The Birthday Tour: Washington Pass

Hey world, it’s me again. Today, I asked folks on Instagram what they wanted to read in a blog post and the results are suggesting that folks want more trip reports, some climbing stories, a few skiing stories and lots of pretty pictures.

My goal here is to write stuff you actually want to read. So here we go: a trip report.

It’s my birthday and I’ll ski in a dress if I want to

Yesterday, Amber and I skied the Birthday Tour at Washington Pass. In case you’re not a loyal blog follower (yet) reading this the moment that I post, yesterday was Thursday, April 25. On Monday this week, I turned 26 and it only seemed fitting that I ski the birthday tour in my birthday party dress. Dress skiing on my birthday is becoming a tradition, since last year, I skied Shuksan in a dress and it was totally awesome. But, as spring weather would have it, Monday was rainy so Tim and I climbed a few pitches in my backyard until it rained and ate cake when we couldn’t climb anymore. Not a bad plan B.

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Birthday Tourista!

The Birthday Tour

On Wednesday, Amber and I climbed Outer Space in Leavenworth. Knowing that the Birthday Tour would only take us a half-day-ish to ski and trying to time our corn descents properly, we knew that we could start a little later than a usual mountain outing. Our goal start time was 9:30am. But with the long drive from Leavenworth, coffee stops, trailhead breakfast, etc. we actually started our day at 10:30 from the Blue Lake trailhead. And then I had a mini panic 5 minutes after we left the car about whether or not I had locked the doors. So actually, actually, we started closer to 10:45.

Not wanting to burn much more daylight, we skinned at a pace that precluded conversation. There were several skin tracks through the forest that lead us to the clearing in the trees beneath Blue Lake. We might have ended up a bit low when we came out of the trees, because we skinned on some kinda steep, kinda icy, kinda precarious snow. But it ultimately leveled out and was fine.

Amber Pro Tip: An alternative to the Blue Lake approach would be to park at the Hairpin Turn on Highway 20 and boot up some steep snow on the south side of South Early Winter Spire. This would take some navigation skills out of the day; eliminate the need to hitchhike back to our car (given that we had one vehicle); and shorten the tour. You might want crampons for this option, however. Snow on north-facing slopes was still firm at 3pm.

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Amber climbing the bootpack up to the Blue Lake cornice.

We arrived beneath the Blue Lake cornice just after 12. Between the two of us, Amber had a pair of crampons and I had an ice axe. I did not remove my ice axe from my backpack because the bootpack was so established that I did not feel the need to. If I had somehow slipped out of the bootpack, I would have slid into a snowy bowl beneath the cornice and likely bruised my ego, worst case scenario. I will say that I wish I had a whippet for the spicy skin track on the way up to the cornice, but it wasn’t mandatory. The climb up to and above the cornice was the steepest ascent of the day, given our route. This is all to say: you can leave your sharp stuff at home if you stick to the standard Birthday Tour route.

From our perch above the cornice, we could see much of the tour ahead of us. Any sense of time crunch was alleviated. Ultimately, we did the whole thing in less than 5 hours. I’ll list all of our trip stats at the end of the post, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since we were skiing the birthday tour in celebration of my birthday, our transition included a few extra steps. Amber pulled two San Pelegrino sodas out of her pack and I was stoked. Then came a tiny Nalgene with a tiny bit of gin in it. I was extra stoked. We ate some snacks and prepped our skis for the downhill. Then came the dresses.

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Amber looking freaking fabulous in her party dress for the Birthday Tour.

The snow had corned up perfectly when we dropped ‘Madison Avenue’ from the Blue Lake cornice down to Copper Creek around 12pm. At the time, there were no indicators of instability in the snowpack that we observed. We skied fall-line to the creek and it was a couple hundred feet of bliss.

As we climbed back up to the ridge that would take us to the highway, we were confronted with options: a skin track climbing up to the left or to the right to the col/ridge beneath Copper Mountain. We had been encouraged to trend left and I’m glad we did, because we got to ski a cool, low-angle and wide-open couloir.

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I’m mildly disappointed that you can’t see that I’m wearing a dress WITHOUT pants for this descent. Totally worth it. And yes, this north-facing descent was a little icy-crusty. High stakes.

There was a bit of crusty avalanche debris beneath the couloir that made me question – only momentarily – my decision to ski in a dress without pants. But I survived, my legs survived and it was good fun. I think I skied better for it.

After the couloir, we traversed left back to the Hairpin Turn on Highway 20, careful to stay above the creek. An icy luge took us nearly all the way to the road.

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Will belay for food! At the Hairpin Turn on Highway 20.

TL;DR: Trip Stats

Distance: 6 miles

Blue Lake TH to Blue Lake Cornice: 1.25hr

Copper Creek to Copper Mountain Col/Ridge: 1hr

Ridge to Road: 1>hr

PERFECT Corn on Madison Avenue: 12pm

Not-so-perfect snow on Slot Couloir to Hairpin: 3pm

Pace: Cruiser. Chill. No pressure. Highly enjoyable.

10/10 would recommend!

 

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Thanks, Guys

SATURDAY

One after another, I watch the guys throw big tricks off an improvised jump. I often volunteer to film them partially to support them, but mostly because I’m in awe of what they can do. Before I get into position and pull my phone out, they tell me that I have to hit the jump too. Oh boy. “Okay.” I quietly hope that I’m not getting in over my head.

Will: Backflip. Ashton: Backflip. Drew: 360. Tim: Lincoln loop. Suddenly it’s my turn. I stuff my phone into my chest pocket and pick my way through trees to the starting point above the jump. My skis slide hesitantly a little lower. Then a little lower. The guys cheer me on from below. I point my skis downhill and feel myself blast off the thing.

My air wasn’t huge, but it was pretty big for me. Somehow, my body knew what to do. Rather than spazzing mid air, I felt controlled. I crest the highest point and come back down to a plush, powdery landing. Ooh, it felt so good. And it set the tone for the rest of the day.

A few laps later, I look up from the skin track and see another opportunity to feel the air rush beneath my skis. A sizable cornice had formed above a cliff feature that wrapped around into a sweeping left turn. The time was right and the cornice was calling.

Tim and I climbed above it, keeping our distance from the edge while we determined precisely where to drop off. From above, the landing was somewhat blind. Suddenly my fun cornice drop became a scary question mark in my mind. I paused a moment, balking at my seemingly brash decision. Tim directed me to the sweet spot and encouraged me with his phone out, ready to film my drop.

I often get too caught up in willing myself to jump off things and struggle to announce my drop: “Three… two… one… dropping!” Most times, I’d rather just push off at two so that I don’t have to confront the fear of getting to one. For this reason, I often don’t get the shot, haha.

The air whooshed beneath my skis as I plunged from the cornice above, to a small intermediate rocky cliff, to smooth powder snow below. It all happened so fast. I link a few swooping turns and look back to see Tim perched above the cliff, only higher. He asks me if I want to film. In the interest of saving transition time, I shout back, “No!” And watch him push off, tapping the edge of the cliff before dropping 15 or more feet to the snow below. I immediately regret not taking my phone out.

Tim is my boyfriend, but he’s so much more than that. Most of his boyfriend duties practically stop once we leave the frontcountry. From there on, he’s my partner. Tim rarely pushes me to do things I haven’t set up myself; but there’s something about his encouraging smile that gives me the courage to trust my skis and will myself into the unknown. Often, into the air. It reminds me of when I was learning how to slackline; if there’s somebody there beside you to rest so much as a single finger on, you suddenly find the stability you need to make tiny steps forward. Progress.

couloir

We skied until sunset, pausing before we ripped the skins from our skis for our last run of the day. I looked across the valley and pointed out a couloir saying, “I’d like to ski that.” To my surprise, the guys thought it sounded like a good idea and said that we’d come back for it tomorrow.

SUNDAY

My nervous mind had played out several crash reels on the skin track on the way over and up. What if there’s a mandatory drop and I catch an edge immediately? Will I tumble to the bottom? Will I learn what it feels like to tomahawk? Are there any cliffs I need to worry about? Trying to estimate my margin for error, I asked Drew, “Do you think I should do this? I don’t want to chicken-shit-out at the top.” He reassured me that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Drew’s vote of confidence was good enough for me. My doubts melted away as we crossed over to the peak.

We began to climb a face too steep to skin; Ashton and Drew ahead of me rapidly kicking steps, and Tim right behind me. As we climbed a semi-steep bootpack together, I felt well aware of the fact that I only had a shot at this line because I had the comfortable buffer of their experience to insulate me from poor decision making. Especially Tim.

About halfway up, Tim asked, “Are you nervous?” I can’t remember what I said verbatim, but I remember telling him with paradoxical confidence in my answer that I was. Yeah I’m nervous, but not scared. I was comfortably pushing it. I felt aware of my exposure and risk; I was accepting. There were still opportunities to bail, but so far, no reason to.

Drew and Ashton took a steeper, more committing couloir that split the center of the peak. The ride down looked like what it would feel like to drop a bouncy ball down a stairwell; from either side, step-like cliffs protruded just enough into the narrow corridor before letting out to the valley below.

Tim encouraged me to check out another couloir to the west. Our line was less steep and wider. I could see that this line was definitely going to go for me. Even though it was just the two of us standing there, we didn’t say much to each other. He encouraged me to look out for rocks and stay low in the couloir. And then he was gone.

I paused a moment. Alone. I looked out from my perch, keenly aware of my exposure. There’s something magical about being alone in the mountains. It’s not a feeling that readily lends itself to description; it’s the combination of recognizing your own mortality, and esteeming it with such vigor that it motivates repeat encounters with the ineffable: the vast masses of granite, impossible icy plunges, wilderness as far as the eye can see.

I click into my bindings, well aware that I could kick a ski from my perch 1000 or so feet below. I buckle my boots down. Check all of my zippers. Gloves on. Goggles in place. Okay. It’s time.

My hand fumbles for the radio at my shoulder. “Dropping in 30, boys,” I say, trying to feign my usual casual confidence, but my voice comes out small and higher pitched than usual. I don’t know how long I waited, but I pushed the fear from my mind as I simultaneously pushed my skis over the edge.

And so it goes. My first true couloir.

Powder Princess

This story is by no means a glamorous, Instagram-worthy write up. It’s more like a confession: forgive me Powder Gods, for I have been a whiny, defeated princess. I have a greater appreciation for all that ‘backcountry skiing’ entails and I have a lot of work to do. I will repent by spending more days in the resort, spending more time gear prepping and religiously observe bi-weekly leg day at the gym. Amen.

Here’s what happened:

A few weeks ago, I found myself in some sort of ditch, unable to wiggle-slide my skis any further; my feet were screaming, my legs were shaking with fatigue and I realized that I’d had it. I sat down in the ditch, on my skis, in utter defeat and felt hot tears well up into my eyes.

I hunched over and rested the heavy, P-O-S helmet — the same one a friend had long-term “borrowed” for me from a ski resort lost and found — on my arms, wrapped around my knees. All I could do was look down at the boots that I just could not seem to get to fit right. “This is hard,” I thought to myself.

It wasn’t just the boot pain or the hot fatigue shooting through my legs. It wasn’t the techy-tight tree skiing. It wasn’t the avalanche fear constantly simmering in the back of my mind. It was hard for me to admit defeat to someone that I respect so much. It was hard for me to accept that I’d tapped out.

That one day of skiing absolutely humbled me.

I like to think that I’m pretty strong for a girl. In fact, I like to think of myself as just a pretty capable ‘partner;’ no gender, no bias. Just a person that likes to wake up early, get out and do things. I like to think that if I set my mind to something, hell yeah, I can do it.

While yes, it’s true, I can get out and go skiing. No, I cannot pretend that I can keep up vis-a-vis with someone who has 15 years of experience. I can’t pretend like it doesn’t bother me to see him waiting, held-back and slowed-down by my inexperience. I try to brush off the feeling by expressing gratitude, by laughing at myself and by constantly trying hard to keep up.

In that moment, I’d finally run out of my signature effervescent energy.

The phrase that comes to mind is, “I hit a wall.” But it was more than that. The pain, the fear and the anxiety of being ‘good enough’ threw me right through that wall, into this ditch, onto my ass and past my ego.

Begrudgingly, I accepted my defeat and cried frustrated tears. I succumbed to full princess-mode. I was actively living out one of those girlfriend-trips-gone-wrong that I’d heard about from guy friends; and I realized that I was no better, not immune and yeah, the girlfriend crying in the ditch.

Meanwhile, my boyfriend called out to me. He wanted me to come under the trees and out of the ever-falling snow. But my sad little legs wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t even bring myself to pick up my helmet-heavy head from my hunched over position to tell him that I was struggling. (He obviously knew.)

I continued to look at my boots, ashamed.

For a little additional context, my ski boots have been a struggle since the day I got them. I’ve had them worked on. I’ve had the liners formed to my feet. But for whatever reason, I can’t quite seem to get the fit right. Some days, with the right socks and the right warm-up, they feel pretty alright. Sometimes I even forget that I have issues with them. But other days, my feet cramp in my arch and forefoot. The cramping causes my legs to try to compensate. Before I know it, my knees are shaking like leaves and I have to stop, unbuckle and work myself up to try it again.

I took a deep breath in, put my skins back on my skis and walked over to my boyfriend, Tim. It was hard for me to look him in the eye because I was so frustrated with my epic gear malfunction and so determined to be a savvy, capable and competent partner.

We started climbing back up the hill in the direction of the truck in silence. I was strangely glad (relieved) to have had such an emotional outburst.

If I’d been out there with a different partner, I probably would have had an epic (of the gong-show variety) but better held it together. Unfortunately for Tim, I absolutely trust him and knew that I could be completely vulnerable. I didn’t know the extent of my willingness to be vulnerable until my full-fledged princess moment.

Even though I am not proud of my princess moment, I think I learned a lot from that experience. I think I realized the extent of my trust of Tim, both for his backcountry savvy and his patience with me. And I think I also realized how silly it is to dive in too deep, too fast. Doesn’t matter how good the powder is.

I have a lot of respect for the mountains, my mortality and the constant learning process that flows between the two. I’m lucky that I have a strong enough partner that I can get into a situation where I am safe and realize that I’m in over my head.

It’s kind of funny that this is what I was playing on my mini speaker all that day.

These Sad Times

I’m driving alone on the highway that takes me both home to Greenwater and up to Crystal Mountain. However, I’m not thinking about the drive, the time or what I’m going to do with my day. Instead, my attention is with the soft yellow sunlight that filters through snowy pines, sentinels standing along the winding road. A misty fog lingers in the air and collects the delicate rays, as if the trees collectively exhaled a warm breath of life.

My thoughts turn to Adam, a highly skilled but wild skier claimed too soon by an avalanche. While I didn’t know him well, I knew that Adam loved the mountains more than anything else. He loved the mountains so much that he died for them.

When someone passes in the mountain community, the shockwaves are palpable. At first, a few people know; then a post is made; another post is made and then, abruptly, everybody knows and has something to say about it.

Suddenly, this thing that we all bonded around; this thing that we love for its fun, challenge and reward, gruesomely takes a turn and claims a life. Suddenly, it’s not just a hobby anymore. These sad times are important because they force us to pause and reflect.

Adam was full of vibrant life energy and love for the mountains; but simultaneously unfulfilled by his many alpine missions. He sought more from life. In our last conversation, he described wanting to settle down into a more balanced, comfortable rhythm. He sought love and happiness beneath the snowline.

Adam will never see the light filter through the trees again. He’ll never feel the joy of powdery turns in the backcountry. He’ll never feel the warm embrace of all of the people devastated by his death. He lived his life to the fullest, but burned a little too brightly.

How to Bellingham

Step one: Buy a used Subaru and a Patagonia puffy jacket.

These are staples around the City of Subdued Excitement. You will see them everywhere and without them, you’ll be sure to stand out. Even if you never, ever go to the mountains, at least you look like you can hang.

Step two: Choose an outdoor sport and consequently, your entire friend group.

Just get on Instagram or Tinder if you’re not sure which route to take. Do you see yourself as more of casual day hiker or adrenaline-junkie downhill mountain biker? Accomplished alpinist or dirtbag boulderer? Nearby Bellingham, you can ski, climb, hike, run, bike, kayak, downhill unicycle… the list goes on. And yeah, downhill unicycling is a thing.

Step three: Decide whether you’re actually going to do that sport or just say that you do.

There will be plenty of dudebros at the numerous breweries around town that will tell you all about slaying the gnar, but when you hit him up later to get out and get after it, he’s probably got a hangover and a good excuse not to go.

Step four: Just add weed!

When scanning Craigslist for your new digs, you’re definitely going to come across countless declarations of “420 friendly.” Bellingham is very 420 friendly.

Step five: Get yourself a restaurant job to support your gear addiction.

The job market in Bellingham is saturated with bright eyed, bushy tailed college grads. You might be washing dishes for a while despite getting your degree. Further, there’s all of the professionals that have lived elsewhere and settled in Bellingham to begin their families to claim the “real” jobs. They’ve earned it.

With your new sport and friend group – whether or not you actually do it – comes the cost of the equipment it takes to do it. An alpine touring set up doesn’t just materialize out of thin air! And if you’ve decided climbing is your jam, your homies aren’t going to be psyched when you want to repeatedly whip on their gear as you learn how to crush the crack. You need your own rack.

Hustle the tables, sling the ‘za or do whatever you need to do to get by.

Step six: Get out there and do your thing.

When you come home from a day in the mountains, you’ll immediately realize that Bellingham is actually a pretty special place.

In this town, it’s totally appropriate for your appearance to raise the question “Hipster or hobo?” as you make your way from coffee shop to co-op to bar. You could shower like a normal person, or you could have yourself a Bellingham shower by pulling a beanie over that tangled mess of nonsense you call your hair.

It’s okay because nobody cares what you look like. People want to talk to you about who you are, what you do and how it went, because in Bellingham, people are stoked on getting outside and having a good time. Everything else – like your crappy job or your janky Subaru – will figure itself out.