The Classics: Backcountry Skiing, Mt. Baker
Location: Mt. Baker Ski Resort, WashingtonSeason: Lifts are usually open from late November to mid April, but you can skin up into the side and backcountry from October through July.
Zone: The Shuksan Arm Getting There: To get to Mt. Baker Ski Resort, take Exit 255 off of I-5 and follow Hwy 542 for 56 miles until you reach the resort at road’s end.
What You Need: Mt. Baker is a haven for side and backcountry skiers due to its progressive backcountry policy. At Baker you can generally leave the resort’s boundaries anywhere on the mountain. The only requirement is that riders carry an avalanche transceiver and shovel, and always travel with a partner. You must also know the terrain and your abilities, be able to display that you know how to work a transceiver, and know the latest avalanche conditions—this season’s snowpack layers, recent snowfall and type, current NWAC forecast, today’s weather forecast. If you fail to bring or know any of the above, you can lose your privilege to ski at the resort. Ski patrollers often station themselves at popular side and backcountry access points and will stop you from heading beyond the resort boundaries if you do not fulfill the above backcountry requirements. Be aware that you are not guaranteed a rescue once you have left the resort boundaries.
History:Mt. Baker is probably best known for holding the world record for greatest snowfall in a single season: 1,140 inches (95 feet) fell here in the 1998-99 season. It also boasts the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world, receiving almost 650 inches (54 feet) of snow each year. If you like snow, and lots of it, this is the place to come. Snowboarders in particular have a strong affinity for Mt. Baker, as it was one of the first resorts to allow snowboarding on its slopes back in the 1980s. Each year the Legendary Banked Slalom race draws top snowboarders from around the world to compete for nothing more than the love of the sport and a trophy made of duct tape. But don’t get the idea that this is an unfriendly place for skis - each year the amazing side and backcountry attract skiers from around the world to sample the deep powder for which Baker is famous.
Local Beta:Mt. Baker has long been a Mecca for ski bums and dirtbags on a serious budget. If all you care about is skiing and snowboarding as much as humanly possible while spending as little as possible in the process, you can sleep in your vehicle in certain parts of the resort’s parking lots. Baker doesn’t have many big resort amenities (one of the reasons it is so popular) but the Tap Room, located in the Heather Meadows Day Lodge, is a great place to grab a drink. When your trip is done and you reluctantly head west on Hwy 542 away from Mt. Baker, stop at Graham’s Restaurant in Glacier, WA, to enjoy their famous fish tacos and delicious beer in a relaxed and friendly setting.
Extra Time:A couple days in the sidecountry here will probably leave you wanting more, which is a great feeling to have at Baker since the Shuksan Arm just hints at the backcountry’s potential. From half-day missions in the forested slopes surrounding the resort to all-day epics high on Mt. Shuksan, there is a lifetime’s worth of terrain just waiting to be explored.
Athlete’s Perspective: “There are huge cliffs. There are steep rolls. Every time you go out there after every storm cycle, the Shuksan Arm looks different. There is a new roll that is just a little bit steeper. There is a cliff that filled in just a little bit differently. You can go out there and feel like you are skiing a new zone almost every time you head out.” – Molly Baker
Photos by Grant Gunderson
Check out videos on the Classics including backcountry skiing at Baker, backpacking, ice climbing, sea kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking. The Classics Vital Stats were contributed by Austin Siadak, writer and intern extraordinaire for Duct Tape Then Beer