Friday, February 25, 2011

Skiing Snoqualmie Pass: It’s not always SnoCrummie

I like to think of Snoqualmie Pass (a.k.a. the Summit at Snoqualmie) as Northwest grunge skiing.

It’s about 1,000 feet lower in elevation than most other Washington ski areas and often lives up to its nickname: Snocrummie. And it doesn’t have nearly the size or vertical of Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, also easy day trips from the Seattle area.

So what’s to love?

On a good day when the snow is fresh, the freezing level hasn’t risen yet (it will soon), and the sun shines, Alpental is an expert skier’s dream. In part because it is so close to Seattle and not a destination resort, Alpental’s hidden chutes, accessible backcountry, and varied terrain are local Northwest skiers’ private playground. (Well, private is a bit of an exaggeration since thousands of Seattle area skiers and riders play there each season.)

Tucked away up a hidden valley off Interstate 90 near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness boundary, Alpental feels alternately cozy and thrilling. While I’m not a hard core Alpental skier, I’ve been there enough over the years to have experienced some truly awful skiing conditions (icy, rocky) and exhilarating times (fresh pow, gorgeous views).

Alas, I wasn’t able to sneak away from work yesterday to make tracks in the foot+ of fresh, cold snow at Snoqualmie Pass (“The best day at Alpental I’ve ever had!” gushed a mutual friend… sigh), but I did enjoy one of my best days ever at Alpental last weekend.

We pull into the uppermost parking lot early enough to get a good spot—good enough to ski down to the lift from the car and then to ski back to the car. Really, parking doesn’t get any better than this.

Sunshine, electric blue sky, and decent snow make for a great day skiing. We warm up with a run down the tree-lined gully that is Debbie’s Gold (named after Olympic gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, who grew up skiing and racing at Alpental), then head up Chair 2 to the top.

With an amazing, glorious 360° view from the top, I have to stop and gape. To the north, volcano Glacier Peak rises above the rugged, lesser Cascade peaks of Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Southeast, Lake Keechelus shimmers light blue against the darker blue mountains, and southward Mount Rainier is partially visible above Denny Mountain. Sinuous tracks slice through Sharon Bowl in the backcountry just northwest beyond upper International.

Since there’s not much of a lift line yet on Chair 2, we take a couple quick runs down Edelweiss Bowl, a nice mix of short but fairly steep up top that mellows to a good cruiser run. Between our first and second run, the snow softens up a bit.

While it’s a cold day, with temps in the 20s, we get plenty warm skiing down International, Alpental’s premier black diamond run. After a short stretch of bumps to the lip, there’s no choice but to plunge right in to the very steep, usually icy entrance. At first I sideslip tentatively and do a little whining until Rich says “You just have to straighten your skis and drop in.”

Done. And then the fun really begins.

North-facing upper and lower International (“Nash” to locals) stays shaded enough that the snow is usually pretty nice up here. Unless of course it warms up (yes, it will) and then freezes again. But the pitch is consistent and steep, but not too steep, and long enough for some great skiing.

Aaahhhh kind of skiing. Big-smile-evoking skiing.

Today we don’t continue traversing across International into the backcountry, but I see some nice tracks out there. A slight downside to the backcountry is the narrow, sometimes harrowing runout at the bottom.

Regardless, it’s a marvelous day with marvelous skiing and scenery. Sure, Alpental doesn’t have the scope of a larger mountain, but it’s got it all in a more compact form and breeds great skiers.

When You Go
Just go! Preferably on a weekday when the crowds are down. Alpental is about 50 miles east of Seattle off I-90’s Exit 52. If you’re coming from the west, take a left at the exit. At $58/day for adults, tickets at the Summit are slightly cheaper than at Stevens or Crystal.


Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.

Lesley said...

Awesome photos! Now put on your x-c skis sometime and come to Echo Ridge above Lake Chelan. Lots of great trails and beautiful vistas also. :)

Anne said...

Your photos are exquisite! Thank you!

jill said...

Hey Les, would love to come ski w/you above Chelan! Maybe this month....

Thanks Anne!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your posts. Hard to find people who love to talk about their adventures around the northwest (especially hiking/backcountry-ing). Check out my blog and let me know what you think, if you care to!


jill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jill said...

Trying again without the typo!

Hi Scott,
Thanks for your comment, although I think there a lots of folks who like to talk Northwest adventures! Check out my blog link to Turns All Year (backcountry skiing blog). I checked out your blog, really interesting! Like the concept.

Joyful mind,

Anonymous said...

I like E. WA too for x-country - but have to say that we skied right here at Snowqualmie just last week -going around the tracks along Lake Kacheelus...and it was (amazingly) great powder, light and easy. A great family outing, that we ended by sledding at the big hill just south of Hyak. Take the family!

maryann said...

I like E.WA too for x-county skiing, but have to say that just last weekend we went skiing at Snoqualmie, around Lake Kacheelus and it was (amazingly) powder, light and easy. We ended the day by sledding with the kids on the sled hill just south of Hyak. Take the family!