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Sunrise Snowshoeing at Mount Baker

When sunshine beckons in the midst of the Washington rainy season, many locals can't refrain from getting outside. The biting cold may have me craving my cozy couch and cat, but a clear weekend deserves celebration. A passionate person, I want to explore anything I get curious or dream about. My feet and soul are restless. Luckily my encouraging friends and family are often up for the adventures too. Realistically it's their fault I am this way! Mostly we're lost and stumbling forward, sometimes in awkward or dangerous situations. Not very graceful, but somehow it ends fine and is a beautiful journey along the way. Is it worth suffering through self-induced trials for memories of timelessness, excitement, and strength? Is that success of endurance considered perseverance or luck? I didn't know what I got in for with this hike, but it paid off when I reached the pass and caught the first light of day waking the mountains here in the North Cascades. This is what they call Type 2 fun.

A photo taken from the top of the Blueberry Cat Track at the Mount Baker Ski Area, of a pink and orange sunrise coming up on the eastern side of Mount Baker and the western side of Mount Shuksan still dark.

A photo of the Blueberry Cat Track in the Mount Baker Ski Area, with Mount Baker glowing in the distant sunrise.

On this day, from spur of the moment inspiration reading a prediction for clear skies, I rolled myself into my car early (4:30 am early) and headed for the highest place I could get to for some sunrise snowshoeing. My planning is never extensive. Even with how abundant our state remains during the harsher seasons, the ceaseless drizzle and mud, the cold and short days, and the grey color scheme can make it too easy for me to stay inside. But separation from nature isn't good for anyone, so I couldn't waste the opportunity to restore my soul in the mountains. Hoping for the best and without expectation, I headed out State Route 542 and was the only one on the road.

Our businesses and homes were dark and without seeing another car, I took my time along the forested road up the Nooksack Valley. On a sunny Saturday, I expected enthusiasts camped out or racing to Mount Baker Ski Area, but I arrived at Heather Meadows unhindered and found an empty parking lot to quickly gear up. My dad, in an effort to clean out his basement, gave me some basic snowshoes, so I tested them out by basically ascending a black diamond ski route.

While hiking, almost every possible issue crossed my mind; avalanches, injury, sasquatch, getting lost, getting in trouble by groomers or some patrol, or even getting blown up by avalanche prevention. Sometimes when I've gone cross country I find myself stuck on a cliff, wondering how I got so high. I could probably categorize this hike with those. Though I encourage hiking solo and cross country, be careful when you do, listen to your body and your emotions, be aware of your terrain and impact, and don't go beyond your own abilities! It's called risk management. Have fun exploring and find a place where you feel like you've succeeded in a workout and soaked up enough mountain scenery to sustain yourself until the next old growth adventure.

An illustration taken from the Mount Baker Ski Area website focused on the Heather Meadows Base Area, showing specifically Chair 1, 2, and 3.

From the Heather Meadows parking lot, I layered up and equipped with only gloves, my poles, my camera, and pockets filled with hat, phone, and keys. I started out towards Home Run, in my mind aiming for the road to Artist's Point. Floating across the deep snow, I got onto the cat track and set out hoping for a view of the clear eastern horizon. At first I had a steady pace, with a gradual incline and Orion overhead. Behind me Nooksack Ridge glowed, bathed in moonlight and brightly shining through the darkness. I enjoyed the peaceful dawn, gnarled hemlock watching me hurry as first light gradually encompassed the slopes of Mount Shuksan.

Then I came to an open snowfield at the foot of some cliffs, with patches of buried forest. I got lost. Too dark to make out any shadows or definition on the hillside, I couldn't see where the road veered, or the fastest route to a view, so I began up what looked like a short and steep ascent to a plateau. This little hill was more challenging than expected, and I would catch all my weight with my arms as my shoes slid with the snow every step. If it was too icy, I couldn't proceed at all, and I'd have to traverse around it, constantly seeking a gentler grade.

Accustomed to sea level, I was immediately winded and the new incline tired me out quickly. So I was relieved when I finally approached the top, only to find a snowfield with a steep ridge along the left, spotted in forest. I could see what looked like a road, and further ahead it appeared to ascend gradually up the ridge. Running against the time, I didn't want to risk the trek, so I began up what turned out to be near Pans Face, another steep slope but the most direct route up. Hoisting myself and switchbacking from one slope to the next, I just kept thinking how worth it my sweat was for the experience to climb these hills, and how if I fell, I'd tumble gladly and likely safely.

It was all going slowly but surely until I approached the top of the ridge, which ascends steeply enough to be viewed as a cliff, at least from where I was. To the left I could see another steep section blocking the way, so instead I traversed the slope to the right, digging the sides of my snowshoes and poles perpendicularly into the slope, until I got into some hemlock growth. Then climbing carefully and using the trees to brace myself, I went up. It was icy and there was no room for me to switchback, so I was slowly hoisting myself up the ice, even using stable logs to pull myself.

Even though I was lost and admittedly nervous, when I finally felt comfortable sitting for a break, I turned around and had Mount Baker looming over in what was becoming a bright and colorful sunrise, as well as the cliffs of Table Mountain farther along the same ridge. I kept climbing after each short break or readjustment, and kept telling myself I would be there anytime, I could still make it, I was so close. That's the power of the mind! I hadn't fallen into the trees below, and if I did, the resort would open soon and surely someone would quickly find me.

So I kept climbing until I finally pulled myself over a log to a view of Mount Shuksan and it's billowing cliffs ahead. Finally atop the ridge, I was greeted by the Nooksack Range and Hannegan Peak glowing in a rainbow sunrise. The powder was fresh and untouched, and the resort was silent as I sat, finally able to fully enjoy the view. There were endless mountains looking down the valleys towards the salt water of the Salish Sea, lakes and forests, and the horizon beyond. Content and filled with gratitude at how well my adventure went, feeling empowered and renewed by hope of infinite possibilities, I finally left the top of the C-1 chair and proceeded to slide down Pan Face on my back, billowing through deep powder, and getting back to my car as several large groups of cross-country skiers, hikers, and other boarders filled the parking lot.

Moral of the story, don't be afraid to push yourself to your limits and beyond, but listen to your instincts and body at the same time to keep yourself out of real danger. Also, the early bird gets the worm, our existence is boundless, and doing uncomfortable things can award dazzling results.

A photograph of untouched powder and the peaks of the Nooksack Range in the distance, against the pink sunrise.

A photo of my tracks in otherwise untouched powder, with the Nooksack Range of the North Cascades in the distance at sunrise.

The Eastern face of Mount Baker glowing pink against the sunrise, while the western side remains dark blue in the twilight. A trail map on the right shows two black diamond runs ahead, and the edges of the photos, a framing of trees around the peak, is blurry from snow on my camera lense.

A photo of Koma Kulshan at sunrise, on the ancestral lands of the Nooksack Tribe.


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