It has been an interesting week. I can safely say that until approximately 7:40pm on Sunday evening when waiting at the border to cross back into Canada from Washington, I had been having the best ski weekend of my life.
On Thursday night last week I missioned down to Bellingham, WA, to stay with a friend and do some backcountry skiing at Baker for three days. Every day we hiked and skied untracked pow lines off the Shuksan arm, down Elf Chutes and over toward Table Mountain. Growing up in the Rockies, I'm used to much different terrain than Mt. Baker has to offer. At Lake Louise, when you are Maching at high speeds down a steep line, you're thinking about how to avoid rocks that cross your path, not how to avoid the huge amounts of sluff chasing after you like it does on Baker's Alaska-like backcountry faces.
While the excitement you experience when standing at the top of a mountain waiting to shred down it is unbelievable, so is the fear and the million thoughts that race through your head as you contemplate what to do. It is one thing to look up at a prospective ski line and say "Hey, I can do that, I'll just drop down over that roller onto the steep bit, shred some huge arcing turns then boot it over to my safe spot." At the top of the line, however, especially at Baker, you can no longer see where you were planning to go. It is a whole different world up there, and from that standpoint it looks like the earth has dropped away from beneath your feet and once you ski your first turns you will disappear into oblivion. From this vantage point, looking down backcountry lines at Baker you think that everything below you is a cliff. At least, that's the case in places like the Rockies or the Coastal mountain range when you can't see what happens after the terrain you're on drops off. It is this fear of the unknown that makes my stomach jump into my throat right before I begin my line.
The hike up is a good time to think about your line. For me, I realized that unless I followed the boys, I would automatically choose a more mellow line even though I know I can ski the crazier chutes and spines like they were doing. I decided that listening to them was best- and turned my skiing up a notch and skied some things I hadn't imagined I was able to do, especially looking up at at where I came from after the fact.
The point is, there are certain risks that you need to take in the backcountry in terms of challenging yourself and making the hour-long uphill bootpack worth it, but you also need to carefully plan a safe route that takes into account the avalanche conditions and the safety of everyone in the group. Backcountry skiing is an amazing experience that involves a lot of thought, planning, experience, and knowledge. Take your RAC or Level 1 Avy course at the very least, and don't be stupid.
The hike up:
Troy, not wanting to spend much time under the monster cornice:
Kevan shredding down the lower part of Elf Chutes:
Well, this weekend was for you, Teddy Knape, and I'll be eating a ketchup smothered hot dog followed by a pepsi slurpee in your memory tonight. All my lines have been and will be dedicated to you, my dear.