After the brief summer months of sunshine in the Pacific Northwest, most Seattleites and western Washingtonians start preparing for the long season of less favorable weather. Cue the Pacific Northwest’s trademark rains. As an outdoor photographer and an avid hiker, backpacker, and mountaineer, by November I’m often keeping a close eye on the 10-day forecast, searching for any sign of a fair weather window that might permit another adventure. The shoulder season and all of its rain and snow weighs on some people, but it actually brings me hope. While many see this turn in weather as unfavorable, weekend warriors emerge thirsty for a season chock-full of precipitation that presents more opportunity to get back on the skis and snowshoes or jump into any other winter activity before peak season is in full effect. This November, while searching for the right weather window, I detected a small chance to get into the mountains. It was a blip on the radar, but more than enough to team up with fellow climber and photographer Jeff Carlson to brainstorm potential spots in the Cascade Range. After scouring maps of the entire area, Mount Baker backcountry was calling our names. Mount Baker, the fourth highest summit in Washington, is actually an active glacier-covered volcano, not to mention one of the snowiest places on Earth. The backcountry surrounding the volcano includes over 100,000 acres of wilderness, a sweeping expanse riddled with obstacles, especially in winter. Before any trip in the mountains, I go through a master gear list to aid my packing process. It’s a crucial task, to say the least, especially one involving winter backcountry travel, where inclement weather can get serious on a moment’s notice. In addition to a proper tent, sleeping bag, and other snow camp gear, a mixture of layers is key to a successful trip in the Cascades. For footwear, I chose La Sportiva’s Trango Alp Evo GTX® Boots, made from GORE-TEX Performance Comfort footwear membrane, to keep my feet dry as we trudged through the snowy backcountry. The Trango is a mountaineering boot I’ve been using for several years, whether for alpine climbing, glacier travel or backcountry trips. For an outer layer, I also tested out the Black Diamond Mono Point shell, a lightweight jacket that would serve as protection from the elements. With the gear assembled, and the day of the trip finally here, we left Seattle in the early morning, driving north to the Mount Baker area. After nearly three hours of driving, we reached Heather Meadows, our starting point. We met with our friend and photographer Jacob Moon, who would join us on the trek into the backcountry. Upon parking our car, we found ourselves surrounded by fresh snowfall, cold temps, and limited visibility. Recognizing the early season snowpack, we opted for snowshoes as a means of backcountry travel. We started our journey. Visibility worsened as we snowshoed several miles into the Mount Baker backcountry. We were not able to see much of the surrounding terrain, let alone Mount Baker or the neighboring peak of Mount Shuksan. Winter was showing its full force. Trudging through the snowy landscape, void of any other tracks, we reached a point between Baker and Shuksan. Fingers frozen, we hunkered down to make camp, setting up our tents and pondering the great white beyond the curtain of clouds that tried to swallow us whole. We gathered snowpack and began to melt it for drinking, somehow hopeful that the heat from our stoves might fight back the cool, gray sky. Sunset arrived but forgot to bring its scarlet glow. After several hours of darkness, we peeked outside the tent and, to our surprise, the stars smiled back. We welcomed the visibility and lingered just long enough for late night temperatures to plunge well below freezing. I woke in the middle of the night, teeth chattering, to boil water for my bottle that I then stuck in my sleeping bag to create a cocoon of warmth. In between shivers, I contemplated my own sanity and willingness to volunteer for such outings time and again. I shook awake well before sunrise and cringed at the thought of leaving the safety of my sleeping bag. We’d weathered one storm and I was eager to know if we’d battle another day in the mountains. I unzipped my bag, shook off the frost from the rainfly and stepped outside into the dim light of morning. Warm streaks reminiscent of watercolors appeared overhead above Mount Shuksan to the east. Before we knew it, the entire horizon was a palette of pinks, purples, and oranges. The morning was boasting and we savored every second of solitude, silence, and saturation. All in all, the experience was a great reminder that every season has its own unique beauty, and that by enduring inclement weather and freezing temperatures with proper gear and know-how, we can all experience some of the most special moments nature has to offer.
Photographer Scott Kranz takes to Mount Baker in the Cascade Range for prime winter camping and captures a brilliant, snowy, sunrise.