Steinbeck said it right: This has been, to steal a famous line from the writer, the winter of our discontent.
Unless you are a lucky soul living in Jackson, or perhaps Japan, or even skiing through the streets in a northeast storm, ski season just hasn’t felt right in 2014/2015. Like someone hit fast-forward on winter, skipped ahead, and is now skinning up to ski shirtless laps in the sun-soaked terrain.
Which brings us to what’s becoming an infamous term in some skiing destinations, including Bellingham: Junuary, the tortuous time of the year when, if you happen to lose your calendar and look up into the mountains, you guess it to be June rather than January.
And although we’re now into February, the symptoms of Junuary are still lingering, especially in the Northwest: soft, slushy, snow; patches of rock and dirt mid-mountain; depressed skiers turning to their mountain bikes.
Kayakers love it, as a warm winter means crazy water levels; so do mountain bikers. Even rock climbers, typically confined to indoor gyms this time of year, are sneaking out on the sunny days to hit the rocks.
But true powder hounds? We’re banging our heads against the snow bank—if we can find one, that is. Frustration sets in. Followed by impatience. Then desperation, delusion, and bouts of (weirdly warm) chills. You go up to the mountains, but leave your extra layer behind, and pack sunscreen. Your significant other begins to worry about you.
Spring skiing isn’t terrible; in fact, it’s often pretty fun. But there’s one problem with it right now: It’s February. No offense to warm weather, but spring skiing needs to stay in the spring. January needs to be full of heavy storms, big dumps, and powder stashes left and right. And, whether you’re a fan or not, there should be considerably less shirtless skiing in January.
This troubling trend is particularly evident in the North Cascades. Gripe all you want about the wet, heavy snow: At times like these, there is something to be said for quantity, which the North Cascades usually has in spades. Usually . Relative to the rest of the country, this mountain range has always been able to sit on top of the snowfall rankings every season. This time around? Not so much.
However, skiers are a stubborn breed. If the calendar claims it’s January, no matter how sunny the skies, by all means it’s ski season. Which brings us to Bellingham.
Come late January, with the lower half of the Mount Baker Ski Resort still closed due to lack of snow, our group pulled up to the Heather Meadows overflow parking lot under bright blue skies. If there’s no new snow, might as well make it a bluebird day, right? Before we had even stepped into our skis we had already shed layers, opting to leave the puffy jackets behind. It was going to be a warm one for this afternoon of spring skiing at Table Mountain.
We skinned up the cat track until we passed by the Swift Creek drainage. It looked tempting, but we slogged onward and upward. Rounding the chimney, we picked out a precious ridgeline in the sun behind Table Mountain. We could have traversed high, but chose to get in a few turns before heading up towards the ridge. As we dropped in behind Table Mountain, the sun had not yet softened the snow to mush, and the turns were surprisingly pleasant. The lap was quick but gave us a nice taste of what was to come.
Much too soon, we were back to gaining vertical. Noon came and went, but we kept skinning. In front of us, off in the far distance, Baker loomed. Or was that a cloud? Turns out, it was both. The volcano was draped in a lenticular cloud. Perched over the summit, the collection of air and moisture was stagnant and stationary, hovering still against a royal blue sky.
Reaching our destination, we sat down for a quick snack of turkey sandwiches and trail mix. Then, dropping off the north side of the ridge, we skied a few quick laps under the sun. The angle was low, but the run was long and full of fun lips. We launched ourselves into the warm air, throwing spread eagles our folks would be proud of.
However, time was ticking. More than an hour from the car, we had to start thinking about returning. Another downside of Junuary is the deceiving sun: Daylight disappears in a flash, especially up north in the Cascades.
Saying goodbye to our playground, we began our return through the middle saddle on Table, shadows tailing us. We skinned up to the small notch and into the shade—this was some of the rare snow that hadn’t seen the sun all day. We skied crust, but without the usual light dust. The scrape of our skis on ice as we descended to Bagley Lakes and the lot was painful to hear, but the vertical was worth it. In a season like this, with a Junuary we’d like to soon forget, we take what we can get.