The Other Baker Backcountry
Last ski season was a rough season for me, and one telling metric was that I did not visit the Baker Backcountry a single day. From Issaquah, it is a long drive and it only feels worth it when there is good visibility and stability. Remarkably, Logan had never been to the Baker Backcountry, so when there appeared to be a good window, he convinced me and John to make the trek.
I have spent a fair amount of days skiing around the Bagley Lakes Basin, Herman Saddle, and Ptarmigan Ridge. I wanted to do some more exploration further out. A few years ago, Jon and I toured out to Mt. Ann. I knew that zone would hold untracked powder for many days and escape the effects of the sun. So I drew up a tour that would start from Heather Meadows, venturing out to Mt. Ann and returning back through the “Hollywood” zone of the Shuksan Arm to the White Salmon Lodge.
It was an overcast day, with high clouds and a noticeable breeze, even at the parking lot. This breeze would foreshadow conditions we found later on. We cruised up to Austin Pass, skied the tracked out Swift Trees, and began the long skin over towards Mt. Ann.
No skiers had ventured out this way yet, but some intrepid snowshoers had. We mostly followed their track, which involved a good amount of down-skinning. Logan expertly led us through the woods, demonstrating why he has earned the nickname “Dr. Downskin”.
Mt. Ann requires a lengthy approach, but I enjoyed the opportunity to lay a beautiful skintrack that gently wound its way up towards the saddle, minimizing kick turns and staying low angle and efficient. I think I take more pride in my uptracks than downtracks. I felt great, and did not stop once all the way to the saddle. Remarkably, it took 2:40 from the car, nearly exactly the same as the last time.
On our way up, and at the saddle, we found a surprisingly strong south wind. There was considerable wind effect and small slabs popped off as we skinned up the ridge to the summit of Mt. Ann. It seemed like we could have skied off the north side in an area that was less wind effected, but the snow was actually pretty good on the east aspect, so we decided to take the better lighting and ski off to the east! And the photo-op was absolutely beautiful!
The high clouds created an orange glow on the horizon, a sort of endless sunset. It was beautiful lighting.
We skied the rolling, post glacial terrain down towards the lake, before skinning up to Annette Peak. There was a party of four that we had passed down in Swift Creek that finally made it up Mt. Ann, and we watched them drop onto the north side of Mt. Ann. They were probably confused to find a full skin track, but no tracks down the north side, and no return tracks. I guess it was their lucky day!
The east and north side of Annette are steep and probably do not get skied frequently. We debated a few options but ultimately settled on the simplest and safest way to get down. This time, it was Logan’s turn to hold the camera and mine to ski.
We skipped our way through the vast, endless rolling post glacial terrain, trending northeast. Shuksan loomed above us, towering 6000 feet above the valley. The scale and complexity of the Baker Backcountry is truly on a different level than Snoqualmie or Crystal. Logan and John were simply in awe of the terrain all day.
We probably should have traversed a little further left, because I ended up skiing down a steep slope of mini trees that ended in a cliff. I had to sideslip powder-covered alder to get down, but I was able to direct Logan and John to a better route.
We were now at a flat bench that would lead us up to Lake Ann. More trailbreaking beckoned. Even though the terrain looks simple on a map, there were endless bumps and creeks, slowing our progress. But the shadows and lines on the snow were beautiful all around us.
We found the snowshoe track from earlier at Lake Ann. From Lake Ann, we continued northwards up the gentle ridge towards the Shuksan Arm. The southwest facing slope here was remarkably not sun crusted and very tempting to ski. But I knew that we needed to continue onwards because the day was short and there were many unknowns remaining. This was not a day for farming vert efficiently and padding the Strava stats, but rather feeding the soul, exploring, and soaking in the giant mountains around us. This is “the other Baker Backcountry” – vast, uncrowded, and stunningly beautiful.
One steep slope brought us to a ridge outcropping at 5850 ft, with great views to the north.
My plan was to drop into a long north facing couloir from above. While skiing the Northwest Couloir of Shuksan a few years ago, we had spotted this incredible tube from the White Salmon Drainage. I don’t know if it has a name and don’t know anyone who has skied it, but Nick heard it was called “The Tube of Terror”, and Nick is the couloir expert in the Cascades. If you watch the Cody Townsend “The Fifty” Shuksan episode closely (1:44), you’ll noticed a subtle one second clip of him skiing in the Tube. Since I had not seen a booter in the Tube in the video, I assumed Cody had toured out the Shuksan Arm from the resort.
Logan traversed over and radioed for me and John to come over. I descended towards the constriction. Suddenly, the snow changed from settled powder to a punchy windcrust. I picked up the top three inches of snow as a clean windcrust. The decision to bail was an easy one. I could not quite see into the Tube, but I could see that it was narrow with a vertical ice pillar coming down one of the overhung walls. Unfortunately, today was not the day for the Tube!
We skinned back up to the ridge and reevaluated. Logan had spotted a spot where we could get through cornices into a large north facing bowl down a few hundred feet. So we transitioned and made our way down. These turns were steep, sunny face shots – perhaps the best turns all day.
Down at the ridge, Logan slipped around the cornices and into the north facing bowl. He actually triggered a small wind slab at a rollover, digging his edges in to hold his ground. The slide would not have carried him far or been harmful, but it definitely confirmed our decision to back off on more aggressive lines. Below this spot, the snow returned to wonderful, protected powder.
The sidecountry terrain on the Shuksan Arm is a wickedly complex maze of tubes, cliffs, bowls, and tight trees. At this point, we were trying to find the most efficient way back to the resort. Even with LIDAR slope angle shading on Caltopo, I still was not confident of specific lines. We ended up picking our way through another tube, which had bad wind effected snow. We were surprised to see wind effect so far below ridgelines.
We traversed as far as possible, before skinning once again to join up with other sidecountry tracks, the first signs of other people we had seen in what felt like ages. At this point, the resort looks so close, but there are still many gullies and features to navigate. We chose to just follow the sidecountry booters, switching between skiing and booting four separate times before finally making it to the resort. The light was fading fast, but the alpenglow on Shuksan meant we had a full day of adventure.
The resort had closed an hour ago, but we quickly found some nice citizens who offered to drive John back to our car at the Heather Meadows lot. So Logan and I had some time to chill, and admire the looming darkness engulfing Shuksan.
At the beginning of each ski season, I am usually just farming vert and getting my fix of powder. But inevitably, there comes a point where I am ready to give up turns for adventure and exploration. This day was about as inefficient as it could get, breaking trail all day, repeating no skin tracks, and backing out on a line. But I have entered this ski season with a renewed focus on everything other than the actual skiing – the adventure, the wonder, and the people. I can’t forget that I started out skiing just to travel in the mountains in a new way and see new places. This awesome day with Logan and John in the Baker Backcountry captured the spirit of that younger version of myself.
- Our route measured about 12 miles and 6000 ft gain, taking about 8 hours. It felt much harder than the stats due to all the trailbreaking, flats, and down-skinning.
- I was once again reminded how complex the terrain is in the Baker Backcountry. There are all kinds of rollover, creeks, and cliffs you have to be aware of.
- We found substantial wind effect even well below ridges where terrain funneled wind. In other spots, we found minimal wind effect even at ridgeline. It was not always easy to predict so we had to stay alert and vigilant.
- It would have been great to start a little earlier and allow for farming some of the zones we passed by. So much skiing to do!
- I think a more efficient way to do the exit would have been to skin back up to the Shuksan Arm after our first run off the Arm and do another run closer to the resort to exit without any skinning or booting. But the Shuksan Arm has very complex terrain and you might get confused unless you are very familiar with it. Do not underestimate the sidecountry!
- I would advise against booting up the Tube from the White Salmon drainage. Skiers can get out there from the resort via the Arm very quickly and cannot see down the line. It is also likely possible to skin to the top of the line from beneath the White Salmon Glacier.
4 thoughts on “Ann Hollywood Tour”
I believe what you skied off the Arm is called Hidden Bowl.
I would never climb up the Tube of Terror…. Given how people approach lines off of Shuksan Arm, I think you’d be guaranteed to have a rider on a solid board drop in on you. They can get out there surprisingly fast.
Yeah I wouldn’t climb up the Tube either, given that you can also skin up to the top from the White Salmon I think. Maybe I’ll amend that. I think top down is the better approach anyways.
Wow! What a great adventure, and amazing photos!.
Yes, lapping a face for powder turns is fun, but this is true living! Exploring, moving through the mountains, and you still got a few turns in too!
It was the best adventure of the season so far!