Story and photos by John D’Onofrio
A blessing…and a curse.
Here in the ragged northwest we are blessed with some of the most dramatic mountains in the world. The peaks are sharp against the sky, wild fangs of rock and ice. The weather has had its way with them and they are shaped and chiseled by its ferocity into these spectacular landscapes. This is the blessing.
Of course the same weather reduces the snow-free hiking season to a pitifully short span of months, in between the much-anticipated summer melting and the first eager flurries of autumn. This all-too brief season is far too short to satisfy the high country itch. This is the curse.
For those of us who love these mountains, this means only one thing: get out the snowshoes.
I am frequently amazed by the legions of summer hikers who relegate their hiking boots to the closet when the white stuff starts to fly. They are missing a great opportunity to explore the mountain landscapes of the North Cascades under truly magical conditions. With the right gear and an adventurous spirit, the mountains are at their best when snow covered – the sun sparkling on pristine white slopes, skies filled with stars, the chance to experience true solitude and peace in the empty backcountry.
Although avalanche hazards restrict access in many areas of the North Cascades in the depths of winter, there are plenty of glorious destinations to explore in your snowshoes, ranging from casual afternoon strolls to multi-day adventures. One of the very best easily-attained locations is found on the high ridge between Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, officially known as Kulshan Ridge but widely referred to as Artist Point.
Artist Point’s proximity to the Mt. Baker Highway (kept clear in winter to facilitate access to the Mt. Baker Ski Area) and wildly scenic setting make it an ideal location for a winter sojourn, either for a satisfying day trip or – even better – a spectacular overnighter. Greeting the winter dawn from Kulshan Ridge has become an annual tradition for me and I’ve seen the crystal clear morning sun sparkle on chorus lines of peaks and also hunkered in wind-whipped blizzards.
Onward & Upward
Today, the forecast is promising and the skies are cobalt blue. All systems go for an evening spent amongst the Mountain Gods. We shoulder our packs and start up through the busy ski area. The journey that will eventually take us to the stillness and silence of the heart of winter begins, perversely enough in the Mardi Gras atmosphere of the ski area and we slowly climb through the hustle and bustle. Skiers and boarders whistle past us every few seconds. We are salmon, swimming upstream against the current of Gore-Tex, fleece and iPods.
The route steepens as we climb to the boundary of the ski area. A sign warns us that we’re on our own now, which is the way we like it. Today’s avalanche report indicates low risk and the way to Artist Point generally avoids avalanche slopes, although fatal avalanches have occurred beneath Huntoon Point (the high point on the ridge) in the past. The trick is to head straight up the steep slope above Austin Pass rather than following the route of the summer road around the last switchback. And of course to be somewhere else when the avalanche danger is high. Like your hot tub.
So on we go, leaving the noise and frenetic activity of the ski area behind us. We ascend to the wonderland of Austin Pass with its million dollar view of Shuksan rearing up into the sky above the Swift Creek Valley. A good place to shrug off the pack, eat some cashews and contemplate my good fortune.
Onward and upward! The going is easier here, on a well-established and well-compacted trail through picturesque snow-plastered trees and past rock faces displaying complex curtains of ice. We come to the aforementioned last big switchback below Artist Point and veer off the snow-covered road, heading straight up the steep hill to avoid the potential avalanche slope below Huntoon Point. It’s a stiff but short climb and before long we find ourselves atop the slender ridge at the ever so aptly named Artist Point. Here is the marquee view of the magnificent North Cascades. Close at hand, Shuksan’s snow-plastered face rises like a vision of alpine grandeur. Beyond it, the great Border Peaks crowd the northern horizon. But the undisputed lord of this high country wonderland is Mt. Baker, its mammoth ice cone filling the southwestern sky.
The thing to do now is to maneuver the elegant bumps and grinds of the ridge upwards in search of a suitable place to spend the evening. We follow the well-stomped trail between precipitous drops on both sides, past isolated stands of lonely trees. We stop and drop our voluminous packs at the base of the final upward thrust of Huntoon Point. A few gnarled trees offer some (scant) shelter, should the wind come up.
With my snowshoes I stomp down a rectangle of snow on the reasonably flat ridge crest and we pitch the tent so that we’ll have a view of Shuksan in the morning. Wielding our trusty avalanche shovels we carve ourselves a dinette set – table and chairs – in the snow. We shovel some into the pot for melting on the stove to make drinking water. The sun drops low in the western sky and aside from the hissing of the stove, a profound silence settles over the high country. We have the ridge to ourselves.
As the sun makes its exit below the horizon, the face of Shuksan is illuminated with rosy alpenglow. To the north the border peaks are silhouetted against the darkening sky. We eat a fine dinner beneath a sky bristling with stars and linger over cups of hot tea. The air is totally still. We find ourselves whispering.
For those of us who love the sanctuary of the mountains, a winter’s night is the stuff that dreams are made of. Solitude, silence, a sky so clear that the Milky Way seems in danger of spilling over. The hushed white world seems so remote from the busy lives we lead down in the lowlands.
Dinner eaten, we relax on our snow loungers, exchanging stories and watching the stars. In our numerous layers of polypro, fleece and Gore-Tex, we’re warm and comfortable. Life is very good indeed here on Kulshan Ridge.
Eventually we crawl into the tent and our sleeping bags, bringing our boots inside to avoid unpleasantness in the morning. The moon comes up to illuminate our dreams.
Editor’s Note: Before ventured out into the white stuff be sure to check the avalanche danger. If you don’t know, don’t go.