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Uphill battle


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Uphill Battle

An indoor enthusiast ventures into the dreaded outdoors on snowshoes

Story and photos by Steve Guntli

7:30 a.m.: My wife Nicole attempts to wake me up. At 7:30 a.m. On a Sunday. In these situations I become devout, quoting whatever real-sounding scripture I can conjure that might buy me a few more minutes of sleep. “Yea, for verily the Lord said that Sunday was a day of rest, and restliness is next to godliness, and verily thou shalt hit thine snooze button, which is holiest amongst all buttons, and thou shalt sleep for another 15 to 20 minutes.”

Nicole the Philistine doesn’t buy it and tells me to hurry up; we’ve got to get the snowshoes into the car if we’re going to meet our friends by 9 a.m. She reminds me that this trip was my idea in the first place, that I’d been promising to spend more time outdoors, that we’d been living here for three years and had only been up to Mt. Baker once. I grumble and climb out of bed.

8 a.m.: I’m awake and semi-conscious, slurping down cereal and trying to remember why I pitched this story idea in the first place. It seems much more in keeping with my skill set to write a hard-hitting expose about playing “Donkey Kong” in my underwear. I’m wondering if I can convince Nicole that’s actually what the article is supposed to be about. No dice. I’m being particularly sulky, so Nicole pulls out the big guns: if I go on this snowshoeing trip, we will stop at The North Fork Beer Shrine on the way home. I finish my Corn Pops and get ready to go.

9 a.m.: We meet up with our friends and divvy up driving duties. Tim helpfully provides directions to Mt. Baker (turn right and keep going) and we cut through the thick Bellingham fog on our way to what must surely be a snowy bounty.

9:30 a.m.: We pass the beer shrine, and I almost drive the car into a ditch. It’s difficult to keep your eyes on the road when you have your nose pressed to the driver-side window glass like a kid drooling on a candy store window.

10 a.m.: We’re getting close to the Mt. Baker Ski Area, and there’s still no snow. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen trees so green, covered in moss that dangles from their branches. I jokingly (not jokingly) suggest that the trip is off; we should go get beer and pizza now.

10:30 a.m.: We arrive at the Heather Meadows parking lot. Snow is there after all, thin and muddy though it may be. The parking lot is almost completely empty, a fact I am grateful for a few minutes later when I attempt to pull my snow pants up over my heavy boots and stumble around on the pavement.

11 a.m.: All of us are geared up and ready to head up the mountain, and I’m suddenly struck with a case of snowshoe envy. Everyone else in the group is rocking some cutting edge shoes – futuristic diamond shapes with strong, solid bindings and little cheater bars installed on the heels to make hiking up steep slopes easier. Mine are a pair of hand-me-downs from the late ’80s that are only a few steps up the evolutionary ladder from tennis rackets. To make it worse, Nicole and I only have one set of poles, so we each take one and amble like 18th century dandies up the mountain. I vow two things before we set off on the hike: I’m never doing this again, and I’m going to buy new snowshoes.

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11:30 a.m.: I grudgingly admit that I’m starting to enjoy myself. The air is crisp and clean, and it’s a perfectly pleasant 50 degrees out. Despite having to stop every five minutes to re-tighten the straps of my snowshoes, I feel like I’m getting a good amount of exercise and it’s not entirely unpleasant. Even though my cohorts assure me this isn’t the highest quality snow, it’s all about the same to me, and I’m having a good time.

11:45 a.m.: My positive attitude dissipates when I see the hill we have to climb. Everyone else approaches the hill as a moderate challenge. In my mind, it’s a sheer 90-degree trek up a vertical, glassy surface with no handholds and a 100 percent probability of death. I try and fail to build my strength through the power of whining.

11:50 a.m.: About midway up the slope, I realize I can stop at any time to take photos, and no one will realize I’m actually out of breath and hideously out of shape. Just go ahead of me, guys. I’m a journalist. I’ve journalisty things to do.

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Noon: Finally, I make it to the top of the monster hill, and have a moment to catch my breath and drink some water. I’m relieved when Tim and Jill assure me that was the worst it gets.

12:30 p.m.: Our destination is actually in sight. We opt to stick to the trails rather than forge our own way up the steep slope to the summit. My legs are burning, and I’m still stopping frequently to tighten my bindings, but now I also have to chip awkwardly at the ice accumulating under my heels. My pole keeps falling apart, too.

1 p.m.: We finally arrive at Artist’s Point. I take a second to admire the view of gorgeous Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan and the verdant, fog-kissed valley stretching out below us. Then I flop over in the snow and refuse to stand up for another five minutes.

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1:30 p.m.: Rested, refreshed and fed on an essential feast of granola bars and cocoa, we strap our shoes back on and prepare to head back down. I’m feeling suddenly euphoric. I have energy to spare, and I can truly appreciate the grandeur of the view and the camaraderie I feel with my friends. Or maybe I’m just psyched about the beer and pizza. Let’s call it 50/50.

2 p.m.: The trip down is proving to be much faster than the trip up, mostly because we’re sliding down the steeper sections on our butts. John and Jill slide down first, and I achieve some fantastic speeds while riding down in their butt grooves. This goes all right until we reach the big monster slope. John veers off wildly and almost hits a tree. Jill frantically course-corrects to avoid following him. I can’t decide which route to take and go rogue, carving a third trail as I struggle to dig my snowshoes into the crumbling snow. I’m quite certain I hit about Mach 5 and got a little air before I was able to stop myself. I’m able to shake it off, and the rest of the walk down the slope is uneventful. By this point, I have more snow than feet in my shoes.

2:30 p.m.: We arrive back at the parking lot, and I learn to walk again. I’d gotten so used to Godzilla-stomping my way around the slopes that my normal stride feels anticlimactic. I’m soaked head to toe, sore and accumulating the beginnings of a sunburn, but feeling strangely accomplished. Warren Miller isn’t going to be making a short film about me anytime soon, but I’d set a goal and accomplished it with only minor physical injury. Besides, it made my wife happy.

3 p.m.: Beer. Pizza. Sweet manna from the heavens. This trip was totally worth it.   x