The snow itself is lonely or, if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of only one thing and one thing only.
– Joseph Wood Krutch
As always, the process of choosing a destination was a struggle.
We had finagled a weekend where our party of five could all get away together for a snowshoe camping trip. This necessitated starting the planning process long ago – we thought about Rainier (too far to drive), the Wells Creek road (not enough elevation) and a variety of other potential destinations both familiar and unknown. Finally, a few days before taking off, we settled on White Salmon Creek, accessed by snowshoeing the White Salmon road off of the Mt. Baker Highway below the lower lodge of the ski area. After copious pondering and much poring over topo maps, it crystallized into a plan and when Friday night rolled around we found ourselves heading up the Mt. Baker Highway, heady with the prospect of a weekend in the snow-covered North Cascades. We camped beside the Nooksack River at a favorite overnight stop on the way to the mountains.
As usual, we were the only ones there. The sky was clear and a mantle of stars provided the canopy for our roaring campfire. In the morning we’d hike into the valley of the White Salmon. The evening passed beside the fire, telling stories and laughing the generous laugh of people enjoying an evening in the woods. The night grew cold, but we were warm by the fire in our layers of polypro and fleece.
The morning air was emphatically cold, and the sky held the promise of coming snow. Our camp was surrounded by tracks in the snow beside the river: John identified them as elk. We made coffee and breakfast beneath giant cedars and then set off up the road towards the mountain. It began to snow, lightly at first. As we ascended, the snow fell harder, reducing visibility to a hundred feet. We pulled off at the White Salmon snow park and loaded our packs and the infamous sledge, a converted plastic sled that Gary had commandeered from his kids. Over the years we’ve refined our sledge technique considerably. Stowing essential items in a dry bag, we lashed it on using an elegant rope system of Gary’s devising. We strapped on our snowshoes and donned our packs. Gary slipped into the sledge harness and we set off into the snow up the White Salmon road.
We followed the road up and over a rise and then began the long descent into the valley of White Salmon creek. At an obscure junction we turned right, paralleling the creek, presumably somewhere below. The snow was really flying and our views were limited to the other members of the party in the swirling white.
The route became rougher as our route passed through thickets of slide alder. Passage was awkward – the sledge kept getting hung up in the trees. Joe hauled it through the worst of it and the route petered out on a little bench amongst the trees. We decided to make camp here on a more-or-less level patch of snow. As we put up the tents and excavated a living room/kitchen in the snow, the snow kept falling.
Dusk fell and we ate our dinner by headlamp beneath a tarp in the drifting snow, taking turns shoveling off the tents which were quickly becoming buried. Dick produced a bottle of fine port and we toasted our good fortune. Then one by one, it was off to the business of dreams in the deep snow-bound night.
In the morning, the sky was clear and blue, the storm spent. We dug ourselves out of our tents and emerged into a world of white, blinking in the intense brightness. A foot of new snow had fallen overnight and the world was sparkling and hushed. Gary put the water on for morning coffee and we relaxed with our steaming mugs, enjoying a leisurely breakfast of buckwheat pancakes.
Mount Shuksan was framed between snow-mantled hemlock, a plume of spindrift bowing from the summit; a breathtaking sight in the crystalline morning light. The silence was periodically broken by the roar of avalanches and the trilling of unlikely birds. Gary checked his two thermometers – one said 40 and the other said 15. As usual, the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
We got to work digging out the tents and our packs, buried beneath the blanket of snow. The tents would be far heavier on the hike out, thanks to the clinging ice and snow but thankfully we had the trusty sledge. We hoisted the packs and started back through the tangle of alder in the deep powder. The mountains were magnificent, gleaming in the cold sun.
The hike back was delightful, each of us lost in our thoughts, the white world silent except for the crunching of our snowshoes. Back at the trailhead, we dug out the vehicles (a lot of digging on this trip!) and loaded our gear for the journey home to Bellingham. We pulled into the après ski traffic and headed west into the late afternoon sun toward home.