With Maura and Jack in Minnesota and 6-9″ of fresh snow in the forecast I decided it was a good time for my first splitboard tour of the season. I’d had my eye on Heliotrope Ridge after seeing a couple of trip reports from early November on Turns All Year.
I left work a little early to pick up my friend Dave at a park-and-ride with a plan to meet our friends Kelly and Cary at the Skagit River Brewery in Mt Vernon. Traffic was pretty terrible until we got past Everett but it wasn’t nearly as bad as our trip to Phelps Basin a few weeks back. After some delicious burgers and beers we headed towards Glacier Creek Road about a mile east of Glacier that would take us to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead. We were unsure of how far up the road we’d get. The forecast made it seem like everything above 3000 feet would be covered in snow.
Driving up the winding Glacier Creek Road was a little chaotic in the darkness and heavy rain. The road is a mixture of asphalt and gravel where the asphalt has washed away. It also switches between single and double wide lanes constantly. But in the overall scheme of forest roads it’s in really good condition comparatively.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 9pm. There’s room for about 30 cars in the long pullout on the side of the road but we were the only cars there at the time. There’s also a nice two stall latrine (don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper!) Since we were stuck in the middle of a heavy downpour we called it a night and crawled into the backs of our cars. I was pretty impressed by Kelly and Cary’s ability to somehow sleep in the back of their tiny VW. Although, things were pretty tight in the Explorer with two grown men and Latigo. But there was still more room than there would’ve been in a backpacking tent.
Our worry about not being able to make it all the way to the trailhead was completely unfounded. Not a single fleck of white snow could be seen. As I drifted off to sleep I started to dread the possibility of hiking the first couple of miles in the morning until we would hit snow in heavy rain.
At 4am I woke up to the sound of people talking loudly and car doors slamming. Peering out from our frosted windows I could see that the whole world had turned white. The rain had turned to snow throughout the night and left us a couple of inches of snow! It continued to fall heavily throughout the morning. The people who had woken us up headed up the trail to get first tracks. I fell back asleep because my sleeping bag was warm and everything outside was so cold!
Quick note – if you sleep in your car, crack a window! Not only does it help reduce condensation but it’ll also save you from waking up in the middle of the night struggling to breath. Last year on a backpacking trip to Snowy Lakes Maura and I learned this lesson the hard way when we awoke gasping for breath and couldn’t figure out what was going on.
We wound up sleeping in pretty late and by the time we were finished with our breakfast all of the other skiers were parking. Car after car pulled in filling the spaces of the lot and making the area feel more like a ski resort than a remote trailhead. I wasn’t even bummed that we wouldn’t be the first ones out even though we arrived the night before. I was happy that I didn’t have to wake up super early on a Saturday to make the drive!
Eventually our group was all ready and after checking each other’s avalanche beacons we followed the conga line of skiers out onto the trail. The Heliotrope Ridge trail starts simple enough with a beautiful bridge over Grouse Creek. You soon enter Mount Baker Wilderness and begin the windy path to the ridge. You cross a number of creek crossings on the way. The guidebook warns that sometimes these crossings can be precarious and icy but we had no issues with any of them this day. There are a few wide switchbacks on the way, too. Dave and I hiked the entire way with our snowboard boots on so we wouldn’t have to carry them. My splitboard is pretty old and really heavy so I take advantage of whatever I can do to reduce the weight on my back!
Quickly we all found ourselves being really hot! We continually removed layers to try and manage our heat. I was dripping sweat and my glasses were fogging up which was pretty annoying. Hopefully in the future I’ll learn to start out colder in anticipation of heating up from the hike.
At 2 miles we found ourselves at a junction in the trail. The left route takes you to the glacial moraine but we headed to the right on the climbers route. Soon we were above the treeline and finally had enough snow to transition from booting to skinning. Skinning conditions were a lot better than my first tour in November last year at Alpental. I didn’t have any equipment problems and made decent progress on the way up.
Soon we found ourselves in front of a steeper section of terrain. Dave fought his way up the slope and discovered for us that there was ice lurking underneath. I took my skis off right away and just booted up to avoid falling backwards and having to awkwardly struggle to stand up again as I so often do when skinning steeper stuff. Once atop the short steep section there was a nice flat area where we all relaxed and snacked for a little bit.
We continued our way up a few hundred feet following the gentlest terrain between exposed rocks. The weather was constantly shifting between not being able to see 10 feet in front of you to big open views. Although we never did get to see the summit of Mt Baker through the clouds we did get some awesome views of the nearby glaciers.
Just shy of 6600 feet we decided to transition and head down. My first turns of the season weren’t the smoothest but overall the snow conditions were pretty great! The ride down was much too short and if I was more fit I would’ve asked for a second lap but my legs were dying and we still had to hike back out. We managed to ski/board down to below the treeline without hitting too many rocks. After a quick lunch we started the slog back to the car.
Back at the trailhead we found even more snow had accumulated. Luckily the ride out was pretty smooth. There was a 4×4 trying to come up the road that was a little stuck which delayed us a bit. But eventually we made it out without anyone going into the ditch. Heliotrope Ridge is definitely a great place to come and tour when conditions allow and I’m so thankful for the group we pulled together to check it out.