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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Cold spring means winter conditions continue to dominate high-country recreation

UPDATED: Mon., June 6, 2022

A recent skiing excursion to the North Idaho Selkirks emphasized an important fact: Winter is still very much the name of the game in the high country.

Early on May 28, Brett Barna and I met at Priest River with our skis and some climbing gear with vague hopes of summiting Chimney Rock. An unsettled weather forecast – rain and some snow up on the 7,000-plus-foot-crest – meant our expectations for climbing were low, but we figured if nothing else we’d get a good ski.

Barna has made a tradition of skiing into and climbing Chimney Rock every Memorial Day. On a normal year, he said, it was possible to drive to within 1 of 1 1/2 miles of the summer trailhead. On dry years, such as 2021, he made it all the way to the trailhead and then had to hike a mile or more before finding snow.

This year, we knew it would be different. With a cold and wet spring, winter has lingered in the high country and we guessed we’d at least have to double the amount of road skiing we’d need to do.

We were right.

After driving 6 1/2 miles up Hunt Creek Road No. 24 – and punching and digging our way through one particularly large patch of snow and mud – we came to impassable snow and started skiing. The snow never disappeared and nearly 6 miles later we arrived at Chimney Rock. The weather held and we climbed the iconic North Idaho peak with just a few droplets of rain peppering us.

After descending, we skied back to the truck. The snow, which was wet and heavy, didn’t make for great skiing, but the entire day was enjoyable, particularly sneaking a climb in on some of Idaho’s alpine granite, in a setting reminiscent of the Canadian Bugaboos. On the ski back, we saw visible signs of melting, at one point coming to a bare patch of ground that hadn’t been there when we skied in.

While the snow is melting and warmer weather this past week only increased the melt, recreationists must be prepared for variable conditions when going into the mountains. Snow measuring sites in the Selkirks reported 130% of the normal snow pack, a wonderful and needed fact for a drought-afflicted West, but one that must be considered when recreating. Throughout Washington, it’s a similar story with snowpack measurements clocking in well over 100% for this time of year for most of the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That was driven home two days after our trip when the Leavenworth Climbing Rangers warned that visitors in the Enchantments in the Cascades should be “prepared for snow travel for the next several weeks.” In fact, over Memorial Day weekend rangers had to rescue two stranded hikers.

“Do not come here to do the through-hike expecting summer conditions until well into the summer months. In the middle of the Core, rangers came across two lost hikers in whiteout conditions, without a map, no method of boiling water, soaked shoes and cotton pants,” according to the rangers’ statement. “The individuals had to spend an unexpected night out supported by two rangers.”

By all means, get out and enjoy. It’s one of the unique pleasures of living where we do, sneaking in turns late into the spring and summer and combining multiple outdoor sports. Just do so thoughtfully.

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