Road Trip: Mt Baker in Winter

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I first laid eyes upon Mt Baker when I was 22. I was in college and visiting British Columbia for an internship trip and we stayed in the coastal town of White Rock. The tiny, beautiful, tourist town is nestled on a bluff overlooking Boundary Bay, just across the U.S.-Canadian border. I stayed in the nicest hotel room I ever had to myself and watched stunning sunsets from the pier. Here I caught glimpses of a far off volcano shrouded in the pink and gold of August alpenglow. This place was absolute heaven compared to Houston where I was living for the summer. I closed my eyes and savored every cool water breeze. We drove daily from White Rock to the Abbotsford airport on a sleepy two lane road called Avenue 0 that parallels the border.  We stopped to look at monuments identifying the uncrossable border between two countries. I looked south to Washington, to open fields and flowers and to the white-capped Mt Baker, unknowingly looking through a window into my future.

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Six years later on a cold, clear and dark February morning, my husband and I packed up the car with skis, snowshoes and the dog and commenced our first road trip to Mt Baker. The stars gave way to twilight and fog clung to the Nooksack valley as we made our way on the Mt Baker Highway. We climbed gradually along the river and finally up the steep switchbacks with hairpin turns protected from the steep drop offs by towering walls of snow on either side of us. On one of the hairpin turns I caught a glimpse of something in the rear view mirror and turned around. A huge and magnificent mountain filled the rear window. Holy crap, I said to my husband. I was introduced to Mt Shuksan.

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The Mt Baker highway is a bit of a misnomer. The road goes to the Mt Baker Ski Area which is not on Baker at all but on Panarama Dome and is actually much closer to Mt Shuksan. The road was built in 1893 as a wagon road for what most roads were built for back in those days, gold mining. The road originally terminated at Maple Falls and then was later extended past Glacier and up to Heather Meadows then finally in the 1930’s extended up Austin Pass to Artist Point. There was talk of extending the road over the cascade crest to a gold mine on the east side, but a suitable pass was not found. In the winter the road is closed at the ski area making Artist Point a perfect snowshoeing destination.

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I strapped on my snowshoes as my husband attached skins to his skis and the three of us made our way on the famously deep snow (this area holds the world record for recorded snowfall in one season- a whopping 95 feet in the winter of 1998-99). It wasn’t long before we crested the hill and beheld a feast for the eyes. The aptly named Artist Point is perched high on a ridge with 360 degree views of the North Cascades. To the left is Mt Shuksan and to the right is Mt Baker, seemingly within arm’s reach. Behind us, I take in the jagged guardians of the same invisible border I gazed across years ago, this time from the opposite side. As Nali and I ‘shoed down, my husband carved long smooth curves in the powder of a steep bowl high above the snow-covered Bagley Lakes. On that perfect bluebird day I decided that this was my favorite place in the Cascades and vowed to return as much as possible.

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Bonus Camp Read!

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Koma Kulshan: The Story of Mt Baker by John C. Miles

The story of Mt Baker is one of lore and mystery, conservation, exploitation and amazing races. The mountain was considered sacred by Native Americans and was first spotted by travelers from sailing ships in the Straight of Juan de Fuca. It lured a forty-two year old librarian named Edmund Coleman to climb it’s glaciers to the summit for the first time in 1868. By the turn of the century, the mountain felt the steps of hundreds of climbers from the Mountaineers and the Mazama climbing groups and more. The apex of this epic climbing era occurred in 1911 & 1912 as a publicity stunt: marathon races to the top of the mountain. A far more tame version of the marathon exists today with the Ski to Sea multi-sport relay race every Memorial Day weekend. This is just a small snapshot of the fascinating history of the Mt Baker area told in this book.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Day Hike

Take this book with you when hiking or snowshoeing in the Mt Baker area, look at the many great old photos in the book and try to imagine what it was like there in it’s climbing heyday.

Hikes Featured in this Post:

Artist Point, North Cascades, WA

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