Keep on skiing into spring

May 8, 2011 

Every Mothers Day morning, the south slopes of Mount St. Helens start to look like a drag show.

Dozens of men (and women too) put on dresses and lug skis and snowboards to the 8,363-foot crater rim in what might be the Northwest’s most challenging tribute to moms.

Jeanne Bennett, director of the Mount St. Helens Institute, expects a large turnout today for a couple of reasons. First, this informal tradition has been growing for years. Second, this year’s La Nina weather pattern left so much snow in the mountains, backcountry skiers around Western Washington can’t stay away.

In fact, she won’t be surprised if the volcano is still luring skiers well into July.

But Mount St. Helens isn’t the only place expecting to see more backcountry skiers this May and June.

Greg Marsh, an Olympic National Park ranger, says winter operations at Hurricane Ridge typically end in late March, but in late April snow storms were still forcing temporary closures of the access road.

“If people bring their own gear it looks like a good time to see what you can do,” Marsh said.

And at Mount Rainier, where skiers hit the slopes well into summer every year, there is more than 225 inches of snow on the ground at Paradise, more than 140 percent of normal.

“There is a lot of snow out there for extending the season,” said Keith Rollins, an avid backcountry skier and manger of Sturtevant’s Ski Mart in Tacoma.

Bennett has decided to take advantage of the extra snow this year at Mount St. Helens to promote the institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about the volcano.

So, today, the institute will set up tables at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park and will hand out wigs, dresses and skirts for skiers and snowboarders to borrow. And the institute will host a barbeque in the afternoon that includes prizes for those with the best dresses.

“It is such a fun thing,” Bennett said. “These people are so avid about skiing, it will be fun to be a part of this.”

While today might be your last chance this season to ski in a dress without raising eyebrows, there are still plenty of opportunities to hit the slopes this spring.

Here are some tips to get you started:

WHERE TO GO

While every ski area in the state except Crystal Mountain has shut down its lifts for the season, there are still plenty of places to get in some runs if you are willing to put in some work.

Chinook Pass: Rollins says this is one of his favorite places to extend his ski season.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Rollins said. “There are several bowls that are pretty easy and the access is quick off the road.”

Typically Chinook Pass offers good skiing until the middle of May, but, Rollins said, “I’d imagine you’ll be able to ski there into June this year.”

Paradise: From Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park there are several options for skiing including the south slopes of Mount Rainier and the Tatoosh Range south of the mountain. But much of this terrain should be left to those with excellent backcountry skills.

“You can pretty much die if it is foggy,” Rollins said.

Mount St. Helens: Starting May 15, a $22 climbing permit will be required to ski on St. Helens and only 100 people per day will be allowed on the volcano. Bennett says weekends are pretty much booked through the summer, but there are still openings mid-week. The slopes typically remain covered with snow through July. Permits are available at mshinstitute.com.

Hurricane Ridge: With more than 140 inches of snow still lingering at this popular Olympic Mountains destination, skiers have plenty of reason to make this trip.

“It would seem that things are going to be melting out late this year,” Marsh said. “There will be a lot of opportunities to play at the ridge as long as the snow is good.”

Ski areas: So, if there is so much snow on the ground, why are ski areas shutting down so early?

“That’s the way it is almost everywhere, every year,” Brad Northrup of 49 Degrees North said earlier this year. “People start doing other things so there aren’t enough people up here to make it cost effective to keep the lifts going. But the skiing is still very good.”

This is the case at many ski areas this year, including 49 Degrees North where Northrup sent out a press release in mid April saying that he was skiing in foot-deep powder – more than a week after the area closed for the season.

But just because the lifts aren’t running doesn’t mean you can’t ski at the resorts.

“They can be a good place to learn to tour,” Rollins said.

BE SAFE

While the snowpack typically firms up late in the season reducing the risk of avalanche, it’s still vital to be prepared while heading into the backcountry.

“I see a lot of people out by themselves with really no gear in case something happened,” Rollins said. “People skiing in sweatshirts or in a pair of light pants. If something happened and you get stuck for a few hours you are going to get hypothermia.”

In addition to having appropriate clothes for surviving surprise weather changes, backcountry skiers should also carry other essentials such as map and compass, extra food and water and sunscreen.

Skiers should also carry a shovel, avalanche probe and beacon and know how to use them. A good avalanche and weather report is another must. Reports are available on the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center website, nwac.us.

“And you should ski with a partner,” Rollins said.

THE RIGHT GEAR

While you can lug your boots and skis up the mountain to get your runs, there are easier ways to get around in the backcountry.

Alpine touring equipment, often called randonnee gear, frees your heels to essentially walk uphill on your skis before locking down your heels for a traditional alpine descent. Skins are placed on the bottom of the skis for traction during uphill and flat travel then removed for downhill skiing.

Whittaker Mountaineering (800-238-5756) in Ashford is the only place in the South Sound that rents the randonnee gear. The setups go for $40 for the first day and $10 for additional days and include boots, poles, bindings, skis and skins.

FOR THE LIFT LOCKED

If you prefer to stick to the groomed runs and the idea of hiking into the backcountry makes you a little nervous, there are still ways to extend your season. In fact, for those willing to make the drive you can ride lifts year round. Here are some options:

Crystal Mountain: The ski area’s new $8 million Mount Rainier gondola has assured Crystal will have the longest ski season in Washington. Skiers and snowboarders can ride the gondola along with those taking scenic trips as long as conditions permit, said resort spokeswoman Tiana Enger. Skiing is expected to last into June. Crystalmountainresort.com

Whistler Blackcomb: The Blackcomb Glacier is open for skiing and snowboarding until July 24 this year. The terrain is accessed by a series of lifts and adult passes start at $56 (CAD) per day. Washington residents can get a 25 percent discount by purchasing lift tickets online through the Edge Card program. Whistlerblackcomb.com

Timberline Lodge: The Palmer Snowfield high on the south side of Mount Hood is the only place in the United States where you can ski by lift all year. In early April the snow was so deep it nearly reached the top of the lift poles.

“We’ll have plenty of snow this summer,” said Timberline Lodge spokesman John Tullis.Timberlinelodge.com

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
craig.hill@thenewstribune.com
blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure

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