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Drive-By Chuting: Stevens Pass, Washington

Stevens Pass offers a surprising variety of powder fixes-from full-day summit tours to concentrated drive-up sessions.
posted: 03/24/2005

Location: 86 miles northeast of Seattle
Pass Elevation: 4,061 feet
Vertical drop: Up to 1,500 feet
Minimum Time Needed: 2 hours
Method: Out-and-back

THE SCENE: Cradled deep in the Cascade Mountains off Highway 2, Stevens Pass offers a surprising variety of powder fixes-from full-day summit tours to concentrated drive-up sessions. A sordid history of logging and some variably successful development (including two ski resorts: Stevens Pass, which is up and running, and Yodelin, now defunct) means there's an abundance of clear-cuts and access roads-a blight on the landscape to be sure, but a blessing for skiers seeking easy skin-ups and open backcountry slopes. Even with the open boundary policy at adjacent Stevens Pass resort, the area's numerous backcountry bowls and chutes are rarely crowded. In fact, with so few tracks, you can easily get lost. But don't: A rescue will run you $1,000.

THE SNOW: When the early rays of spring turn the Northwest snowpack into freshly poured cement, Stevens often has predictably fluffier stashes. Perched on the crest of the range at 4,061 feet, the pass is a geographical anomaly, benefiting from both heavy snowfall out of the west (450 inches most years) and cold air flows from the east. The result is a deep and dry snowpack that lasts well into May. Leave Seattle by 7 a.m., and by 9 you'll be cherry-picking untracked chutes, bowls, and gladed slopes.

THE DRIVE: From Seattle, drive north on I-5 to Everett, and then east on Highway 2 for 65 miles to Stevens Pass. (Literally dozens of drive-through espresso huts on the way up make early departure bearable.) To access Skyline Ridge (also known as Heather Ridge), park in the resort lot on the north side of the highway. To hit the quicker out-and-back on Yodelin Ridge, about 10 minutes east (toward the old ski area), leave your car at the Smith Brook Snowpark on the north side of the highway, and cross the road to the trailhead (look both ways-drivers scream around the blind curve).

THE GOODS: Because of its proximity to the ski area, Skyline Ridge is a popular but worthy spot for yo-yoing: From the maintenance road behind the electric substation in the corner of the lot, it takes a half-hour to 45 minutes to gain the ridge. The east-facing gladed slopes that drop off the right side range from mellow to moderate-perfect for all levels. Six to eight hundred feet of vert later, you'll drop down to an old logging road that leads back to where you started. For more vert, continue skinning two miles west to the summit above Skyline Lake, where you can drop into steep south-facing bowls that yield a thousand vertical feet of nicely spaced old-growth pines. From the lake, climb back eastward to the ridge crest and ski down to your car.Short on time? Sketchy weather? Head to Yodelin, where, thanks to past logging and abandoned ski runs, you'll find plenty of open slopes and well-spaced glades. Skin about 2.5 miles up an old access road (go left at the first fork) that leads to a saddle at 4,800 feet. From here, you can head east up the ridge toward the summit and ski the fall line slopes directly below the saddle through an old clear cut. Or, for a full day tour, continue half a mile west from the saddle to the summit of Big Chief Mountain. Farm the gentle north-facing slopes off the summit and you'll end up on the open runs of the old ski area. After 1,500 vertical feet, you'll hit the highway-the parking lot is about a mile back to the right, depending on where you pop out.

Uncle Uli's Pub, Leavenworth, WA

Should you find yourself in Leavenworth-a faux-Bavarian town 45 minutes east of Stevens Pass where lederhosen are still de rigueur-be sure to stop by Uncle Uli's Pub (509-548-7262). Order a Jim Jack burger (it's actually a chicken sandwich), so named in honor of a local freeskier who for some reason is known as "the mayor of Altaa." Opened in '96 by T.R., a local ski bum and ex-Stevens Pass liftie, the pub pulls in outdoor jocks of all sorts. On Thursdays, the Sourass Blue Mountain Bottom Boys-a ragtag ensemble of area musicians and skiers-fire up live bluegrass. One night a month, Uncle Uli's hosts Homegrown Ski Film night, during which local ski cinematographers screen their latest efforts. As for Uncle Uli himself, well, he's sort of a Snuffleupagus type: No one knows if he actually exists, but rumor has it that he stops in to spin an occasional yarn.

Visit Pro Mountain Sports in Seattle (206-522-1627), run by renowned Cascade climber Jim Nelson. Consult Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (206-526-6677; nwac.noaa.gov). bring 100 Classic Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes in Washington, by Rainer Burgdorfer (The Mountaineers Books). Sleep at the Cascadia Inn in Skykomish, 16 miles west of Stevens Pass (from $75; 360-677-2030). Camp at Lake Wenatchee State Park (parks.wa.gov), 20 miles east of Stevens Pass on Highway 2.

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