YOU’VE SET OUT for Mt. Baker to ski or ride your board in the amplifying light of late winter, but by the time you step out of your car you may well be in the mood for some different activity altogether—prayer or vodka shots or a crash course in tire chaining.
Chances are a light rain set in soon after you left the funky little feeder town of Glacier, 35 miles northeast of Bellingham, and entered the Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. And chances are that rain turned to snow just as you hit the treacherous hairpin curves past Razorhone Road. If you dared take your eyes off the fast-fading blacktop, you might’ve caught a glimpse of the granite massif of 9,131-foot Mt. Shuksan looming through the white curtain—and narrowly avoided the wall of snow that towers beside the road. Finally, a pair of jumbo bronze ravens, the work of local artist Tony Angell, emerges from a snowbank to herald the entrance to the White Salmon base area and the end of your white-knuckle drive.
Welcome to Mt. Baker in the final throes of a La Niña winter. During the last serious La Niña event back in 1998–99, Mt. Baker broke the world record for most snow in a single winter, racking up a total of 1,140 inches of frozen white, with an end-of-season compacted base of 310 inches. This winter, though the wettest storms have come in too warm for mountain snow, Baker’s base has still hovered around 10 feet from mid-December on. Granted, Stevens and Snoqualmie are a lot closer to Seattle, and Crystal has more skiable terrain, a gondola, and better food. But for sheer quantity of powder and pristine Alpine beauty, nothing beats Baker. Once you get there.
Though White Salmon is the preferred base (and the only option on weekdays), if it’s a snowy weekend and you have your heart set on leaving fresh tracks in the deep and steep stuff, you may want to drive another few miles to the upper (and older, creakier) Heather Meadows base. Here you can hop on Chair 1, head right up to the 5,000-foot summit of Pan Dome, and then take your pick of the mountain’s finest powder runs—the Chute, a gnarly rocky ravine under Chair 1; Canuck’s Deluxe, which cascades down a different face of the mountain in a relentless series of precipitous bumps; and the Canyon, which starts with a heavenly bowl and ends in a hair-raising (and often icy) funnel.
Be careful about which side of the mountain you ski, especially as the day wears on. The knock on Baker is that, though the scenery is unparalleled, the layout is awkward. Many of the best expert and intermediate slopes end in neither of the base areas but at the three-lift Raven Hot juncture between them, which means you have to ride up and ski down to return to your car. But some of the hassle should be alleviated next winter, when a new and expanded lodge and lunch place opens at Raven Hot.
Baker’s longtime president and general manager, Duncan Howat, insists that the area attracts a healthy mix of families and college kids, boarders and skiers, Washingtonians and British Columbians, old codgers and young hotdoggers—but somehow the dude vibe is what prevails. Watch them sail off the cliffs under Chair 5 on double-diamond Gabl’s or trek into the backcountry at Hemispheres or Shuksan Arm for one glorious free fall into powder paradise. Hear them swear as they whizz past you in the Canyon chute, where it’s almost impossible to stop. There’s a story that Howat once came upon a couple of teenage dudes making off with “out of bounds” signs. Cursing him out roundly, the teens took off into the backcountry, whereupon Howat, who is old enough to have two grown daughters running the area with him, gave chase and overtook the sign stealers. He offered the bandits a challenge: Beat him in a foot race and he’d let them go; lose and they’d have to put the signs back and he’d call their parents. Howat outpaced them again. That pair may have gone down in inglorious defeat, but their comrades just can’t stay away from these snowy steeps.
Still, after the lifts close, the closest thing to a scene on the mountain is the Heather Meadows Taproom where old-timers, extreme skiers, and off-duty patrol staff congregate to swap powder stories. Off the mountain, the party continues down in Glacier at the newly opened Chair 9 across from the Snowline cabin complex—the only place in town that serves hard liquor (and respectable pizza). You can snag a surprisingly good dinner at Graham’s (the pub adjoining the general store of the same name) or Milano’s (the boisterous Italian place across the street), though most apres-skiers prefer to microwave nachos or frozen lasagna in their rickety little cabin kitchens. Actually, a few rather palatial chalets have recently sprouted amid the A-frames and log cabins in Glacier’s gated developments (Snowline, Snowater, and Mt. Baker Rim)—but the vernacular style remains decidedly mossy, shaggy, dated, and utilitarian. Those who crave granite countertops or radiant floor heating have come to the wrong place.
If you trashed your quads on Saturday, you might want to sleep in Sunday morning and then wander into Glacier for a whole-grain muffin and organic java at the Wake-n-Bakery and a prowl for end-of-season bargains at the local gear shops. Or, weather and conditions permitting, check out the groomed cross-country trails along Anderson Creek and Razorhone roads (there’s parking at the Salmon Ridge Sno-Park, 13 miles past Glacier on the Mt. Baker Highway). But don’t pass up another downhill day lightly. No matter how deep the snow is, the mountain shuts down on April 24.