Overhead snow banks peppered with gravel and dirt lined the sides of Mt. Baker Highway as I drove into the upper parking lot of the ski area. Looking up the Chair 1 cable line, more than enough snow lay under the quiet lift to turn the bullwheels. It's a solid base, and much more than any rider would hope for on opening day, let alone the last week in May.
Blame normally falls on the U.S. Forest Service when the lifts stop, but from what I've gathered -- through years of questioning mountain management and those close to it -- the end of the lift-accessed snow sliding season in Washington has nothing to do with the expiration of any leases. Resorts just don't make any money in the spring. Come late-April, it's locals only and passholders aren't buying $10 chili bowls at lunch and $7 microbrews at the end of the day. The patrons who normally buy lift tickets, food and beverages gravitate back to their bikes, golf clubs, boats or significant others, paying no mind to their snowboard or the 10 feet of snow that still covers the mountains. And so the engines die.
And we hike.
A few years ago, Jesse Burtner told me that snowshoes are like, "mini snowmobiles for your feet." This is a lie. They just make your foot print bigger. Not that I needed either snowshoe or snowmobile. I came to Baker in May for a step-up jump session. It's an annual springtime event for a lot of shreds in Washington, and the week before I'd arrived, 100-plus college snowboard club members and their fans swarmed the jump spot just outside Mt. Baker's boundaries, leaving crushed beer cans and plastic water bottles laying in the snow for spring to absorb. My grandfather used to throw beer cans over the side of the boat when we went fishing, telling me he was creating homes for the creatures beneath us, and I thought he was a bastard, too. Pack out your trash, trashers.
Luckily six inches of new slush had fallen since the co-ed blowout. That was enough to cover most of the beer stains and smooth out the landing of the launcher that Burtner, Jason Robinson and Mike Yoshida were manicuring when I arrived with my South American advisor, Luke Strong. According to local intelligence fresh from the Santiago snowboard collective, the winter down south is going to go off this year.
But at Baker, with a sky more cloud than sun and the occasional rain drop turning to snow, I swapped my sweatshirt for a Gore-Tex jacket. Everyone hammered a few tricks off the wedge before the light was displaced from the frame. Our session concluded on a mini quarterpipe in the parking lot over a few handplants and general post-seasonal BS-ing. When the puddles inside my boots seeped through my footbeds and over my toes and I felt a cold front push over the Andes. I turned to my advisor, he told me to wait a month and a half, then go all in.