After skiing Jackson Hole, I drove through the night (and another snowstorm) to Sandpoint, Idaho, to check out Schweitzer Mountain. I learned about Schweitzer while living in Washington state, and it has a reputation for great terrain and lots of snow. It’s a real skiers mountain that caters to locals more than tourists. It was somewhat on my way, about 13 hours northwest of Jackson.
I arrived at 10am ready for powder. Schweitzer was reporting a 100” base and 20” of fresh snow overnight. I caught the bus up the mountain road and met some very excited locals. They were saying it would be the best day of the year so far. School was cancelled for the day, and lots of high schoolers were riding the bus to the mountain instead. After winding 9 miles up the snowy mountain road in a chain-equipped bus, we were greeted by fierce winds and blowing snow. I got to the lift to find it had been shut down due to high winds. They were reporting sustained 60 mph wind at the top of the first chair. I did some laps on the bunny hill to kill time and get warmed up for the runs to come, but the lifts never opened. At noon, they made the call that the mountain would not open today. I was super bummed to miss out on these phenomenal conditions, since I could not stay another day.
I went back down and continued my drive west. While driving, I found out that the solstice gathering I was headed to was a day later than the original email said it was, so I had an extra day. I was so tempted to go back to Schweitzer knowing that the 20” of powder was sitting there untouched. However, a call from my friend James got me psyched on Mt Baker instead.
Baker is known for having the most snow of any place in the world, and this year is no exception. They were reporting 130” base and 24” in the past 24 hours, still snowing. James told me he skied there on Monday, and half the mountain was closed due to wind. He expected it to open on Tuesday, making this mountain as appealing as Schweitzer. Tuesday morning came with 6” more snow overnight, bringing the total new snowfall depth to 30”. My buddies Nick, James, and I hit the road early to catch first chair.
I can honestly say I’ve never skied so many lines this extreme, this fresh, and this deep in a single day in my entire life of skiing. The visibility was perfect, and the clouds occasionally opened to blue skies and mountain vistas. When it wasn’t bluebird it was snowing, piling on still more snow. Having worked at this mountain a few years before, I knew the lines well, but I was still blown away by how everything skied in these conditions. I was able to ski lines that are normally impossible, far too steep for most conditions.
The truly unique aspect of Baker is the snow. It gets so much, and it’s not as light or fluffy as other places like Jackson Hole and Utah. This means more work skiing, but it also means sicker lines. The heavy cascade snow sticks to everything, including the steepest pitches around, and small pines act like roots for snowpack preventing sluffing. So lines that would not be skiable at most resorts are skiable at Baker. To top it off, the attitude here is to let people ski whatever they want within reason. There are ropes and signs like other resorts, but they act as warnings more often than barriers. They let you know you’re entering dangerous cliff areas, but they don’t stop you from going there or punish you for it unless it’s truly suicidal. They keep you out of the dangerous avalanche areas, but they let you ski terrain that would never be open for skiing at most resorts.
Nick, James, and I spent the entire day on the snow devouring as much powder as our legs would let us. They had a delayed opening on chair 6, so when the opened it mid-day, we had a whole new untracked world to explore. Our first run we got cliffed out, and ended up dropping a 20 footer. The rest of the day pretty much went like that also. A typical run went knee deep turn, narrow chute, waist deep drift, pillow line, face shot, 15 footer, tree jib, no lift line, repeat. I was smiling all day, a huge powder eating grin. Nick was worried about his knee injury, but the snow was so soft he was able to ride all day dropping cliffs and all. James improved his skiing drastically since I last skied with him a few years ago. He went from an intermediate off-piste skier to stomping 20 foot cliffs with confidence, landing in big arching turns between obstacles. All of us had one of our personal best days of skiing ever. When the lifts closed we could take no more, legs completely zapped.