Saturday, February 25, 2012

Skiing the Cascades Backcountry: The Lure and the Danger

With several avalanche deaths at Washington ski areas last weekend, Northwest skiers and riders got a sobering reminder that even familiar, ski lift-accessible "backcountry" can turn deadly in a flash--no matter how expert, cautious, and prepared you are when venturing off-piste.

I've felt the pull of the backcountry, especially at Crystal Mountain where I used to teach skiing. Over lunch breaks, sometimes I'd tag along with my fellow instructor Mad Mountain Dean and do a lap in Silver Basin or Northway (before the lift went in). We'd hike out beyond the patrolled area and get our freshies in light, sometimes heavy, or even crusty snow, munching on Clif bars during the lift rides up.

Liker surfers searching for the perfect wave or a golfer working on that perfect swing, many of us skiers and riders dream of that perfect run of perfect turns down untracked, light, deep fresh snow. And it's even better when you've earned your turns with a hike away from the crowds.
I'll admit I've not been as prepared as I could be most of those trips out to the Southback and beyond.  Sure, I have an avalanche transceiver and shovel, but I haven't always taken them with me on these deceptively safe mini-adventures.

While I'm don't venture to Stevens Pass much nor did I personally know the expert skiers who perished there last weekend, I know people who knew them.  It's not that big a ski community here in the Northwest, although there are thousands of skiers and riders in the region. 

They were skiing an area most of them had skied many times before.  Those who skied down first were standing in the trees, out of the avalanche path. Or so they thought. However, nature happens.

So I'll think twice when I head out to the backcountry tomorrow, with all the fresh snow that fell today (if it's open).  How about you?  Have you had any close calls with avalanches?

May we all have stable slopes and safe runs. Be careful out there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

18 Hours in Downtown Portland

Yea, it was a pretty quick trip.  But my overnight to Portland last weekend was still as fun as usual. What's not to love about this friendly, walkable, charming, and uniquely hip Northwestern city parodied as Portlandia?

It's raining lightly when I pull into downtown a little after 6 p.m. on Friday. That's why we have raincoats, right?

I'm staying tonight at the Hotel Monaco, just a couple blocks from the Willamette River  and a block from Pioneer Square in the heart of downtown. Great location. I manage to find a meter spot on the street a couple blocks away,  where I can park until 8 a.m. tomorrow morning and avoid expensive overnight parking garage fees.

As I walk into the vibrantly colored hotel lobby, someone is playing the baby grand piano with a fast-paced flourish. A group is clustered in big chairs by the fireplace with a couple dogs in tow. I feel like I've just walked into someone's stylish, spacious, comfy home.

Hotel Monaco's inviting lobby
Stepping into one of Portland's excellent and trendy restaurants at 7:30 on a Friday night without a reservation is dicey. Instead we head to Jake's Grill several blocks uptown, which has been serving steaks, seafood, and more since 1992. There's a reason they've managed to stay in biz amidst Portland's competitive dining scene: the food is consistently high quality and well prepared.

My wild prawns are huge, sweet, and succulent, and the side of broccoli is steamed to perfection. My sister's Kobe beef potstickers and blackened steelhead salad are equally divine.  While I'm full, she indulges in a lovely berry cobbler a la mode baked in its own little cup. It disappears quickly.

After a nice dinner, I leave my dining companions to go meet a friend for a movie at the Living Room Theaters just a couple blocks away. Think modern, sophisticated, small-scale multiplex with state-of-the art equipment. Want a glass of wine or Scotch with the movie along with your freshly popped and exquisitely spiced popcorn?  A sleek bar/lounge fronts the theaters, where you can go for a drink even if you don't catch a film there.

Later as we're walking back to the hotel to relax and talk, I have to stop and take a sip of pure, sweet Bull Run water at one of downtown Portland's vintage drinking fountains. I loved these when I was a kid, too, when the thought of buying bottled water seemed silly and bizarre.

Downtown Portland's historic "Benson's bubblers" drinking fountains

For breakfast we wander a couple blocks over to Mother's and beat the Saturday morning crowds by getting there around 8:30.  Bill Clinton smiles at us from a framed photograph at the front counter, arms around whom I assume is Mother's chef or owner.  Mother's feels like Grandma's sorta fancy parlor. With my restricted diet right now, the personable waiter accomodates my special order without a blink (two eggs scrambled in olive oil with spinach and mushrooms, very tasty) .  This is Portland(ia) after all.

Dine under the chandeliers at Mother's Bistro and Bar

Walking back to the hotel, we pass some of Portland's historic old buildings, like the Bishop House across the street from Mother's and the Dekum. 

"Hey, I remember that building," says my sister as we stop to take a picture.  "I used to pick up antiwar leaflets in an office there to distribute when I was in high school."

The Dekum

The Bishop's House

Since my time is running out, I scoot uptown to spend an hour browsing at Powell's Books on the edge of the Pearl.  Today I walk out with just two new books, which isn't bad for me. At noon it's time to depart. Just a quick dip into all the exploring, shopping, dining, browsing to be done here in perfectly progressive Portland.

What are you favorite things to do in downtown Portland? 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Northwest Images, Views of Which I'll Never Tire: The Olympic Mountains

To several million inhabitants of the Puget Sound region, the resplendent Olympic Mountains splayed across the western horizon enchant us on sunny days. Perhaps this view is what might have lured some of you transplants here?

I'll never tire of gazing at these jagged mountains, whose serrated peaks slice the sky for over 60 miles south to north.  And neither do most of us who live or pass through here.  One late winter afternoon I recall sitting in a downtown Seattle highrise meeting with otherwise no-nonsense scientists and engineers who all stopped to gape at a particularly spectacular sunset behind the Olympics.

On days like today, suffused with brilliant mid-winter sunshine that sends us Mossbacks searching for our long unused sunglasses, the snow-encrusted Olympics are particularly stunning. But then, some might argue that the peak viewing time of year for these peaks is a crisp fall day after the first major snowfall of the season. Or a bright and breezy spring day. Or any day, really.

One of the best places to view the Olympics is while driving northbound on the Alaskan Way Viaduct (slated for demolition, hopefully before it crumbles in a major earthquake).  Unfortunately the viaduct is a terrible place from which to snap some photos, especially if you're driving.  Better to go to a beach like Golden Gardens.

One of my favorite Olympic-viewing spots is from the deck of a Washington State Ferry, preferably mid-Sound from Colman Dock. But the Fauntleroy-Vashon and Edmonds-Kingston runs are also great.

And of course I can't neglect to mention the Olympic Sculpture Park. Just last night as I was driving past the park in the early evening twilight, the Calder sculpture with the dusky orange-rimmed mountaintops in the background was glorious.  I wished I'd had my camera. But the image is burned in my mind anyway.

How about you?  What's your favorite place to sit and sigh at the beauty of these mountains?