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Saving winter at Artist Point
posted by John : February 15, 2015

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No snow.

No snow.

No snow.


Rain. (Washes away all the snow.)

No snow.

You get the picture.

It's been an incredibly challenging winter. The latest reports show the Central Cascades at 10% of normal snowpack. Never mind that we need the snowpack for irrigation and water supplies. Never mind that this is what winter in 2070 is forecast to be like. What really matters is that I need snow in a primal kind of way.

After a rainy Romp to Stomp not only did I want snow for me, I wanted to remind the kids what a beautiful snowshoe trip could be like. Heck, we haven't had that kind of magical trip since the end of 2013 when we "climbed" Northway Peak via the Crystal Mountain Gondola.

I dusted off a post of dream snowshoe destinations that are only possible on a three day weekend and decided we'd head to Artist Point three hours to the north.

Artist Point is described as one of the best viewpoints in the state and that's not hyperbole. It sits between Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker and the end of a 55 mile road. In most summers, you can drive right to it. In heavy snow years, though, they can't clear all the snow away because Mt. Baker is home to the world record snowfall of over 95 feet in a single season.

We found a place to camp in the car well after dark. It's a three hour drive and we got a late start, but the goal was to get an early start the next morning before the snow softened. Although it was freezing every night, daytime highs were in the mid 40s. After shuffling gear around Treen was in the front passenger seat while Lilly, Henry, and I shared back.

This was the second time I'd slept in the car, but only the first time it was intentional. Henry and I had spent a night in a Walmart parking lot after failing to find a place to camp in Olympic National Park over the summer. We learned a key lesson on that trip: make sure you leave a window open. Condensation in a car is brutal.

Maybe I shouldn't say I learned that lesson since we fell asleep without opening enough windows. When dawn came the windows were coated with ice... on the inside. Beautiful patterns, but icy.

Once we'd thawed the inside of the car we made our way to the end of the road and put on snowshoes. In this low-snow year there was no need for floatation. Heck, there were sections where there was no snow and we climbed the stone steps up the summer trail. Where there was snow it was solid ice and slick. Thank goodness for the crampons on our snowshoes.

On a lot of our trips we are more like the tortoise than the hare. We get there, but not very quickly. Sometimes, though, somebody puts something in our proverbial Wheaties and you better get out of our way.

Lilly was on fire.

From the moment we left the trailhead until the moment she relinquished the lead near the top so Henry could have his turn she never tired, never slowed, and never took the long way. Where the trail switchbacked up a steep slope in the snow she kicked steps and went straight up. Where it meandered she made a bee line for our destination.

Maybe it was the blue sky or the warm temperatures. Or perhaps it was the open terrain with views for miles. Whatever it was, she was on a mission. (It probably didn't hurt that she really wanted to get home on time to start a sleep over with her friend, but that's beside the point.)

Henry and I followed behind with Treen. As we got closer to Artist Point the views got better and better. Not that they were lousy from the trailhead. Mt. Shuksan is huge from the ski area and there's a clear view north into Canada. But the big payoff was just ahead.

At Artist Point we had 360 views that included Shuksan, the ski area, and Mt. Baker. The good weather had brought many others to enjoy the views, but it didn't feel crowded. Some headed on to Huntoon Point just a short distance away and others continued out toward Ptarmigan Ridge. With the views we had we were content with Artist Point.

We had hot chocolate, Treen had a TurboPup bar, many pictures were taken. I could have stayed up there all day and explored in every direction, but it was time for us to head home.

We had done really well to get up in two hours. Lilly, still eager to get home on time, was pushing for us to get down in just an hour. While we usually make better time on the way down than the way up the difference isn't that great. We did manage to cut half an hour off our climbing time, though we ate some of that savings in the mountain shop looking at stickers and patches.

Even in a disastrous snow year where snow pack is near record lows there's still snow to be found. The trick is going where the snow is. The best tool for finding the snow is the USDA SNOTEL Snow Water Equivalent Percent of Normal Map. Our three hour drive took us from an area with 10% of normal snowpack to an area with 51% of normal snowpack. It's still pitiful, but it's an improvement.

Unfortunately, unless we're willing to hop a plane we're not getting to any crazy good snowpacks. Maybe next year. There's always next year.

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