Countdown to Winter


John, Family Ambassador 

From the time the last flake falls in the Spring I dream about the magical moment of the first snow of the Fall. It’s a long wait.

Through the end of Spring and into Summer I don’t miss the falling snow because there’s still plenty of snow on the ground. Many of the mid-elevation hikes don’t fully melt out until June and that’s about when the higher elevation trailheads open. (You can snowshoe at Mount Rainier’s Sunrise and Paradise areas to celebrate the first weekend of Summer.)

As the Summer sun beats down, though, the snow becomes harder to find. In July, the snow is confined to north-facing slopes and shaded valleys. By August, it’s only at high elevation and shaded from the sun. By September, the snow has retreated to its fortresses high in the mountains.

We can see the snow and ice glistening on the volcanos, most notably Mt. Rainier in Washington and Mt. Hood in Oregon, but getting to it is another story. What was a drive up in June is now a serious expedition. And what you get to isn’t the fluffy white of our dreams. It’s hard and dirty and unforgiving.

October is the hardest month for me. The rain returns. 38 degrees and raining. So close to snow, but not quite. If it does snow at the summit of a local peak it’s white for only a day or two. Then the next slightly-above-freezing rain comes along and washes it away. Worst is when we have a great weekend of snow followed by a warm Chinook storm. It comes out of the warm Pacific and brings 40 degree rain, melting all the fresh snow and flooding the lowlands.

By the end of November the snow starts to stick around on the peaks. As I drive out of the mountains to the city for work I see the snow line and I try to gauge how long it would take to hike that high.

But it’s not until December that we have real snow in the mountains. It can amount to feet upon feet. In the 1998-1999 season Mt. Baker received a world-record 95 feet of snow. Paradise on Mount Rainier gets about 53 feet of snow each year. Even lowly Snoqualmie Pass, at only 3,000 feet, gets 33 feet of snow each year.

Now, finally, our snow is here and it’s time to put the last few months of planning time to good use. We’ll shake the sand out of our snowshoes and chase after surplus military tanks in the woods, search for frozen lakes, pursue amazing views, and watch avalanches (from a safe distance). We’ll also take the opportunity to fight breast cancer at the Romp to Stomp.

We know that Winter in the Northwest is a fleeting season so we won’t waste it. In fact, I don’t know why I’m still typing this instead of heading out the door. The mountains (and the snow) are calling. (You know the rest.)