State Route 542 slips so quietly into the Mt. Baker National Forest, I expect to find Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs showing the way to the 10,781-foot summit. As farms disappear, the trees sprout suddenly, crowding the road like observers at a parade. The subtle 17-mile climb, shared by just a few other cars in the know, leads to Mt. Baker Ski Area, the truest ski hill in Washington, if not all of North America.
What makes Baker so authentic? Could be the lack of high speed quad chairs roaring “vert-crazed” skiers to the summit, or perhaps it’s the lifts themselves, just #1-8 setting their own pace over the glades, bowls and canyons.
And then there’s the snow. Baker received 1,140 inches of snow in 1998, the most recorded in a single place on Earth. The area earned distinction as the ski area that had to close because of too much snow. Seemed the chairs were scraping the ground. In 2008, Baker received 12 feet of powdery crystals in a single week!
But what really sets Baker apart is the “Vibe.” Make the 3-hour trek from Seattle and you time-warp through the arboreal portal into a valley of vintage snow play where you’ll encounter determined snow hounds still foraging just as zealously at day’s end for the perfect route as at day’s beginning.
Hunting for runs is a common exercise at Baker. If you’re used to skiing a set of marked trails, where every hundred feet of glade run is titled, you’re apt to get confused at first. The ambiguity is intentional. “Our general philosophy revolves around leaving the natural setting alone,” Baker representative Gwyn Howat explains, “So we cut no swaths off the hill. In fact someone this summer called me at the office because he wanted to show a friend the ski area but couldn’t figure out where it was.”
Baker has remained hard to figure since it’s beginning in 1953. Originally, the Mt. Baker Recreation Company formed to keep the Washington DOT from closing the road. A half-century later, the MBRC continues to make its own tracks. The lift towers, trail maps, even the website remain free of advertisements. The bars have no televisions, the common areas offer no video games. There aren’t even public utilities, as all electricity and water is generated from a local infrastructure.
But it’s the riding, downhill and telemark skiing that’s really off the grid. Trails form where you find them, often requiring entrance via a chute or a little (to large) drop-in. A typical run might start out in a snowfield, detour left onto a creek bed, slice through some tight tree line, then open up upon a steep slope of bumps, all before you’ve gathered your bearings. Usually, the best way to describe the last run is to suggest doing it once more, though retracing your exact tracks is highly unlikely.
The tracks tend to be wide as Baker remains a mecca for snowboarders, who account for about 75% of visitors on any given day. Howat, whose family has been a part of Baker for forty years, says the reasons are obvious.
“We’ve always welcomed snowboarders, from the very beginning. And we get more snow [about 700”] annually than any other area in the US so there are huge snow dumps. The Mount Baker Legendary Banked Slalom, the oldest snowboard event in the world, is another reason.”
The Legendary Banked Slalom Weekend, February 11-13th, remains a mythical event on the North American snowboarder’s calendar, think wintertime Phish Weekend. Music, riding and no worries chill are fired up in the snow bowl to produce fine alpine alchemy.
Like any local secret, Baker takes some learning. The lifts don’t drop you off in typical stepladder fashion and there are certainly places for beginners to find trouble. But few hills in the world can equal the feeling of utter escape and independent exaltation while remaining safely inside the ropes. Best just to think of Baker as a gingerbread mountain, where it’s your privilege to carve off a nibble.
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