Amenities at Mount Baker have improved, but skiing there remains low-key

November 15, 1992|By Kristin Jackson | Kristin Jackson,Seattle Times

MOUNT BAKER, Wash. -- I began skiing at Mount Baker as a child in the 1950s and, while both the ski area and I have grown up, I'll always remember it as a place of rope tows and old wood lodges, wet wool and salami.

Salami? It was the big treat for us kids after a day's skiing at Baker, deep in Washington's North Cascades. We'd stop at a little general store and buy spicy slices of it to eat in the back seat of the family station wagon as we headed home. Our thick wool pants, sodden from a day of falling in the wet snow, steamed gently in the heat of the car; our hands ached after a day of gripping the rope tows.

Those days are long gone at Mount Baker. Chair lifts, including quads, have supplanted all but the beginner rope tows; skiers have traded baggy wool pants for snazzy skintight outfits; a comfortable day lodge has replaced the old wood lodges and warming huts; snowboarders and hot-dog skiers zip down steep chutes where we wouldn't have dreamed of venturing on our long wooden skis with their bear-trap bindings.

Yet while Baker has come of age, it remains a low-key, family-style mountain.

At Baker, the lift lines are usually short; the lift ticket is a bearable price ($16 midweek: $24.50 on weekends); and the glitz is minimal. Family or friends can rent a two-bedroom cabin with kitchen down in the valley for around $90 a night (or a motel room for about half that), and everyone can find at least a couple BTC of ski runs that suit them just fine. And the skiing, while not exactly Colorado-class, promises to get better this year, thanks to a new quad chair that will open up more intermediate terrain.

The little town of Glacier, 17 miles down the road from the ski area, is the closest place to stay. (There is no lodging at the ski area, which lies within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, where commercial development is limited.)

Glacier feels like a place that time forgot, tucked deep into a steep, narrow valley alongside the rushing Nooksack River.

There's a ski shop, a deli, a down-home restaurant, a general store and a motel -- and that's about it -- all housed in one-story wood buildings along the road, hemmed in by the dank green forest. There's a peekaboo view of Baker from the bridge, but mostly the brooding forest and steep cliffs dominate.

The road to Glacier dead-ends at the ski area, so the only traffic the town gets are skiers in winter and hikers in summer, many of whom just speed on by. And Baker probably is never going to mushroom into a big-time ski destination due to its terrain -- and the weather.

When the sun shines and the snow's good, skiing at Mount Baker is a rare treat: uncrowded slopes and a heart-stopping view of Mount Shuksan, a 9,720-foot jagged pile of glaciers, snow and rock that towers over the ski area.

The 10,750-foot Mount Baker itself, a perpetually snow-covered volcanic cone, is over a ridge and not visible from most of the ski area.

In recent years, though, I've always seemed to hit Baker on weekends when it never stopped snowing (Baker gets a whopping 750 inches of snow a year) -- or raining.

Then there's the ski terrain . . .

Baker is beloved of snowboarders, who frolic in the chutes and dips. Early in the season -- snow-rich Baker often opens before other Northwest ski areas -- up to 20 percent of the mountain crowd may be snowboarders, said Gwyn Grummel, Baker's director of marketing.

For mogul skiers, Baker can be a field of dreams: Some runs seem to be nothing but knee-high (or higher) moguls. "Air bears" -- mostly daring young guys -- show off their jumps and other ski acrobatics.

But as an intermediate, "cruiser" skier -- with aging knees and not much of the daredevil in me -- I find myself longing at the end of a Baker day for the smooth, wide slopes of Oregon's Mount Bachelor or B.C.'s Blackcomb. Their slopes make me look -- and feel -- like a good skier, while at Baker I'm always very conscious of my inadequacies on the tougher runs.

Still, the new Hemispheres quad chair should open up a lot more terrain at Baker: It will about double the amount of existing intermediate terrain, says Ms. Grummel.

The mile-long chair (on the east side of the ski area closest to Mount Shuksan) is under construction and expected to open this season.

Baker's perennial problem has been that its day lodge and main parking area are annoyingly far from the bulk of the intermediate and expert slopes.

A lower parking lot (called White Salmon) and a new access chair installed a few years ago have helped unclog that bottleneck. The White Salmon lot is getting an extra 500 parking spaces; there's a ticket booth and snack bar there now, and ski-area managers hope eventually to build a new day lodge at White Salmon.

Still, there's probably one thing at Baker that never will change. First-time visitors to the ski area gaze up at the domineering, icy Mount Shuksan and exclaim, "Isn't Mount Baker beautiful."

"Uhh, that's Shuksan," say the old hands. "Baker's hidden behind that ridge."

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