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All lined up

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All lined up

An early winter tour of Skyline Divide

By Ian Ferguson  |  Photos by Orion Moonie

No matter where you live, the first winter storm is usually a tease. With no base layer to build upon, the options for good skiing are limited and even deep snows are usually wet.

Occasionally, however, things line up just right.

A cold bank of moisture rolled over the North Cascades November 2. It poured all day and night in Bellingham, but few people in town knew where the freezing level was in the mountains because the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) website wasn’t yet running for the season. Any foray seeking deep snow turns would be a gamble.

Some friends backed out the night before because of the uncertainty, so I called Casey Bateman and he invited me to join his WWU Geology friends on a tour to Skyline Divide. I was stoked to explore a place I’d heard of but never been.

We ditched Casey’s car at 6:30 and rode in Moonie’s Tacoma. Sean followed in his Subaru with Heidi, Greg and Peter. Old Crow Medicine Show and Bob Dylan kept us awake as Moonie maneuvered up the switchbacks of FS Road 37.

We stopped 500 yards shy of the trail head where the snow was about eight inches deep and suited up, amazed at the depth and lightness of the snow. We skinned up the road to the trail head.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 6.22.46 PMAs we got higher, the snow got deeper and the rising sun lit the snowy tops of the trees. A mile up the trail, Moonie was well ahead and the others were well behind me. I stopped for a minute, let my breathing settle and looked around at the snow-laden Douglas firs. The silence was absolute – no breeze, no brook, no birdcalls. No distant whir of motors, no hum of electricity, no din of industry – just a muffled lack of sound completely impossible in any urban setting.

The distant laughter of the approaching group broke my trance. We crested the ridge breaking tracks through three feet of cold fluff. With various expressions amid incoherent yelps and whoops of delight, we voiced approval.

“This snow is perfect!”

It was deep and light. Wind-skidded clouds cast intermittent shadows over the landscape. We peered out at a white bowl with no tracks and made plans for our first runs of the day.

I watched Casey, Sean and Heidi pick out lines down through the trees one by one. Then I went, traversing to fresh snow and swooping into the fall line. I turned lightly at first, then with increasing force into beautifully forgiving powder. I rode out the bottom of the slope grinning.

We passed around Greg’s Rainiers in their fancy winter cans and ate lunch in the sunshine before moving on to another, larger bowl, to the south. We headed for the far side, boot-packing up a steep spur. When we topped out, we had a two-stage line below us that followed the ridge down to the lip of a bowl. We shared turns on the ridge, then chose different entry points on the bowl, one by one. Sean aired off a rocky outcropping, and it looked so fun we all lapped the line again.

The snow was stable. Nothing propagated more than a few feet, even on hard cuts on 40-degree slopes.

After our two-stage line, we skied down to a creek bed, then transitioned for the skin up a gully to the ridge. On the way up, Sean noticed the gully was more filled in than anywhere else.

“We should ski this,” he said.

Dark clouds were piling up to the east, and the light was starting to fade. Heidi, Greg, Peter and Moonie decided to skin back to ski the first bowl, arguing that another lap here might put us back to the cars after dark.

Sean negotiated, saying we’d catch up in the other bowl. We transitioned quickly. Sean descended first, whooping, on the deepest run of the day. I was next – face shots the whole 500 feet down. Then Casey. At the bottom we cheered and transitioned as fast as we could, feeling like we’d gotten away with something.

We caught up with the other guys, who had skied a nice line in the first bowl, and we all got back to the cars as dark descended and light snow began to fall. It was a promising way to start the winter. x