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Turns all year

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Turns all year

Who says you can’t ski in the summer?

By Sam Lozier

On a clear day, you can look east and see the perpetually snow-capped mountains of the Cascades. If you’ve lived here for a while, it’s easy to take them for granted – after all, they’re always there. In most of the lower 48 states, year-round snow is quite rare, and there’s a group of dedicated backcountry skiers and riders who turn all year (TAY), appreciating the snow regardless of the season.

I first became aware of “turns all year” about seven years ago as I was entering college in New England. Instead of studying, I spent time tracking the weather, looking for ski partners and planning fantasy trips to far-off places. Skiing wasn’t good that winter so when the season ended, I wasn’t ready to hang up the skis.

I spent most of that summer digging through the trip reports other skiers posted on online message boards. From the Alps to the Rockies to the Cascades, it looked like everyone in the world who wanted to ski still could, except for in New England. As summer ground on though, trip reports became less frequent. Snow melted and people moved on to other sports. Only one region was still skiing – the Pacific Northwest. I found the Turns All Year website (turns-all-year.com), salivated over the amount of snow the Cascades held through the summer and vowed to relocate there once I finished school. I was captivated at the idea that it was possible to ski all through the summer, especially in the sweltering humidity of a New England summer.

The goal of turns all year is to make turns at least one day in each month of the calendar year. As most ski areas close in April, this requires tenacity, creative thinking and willingness to hike for turns. First, you have to figure out where there’s snow (not always that easy), then you need a day off with good weather, and finally you have to convince yourself that hiking several miles over dry ground in August with skis on your back is somehow normal or rational.

A constant source of friendly debate amongst TAYers is, “What exactly counts as a ski day?” Since this is all in good fun and there’s no governing body overseeing the recordkeeping, a ski day can be whatever you say it is. I’ve set the bar low – ten turns or 100 vertical feet over at least partially snowcovered ground with skis on my feet (no boot skiing, sledding or snowlerblading) counts as a ski day.

My current streak started on September 30, 2009, in Stowe, Vermont. The national weather service had called for light snow at higher elevations starting late in the evening, so some like-minded friends and I packed up our camping gear and headed to higher elevations in the hopes of welcoming the first snow of the season. At 11 p.m., with barely an hour left in the month, we donned head lamps, clicked into our skis and, to the best of our ability, shussed some snowy wet grass at the top of the ski area. The following morning we “skied” again, clinching October, 2009 in the same trip. Since then, it hasn’t always been easy to keep the streak alive, but the quality of the snow has certainly increased.

The winter months are obviously the easiest, skiing is (for most skiers, anyway) the logical activity to be pursuing when the snow is flying and the days are short and cold. In the long summer months though, I’ve sometimes found that its only the goal of extending the streak that gets me out the door and up on the slope. Despite some disappointing snow, I’ve never regretted skiing though – the summer months usually find some strange way to reward the year-round skier.

In September 2010, for example, there was plenty of snow remaining around the Mt. Baker ski area, but it was heavily sun cupped (divots that form in the snow as it melts irregularly) making it a filling-rattling ski run. Several friends were with me, and we decided to hike several miles out to the Coleman Pinnacle where the snow looked smoother and the runs were longer. It was a sunny weekend day, and my shorts-and-T-shirts clad group got many a strange look from passing day hikers. The snow turned out to be no less sun cupped, but the location afforded spectacular views of Shuksan, Baker and the alpine meadows between the two. We skied several great runs on both side of the Pinnacle, following the sun as it warmed and softened the snow, but the highlight of the day was the large herd of mountain goats that ambled passed us while we ate our lunch, sprawled out on some rocks.

Last September, expecting a repeat of poor snow quality, but still eager to get out,  I talked two friends from Utah into climbing and skiing Mt. Baker. I didn’t have high hopes for the skiing, but just spending a bit of time on top in clear weather is rewarding enough to justify the climb. With low expectations, Ben, Tom and I set out for the summit of Mt. Baker from the Scott Paul Trail on the south side of the mountain. At first we found the sun cups and dirty snow that we expected, but as we climbed higher we were surprised to find that a thin layer of new snow had filled in all of the sun cups and smoothed the snow. What I’d written off as a token ski day turned out to be one of the best ski days since winter.

Driving home, we couldn’t help but gush at how surprised we were at the quality of the snow, how great the weather and how uncrowded the mountain was. The biggest take-away in my search to ski all year? The best days in the mountains have always come unexpectedly. X

Sam Lozier lives in the Mt. Baker area, where you can find him skiing, hiking, climbing, photographing and writing.