What is it, specifically, that makes the turns you earned sweeter? Is it the intimacy with the mountains? Or that sacred moment in the transition when a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which you have sack-lunched to work your whole life, suddenly tastes gourmet because you’re staring down at 2,000 vertical feet of untouched snow. Or is that it, the untouched snow?
Yeah. It’s probably that.
In a town that just really wants to go skiing, this is often somewhere near the start of most conversations on the mountain: “I came to school here, found the backcountry, and just never left.” Some of the more exciting perks about Bellingham and Mount Baker are the accessibility of backcountry skiing and how gorgeous the views can be. Yes, they’re practically posing for the camera. Baker has long been a backcountry haven for good reason. Pick a trailhead, and the options seem endless. But, as with all ski towns, you’ve got to earn your way to the more secret stashes (or luck your way into the heart of a local). Lucky for us, there are so many amazing options in the backcountry, whether they’re accessed via a quick chairlift, the resort’s “overflow backcountry” lot above the upper lodge, or from a dirt road off the 542.
Our favorites out of the backcountry lot are the Herman Saddle, Swift Creek, and Artist Point/Blueberry Chutes area. The Herman saddle takes you from the lot, across the basin floor, and up the mountain on your right. Look through the saddle as you skin up and catch an awesome shot of the Baker Volcano. This is more moderate backcountry skiing – if you’re looking for something a bit easier, head up towards Swift Creek.
Swift Creek is the perfect spot for beginners in the backcountry. Head up the Blueberry Cat Track along the side of the resort and then drop in over your left shoulder after passing through the gate. You can grab some quick laps in this drainage basin — the angle is mellow, and the skin back up is great approach for those learning to skin. Looking for something a bit more tough? Head right after the gate, past Swift Creek, towards Artist Point and Table Mountain, and drop in the Blueberry Chutes (facing towards the lot). These are much more difficult, so be sure to know the runout of the chute before dropping in because some have cliffs. They can be scouted from the cat track approach.
From the other side of the resort, ride Chair 8 to the top, and then hop on the boot pack to, yes, you guessed it, the Shuksan Arm. ‘The Arm’ is quite possibly one of the most photographed backcountry ski shots in the country, and it’s easy to see why. The ridgeline snakes up (eventually) to the shoulder of Shuksan Mountain. We’re not going that far though (…today). Two quick bootpacks from the chair deposit you on ‘The Arm,’ and from there, it’s scuba-diving time – put on your snorkel and find yourself practically swimming in the steep and deep snow as you carve your way down endless options of untouched snow. All lines will lead you back to the bottom of Chair 8. Be sure to always drop in on the left (north) side off of ‘The Arm.’ Oh yeah, bring a camera.
Heliotrope Ridge is another extremely popular backcountry option out of Bellingham. Off of the 542, right after passing through glacier towards Mt. Baker, take a right on Glacier Creek Road (Forest Road 39). Stay straight. After about 8 miles, you’ll hit the Heliotrope Ridge Trailhead. Unless the snow’s been dumping like crazy, bring your hiking boots and strap your skis/boots to your pack – you’ve got about an hour, hour and a half hike until snow level.
Follow the trail until you pop out on the glacier – head left or right, or straight, for the skiing of your choice, going as high up as you want. This glacier is the most popular approach route to summit the Mt. Baker volcano, an epic adrenaline-filled ski mountaineering adventure. Be sure to be aware of crevasses and always use safe glacier-travel protocols, such as rope teams, crampons, and ice axes. A Bellingham classic.