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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Nelson: Snow piling high at Mt. Baker

By John Nelson For The Spokesman-Review

The snowiest ski area in the world is ready to dish up the face shots during this La Niña winter.

Mt. Baker Ski Area in the northwest corner of Washington state is already off to an epic start on the year. As of January, Mt. Baker’s snowpack is well above average, and the National Weather Service is predicting continued La Niña conditions for the rest of winter.

“Hands down, on average, we get the most snow of any ski area in the world,” said Gwyn Howat, CEO of Mt. Baker Ski Area. The resort receives an astounding 663 inches of snow a year on average, and in the legendary 1998-99 season Mt. Baker received 1,140 inches, a world record.

Snow is just one of the reasons to visit this good-vibes resort, home to some of the best skiers and riders on the planet. You’ll also find challenging terrain, gorgeous views (if the storms ever stop) and easily accessible backcountry adventures in the North Cascades.

Mt. Baker offers one other significant drawing card this winter: It’s the only ski area on the west side of the state not requiring advance ticket sales in this COVID-19 season. While the resort is following an array of COVID-19 protocols this winter, Mt. Baker is still offering walk-up ticket sales.

So what’s the secret to Mt. Baker’s snowy success? The resort is situated in a geographical sweet spot for winter storms, Howat said.

Moisture-laden Pacific fronts hit the Washington Coast and are funneled into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they make a beeline toward 10,781-foot Mount Baker, the northernmost volcano in the state. As these wet storms are uplifted, they hit cooler air and the moisture turns to snow, dumping on the ski area, which is 10 miles to the north of the volcano.

As of late December, Mt. Baker Ski Area had a snowpack of about 100 inches – nearly three times what Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park was reporting.

We’re not talking feather-light Rocky Mountain powder here. But dumps of a foot or more seem to occur every few days throughout the winter.

It’s a good thing Mt. Baker receives so much snow because it’s one of the roughest, wildest ski areas you’ll visit. Tricky chutes, ravines and gigantic cliff faces are scattered around the resort, and the snow helps smooth out these features as the season progresses.

The roughness can be intimidating.

“The terrain is very different from a lot of traditional ski areas,” Howat said. “We have what’s called roll-over terrain – a lot of our steeps start out kind off mellow and then roll over into cliff lines (with) very technical nuances.”

If you want to ski the double-black diamond terrain at Mt. Baker, you might have to contend with a tight chute or a rugged drop into a tree-lined ravine.

“A lot of ski areas will cut a run, make it straight and take out all of the (obstacles),” Howat said. “We’ve left a lot of the natural terrain in the runs because that’s what we wanted.”

Because it’s so stormy so much of the time you also need to contend with low visibility, she added, making these features even more difficult to navigate.

“A lot of people at Baker ride this very low, powerful style,” Howat said. “You have to be able to absorb the terrain because often visibility is very tough.”

That translates into a crew of local skiers and snowboarders who can thrive in the difficult conditions that Baker dishes out.

“If you can ski or ride Baker, you can ski or ride anywhere in the world,” Howat said.

Out-of-bounds skiing is even more challenging. Mt. Baker’s backcountry policy allows skiers and snowboarders to leave the resort boundaries provided they have a transceiver, probe, shovel and partner, along with knowledge of their route, the current avalanche conditions and the weather forecast.

Not all of the terrain at Mt. Baker is difficult. The ski area has eight quad chair lifts scattered over two bases – White Salmon at 3,500 feet and Heather Meadows at 4,300 feet – and you’ll find lots of beginning and intermediate terrain scattered around both sides of the ski area.

And if you hit it on a clear day, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping views of 9,131-foot Mount Shuksan, one of the most beautiful peaks in the Pacific Northwest. The ski area is actually closer to Mount Shuksan than to its volcanic namesake.

Mt. Baker remains locally owned, which is refreshing in the age when large companies are buying up resorts in desirable markets, such as the Seattle area. Stevens Pass is now owned by Vail Resorts, and Crystal Mountain is owned by the Alterra Mountain Co.

“We understand the value of being locally owned and operated,” Howat said. Mt. Baker makes a point of using local vendors for food service and building repairs, she said, a connection that pays off with a loyal community following.

The ski area shares its parking with backcountry skiers and snowshoers who access the wilderness area near the Heather Meadows base. At the end of State Route 542, right next to the ski area, a large trailhead parking lot offers access to backcountry routes heading toward scenic Artist Point.

The climbing route follows an unplowed section of State Route 542, but don’t attempt it without good visibility and low avalanche danger. Check on conditions at Northwest Avalanche Center before heading out.

Skiers and snowboarders who want bigger challenges off of Artist Point head toward the Swift Creek drainage or the Blueberry Chutes, which fall off of Table Mountain into a wide basin near Heather Meadows. Again, don’t attempt these routes without a guide or partners, avalanche gear and knowledge of the routes and conditions.