Mount Baker's Bounty Skiers' delight: The Washington State ski area is short on frills but long on snow.

January 14, 1996|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

No huge resort hotel. No movie stars. No five-star restaurants. No supermodels. No chic apres ski scene. No airport.

Just a long twisting road up to a big, nasty mountain full of snow.

There's nothing easy about Mount Baker. Perhaps that's why the Washington state ski spot rarely makes the list of top resorts. Too remote. Too undeveloped. Weather that's, well, too much.

But for snowboarders, the hard-to-reach, hard-to-ride mountain is the sport's paradise.

"It's a small mountain, but it has a lot of short runs that are steep, lots of chutes and cliffs, lots of snow, yeah, lots of snow -- that's the main attraction," said Marcella Dobis, a year-round Mount Baker resident and snowboarder. "Pretty cool."

Cold might be a better word. Mount Baker gets more snow than any other resort in North America -- an average of 595 inches a year, stretching the snow season from mid-November to late May.

In winter, Mount Baker looms like a vertical wall of ice, the pines dotting the lower elevations caked in a thick coat of snow. The jagged peaks of Mount Baker and nearby Mount Shuksan drift in and out of view as clouds and fog settle over Heather Meadows. The dark heralds yet another winter storm that will dump several feet of snow on the already blanketed hillsides.

When the skies clear, Mount Baker emerges in bright sunlight, the high winds whipping a long scarf of snow off its barren summit.

Snowboarders ride tough, colorfully named runs such as Canuck's Delux, Pan Face and Sticky Wicket. Or they can cruise and schmooze on runs such as Oh-Zone, Big Hemi and Sneaky Pete. Beginners can try Otto Bahn, Easy Money and Home Run.

The last weekend in January brings out the stars for the Mount Baker Legendary Banked Slalom Race. Top riders speed down a snowed-over riverbank, just beyond tree stumps and nasty snowboard-eating boulders. The contest is followed by a hot-dog roast and bonfire at the base camp.

A flannel and free-spirits feel clings to the mountain. Anyone looking for a hot scene, a la Vail, Aspen or Telluride will be disappointed.

The nearest town, Glacier, is 17 miles away. At Mount Baker, cuisine is a bag of beef jerky, and the closest thing to a spa experience is the hot tub in back of the motel in Glacier.

The anti-resort atmosphere is a big drawing card for snowboarders, says Doug Palladini, publisher of Snowboarder magazine.

"Mount Baker plays to what we like to think of ourselves -- low accouterments, an intense amount of snow, really outstanding terrain in a very low-key environment," he said. "If you are going up there for good food, good entertainment, you aren't going to find it. This isn't your standard family vacation spot."

The legendary animosity between skiers and snowboarders is nowhere to be found in Mount Baker, where one in four people on the mountain is riding a "single rail." Locals say that any friction has more to do with the age difference between many snowboarders (teens and 20s) and skiers (mostly 30 and older).

"If there [are] problems, it's a generational thing that doesn't have a lot to do with what you are riding," Mr. Palladini said.

After a day on the mountain, snowboarders head back to Glacier. Most stay in the small collection of condos, rental properties and the popular Glacier Creek Motel.

"It's a young crowd in the winter -- I get more people visiting up here in the summer, but I'll tell you it takes more energy to handle things in the winter," said Tom Miron, owner of Glacier Creek Motel & Cabins.

"We love to have them up here, but it can wear you out."

Milano's restaurant serves as a sort of after-hours clubhouse where snowboarders swap stories of their exploits over basic but hearty Italian food. Graham's General Store sells breakfast basics and microbrew beer for repasts back in the rooms.

The Mount Baker scene is largely the creation of one man's myth, snowboarding superstar Craig Kelly, who grew up in nearby Mount Vernon. Kelly and other locals (dubbed the Mount Baker Hard Core) began riding Mount Baker in the 1980s.

Magazines such as Snowboarding and Powder followed their exploits, helping to popularize the new sport.

"Kelly is the most famous snowboarder ever, and he primarily rides Mount Baker, which keeps Mount Baker in the limelight," Mr. Palladini said.

Despite the snowboarding press, Mount Baker remains a minor-league attraction in the world of major-league skiing. The mountain attracts fewer than 150,000 skiers and snowboarders each season -- minuscule compared with the draw at mega-resorts such as Aspen, Squaw Valley and Canada's Whistler/Blackcomb.

Mount Baker just completed a four-year, $5 million improvement project, which doubled the amount of intermediate terrain and added two quad chairlifts.

The centerpiece of the project is White Salmon Day Lodge, built in a 1930s rustic style. The lodge gives snowboarders and skiers a place to rest and grab a bite to eat right at the slopes.

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