Endless Winter in El Chaltén
What happens when a place you love with all your heart morphs into something you long feared, descending into madness before your very eyes?
In skiing, we have all seen that story, time and time again, where the first waves of adventurers report back to our culture in a cycle that brings in more and more migrants searching for a promised land where the lines are enormous, and the powder is deep. A backlash of localism follows, but we are mountain people, defined by welcome and united across countries and cultures by a search for the exact definition of nirvana — a state of perfect happiness; an ideal or idyllic place.
In Washington, like many places in the United States, these waves have hit our nirvana hard in the past few years. Many factors, such as mega pass consolidation, Seattle’s tech boomtown economy, massive regional growth, and a complete corporate organizational failure at Stevens Pass Ski Resort, have all played a role. Those factors have combined with the pandemic rush to outdoor recreation (a surge that some sources estimate was a 300 per cent increase) and the closure, then half-closure, of the Canadian border that slowed and snarled traffic to Whistler, Washington state’s most prominent ski vacation destination.
For longtime Pacific Northwest skiers, it was an imperfect storm. The result across the state has been weekend park-outs, reservation-to-ski systems, skyrocketing ticket prices, season pass lockouts and biblical powder day gridlocks. It happened fast, and we’re all still catching our breath, including ski area communities and management.
Anyone who has spent time in Whistler lately, or at any Vail Resort, has seen the wreckage that unchecked visitation and soulless ownership can cause. At Mt. Baker’s Cascade Range neighbour, Stevens Pass, 44,000 locals signed a class-action petition against Vail Resorts’ mismanagement, calling into question their deceptive consumer practices and corporate use of our public land for unchecked profit. With this revolt, they drew a harsh, angry line in the snow between the ownership and the skiing classes.
For a long time, the alternative was Mt. Baker, a still locally-owned and independent-minded ski resort at the remote dead end of a precarious two-laner. Yet even in this corner of the North Cascades, just a few miles south of the Canadian border, the mythical powder oasis has not been immune to park outs, price hikes, focus groups and hard limits on season pass sales. It’s a problem with no good solution short of turning our ski areas into country clubs where access comes at a steeper and steeper price or, metaphorically, locking the backcountry gate behind you.
At its core, we are all part of the problem, me included, as a two-time migrant to Baker who came back for the same reasons the new waves have swarmed here.
So, what is a mountain soul to do? How do we ski that line between encouraging responsible visitation and allowing open-arms access without blowing up a treasured surf spot beyond recognition? Even without an ownership or localism stake, we’re all invested because once paradise is lost, it rarely returns.
The solutions are few and fraught. Blaming corporate capitalism is the prevailing sentiment, but without recreation-based economies, we wouldn’t have chairlifts, ski brands or mountain towns. And, as Americans, we distrust anything that smells of socialism. Expansion of terrain is another white whale, but in our PNW region, most resorts run literally up against National Park or Wilderness Area boundaries, a clear no-go into the hallowed ground of conservationism.
Scheduling out ski days or reserving our parking spots has been a widely adopted default in other areas throughout the region, but who wants to gamble on conditions months in advance? We all want to ski when and where it snows — just like not hitting the beach when it rains. Some of my closest friends say the answer is to ski, not more, but less.
In the Pacific Northwest, at least for now, there is no easy fix. Like skiing in complex mountain terrain, the best route forward is often difficult to find, fraught with many potential dangers, and most challenging of all — everyone has a different opinion. In the meantime, without a doubt, we should all be voting with our ski dollars for visions we believe in that aim to preserve the character of the places and cultures we hold dear — even if those visions are still cloudy and crystallizing.
That conflicted soliloquy is why I’ve decided to tell you that it only rains at Baker.
At one time, I would tell everyone who’d listen about the legendary snowfalls and deep Cascadian snowpacks in an orographic vortex that set the world record for snowfall with 1,140 inches of snowfall in the legendary winter of ’98-’99. Once I would write about the steep, sustained backcountry lines on Shuksan Arm and Table Mountain, where pro athletes, guides and local heroes ply their trades with humility and respect.
But understand my stance if I play up the soggy Pineapple Express that now hits more often. Or talk about how heavy our snow is here due to our low-elevation, nearly coastal location. I’ll remind you that snow levels are climbing with climate change, and Baker sits low. I’ll complain more now about the big city commuter crowds making it tough to find a seat in the taproom. I’ll pine for the days when fewer folks knew the secrets of a place where localism was earned rather than given so freely. I’ll ask you to read between the lines when you read the snow report.
Yes, the community at Baker will still welcome you here as they have since its first chairlift was installed at Pan Dome in 1954. The culture will still feel misty and deep and local and authentic. While a ski house in Glacier may no longer rent for cheap, the bonfires still rage, and Chair Nine still serves as the local shrine. And, even if you’re not house-rich, you can still roll in and park your van, your bus, or your camper overnight at Mt. Baker’s White Salmon parking lot for a reasonable fee and the best view in skiing. It’s not fancy, but it still feels like paradise.
Just roll in with respect and consideration for how easily it could all slide away. It’s a skier’s pledge — to treasure the good we still have and to be vocal about protecting it, even if that means telling a few white lies. But don’t be surprised if it rains on your powder day — and maybe post that soggy photo instead.