager, all giving details and asking questions that neither Finch nor Ann could believe. Finch and Ann always had reservations about working for the same employer, and now those fears were being validated.
A few days pass, their boss is bailed, only to violate the conditions of his release and land back in jail for more than a month. As the divorce played out, winter deteriorated and just skipped Washington all together. No snow, maybe no job. Nice.
Late January 2005 & r & One advantage of residing in Eastern Washington is the choice of two different climates to choose from. When western Washington is rained out, sometimes Idaho and Montana backcountry are getting the goods since their mountain ranges are further inland and cooler. A few systems had pounded Hoodoo Pass along the Idaho-Montana border in the last week, making a backcountry trip possible.
So a crew of Neil Green, Ben Finch and Thad Jones came together and managed a break away from the blue-collar grind for an outstanding day in the backcountry. The rally towards the top found Finch pegging his newly paid-off 1997 600cc snowmobile up a logging road covered with 10 inches of fresh on top of a settled base from two recent systems. The north-facing terrain was sick, with 13 inches of fresh and not a sign of human existence other than the tracks left by the three riders. At the end of the day, the three met at the trucks, Neil and Finch parted ways with Thad and they were all stoked to eke out such a good day in, bad year.
An hour away from home, the snowmobile trailer began pulling to the right on a perfectly smooth section of black ice, sending Finch's small SUV and snowmobile straight off the highway. Finch and Neil had enough time to look at each other and exchange stunned expressions that conveyed something like "This really sucks ... We're gonna die!"
The sound of a gurgling creek was the first thing Finch heard, quickly followed by, "Are you OK?" from Neil. The SUV was on its side, only partially in a creek bed thanks to the trailer and snowmobile being half submerged and wedged into the drainage.
"What door do you want to go out of?" asked Finch, immediately realizing the question was stupid, considering the vehicle was on its side and only the driver had the option to exit.
Finch climbed out of the vehicle and stayed perched on the front quarter panel looking around for help. He saw no one around, but a familiar sound caught his ear -- it was the sound of tires spinning out of control with no traction. As he looked up towards the highway, he saw in horror a double-trailer semi-truck performing the exact same spinning maneuver they had just completed.
"Shit! We survived this only to be pasted by 35,000 tons of Kenworth!" Finch thought. Neil was in a worse situation, still inside the vehicle and powerless to escape or do anything other than watch the giant mass of steel heading their way. From his spot by the creek, the semi performed a graceful, 180-degree spin, bypassing Finch and Neil, and instead impacting with the median, causing a shower of sparks and trailer parts to spray across the highway.
March 2005 & r & Many weeks pass; nothing resembling snow falls from the sky. Most resorts in Washington and the Northwest are closed or barely open with patches of snow trying to make the best of the worst year in anyone's memory. Mountain temperatures maintain a balmy 42-degree average, and any precipitation arrives as rain.
One sunny, 62-degree day in early March, Finch and Ann hear a knock at the door and find a goon hired by their employer, claiming to be the new manager at work. He calmly explains that his first task is to fire Finch and Ann for no particular reason.
April 2005 & r & By this late in the season, most everyone has moved on. Talk of "next year" dominates the floors of local ski shops. People are playing soccer and trying to forget. A few, however, know hope still flickers. Every April, it's fairly typical that a spring system or two will grace the Northwest. When that happened, Finch went to work, spending the next few days turning wrenches, frantically replacing tie rods, steering rods, skis, handlebar, throttle, suspension and fairing on his wrecked snowmobile. During breaks from repairs, he finds out that riders Stacy Thomas and Nic Jonas are back from Tahoe and stoked to head into the backcountry of Idaho and Montana. They'd either get skunked one more time, or salvage the season. Should they trade a whole weekend on the chance?
Five days later, the trio is on the road at 6 am, heading toward the best turns Finch will have all year.
April 13, 2005, 8 am & r & After 17 miles of forest road driving, they arrived at the snowline, where they found four inches of wet new snow. They quickly unloaded the gear from the damaged SUV (using the doors that still functioned) and onto the gear sled to be towed behind the snowmobile.
Stacy and Finch knew what to expect over the next nine miles, and it was all work. Nic hadn't been backcountry with this set up before, and he was expecting an easy trip in on the back of the gear sled, just kicking back on all the equipment. After a few miles of negotiating two-foot deep washboards and hoopties, they stopped for a break. Stacy had been towing behind, and Nic was riding the gear sled. Both were doing fine, but Nic expressed some surprise at how hard it was.
They checked the gear and were off again, this time gaining more elevation. At 5,000 feet, the conditions transformed into a winter playground, with eight inches of fresh snow to smooth out the terrain. The trio was making good progress, staying planed out on top of the new snow in spite of the 500-pound load it was dragging up the mountain road. Finch glanced over his shoulder to check on Nic, who was hanging on with both hands and keeping his center of gravity low, seeming to have a good time. Stacy was taking full advantage of the fresh lines off the road, especially the banked walls with perfect wind lips.
Finch threw horns and pegged the throttle to the bar, and he held it there. All at once the snowmobile started to react differently. It was almost weightless, more like flying. As Finch gave the slightest shift in weight to the right, the machine dove in that direction with grace and agility. The throttle stayed pegged almost constantly for the next few minutes, and the trio blasted through drifts with a solid aggressive charge up the last push, which was becoming steep and technical.
All at once Finch realized something was wrong; he must have left the road at some point. They came to a stop a half-mile off the road, three-quarters of the way up a hillside. Nic dove off the gear sled, clutching his thighs and screaming about crabs.
"What the hell do you mean by crabs?" asked a partially deafened Finch. Still yelling and locked in a hunched-over position, Nic looked up and cried, "CRAMPS, dammit, CRAMPS!"
The last six miles had been the hardest on Nic, who was wearing a 40-pound backpack. He had been screaming for Finch to stop most of the way, but Finch couldn't hear him. His thighs had locked up and were useless for anything except delivering the sensation of searing pain to his brain. When partially recovered and again able to speak in whole sentences, Nic blurted, "Holy shit! That's a lot more work than I expected. We were airborne half the time! I can't believe this sled held together."
Finch exchanged a quick smirk with Stacy and casually claimed, "I couldn't stop or we would have gotten stuck, Man. Sorry!"
As the sliding convoy neared the road, it began snowing heavily. Two minutes and 700 vertical feet
later, the three riders arrived at Hoodoo Pass, covered with nine inches of new snow. They quickly looked around and the group decided to take one lap for fun and then set up camp.
Before leaving for the lap, a group of snowmobilers rallied up the pass and directly over to Nic, Stacy and Finch. "Howdy. How y'all doing?" asked one of the sled necks. The hike was postponed and the two groups took a break to converse about the snow conditions and stability.
As soon as the snowmobilers left, Stacy commented on how nice they were. "They're from Montana. That's why," explained Finch.
Nic asked, "So you're saying people from Idaho are mean?"
"No, I'm saying people from Montana are cool 'cause they're like Canadians, only with lots of guns," replied Finch.
The next 12 hours would deliver continual snow showers through the evening and into morning. As they awoke and dug out from the partially buried four-season tent, Nic discovered his pants to be frozen solid in a twisted mass. "What the hell am I supposed to do with these?"
Finch replied, "Yeah, it's better if you keep that in the bottom of your bag over night, even when it's wet."
"No way I'm gonna put that wet crap in my dry warm sleeping bag overnight!" replied Nic, who finally forced himself into his pants, and they thawed out quickly with the aid of hand warmers and steaming cocoa.
Soon thereafter Finch, Nic and Stacy loaded up the packs and were off in search of a rock band with nice spots for turns they spotted on the previous day's lap. They rotated breaking trail through 13 inches of new snow until summiting a semi-open ridgeline at 6,400 feet. The laps down involved fun sections of steep rock bands with good coverage, which then graduated into beautifully spaced trees that occasionally gave way to open fields of virgin snow that desperately needed fresh tracks.
Sooner than expected, the east-facing terrain they were on was darkening, and all three were surprised to see it was already 5 pm and time to head back to camp for some hot food and drinks.
As they approached camp, the snow showers ended quickly, and a slice of pale blue could be seen on the western horizon. As the three riders noticed the clearing, they were elated by the probability of their last day being sunny with more than a foot of fresh snow and miles of terrain there for the taking by anyone willing to make the hike.
After dinner, the moon rose above ridgeline and illuminated the forest in a silvery soft light that inspired the three to suit up and go for a night hike. As the trio hiked upward, they stopped in an open meadow at 6,100 feet, amazed at the sound of trees creaking in the cold gentle breeze, their branches weighted down under 14 inches of snow they could have used four months earlier.
Standing in that high mountain meadow at midnight with enough light from the moon to see miles across the valley, the snow gods were smiling. Perspectives changed and the worst season ever was replaced with the best winter camping trip in memory.
Daybreak came, and the light was hard to gauge from within the tent, but the barometer was reading the highest pressure since the beginning of the trip. As they emerged from the shelter, it was obvious that this day would be the best day of an already outstanding backcountry trip.
Pat Kennedy is a photographer whose work appears in The Inlander. During the ski season, he's usually on the slopes, cutting turns and taking pictures.
For more of our Winter Sports Guide coverage see the & lt;a href="http://www.inlander.com/inlandway/inlandway.php" & Arts and Culture & lt;/a & section.