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Wilderness Skiing in Washington: Three Tours from Basic to Epic

The possibilities for backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering in Washington State are endless. I moved here from Utah five years ago, and though I’m a seasonally employed professional skier whose job is the exploration on skis of my home turf, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. While there are superb options for backcountry skiing near all of the state’s ski areas, the following ski tours give an idea of the more wild possibilities out there in the thousands of peaks and dozen-or-so volcanoes that make up the Cascade Range.  Local resources include the conditions and trip report website, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s site,, and Fred Beckey’s indispensible three-book Cascade Alpine Guide book series—the first is available here. Do your research, get educated, find a good partner, and get out there!

Heliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness

Heliotrope Ridge is an ideal introduction to Washington backcountry skiing, bringing into play all the requisite skills needed elsewhere in the state such as below-snowline approaches, glacier travel, and navigating in a whiteout. Glacier Creek Road, which goes from the Mount Baker Highway [see map] up to the trailhead, is frequently closed or snow-covered and staying up-to-date on its current condition is key. Check the Forest Service website here for road updates. From the trailhead, the 2.5-mile path through the forest is often ascended on foot with skis on the backpack, but sometimes deep snow lets you ski the whole way. After breaking out of the forest, the mountain begins in earnest. To the left are spectacular vistas of the heavily glaciated Mt. Baker (10,781ft) with its incredible Coleman Glacier plunging into the forested depths below. To the right is Heliotrope Ridge, an expansive zone of permanent snowfields and small glaciers offering a variety of lap-able ~600ft runs.


Skinning up Heliotrope Ridge on a windy day, looking at a natural avalanche releasing from the slopes of Mt. Baker.

2 Samuel Lozier skiing a steeper line on Mt. Baker high above the Coleman Glacier

Samuel Lozier skiing a steeper line on Mt. Baker high above the Coleman Glacier.

Only 31 miles from tidewater in the town of Bellingham, this is one of the snowiest places in the world, and depending on the year it can hold great skiing from September to late July. This area is also the starting point for a variety of routes to the summit of Mt. Baker, such as the Coleman-Deming or the North Ridge. Anyone skiing on the slopes of Mt. Baker must be prepared with proper glacier travel equipment and training. For example, while it may not be necessary to carry glacier gear to Heliotrope Ridge in midwinter or early summer, thin snowpack can hide crevasses in early winter or spring. Ski as many laps as you can before the sun goes down, jog down the trail back to the car, and hit up Chair 9 in the town of Glacier for après pizza and brew.

Little Tahoma (11,138ft), Mount Rainier National Park

Little Tahoma (or Little T) is a huge, intimidating-looking horn of volcanic rock standing on the flank of the biggest mountain in the Northwest, mighty Mt. Rainier. While it looks small standing next to the Great One, it is actually the third-highest peak in the state. Little Tahoma was once part of the main mass of Rainier, but was separated by erosion and the occasional lahar (a catastrophic mudflow caused when huge amounts of snow and ice melt due to thermal activity in the volcano).  But for all of the mountain’s instability and the unlikely appearance of the peak, its east face holds an amazing ski run.

Proper timing for access is crucial. While ambitious groups have reached the mountain from Paradise, Mt. Rainier National Park’s only winter access point, this long route requires precise navigation with the crossing of several large glaciers and ridges. The route from the Summerland Trail on Mt. Rainier’s White River Road [see map] is the preferred itinerary. White River Road is closed through the winter; the time to strike is right when it opens in late May or June. Check road conditions through MRNP’s website, and head up when you think the spring snow has been transformed into idyllic corn. Since you will be climbing above 10,000ft in the National Park, a climbing permit will be required and is available at the ranger’s station.

From the Summerland trailhead, ascend two to three miles up the hiking trail (skinning or hiking depending on your timing) until coming out of the forest and getting a full view of Mt. Rainier and its biggest glacier, the Emmons. Ascend the Frying Pan Glacier to your left, eventually crossing a ridge at 9,000ft onto the Whitman Glacier. As is true on many volcanoes and big mountains, judging scale can be tricky. Slopes that appear short from a distance are interminable on the ascent, and the name “Little Tahoma” may begin to feel like a bad joke. In all, from car to summit on Little T, you must climb around 7300 vertical feet.


Marq Diamond skis early summer snow down the Frying Pan glacier. 

From Whitman Glacier, the east face of Little Tahoma stretches upwards. Beware of one or two bergschrunds guarding access to the upper face, and as with any mission into glaciated terrain, proper training and equipment are a must. Excellent courses are available through a variety of Northwest institutions such as The Mountaineers, Pro Guiding Service, American Alpine Institute and many more. Climb snow on the east face as high as possible. During some years, snow stretches to just before the perilous summit, while in other years the final 200ft are a rock scramble. Standing on the summit is spectacular, but who’s to say an earthquake won’t topple the dangerously instable pinnacle from its lofty perch? As whenever you’re in the mountains, you must make your own decisions.


Eric Wherly standing on the unbelievable, but unnerving, summit of Little Tahoma.

Reverse the climbing route downhill on skis, and enjoy thousands of feet of groovy spring skiing in one of the grandest settings in the world. A funny hat, leopard-print leggings, and a cold beer aren’t necessary, but may add to the experience.

Spider Mountain (8280ft), North Cascades

Spider Mountain represents the full-on wilderness experience available to knowledgeable and ambitious backcountry skiers in Washington. Located deep in the spectacular North Cascades (though just outside the National Park boundary), Spider is guarded by complicated access logistics and a strenuous approach. Once/if you make it to the mountain itself, the north face is made up of steep, technical, and, for lack of a better word, gnarly ski terrain. It has only seen a handful of ski descents.

Skiing in this area is much more serious than in the previous two itineraries. You will truly be on your own, for while the area is popular with backpackers and mountaineers in the summer months, during winter and spring this slice of savage mountains and valleys is all but deserted. Your cell phone won’t work. Cougars and bears abound, and the weather can be atrocious. There is great vertical relief all around, and steep-sided valleys may place you at risk from icefall, rockfall, or avalanches while you’re minding your own business hiking through the woods. Plan to be completely self-sufficient should an emergency arise.

From the town of Marblemount on the North Cascades Highway, head up Cascade River Road [see map]. The road may be open all the way to the Cascade Pass trailhead in the spring, but most often when there’s enough snow for good skiing, the road is gated at Eldorado Creek, two miles from the trailhead. You can get updates on road conditions here. From wherever you park, you’ll first ascend to Cascade Pass, all the while looking up at the unbelievable north face of Johannesburg Mountain. Descend off the back of Cascade Pass, and climb toward Cache Col. Good bivouac spots are located on either side of the pass.


En route to Spider Mountain, a group settles into a hasty camp near Cache Col with a view of Mount Sahale across the valley.

Start very early the next day, and head toward the pass between Hurry Up Peak and Art’s Knoll, where you’re finally rewarded with a view of the north face of Spider.


Finally arriving at the last of three passes guarding access to the peak, Dan Helmstadter contemplates the north face of Spider Mountain.

Descend again to the base of the face and then begin climbing. Beware of cornices on the summit ridge, unstable ice cliffs near the bottom, and wind-loaded slab avalanches and/or ice. The face increases in steepness toward the top.


Ascending steep snow on Spider’s north face.

Touch the summit ridge, click in, and ski with caution. Keep in mind you’ll need to re-cross the three passes you covered to get here. You can sleep another night at your campsite, or if your wife/husband/boss is mad at you, push all the way out to the car. Check the edges of your skis, they might have turned to gold.


The work only half done, Eric Wherly begins the long exit back towards the car from Spider.

Drew “Champ” Tabke is the current Freeride World Tour champion and lives in Seattle, Washington. In 2014 he’ll again be defending his nation’s honor on the FWT battlefield. He looks forward to exploring the Cascades when he’s home, surfing if the opportunity arises, and modeling his public image after that of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

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