Friday, January 9, 2009

Kicking and Gliding into the New Year

Our ski season was a little late getting started this year, but it heated up to full boil quickly. With several big snowfalls in the Cascades the last month, Northwest skiers and riders are out shredding and gliding in the new year. Where are some good spots to get started?

I like to warm up gradually my first few times out each season. This year my first trip to the mountains is to cross-country ski on the Iron Horse Trail just east of Snoqualmie Pass.

The section of this 110-mile-long former railroad/now recreational trail that runs along Keechelus Lake is kick-and-glide and skating heaven. Starting at an old train depot below present-day Hyak*, you can ski over 15 miles out and back on a wide, tracked and groomed, mostly flat trail. (My late aunt remembered taking the ski train from Seattle up here to ski at the long-gone Milwaukee Ski Bowl.)

When we pull into the parking area a little after 9:30 a.m., less than a dozen vehicles are in the lot. We’re ahead of the crowds. It’s snowing lightly and a chilly 22 degrees. After a pit stop in the heated bathrooms in the converted train depot, we’re off to the groomed track trail.

With a fresh layer of light snow atop a decent base, skiing today is smooth and fast. After a half mile or so, we start getting glimpses of the slate gray lake to our left as we’re headed east. We pass through corridors of tall evergreens encrusted with a thick layer of snow.

A couple miles from the parking lot, a bathroom lies just off the trail. This is a perfect stop for 5-year-old Lena, the youngest in our group today. In years past we’ve skied down off the trail and had lunch at the picnic table nearby, but today it’s obscured by a thick blanket of snow.

“Let’s ski to the avalanche zone and then think about lunch,” says Mark. We ski a few more miles and reach a sign on the trail warning that we’re entering an avalanche and rockslide zone.

With an early melt and freeze atop the base layer of snow this season, Cascade slopes will be more prone than usual to avalanches throughout the winter and spring. Along the lake in the avalanche zone, the slope just above the trail stretches about 30 feet up to the treeline.

Those of us in the lead decide to proceed with caution. After I turn around and head back, a man skiing past me points to the slope just 10 feet to my left and says “This looks like it could let loose any time.” I glance over and realize, yikes! He’s right. Something about the heavy set of the thick snow on the short but steep slope looks ominous. (I bet after the heavy rainstorm a couple days ago these slopes did slide.)

When we all meet up at a spot overlooking Keechelus Lake for lunch, Mark and John pull out their avalanche shovels and dig us a bench in the snow just off the trail. We pull out tarps and sit pads, and out come the thermos of hot tea, sandwiches, and leftover Christmas goodies.

On the way back I decide to pick up my pace a bit for the exercise. Lucky Lena gets towed by her parents, so they get good exercise regardless of their slower pace. By the time we get back to the parking lot at 2 p.m., it’s packed with cars and families using the sledding hill just north of the lot. Good time to head out.

When You Go
The Iron Horse Trail is also called the John Wayne Trail. Heading east on I-90, take the Hyak exit (Exit 54). At the bottom of the exit take a left before the entrance to Summit East ski area and then a right at the sign to the Hyak Sno-Park. You’ll need an annual Washington State Sno-Park permit or you can pay $10 when you get there for a day parking pass. Go early! It gets busy after 10 a.m. on the weekends.

*Hyak, or Summit East ski area, was hit by a massive snow and mudslide this week, likely shutting them down for the ski season. This shouldn’t affect the Iron Horse Trail, but check online before you head up.


Barry said...

Great photos, Jill. And I'm glad that you were safe - the slides, avalanches, and floods of the last week remind us that nature will have its way, no matter what.

Linds said...

That route looks like fun, I will have to give it a try! Can't believe how much snow there was.

Anonymous said...

Nice story Jill. Lovely time by all! Lena liked seeing her photo on your blog.

Anonymous said...

Jill, I can feel the cold and snow, love to read about your adventures, Mary Lou