Let it snow, let it snow, help me choose. With so many Inland Northwest ski areas to select from, and with this season's plentiful snowfall, your typical weekend skier may be a bit unsure about where exactly to go. So we thought it would be a good idea to ask around local ski shops, meet the most avid winter sports people around here, and then ask them about their preferences.
Marshall Powell, 24, was mentioned by the staff at Mountain Gear as one of the most devoted snowboarders in the area. Ask a 'boarder about his ultimate weekend and his eyes light up, especially if you spin an all-expenses-paid fantasy. Powell's ideal of a snowboarding getaway actually comes in two parts.
First he'd go to Mount Baker, a bit of a long trip from Spokane but a place he calls "probably one of the best free-ride mountains around. When it has good snow, it's hard to beat," he says. "I've only been there a couple of times, so that's why it really appeals to me to go there. It's got amazing backcountry, and it's simple. All the power up there is generated -- it doesn't even have power up there a lot of the time. It's a pretty cool place." With no fancy lodge or high-priced shops, Mount Baker represents the opposite of the corporate mentality -- which suits the snowboarding crowd just fine.
There are other reasons for Powell's attraction to Mount Baker, too. Its vertical drop is only from 5,100 feet to 3,500 feet, roughly, and the place is located at the end of a tortuous road 56 miles east of Bellingham, Wash. Once you get there, there are only 1,000 acres inbounds, though they're filled with plenty of chutes and gullies.
Oh, and it snows a little at Mount Baker, too: In the now-famous 1998-99 season, the skies dumped 95 feet of the white stuff. That's a world record for snowfall in one season at a single resort. (In January '99, they averaged 10 inches every day.) Lift tickets are $37 for adults on the weekends, $30 during the week.
Powell simply enjoys the atmosphere at Mount Baker: "The hemispheres and the half-pipes, when the snow is good, are just awesome. The crowd is good -- there are a lot of snowboarders, and everyone is really cool. There's a lot of people to ride with -- well, I don't want too many," he laughs, citing the typical snowboarder's love of solitude in the wilderness. Still, he enjoys camaraderie with other snowboarders and admits that a fair amount of that can be had closer to home: "When you just go up in the chair with somebody, you talk, and maybe you do a couple of runs with them. For example, I rode Schweitzer the last three days, and I probably rode with 15 different people, and I'd never met any of them before," he says.
Powell can get in some nearly ideal runs around here, too. For him, it's perfection when the snowboarding is "fast and really flows well -- like, I'm always looking for the trees and to make different turns. When you get tight in the trees and it flows really well -- you don't have to stop top to bottom and you don't have to change your line, but just stay on your line and it's really fast and soft. At Schweitzer today, I was probably making four- or five-minute runs."
Powell isn't especially wary, either, of going to a resort and skiing out of bounds. "Conditions right now are fine in the backcountry -- you just gotta be careful where you go," he explains. "Most of the time I'm in the backcountry, I'm in the trees anyway, because the wind doesn't mess it up and it's usually deeper."
In fact, Powell's focus is really on the backcountry and on an inventive way to get there. His main reason for putting Mount Baker on his wish list? "Because it's the closest place to North Cascades heli-skiing. That's the only place before you go up into Canada that has heli-skiing."
Snowboarding after being dropped off high on the slopes by a helicopter is something Powell hungers for more of. "I've only done heli-skiing in Utah, where it costs about $450 or $550, and they guarantee you 10,000 vertical feet, but I've heard really good things about the North Cascades," he says. "They're taking you up above the tree line, with long runs, and they'll drop you five or six times.
"But at Schweitzer, from the top of the quad to the bottom of the quad, that's 2,400 feet, so 10,000 feet isn't really a lot, when you think about it. And it all depends on avalanche conditions. If you go up and you like it, they'll drop you in the same spot, but usually they mix a variety of tree runs with something higher and deeper."
North Cascade Heli-Skiing
Mazama, Wash. www.heliskiguide.com
Sandpoint, Idaho www.Schweitzer.com
Unadulterated Nature -- Marlene Gemar is a downhill skier with a penchant for the backcountry. She has skied all over, both in and out of the well-known local resorts. But her heart is in the uncharted pathways of unadulterated nature.
"Ski areas are great if you're trying to increase your skills or get in a lot of runs," she says, but she still prefers the backcountry, "even though I can only get in about six runs, because you're climbing. It probably averages about 40 minutes of climbing for every 20-minute run." A lot of that time is taken up by having to put climbing skins on her skis and then take them off again for the descent.
But the lure of the backcountry is strong, and the beauty of the downhill glides more than compensates for all the hassle. And Gemar has descended a lot of local mountains: "I backcountry ski up around Nelson, where I can get access right from the highway or else from a ski area. Or I'll go out from Lookout, sometimes out of Mullan -- and I've skied out of Schweitzer often," she explains.
When it comes to skiing in or out of bounds, Gemar prefers the latter. The two experiences, she says, "are very different. When you're inbounds, you're on groomer runs or moguls. It's not the soft powder, whereas when I'm out of bounds and in the backcountry, I'm climbing and I get loose and relaxed, and it's so good for your joints. On the moguls, with all those bumps, my body really takes a beating. Plus you're not up in the lift, freezing and getting all cold and stiff."
When asked about the last time she had an idyllic moment out in the backcountry, her response is immediate: "Last weekend. It was really cold, but it made for beautiful powder, and I made some beautiful tracks in one to three feet of powder up in the Selkirk Mountains. We usually look for runs that have an 800- or even 1,200-foot drop, but sometimes you can only find runs with a 4, 5, 600-foot drop."
Someone who's never experienced it might wonder whether the best backcountry moments are humbling or ego boosting. "It is fun to stand down at the bottom of an untracked slope and look back at your line, right there, carved in the snow. So that part of it is a bit of an ego-boost -- unless you've tumbled a bit," she says, laughing. "But it is beautiful if you have matched up your line with your ski buddy's. It's just so pristine and beautiful and quiet."
So where exactly does Gemar go when she goes into the wild? "I'd have to kill you if I gave you all my secrets," she laughs. "But my favorite area, just because you can get in long runs and get out into very beautiful and remote areas, is British Columbia. I do backcountry trips up there, sometimes for a week, staying in a lodge or hut. Rogers Pass, for example, out of Golden, B.C., is a very beautiful area."
But when pressed to name one particular fantasy ski weekend, Gemar finally admits to a favorite: "Nelson B.C., for just a weekend, because it's got it all: a downtown core for the evenings, great restaurants and little breakfast nooks. It has great out-of-bounds skiing, and at Whitewater, really good inbounds skiing."
Nelson, British Columbia
and Winter Resort
then search for 'Rogers Pass'
Wallace, Idaho www.skilookout.com (208-744-1301)
Aesthetic Impact -- Jerry O'Neill, an avid cross country skier, prefers practicing his brand of winter sports closer to home. In fact, when contacted for this article, he had "just come in from Nordic skiing in Riverside State Park. Somebody told me they had just groomed it, so I threw my skis in the car -- I teach out at the Falls -- and I went up right behind the Bowl and Pitcher, strapped on my skis, and I flowed about five miles on this track, right alongside the river, and then came back. What a wonderful thing to have right next to the city. "So I don't have to go to the Methow -- I can find great skiing right around here. And the whole time I was out, I saw one other person. That was pretty lucky."
Yet as good as the local cross country skiing conditions may be, O'Neill is direct in naming his ideal spot for a weekend of Nordic: "I would go to the Methow," he says. "There are a whole series of trails over there. At Mount Spokane, the terrain tends to be either uphill or downhill. It's an excellent local place, but the average beginner finds it much more difficult. In the Methow, you have a lot flatter terrain. Over in the Methow, there are just miles and miles of trails where you can just glide forever. So, particularly if you're skate-skiing, you have the opportunity to get out into these long, rolling areas and to develop a rhythm. Also, it's beautiful, and it's not that far away -- it's about four hours."
For O'Neill, it's not just the beauty of the area around Winthrop, Wash., that is the attraction -- it's also the locals' knowledgeability. "There's a lot of people over there who can tell you where to ski -- just jump on the trail system and take off," he says. "There are several Olympic skiers over there, and plenty of people you can take lessons from. Everybody in town knows where the trails are and where you can access them. You can call any motel in the Winthrop area and they'll get you set up. Personally, I would take both my classic and my skate skis. But always check with people on snow conditions first."
For an upscale experience, O'Neill recommends the Sun Mountain Lodge: "The only problem is, it gets inundated with people from Seattle. Some people might say it's pricey, but then you can get onto the trails right from outside the lodge."
While skiing cross country outside Winthrop, O'Neill has experienced his own kind of Rocky Mountain High, even in Eastern Washington. "The wonderful thing is, you're just gliding along, and you're looking down at the Methow, and there are these miles and miles of trails going along, and it's a real high," he says. "It's a sunny day, it's crisp, there are those little creeks... I have used running snowshoes -- it ain't the same. You develop a rhythm and a kind of flow in it, and it becomes a very aesthetic and artistic thing."
Yet while he emphasizes that the Methow Valley is his idea of Nordic nirvana, O'Neill likes the convenience and accessibility of a nearer venue like Mount Spokane. After all, instead of paying $7 or more every time they go out on a trail near Winthrop, skiers can plunk down $42 for a SnoPass and a season's worth of unlimited cross country action. Furthermore, O'Neill can have the same kind of uplifting experience around here as on any Nordic trails that are a day trip away. "When I go up to Mount Spokane," he says, "I try to be up on the mountain, generally, by 8 o'clock, because I want to be the first tracks on the mountain. We skied at Mount Spokane a couple of weeks ago, and we were the first people up in the morning, and we came up over the hill, and there was this whole alpenglow, and the forest had turned pink and just the aesthetic impact from it is shocking. So I don't have to go to the Methow -- I can find great skiing right around here."
Sometimes your ultimate ski adventure is closer than you think. Whether your passion is snowboarding, backcountry skiing or Nordic, the next few weeks of this snow-filled winter might be your best time for an ultimate adventure in the
Inland Northwest's snowy playgrounds. n
Riverside State Park
9711 W. Charles Rd., Nine Mile Falls, Wash. www.riversidestatepark.org (465-5064)
29500 N. Mount Spokane Park Dr., Mead, Wash. www.mtspokane.com (238-2220)
Sun Mountain Lodge
Methow Valley Sport Trails Association
Methow Valley and Twisp, Wash.
methow.com and www.twispinfo.com (509-997-2926)
Publication date: 1/15/04