Christmas Day I joined some friends for the finest powder runs of the season. The snow was deep, the fall line was steep and true. Best of all, we didn’t have to travel far.
For years I had heard stories about skiing the bluff that drops from High Drive to Hangman Creek, about 500 vertical feet below. Mountain biking across the steeply inclined meadows blazing with wildflowers, I’ve often imagined how sweet they could be buried in snow.
My father-in-law, John Peterson, may have been one of the first to drop from High Drive. Peterson, 77, founded Peterson Investment Management and grew up skiing Mount Spokane and the original Chewelah Peak ski area. He was a member of the Whitman College ski team that beat University of Washington in the national championship at Mount Rose, Nevada, in 1953.
“In the winter of ’48-’49, Lewis and Clark High School had a ski team,” he said. “We were getting ready for a race up in Rossland, B.C., and my buddy Jimmy Morris (now a retired Spokane insurance executive) and I decided we needed more practice, so we set up a slalom course off High Drive.”
John and Jimmy wore ankle-high, lace-up leather boots strapped to 220 cm wooden skis with non-releasable bear trap bindings. Supported by their bamboo poles, they sidestepped up and down the hill, packing a makeshift piste. For gates, the boys cut branches from pine trees and punched them into the snow.
“It wasn’t terribly elaborate and I don’t think we did very well, but we were determined,” Peterson said. “We set up enough course for about four gates. I don’t know why we didn’t go up to Mount Spokane, but there was good snow and we had a wonderful day skiing we’ve obviously remembered for a long time.”
Christmas Day 2008 dawned with 6 inches of powder on top of several feet that had fallen the week before. Early afternoon, my wife, Claire Peterson, and I rendezvoused at High Drive with Joel and Kristin Armstrong, Hollis Barnet, and Dan Shaffer.
Sixty years ago, John and Jimmy had to sidestep back to the top after a run. But we became indebted forever to Claire for driving the shuttle – Barnet’s big black four-door 4x4 pickup.
With a creek at the bottom and limited exit routes, it’s wise to make the attempt with someone who has done it before. Armstrong, a banker at Sterling Savings, had skied the High Drive bluff with his wife, Kristin, 17 years earlier – the last winter enough snow accumulated there to do it safely.
Skating across the road to the drop zone in full gear, I felt about as strange as drivers slowing down to check us out must have thought we looked. The only sidestepping we had to do was over a snowbank about 4 feet high.
The descent was comparable to the best powder skiing I’ve experienced from Colorado to Canada: bottomless turns, face shots and untouched lines. Barnet, a vice president at Garco Construction, shot video for posterity while we whooped and hollered our way down.
The group managed three round trips from High Drive to Highway 195 and back in two hours. By then daylight was fading and time to get ready for Christmas dinner was running short.
Skiing High Drive would be a wonderful holiday tradition. But history shows it’s a rare opportunity. If I never get another chance, years from now I’ll enjoy telling the story about my unforgettable Christmas gift.
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