Beating the crowds at Baker
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
The HVAC crew arrived to replace our furnace just as I finished loading my skis into the trunk, but I didn’t stick around to enjoy a tutorial.
The weather forecast for that particular Monday wasn’t anything to screech about, but the slopes at Heather Meadows were beckoning with the promise of fresh tracks and uncrowded conditions.
Rolling fog and hazy sun breaks mixed with intermittent showers and sleet bursts harried me up the highway into a protected state of tunnel vision. By the time I started hugging curves along the North Fork, persistent drowsiness took hold.
Once it became evident that screaming, slapping my face and pinching myself wasn’t enough to stop me from nodding off at the wheel, I finally had to pull over. Whipping hard into the first available turnout I nosed discreetly into the back shadows and eased myself in nice and tight beside a giant boulder.
Ensconced amid this mossy respite I cracked the windows, lowered my seat into the full recumbent position and killed the engine. Not a single car passed as I drifted away. The highway was as empty and quiet as a ghost town.
Through the dripping forest I could hear the river echoing through a mossy chasm somewhere far below. It chattered. It knocked. It whispered. It sang me to sleep.
Waking up about 20 minutes later, I found the gorge enveloped by cottony mist. The temperature had dropped significantly and my benumbed extremities tingled with cold.
Leaping out the door to stimulate circulation, I hopped around the puddled gravel, kicking my feet and shaking my hands until the pins and needles subsided. Diving back into the car, I engaged the engine with requisite gusto and peeled out to tackle the beckoning hairpins in a state of renewed vigor.
Shuddering gusts buffeted the almost-empty Heather Meadows parking area as I pulled into a spot within full view of Mt. Shuksan and Table Mountain. Even though all my appendages were fully functional, I struggled to assemble my gear in the leeward side of the vehicle.
First the microfiber sack for my goggles flew out of the trunk and went sailing into oblivion. Then I came within one lunging save away from getting a cherished windbreaker blown straight off my arms.
The scouring gusts soon died down a little but dense, fast-moving clouds over Table Mountain were swirling portentously when I finally clicked into my bindings and started kicking my boards up the track.
The old snow on top had gone a bit sticky, but the freshly groomed corduroy held firm enough for good gliding. I chugged along at a pretty good clip through the lower inbounds area.
Expansive emptiness amplified the swishing sound of my skis and for quite a while the only other noises I could hear were the distant hoots of unseen frolickers echoing from the White Salmon side.
Contouring alone through so much uncontested terrain emboldened me to range wider and generate more forward momentum than I ever would have dared to if there’d been herds of screaming downhillers mobbing around.
After gaining critical elevation with a sustained flourish of herringbone and sidestep maneuvers, I transitioned back to a diagonal stride and skirted blow a tree island festooned with bearded lichen glowing incandescently through dull light.
Localized breezes began to stir as I inched across an exposed slope that seemed to stretch forever into a sea of flat gray light, and all too soon I found myself beset upon by another flurry of abrasive gusts.
Descending into a shallow trough between two long parallel snowdrifts sufficed to provide a modicum of shelter, but the cruddy concave surface of that declivity made me wobble and wince.
The raven appeared like shadow. It didn’t swoop in aggressively or come wheeling out of the sky, but simply floated up over the snowdrift beside me, riding an updraft through the valley below.
I’ve been approached by corgi-sized corvids several times in the mountains, but compared to those verbose birds this one proved curiously stoic. No clucking. No scratchy caw-caw-caw. It just hovered right next to me on outstretched wings, staying strangely aloof and low to the ground.
Instead of moving away, it kept closing in on me until I could have reached out and touched it.
Intriguing as this behavior was, I didn’t stop skiing right away. At first the bird kept pace with me. Then, as a headwind picked up, it gradually slid behind.
After a few minutes, I assumed it had gone. But as the wind died down it came gliding right back. When I sped up, it sped up. When I stopped, it stopped.
For a long time I stood there, trying to figure out how to outwit it. When it finally flew away, I realized it had won.
But truthfully, so had I.
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