Turns on the Fourth of July

Katelyn Steen
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The Fourth of July packing list: trekking poles, jacket, trail mix, beer.... And skis? The best part of this past Fourth of July for Washingtonians was the snow. It wasn't very deep. It certainly wasn't fresh. It was indisputably hard to reach. But it was there, begging to be skied.

Hannegan Pass is just northeast of Mt. Baker, and the trailhead is about 70 - 80 minutes outside of Bellingham. The pass snakes its way into the Cascades for about four miles, a pretty straightforward trail with not many turns. Joined by friends, Will Jones and Katelyn Steen, the hike wasn’t walked so much as it was charged: the feeling of skis on our backs, the snow covered peaks surrounding us as we left the valley - everything was reigniting that spark of energy reserved for winter adventures. The day before I had even waxed my skis, just looking for an excuse to pull the equipment out a couple hours early.

Starting the day on foot at Hannegan Pass Trailhead in search of snow
Starting the day on foot at Hannegan Pass Trailhead in search of snow Katelyn Steen

I think “giddy” is the word I can use to describe the anticipation.

An hour and a half later we reached the pass. We’d spent the hike stepping through meandering waterfalls, hopping over fallen trees and crossing over snow bridges, slowly climbing higher and higher. Nature offered a split personality. Behind us was luscious green forest and a true Northwest summer. Ahead of us was glaring white snow on peaks that are usually bare by July.

As we transitioned to our skis and splitboard and realized how hot the day was going to be, we joked about our mistakes and oversights. First of all, we had no sunscreen, and the bluebird day was already pricking at our skin. Second, there was the issue of water. Not having the patience to use the gravity filter again this morning, Will and Katelyn had filled their water bottle with stream water. The potential threat of Giardia became a thought. Surely, water taken from a fast-moving stream this close to the source is clean, right? Since my water bottles were practically empty, I was nearly ready to begin playing with fate as well.

Water break on the way up
Water break on the way up Katelyn Steen

As sweat fogged up our sunglasses, my friends gave up skinning and strapped their gear back on their backpacks. The snow was too slushy to grab our skins, and it was getting steep enough that bootpacking up would be an appropriate method of ascending. My stubborn streak held out as long as it could, but as I watched Will and Katelyn catch and then plow past me through the last couple hundred yards, I conceded defeat, threw my skis on my shoulder, and followed suit, hoofing it up behind them.

With every boot punch into the steep chute, I’d toss a handful of snow into my mouth. Who needs water when you’ve got half-melted July snow?

When we reached our lofty destination, we sat against the rock wall at the top of the pass for nearly an hour soaking in the view. As the shadow slowly crept up higher and the sun crawled westward, we caught glimpses of skiers taking turns on the adjacent Ruth Mountain. Behind them, framed between peaks like an oil painting, Mount Shuksan rose above us.

Katelyn Steen mesmerized by the towering Mount Shuksan
Katelyn Steen mesmerized by the towering Mount Shuksan Brian Bates
Katelyn Steen skinning up the side of Hannegan Pass
Katelyn Steen skinning up the side of Hannegan Pass Brian Bates

Time to ski! Understandably, we flew the American flag. 'Old Glory' waving airborne over our Fourth of July turns. The snow was slush and the lap was short, but I’d like to think those were some of the prettiest turns I’ll ever ski... in July, of course.

Since we were on the wrong side of 3:00pm, we only had time for a single lap. But we made the most of that run. We shot through tree gaps, trying to squeeze any ounce of air out of any lip of snow. The faster I skied, the faster the flag fluttered behind my pack. And just like that, the run was over. We arrived at the snow line, looking down the cleared trail that led back home.

Brian Bates skiing down the slushy snow beneath the pass, flying the flag for the Fourth
Brian Bates skiing down the slushy snow beneath the pass, flying the flag for the Fourth Katelyn Steen

As we stepped out of our bindings and passed around high fives, some backpackers passed by on the way down the trail. They’d been up for a couple days, and were looking to shed some weight from their packs.

“Hey, you guys wouldn’t happen to want any beer, would you?”

Will was over there in a matter of seconds, and soon came back with a couple of tallboys. We declared 3:50pm a fantastic time for a snow beer, and passed around two of them, saving one each for the bottom. Hub Lager had never tasted so good. Remembering our scarcity of water, it tasted even better. Beer is 95% water, right?

Heading back down
Heading back down Katelyn Steen

Driving home, I found myself in the midst of an impromptu parade, courtesy of the small town of Glacier, WA. A handful of bikers in costume, clearly straight from the bar, and a couple cars crawling along at 5 mph sounding their horns rolled on by. In front of me, some paddlers with a whitewater raft strapped on top of a van passed around what looked like champagne. Not a bad end to the day.

It wasn’t the most typical Fourth of July. But up here, in the upper left corner of the Cascades, it fits in pretty perfectly. Such is the beauty of this great, diverse nation.

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