Friday, March 9, 2018

Weekend at Schweitzer

When my son attended the University of Montana, we used to have an after-Christmas ritual of skiing at Idaho's Schweitzer Mountain on his way back to school.  I have many fond memories our trips to this scenic, off the beaten path resort.  The largest ski area in Washington and Idaho, Schweitzer is home to some of my all-time favorite black diamond ski runs.  On clear days, it's mountaintops boast stellar views of gorgeous Lake Pend Oreille. 

But then my son graduated and started seminary, and before I knew it, ten years had elapsed since I'd been back. 

So over Christmas, my son and I hatched a plan to meet up in early February and revive the tradition.  I was beyond excited.  I counted down the long, dark January days in anticipation of spending time with my son and revisiting a favorite resort.

Hello from Idaho!

Then the morning I was to leave, I got a call from my son.  He'd come down with the flu and wouldn't be able to make it.  Since it was too late to cancel my motel reservation and I'd already purchased lift tickets online, I was committed.  Disappointed, and worried about my son's health, I sadly loaded the car and headed east, fretting the entire 7-hour drive to Sandpoint.  Although I considered continuing on to Montana to be with my son, he encouraged me to go ski and have fun (he also didn't want me to catch his bug).

Appropriate song for my first day

The following morning, I woke to cloudy, rainy skies.  The forecast for Schweitzer was a warm borderline rain/snow mix.  Ugh - I wasn't a fan of skiing in the rain.  But I'd traveled  here to ski, and ski I would.  Driving to the parking shuttle area, the first song that came on my car radio was "Private Idaho" by the B-52s.  I laughed at the coincidence.  Maybe this was a sign - it was gonna be a good day after all.

Cute base area

Schweitzer Mountain is accessed by a scary winding, hairpin road from the outskirts of town.  But for those not wanting to endure a white-knuckle drive, the resort provides shuttle buses.  Judging by the amount of vehicles in the huge park and ride lot, it appeared the bus was a popular option.  A three dollar fee (or free for season pass holders) got me a round trip.  For the ride up, I was seated next to a friendly local man who was more than happy to share resort beta.

Super-foggy day

After taking a few quick laps on the lower elevation Basin Express lift, I was ready to whisk to the mountain's very top and find my favorite black diamond runs, White Lightening, Stiles, and Pend Oreille.  But as I rode higher up the mountain, the clouds became thicker.  Exiting the lift, I found visibility near zero.  Slowly I edged my way towards Pend Oreille, the closest trail to the lift.  Not only did the fog make visibility difficult, my glasses were fogging under my goggles.  Getting down this steep slope required a leap of faith (I joke about "skiing by Braille" but that's exactly what I did).  Luckily, about halfway down the skies became lighter and I could see once again.  But after a couple of scary trips from the top fighting foggy glasses, I went inside to clear my lenses.

Ice covered skier

Returning to the slopes after a quick break, I tried to find the mountain's backside, only to end up in a different area than I intended.  No big deal, I took advantage of a long cruising run to the Stella lift.  But the elevation was lower here, and instead of snow, I encountered rain.  Starting to get soaked, I decided to head back to the base area, where it was colder.

Over on the front side a full-on snowstorm was in progress.  Winds howled, and snow whirled through the air.  But, oh was the snow nice!  Although visibility was still a challenge, I could see just enough to make my way down from the very top.  I kept making run after run, every trip fresh tracks in the new-fallen snow.  So much fun!  The wet snow began collecting on my outerwear, freezing into an icy coating.  I skied through the lunch hour, knowing that once I went inside melting ice would soak my gear, and I wouldn't go back out.

They get lots of snow here!

Finally around 1:30 hunger got the best of me, and I surrendered to the nearest cafeteria.  After downing a bowl of chili, I just couldn't bring myself to put my wet gear back on and return to the cold, stormy slopes.  So I decided to head back into town.  Waiting outside for the shuttle bus, I realized the mushy falling snow had turned into full-fledged raindrops.  Good thing I quit when I did!  

Sandpoint had a cute downtown

Sandpoint, Idaho has a cute downtown area.  I purposely chose a motel close by so I could walk to nearby restaurants and shops.  That evening I enjoyed a leisurely stroll through downtown, window shopping at the cute boutiques before locating an excellent brewpub.

Loved the Christmas lights in February

Sandpoint even kept their Christmas lights up into February.  Really made for a festive atmosphere.  These lights made some fantastic reflections on the wet pavement, but only having my cell phone with me at the time, my photos weren't the best.

Stella lift house

Drier weather was forecast for the following day.  I was happy to wake up to clearing, moisture-free skies.  Hustling to make the 8:00 shuttle bus, I took a wrong turn and ended up driving through downtown a second time.  Thinking I'd surely be late, a Starbucks conveniently located next to the resort's main road enticed me in.  Despite the detours, I pulled into the park and ride and the bus was still there!  I hopped out and began unloading my skis but at that moment the bus closed it's doors and rumbled away.  Oh well, the next bus was only a half hour away, and now I had time to enjoy my latte.

Scenic trail junction

Morning sunlight streamed down from blue skies as the next bus delivered me into Schweitzer's base area.  Eager for a dry, better visibility day, I boarded the Great Escape Quad lift bound for the resort's very top.  About halfway up, my chair was swallowed by a dense, white cloud.  So much for my clear, sunny day.....

Still murky fog on top (someone laughed at me for taking this photo)

The entire top half of the mountain was enveloped by a huge fog bank.  Visibility wasn't any better than the previous day.  Oh well, I'd skied in these conditions yesterday and survived.  So I began making laps up and down.  The fog clung to the upper reaches and I gingerly made slow turns until I could see again.

Lake Pend Oreille emerges

Riding single, I got paired up with lots of interesting people on the chairlift.  All mentioned that fog was a common problem here.  One guy jokingly commented that Schweitzer was French for "fog." 

Top of Lakeview lift

After the first hour, tired of not being able to see, I traveled to the resort's back side in search of better conditions.  Although visibility was much improved, yesterday's warm rain had frozen overnight, turning the slopes here into a sheet of ice.  A high school ski race was underway on one of the runs, and although the racers may have liked the icy slopes, I did not.

Amazing scenery!

Back to the front side once again!  A long, winding cat track took skiers around the mountain.  As I descended, the skies cleared once again, and Lake Pend Oreille emerged front and center.  Wow, what an excellent view!  Many photo stops ensued.  (By the way, the lake's name is pronounced "ponderay")

Snow ghosts

After lunch, I traveled around the mountain once again, seeking good snow and clear skies.  Unfortunately, thick clouds clung stubbornly to the mountaintop all day and the back side slopes never did thaw out.  Around 2:30, I was ready to call it quits and head in for a beer, when I noticed sun illuminating slopes by the Lakeview chairlift.  I hadn't skied there yet, and decided to check it out.

Ridge run

Turned out to be the best conditions of the day.  Not only was the snow here soft and fluffy, on top of the chair, I was awed by the interesting shapes created by ice encasing every surface.  The lifts, trail signs, and radio towers had been transformed into white works of art.  But the best scenery was the ice-crusted trees, nicknamed "snow ghosts," lining nearby slopes.  Oh were they lovely! 

There was a reason the resort named this chairlift Lakeview.  The best panoramas of huge Lake Pend Oreille were from the top of this ridge.  It was so lovely, I ended up taking three more runs, just to enjoy the snow and fantastic scenery.  Glad I saved the best for last.

Breathtaking lake views!

Despite the wet, foggy weather and my son's last-minute illness, I ended up having a great trip.  It was fun to reacquaint myself with an old favorite resort after so many years.  The town of Sandpoint and the friendly locals on the slopes totally charmed me.  I'd love to spend more time here again someday.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Some days you just have to take a chance. 

Last Thursday, when snow in the city cancelled our ski bus (oh the irony, a ski bus cancelled because of snow!) my friend Glen and I decided to brave the icy roads and drive up anyway.

Mt Hood reflected in the lodge window

This was our reward.  Blue skies and a huge dump of light, fluffy powder snow.  The best day of the season so far.  So glad I decided to gamble with the white knuckle drive. 

Of course, the following weekend I wasn't so lucky.  My friends and I drove all the way to Mt Bachelor for the weekend, only to be greeted with a howling blizzard Saturday morning.  Nothing was running but the beginner lifts, and visibility was nil.  No skiing for us.

But of course, you don't know if you don't go.  All you can do is roll the dice.  Sometimes you lose, but once and awhile you get lucky and hit a bluebird day.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Quick Trip up Kings Mtn

You're about to see moss.  Lots of it.

Obligatory trailhead sign

After patiently waiting the entire month of January for an expected huge dump of mountain snow, the weather gods decided to bring rain instead (they have a twisted sense of humor).  Not a fan of skiing in liquid sunshine, I opted to stay home and mope around the house all morning.  Then, becoming desperate for an outdoor exercise fix, I decided to take a quick hike up nearby Kings Mountain. 

Entering the forest

While searching for a hike closer to home, I'd discovered this lovely trail in the Oregon Coast Range last June.  A mere 45 minute drive had me pulling into its parking area.  Although challenging, this steep, thigh-burning ascent of 2800 vertical feet in 2.7 miles was short enough to fit into an afternoon.

Photogenic mossy trees

So instead of skiing, that's how I found myself trekking through a damp, mossy winter forest.  But from my first step onto Kings Mountain's spongy tread, I was captivated by it's magical green woods.

Loved these fuzzy branches

Devoid of leaves, the mossy tree trunks and branches stood out.  Huge clumps of ferns covered the forest floor.  Everything glowed in bright hues of green.  Absolutely magical!  (I half expected a hobbit to amble out)

Yup, more moss

Of course, I had to capture these wonderful fairy-tale woods.  And I spent the next half hour doing just that.

Mossy old tree stump

Of course my frantic photo session killed any forward progress.  After many dozen shutter clicks, I realized time had got away from me once again.  If I didn't get a move on soon, I'd be hiking back in the dark.

Summit register

So, I put my head down and began the slow uphill trudge.  Kings Mountain trail is a steep one, and it didn't take long before my heart started hammering and breath began huffing and puffing.  Soon, the day's fine cloudy mist transformed into raindrops, necessitating a stop to don pack cover and stash the camera.

Nothing to see here

The remainder of my climb was uneventful, save for the fact that the top of Kings Mountain took forever to reach.  The last couple hundred feet of climbing necessitated wading through icy snowbanks.  No rewarding views for my effort today - I found the summit cloaked in thick, foggy clouds.  A cold wind blew chilly raindrops into my face.  I stayed long enough to eat a quick snack while huddling under dripping branches.

Dense forest

Then I gladly retraced my steps off the summit into the shelter of the forest.  Luckily I hadn't traveled very far when the rain finally let up. 

More forest shots

This break in precip gave me a chance to retrieve my camera and capture some images of the diverse forest zones encountered as I descended Kings Mountain.

Last of the fall leaves

This trail is well-maintained by the Mazamas, a Portland mountain climbing club.  They even provide elevation signs every 500 feet so you can judge your downward progress.

Nearing the bottom

Below about 1000 feet, thick moss reappeared on trees and my camera was once again occupied.  Although this significantly delayed my return trip, I did still arrive back at my car well before dark.  And I'd managed to capture quite a few nice images, albeit mostly of the lovely mossy trees (a happy photographer is one with a full memory card!)

Moss macro     

Although skiing was foiled by weather, I still ended up having a great outdoor adventure.  Not only that, I discovered another local trail that's just as beautiful in the winter.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Bus is Back!

One of my favorite winter activities is riding the midweek ski bus.  Not only do I love the empty slopes, I've met and skied with some fantastic people.  When the bus program resumed for the season in mid-January, I happily reunited with my "men in red" ski posse.

To another great ski season!

Per tradition, Glen brought out his flask of cinnamon whiskey and we all had a toast before hitting the lifts.

Glen passes pat the flask to Pat

Pat, our power-skier eager to rack up the runs, was already on the slopes and missed our toast.  So when we finally caught up, Glen made sure he was included.

Chairlift selfie attempt

The running joke is you have to wear a red jacket if you want to ski with me.  (I really gotta work on my chairlift selfies.....)

What a motley crew!

And what's this?  Rounding a corner I discovered our ski area's legendary bra tree is back!  Not only was it adorned with new female undergarments, someone had added a pair of men's tighty whiteys. (Equal gender representation, right?)  My group may or may not have possessed knowledge of recent sacrifices made to said hallowed tree......(what happens on the bus, stays on the bus!)

The bra tree is back!

I've sure missed my midweek ski buddies.  We laugh, joke, share nips of adult beverages, and rip down snowy slopes.  I'm so glad ski bus Thursdays are back for the season.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Might As Well Ski Anyway....

So far this winter has been a huge disappointment.  Snow has been scarce in the Cascades.  For a die-hard skier like me, the drier-than-usual months of December and January have been nothing but bad news.

Blue sky and white snow

By mid-January, Mt Hood Meadows, my local ski hill, was reporting a scant 36" base.  Usually logging at least 8-10 ski days by then, my season pass had only been used twice.  It's hard to get pumped for skiing when you know it's gonna be an icy, rock-dodging experience.

Sunglasses weather!

However my friends Kim and Hollie wanted to check things out one mid-January Sunday, so I decided to join them.  The weather was supposed to be a sunny and warm, so at least we wouldn't be freezing our butts off.  What the heck, I thought, might as well go skiing.

The mountain is busy

I spent the first part of the day on the bunny slope, getting Hollie's confidence back.  Hollie only started skiing two years ago, and although she's doing great, it's hard for her to leave the security of the beginner area.  But today Kim and I decided it was time to try a more difficult run.  Sometimes folks just need a little push. 

Distant Cascade peaks

So we took Hollie up to the top of the Vista chairlift.  Although the trails here are also green (beginner) runs, they're all much longer than anything on the bunny hill. 

Kim giving Hollie instruction

Thus began a long, slow descent back to the lodge.  We made frequent stops so Hollie could rest.  Since Hollie is still a slow skier, Kim and I followed close behind, trying to thwart any fast snow-rider that might get too close (kind of like bodyguards!).  While resting on the side of a slope, we did witness one collision between a man and woman.  Although scary, luckily neither person was hurt.

Hollie is a trooper!

Hollie was a trooper!  Even when she fell (which wasn't often) she calmly picked herself up - no tears or swearing.  She was making some great turns, and staying in control.  The final slope to the lodge was a slightly steeper pitch.  Kim and I were worried about Hollie making it in one piece, but she pointed her skis straight downhill and went for it!  And didn't fall once.  Yahoo!

Traverse to Outer Limits (see all the rocks?)

After the long trip down from Vista, Hollie was tuckered out.  She and Kim went inside for lunch.  But I wasn't ready for a break yet.  Bright morning sunlight had softened the snow to a wonderful consistency.  Time to rip it up!

Smilin' ski buddies

And that's exactly what I did.  Cascade, the highest lift on the mountain, was turning and I made endless laps down it's wide-open slopes.  When finished with her lunch, Kim joined me in the fun.

Kim in action

We traveled all over the resort - finding lots of lovely soft snow stashes.  Even the moguls were fun to slide over.  I had such a good time, I nearly forgot about the skimpy snowpack (that is, until I accidentally slid over a few hidden rocks.....good thing I had my "rock skis")

Cool cloud over Mt Hood

It turned out to be a great day of skiing after all.  I'd lowered my expectations so much that it was a happy surprise to encounter sunny, blue skies and totally carveable snow.

The moral of my story?  Even if the snow is less than stellar, you might as well ski anyway.  After all, a bad day skiing is still better than the best day at work!  :)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Hiking Hardy Ridge in - Gasp! - January

Winters in the Pacific NW are so unpredictable.  Last year we endured an endless series of snow, ice storms, and unseasonably cold weather.  However, this year I think winter forgot to show up.

Sunlight filters through the forest

Precipitation has been miserly, showering the mountains with token amounts of snow - only to be washed away by rain a day later.  December temperatures hovered well above normal, assuring that whatever snow survived wouldn't stick around long.  So far this un-winter has wreaked havoc on the local snowpack.  With minimal amounts of the white stuff, skiing hasn't been great.

That's why when the forecast one mid-January Saturday predicted warm temps and more dry skies, I opted to skip the slopes for a hike in the Gorge.

A slight sign alteration...

I sent out email invites to both Catherine and Young, thinking one of the two would accept.  But - surprise, surprise - both of them replied yes.  Not only my two girlfriend hiking buddies, by the time Catherine and I met Young at the trailhead, we found she'd also invited her hubby John, and friends Steve and Joel.  Yahoo - the Dog Mountain Group was back together again!  And, to round out our merry band, Steve and Joel brought along their long-time friend and neighbor Don.

Modeling my new backpack

Santa had left a fat REI gift card in my stocking.  I cashed it in for a brand-new backpack, and today would be it's maiden voyage (or hike).  My companions oohed and aahed in admiration - except for John who jokingly said my pristine backpack needed some dirt rubbed onto it (and offered to do the honors).

A quick break

With the Oregon Gorge hiking trails still closed, I again looked to our northern neighboring state.  Hardy Ridge, on the Washington side, became the day's destination.   A wonderful scenic ridge run, I'd hiked it plenty of times in the spring and fall.  But today would be my first wintertime visit.

Made it to the sign!

Our group started out on an old abandoned road, climbing a gradual uphill.  Lovely bright sunlight filtered through the trees, warming the air.  Thinking we'd encounter cold temperatures, I'd dressed in my warm ski clothes (this was January after all).  It didn't take long before our entire crew took it's first "clothing break" to strip off a layer.

The views begin....

We continued to the first trail junction, where a snack and second clothing break were in order.  I always take photos of the trail signs and while focusing on the one marking our junction, noticed a slight alteration.  Someone had painted over part of the "w" in "lower loop" so it now read "lover loop."  (Tee-hee!)

Admiring the fabulous sights

Up another road our happy hiker group climbed, through more beautiful forest.  Although the deciduous trees were stark and leafless, numerous conifers provided plenty of green.  Plus the forest floor was full of ferns, and bright green moss covered adjacent rocks and branches.

Wind-blown trees

Finally leaving the road for good, we hit the steep uphill portion of our hike.  This trail rocketed upward, through multiple switchbacks.  If we weren't hot already, this climb did the trick.  I stripped down to my long sleeve base layer, chiding myself for not slipping a short sleeve t-shirt underneath.  And wearing my insulated hiking pants was also not the best decision.  (Who would've thought we'd get such warm temperatures on a hike - in January?)

The men walking through a bare, mossy patch

After quite a bit of elevation gain (and lots of sweat) my friends and I reached the beginning of the ridgetop, and our first viewpoint.  And it was a grand one!  The Columbia River, shining like a blue ribbon was far below, nestled in the green cliffs of the Gorge.  The day's relatively clear skies meant views stretched far east and west.  It was Catherine's first time on Hardy Ridge, and by the huge smile on her face, I could tell she was enjoying herself.

The Columbia River far below

But we weren't done yet.  My group followed a unofficial scramble trail that roller-coastered across Hardy Ridge, dipping down and clambering back up a few small forested knolls. 

One last ridge to climb

Breaking out of the forest for the final time, the last half mile of our hike was across a wide open ridge, showcasing the adjacent scenery.  More grand Gorge views, plus Table Mountain and the tip of Mt Adams.  But the best was yet to come.....

Up we go!

Our final climb was a steep slog up a talus slope, with a few remaining snow patches to navigate.  So weird to see this area nearly snow-free - in January!

More views to admire

But once we reached the top, it was an easy trek across the ridge to Phlox Point, our lunch spot.

Lunch spot

Sunny skies, warm temps, no wind, and fantastic views of the Gorge and Columbia River.  And no rain!  (Or snow)  Phlox Point remains one of my favorite places for an outdoor picnic.

Enjoying clear skies and warm temps

Can you believe this is January?  It felt more like a day in late spring.

The Gorge and river

While the gang was refueling, I prowled along the ridge, snapping a few images of the fantastic panorama below.

View to the west

Still lots of green out there for winter - even the moss was vibrant!

Walking the ridge

After a relaxing break, it was time for my favorite part of the hike - the return trip.  White-capped Mt Hood stood front and center, framing our view as we marched back across the ridge.

Wonderful Mt Hood views

Some of my favorite photos of the day came from this portion of the hike.

Heading back down

Slowly we wound back down, lingering at some of the more impressive viewpoints.  It's a rare day to get clear skies and no wind on Hardy Ridge - especially in winter.

One last glimpse of Hood

For the return trip, my group opted to take a different trail that zig-zagged down through a dense forest.   Not much to take photos of, so my camera remained stashed in its bag.  That is, until we passed by the famous "boot rock."  I pointed out this local hiking landmark to Catherine, who eagerly agreed to be my photo model.

Catherine found "Boot Rock"

The only downside to this hike is the final road walk seems endless (I swear it's the work of the "trail stretchers").  By now everyone was hot, tired, and more than ready for our traditional post-hike beer.

Hiking through sunshine

But the sunshine and warm weather were a welcome surprise on this winter's day.  How often does one get to hike in their shirt sleeves - in January?