Chilly spring means winter situations proceed to dominate high-country recreation

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A recent ski trip to the North Idaho Selkirks highlighted an important fact: Winter is still the name of the game in the highlands.

Early on May 28th, Brett Barna and I met at the Priest River with our skis and some climbing gear in the vague hope of climbing to the top of Chimney Rock. A fickle weather forecast — rain and some snow on the 7,000+ foot ridge — meant our expectations for the climb were low, but we figured we’d at least get some good skis.

Barna has made it a tradition to drive into and climb Chimney Rock every Memorial Day. In a normal year, he said, it’s possible to get within 1 in 1 1/2 miles of the summer trailhead. In dry years like 2021, he made it to the trailhead and then had to hike a mile or more before he found snow.

This year we knew it would be different. With a cold and wet spring, winter lingered in the highlands and we figured we’d have to at least double the amount of road skiing we’d have to do.

We were right.

After driving 6 1/2 miles up Hunt Creek Road #24 – and smashing and digging our way through a particularly large patch of snow and mud – we came to impassable snow and started skiing. The snow never went away and almost 6 miles later we reached Chimney Rock. The weather held and we climbed the legendary North Idaho Peak with just a few raindrops peppering us.

After descending we drove back to the truck. The snow, which was wet and heavy, wasn’t great skiing, but the whole day was enjoyable, especially climbing some of Idaho’s alpine granites in an environment reminiscent of the Canadian Bugaboos. We saw visible signs of melting on the back of the ski, at one point there was a bare patch of bottom that wasn’t there when we broke it in.

As the snow melts and warmer weather over the past week only intensified the melt, recreational athletes need to be prepared for a variety of conditions when heading to the mountains. Snow gauges in the Selkirks reported 130% of normal snow cover, a wonderful and necessary fact for a drought-stricken West, but one that needs to be considered in recovery. It’s a similar story across Washington, with snow cover readings well above 100% for most of the state for this time of year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

That was driven home two days after our trip, when Leavenworth Climbing Rangers warned that visitors to the Enchantments in the Cascades “should be prepared for snow trips for the next few weeks”. In fact, rangers had to rescue two stranded hikers over Memorial Day weekend.

“Don’t get well into the summer months to do the continuous hike with summery conditions. In the middle of the core, the rangers encountered two lost hikers in whiteout conditions, with no map, no method of boiling water, soaked shoes and cotton pants,” the rangers statement said. “The individuals had to spend an unexpected night, assisted by two rangers.”

Definitely get out and enjoy. It’s one of the unique joys of living where we live, sneaking into late spring and summer and combining multiple outdoor sports. Just do this thoughtfully.