Anatomy of a Pacific Northwest chase: A conversation

This week, the Midwest Ski Journal’s Gunnar Olson sat down with the man they call “Rat” to go over an ambitious, but fruitful chase he made this past weekend to Mt. Baker in Washington. Follow along to see how Rat pulled it off, what he’d do differently and how he grabbed deep powder turns in a 48 hour chase from Minnesota. Topics include what sources to use when tracking the PNW, how to handle the rental car/hotel situation, why a sacrifice is critical for any successful chase and why skiing with a partner is crucial in deep situations. 

Rat smiles through a stormy day in 2016. (Midwest Ski Journal)

GO: You just completed a big chase.

Rat: Sure did.

GO: I want you to take us through it. Start with how this storm got on your radar. You were coming off the week before have driven to Jackson (Wyoming) and back and you pulled the trigger on the chase Friday afternoon, how’d we get there?

Rat: We got to Friday afternoon by taking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as they come. The Pacific Northwest (PNW) has just been getting throttled. There’s no secret about it. The system’s coming and it’s hitting. The real question with the PNW is snow levels, the temperature, the ocean… it’s tough. It’s guaranteed moisture, but sometimes it is heavy. We had good snow levels. Wednesday (Jan. 24) was a warm up. Thursday (Jan. 25) it dumped all day and it was cold and Friday (Jan. 26) was supposedly all time. When I woke up to 25” reported on Friday morning at Baker after roughly 100 inches the four days leading up to that, I was pretty pissed, really. I was upset. I went back and forth all day [on whether or not to go]. I had to bounce a few feelings off of you there Boats (Boats is a nickname Rat gave to me years ago. Long story.) to make sure I was confident about the chase. Boy, you had some reservations about snow levels as well, but it’s hard to argue with 25 overnight. Got a cheap Southwest flight with the points.

GO: Through Denver?

Rat: Through Denver to Seattle.

GO: What time did you leave Minneapolis?

Rat: I pulled trigger at about 2:30 in the afternoon Friday (Jan. 26) and was at the airport at 6 p.m. Had a couple of brewhas (shorthand for beer) a little food and was on the plane at 7:30 p.m. Took off at 8 p.m.

GO: What time did you land in Seattle?

Rat: Landed in Seattle at 12:26 a.m. local time. So, we are there and we’re in one, ya know? I rent a car. We are on a short timeframe here. Saturday (Jan. 28) is going to be questionable snow levels and it looked like overnight it was going to be 500 feet (elevation at which moisture turns to snow) and climbing, steadily, until the afternoon. We were going to be there one day, flying back Sunday (Jan. 28). Like you said, I took off the weekend before and it’s tough, ya know? We are a long distance from any sort of elevation change. It’s flat here.

GO: We chase upwards (in terms of elevation).

Rat: Onwards and upwards. So, we get there, rented a big Suburban for $150 bucks and it gives you the ability to drive up through the pass so you can get there because it’s snowing. And, also, it provides an excellent mobile hotel room. Jumped in the vehicle, skated up to Baker. 3 and a half hours, landed in the parking lot. There was no snow up until about 10 miles from the resort when you start climbing. It’s pretty flat and it’s not really high. Pounding rain.

GO: Get nervous at all, driving up through the rain?

Rat: I’ll tell you what, I trusted the NWAC website that’s linked on Baker. It’s a very unbiased government reporting agency that I feel like I can trust when they tell me snow levels. They said 500 feet (snow elevations, again) overnight and 500 in the afternoon on Friday so it was looking really good. It was going to hit 2,500 feet at noon. Baker’s elevation is about 5,000. It got to 3,500 in the afternoon Saturday. We got there and there was about 6 inches of snow on the drive at about 4 a.m. Got to the parking lot around 4:30 a.m.,, tried to park where the employee parking was to stay out of the way of the plows because they are moving snow. There’s about 10 inches on the ground once we got up near the resort. Parked right next to chair 1, which is the place to park at, if you’re wondering. Caught about 2 hours of Z’s (sleep) in the parking lot next to the Suburban. Put down all the seats, made Ricky Creagle (affectionate nickname for our friend, Eric) sit in the passenger seat and got woke up by a Chevy 4-wheel drive pulling in next to me. I said, ‘it’s time to go.’ Got in line at 7:30 a.m. for a hopeful 9 a.m. chair open because the day before they didn’t open the chair until 10:45 a.m.

GO: You were in line at 7:30?

Rat: Uhhh huh. There were 10 people already in front of us. Put the skis down, one person stood there while the other got their ticket. Gotta have a partner. This is a deep mountain. Safety first, respect the elements. We got in line, made a few trips back inside for coffee and stuff because we had a solid hour and a half there. Closer we got to 8:30 a.m., there were like 100 people behind us so, I mean, it was filling in. They are serious about getting their first tracks up there, just as any of these places we go to nowadays, besides Wolf Creek, but, don’t go there. (This section is tongue-in-cheek. We love Wolf Creek. It’s the best kept secret in Colorado. We just don’t want you to go there and ruin it.)

GO: Yeah, don’t go to Wolf Creek. You’re gonna hate Wolf Creek.

Rat: Wolf Creek is just a nightmare. You can’t get there, it’s so flat.

GO: I check in on it every year, sometimes twice a year, and it’s just always terrible, don’t go. Anyway, you are in the lift line. It’s 9 a.m., does she crack right away? (She=chairlift, crack=open)

Suffocation warning sign in the lift line at Mt. Baker. (Sat. Jan. 27)

Rat: She cracks at about 9:17 a.m. Pretty close, not bad. I was thinking it might be worse. Huge avalanche mitigation the night before because of the dumpening (The dumpening=massive snowfall). I know, on chair one and six, they were only letting people up with avy gear (avalanche safety equipment) because a guy went missing the day before. Just remember, you’ve got to have a partner at the very least. He ducked a rope and probably didn’t know exactly where he was. They had a brigallion (Brigallion=not a word, but we know what he means) of people out there marking each tree well trying to find this kid and he’s gone. We’ll see him come spring.

GO: Wow. Yikes. That’s terrifying. So, you’re going skiing?

Rat: Yeah, know before you go, I guess. We took it pretty timid because my buddy, he’s not quite the most graceful skier. We went right up and came right down chair 6, right underneath. Nice cruiser warm up run on a completely open field.

GO: First impressions of Baker?  I understand it was your first time there.

Rat: The first tracks were heavier than what I was hoping for, but probably pretty typical for the area. They’ve got a lot of mello stuff that’s all kind of laid out. If you go off some different areas, there’s some big [cliff] drops that kind of come out of nowhere. You can’t get out of them is the problem. You find yourself on the edge of a cliff and you want to take the skis off and walk out, you’re going to have a tough time. I assume that’s what might have happened to this other young gentlemen. Back to the top of the peak, hiked over to the Panadome, which is the only places in the ski area where they have some good steep stuff. There’s trees everywhere which is great. They are really open because they are these big pines. They are spaced out nicely. That was fun, you can dip in and out of trees and the snow was deep.

GO: So you skied a full day, did that wear you out?

Rat: We skied a full day and we were up at 6 a.m. on Friday for work. Worked until about 3 p.m., headed home, got packed up, and got up to the airport and basically hadn’t slept except for the hour and a half in the parking lot. Skied all day, until 11:30 a.m. when all of the easy accessible areas were all tracked out. Since it was my first time and I didn’t have anybody with me that really knew the mountain well, we took it easy that way. Didn’t want to get in too bad of a situation. Looking back, there’s a lot of stuff there that’s doable and the biggest stuff isn’t bad because at the bottom, it’s really deep. It’s all easy out. There’s not like 2,000 vert (vertical feet) of like gnarly, gnarly, gnar. That helps a lot as far as, you can get yourself in a spot, take a big drop and be confident that you’re not in trouble.

GO: Is that what everyone was there doing? Everyone’s trying to drop something?

Rat: Once it got a little later in the day, that’s what people were doing. There are people who go there to get warmed up dropping stuff because it’s deep. They had 140” in just a few days. So, we grabbed some beers and some grub at 11:30 a.m. We had some of our best lines in the afternoon. It was snowing, but turning into water right away, so it was making the snow heavy. They have some ropes that are ropes you shouldn’t go under and some warning ropes that you should go under.  Found some really great turns coming down chair one and dropping off into the little canyon they have. Some pretty big cliffs we saw some boys jumping off of. It was pretty good.

GO: So, you hammer out your afternoon. What’s next?

Rat: What’s next is beers are next. Stopped at the main lodge upstairs. They have a nice little area for some beers and what have you. Had a few victory brewskis (another word for beer) and got into the Suburban and headed back to Seattle. It was about 5 p.m. It’s a three-hour drive in. Got a massage in Seattle, grabbed a hotel room, dropped the Suburban off at 10:30 or 11 p.m. Only had the car for one day, which was terrific, big savings there. So, I took the $150 I saved not having the car past midnight and bought a hotel room next to the airport. Ordered some pizza and wings for delivery, picked up a bottle of wine and really capped it off with a little vino (shorthand for wine), how about that?

GO: Wow, what a ski trip. So, you’re out the next morning at 7am?

Rat: By the time we went to bed it was about 12:30 a.m. or so. We woke up at 4 a.m., grabbed the airport shuttle to the airport and we were on the plane at 6 a.m., headed home.

GO: You were home about what time?

Rat: Well, we have two time zones, so we gave up two hours and were back around 2 p.m.

GO: Still, in perspective, you left work at 4:30 p.m. on Friday and you were back in town Sunday at 2 p.m. It’s a long, difficult chase, but you pulled it off in about the cleanest way possible. It’s an impressive one, which is why I wanted to talk about it.

Rat: You know, I’m not a big planner. I like to plan to adapt later.

GO: I am a big planner, which is why we do trips well together.

Rat: It is why, it is a really good complimentary situation there. You’ve got her mapped out and I see three different paths, so we usually find one that’s going to work out really well. The whole time, every time we hit a little snag, or what I thought could have been a snag, it presented another opportunity to transition and keep moving forward. I really couldn’t have asked for more. We got some deep pow turns.

GO: And you know why? Because I was the sacrifice this time. Someone has to be the sacrifice. I’ve never had a good trip where everyone’s there. Someone always has to be sacrificed.

Rat: Whether you get diverted to ‘Querque (Albuquerque, New Mexico) or somebody’s just got to stay home…

GO: The ‘Querque incident of 2016. (Last December, our good friend Brian tried to meet us in Denver for a deep Wolf Creek trip and, instead, he was diverted to Albuquerque, despite being scheduled to land just 15 minutes after us. Devastating chase for Brian, but it was all time for us.)

Rat: It’s going to live down as an ultimate sacrifice, really. It was the end all be all. He might as well have been on the cross because we ended up with some deep days that trip. Our buddy Brian had a tough time, but he got to take in the sights of ‘Querque.

GO: Albequerque’s airport…

Rat: I heard it’s great in mid-January, actually December, those were deep December days.

GO: Okay, you get to wind back the clock, how do you play this trip differently next time? Or did you nail it?

Rat: Fly out Thursday night.

GO: That’s it? Just add Thursday night to it.

Rat: Add Thursday, because Friday was softer [snow]. They all said it was better, but then we talked to an older guy that was up in Whistler eight days before this. Probably 55 [years old], just a gem. He’s an Alaskan and they’ve been dry as bones up there, so he had to come down to Canada and the lower 48 to get his winter fix as he put it. He said Whistler was phenomenal. They had the same storm but lower temps. He came down to Baker for a couple of days. No complaints out of the guy, but it was heavy both days, he says. I don’t think it could have been any smoother, to be honest.

One thought on “Anatomy of a Pacific Northwest chase: A conversation

  1. Pingback: Thaw incoming – Midwest Ski Journal

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