In Just Spring: An Ode to Multi-Sport Season

“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot exactly one hundred years ago in the opening stanza of The Waste Land. The famous first line reads like an indictment of the fourth month as Eliot yearns to stave off vernal rebirth and remain in the stillness that precedes spring:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

 

Photo by Tim Gibson

 

I can imagine that spring conjured a bleak landscape for Eliot, looking out across Harvard Yard in his undergraduate days. I, too, spent my collegiate years in New England, where spring has another name: mud season. As Eliot’s classmate and contemporary e. e. cummings described the season: “in Just- / spring when the world is mud- / luscious.”

“The Waste Land, it is often claimed, is a poem about sterility of all kinds—bodily, spiritual, geographical—and how post-war Europe has become a kind of wasteland after the horror and destruction of the First World War,” writes literary critic Oliver Tearle. Thus does Eliot decry the transition from winter to spring, as he fears fecundity amidst such decayed surroundings.

While hardly as ponderous as the pretensions of high modernist poets, the northwestern adventurer knows that the forgetful snow looms nearby even as dull roots stir with spring rain. Among the Pacific Northwest’s many natural blessings are micro-climates across elevation bands that offer our region a better alternative moniker au printemps: multi-sport season.

While Mother Nature does not always cooperate with our arbitrary division of the calendar, it seems that April is often the sweet spot when snowpack and sunshine align. On April 1, water managers take their annual measurement to gauge the fullest depth of the winter snowpack. As the month progresses, daily high temperatures can invite t-shirts, and daylight illuminates the sky past 8 pm. The end result is a mountains-to-sound smorgasbord, a month where just about every outdoor activity is potentially in play, depending on the day’s weather.

Still craving powder turns? Freak April snowstorms in the high country are by no means guaranteed, but also not unheard of. My first time down the Slot Couloir on Mt. Snoqualmie was an April venture where the sheltered upper mountain chute held a foot of fresh snow. Last season, I turned around on a ski tour in the Snoqualmie Pass backcountry due to storm slab avalanche problems a full week after the final buzzer had sounded on March Madness.

Ready for the corn harvest? When the sun shines on April’s longer days, an overnight freeze turns soft under solar glare and leads to corn snow. Some skiers and snowboarders will even go so far as to argue that corn is superior to powder—I myself wouldn’t agree to such heresy—but the reliability of a springtime corn harvest is like a second ski season where fat powder skis give way to their narrower siblings. And an ice axe and ski crampons become more essential than an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe.

Photo by Tim Gibson

Heading downhill from the alpine, the foothills become more inviting once springtime has banished incessantly cold dampness from the mossy forest. Plenty of mountain bikers rip our local trails twelve months a year, but for the fair-weather riders among us, April yields those first summerlike days where the winter rainwater has drained from the dirt and the sunshine dapples through the tree canopy. Spring snowmelt engorges our local rivers and sends whitewater kayakers paddling down torrents searching for rapids and eddies. Hikers might find summits below 5,000 feet in elevation no longer guarded by snow and ice.

With the first taste of the year’s longer days, the Pacific Northwest spring turns vehicles into joyous carriers of a jumble of racks and straps. Skis on the roof and bikes on the trailer hitch? Or kayak on the roof and snowboard in the trunk? These are the best kind of first-world problems when decision-making involves the logistics of how to slide on snow in the morning and paddle or pedal in the afternoon with enough time remaining to catch a sunset over the Salish Sea.

Down at sea level, afternoon sun rays caress beaches on the eastern shores of Puget Sound. When April temperatures creep into the 60s, I’m game to squeeze into my wetsuit for open water swimming off Seattle’s Lincoln Park or Golden Gardens. While the Northwest’s truly hardcore swimmers plunge into the saltwater 365 days a year, I confess that I wait until I can warm my sodden bones on the shore after swimming while watching sea kayakers, paddle boarders, and sailboats dart across the waters.

To each their own when it comes to springtime outdoor pursuits, but I make the case that the multi-sport season’s true perfection lies in ski mountaineering. Only a handful of Cascade passes are maintained through winter. Once snowstorms cease their winter assault on the Cascades and snow on forest roads begins to melt, entrée to the mountains multiplies for northwest skiers previously constrained by limited access. As dirt begins to reveal itself on the countless miles of forest roads that snake through this rugged range, distant peaks become attainable.

Last year, I competed in a challenge hosted by the Arc’teryx Seattle store and open to Washington-based athletes. The prompt was simple: Who could gain the most human-powered vertical feet during the month of April?

My plan of attack involved a fast and light approach for long days in the mountains going after spring summits in a single push. Over ten days, my ski partner Tim Gibson and I ticked off North Sister, Middle Sister, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Stuart. We traveled from Oregon’s high desert, where the Sisters beckon from the gaps between spindly trees, over Santiam Pass to the veritable jungle at the base of Mt. Jefferson. After descending the South Milk Gully, we went from a lifeless world of glaciers and rock to a riot of vegetation that resembled The Lost World. With a seemingly endless window of high pressure, we gazed out from the summit of Wy’east, marveling at the volcanic spine of the Cascades before picking our way down a technical route on the Newton Clark Headwall, one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. Although non-volcanic, linking a route down Ulrich’s Couloir on Mt. Stuart without a snowmobile was the most grueling of the bunch: a 15.5-hour day with 11,000 vertical feet over 25 miles.

After each romp through the alpine, we retreated to a world below the snow line coming back to life—from flowers blooming after winter hibernation to outdoor patios newly abuzz at local breweries. The ability to travel through the seasons in the span of a day is a surreal hallmark of the Cascadian spring.

Photo by Tim Gibson

 

In the end, in April 2021, a Seattle trail runner who worked his own strategy of hill repeats closer to home bested my 57,618 vertical feet. For him, the snow line was a ceiling. For me, it was a floor. But therein lies the magic of multi-sport season, where two athletes can tackle the same competition with entirely different modes of travel.

As any Subaru laden with too many toys can attest, spring is a season of possibility.

Gregory Scruggs is the outdoors reporter at The Seattle Times. His favorite spring ritual is skiing in the morning then watching the Mariners on Opening Day that evening. Any day that starts with a snowy sunrise and ends with a Salish Sea sunset is a close second.

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