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NY Times Profiles Baker

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
This is a pretty accurate description of Mt. Baker, except there IS cell service. 70&emc=eta1


Ski Report
Mount Baker: All Terrain and No Hype

Published: December 29, 2006
NO one ends up on the road to Mount Baker by accident.

Washington State Highway 542 leads there, and nowhere else. It runs 56 miles east of Bellingham, climbing 3,200 feet into the Cascades through a series of precipitous switchbacks before finally dead-ending at Mount Baker Ski Area. And the truly devout are more than willing to go the distance.

For hardcore skiers and particularly snowboarders across the nation, Mount Baker is one of the only ski areas left that rewards their dedication with untracked and uncharted powder. Riding at Vail, Squaw, Whistler or Stratton still delivers. But the connections that have developed among the tourism, real estate and ski industries in those places have made the experience of riding almost indistinguishable from the experience of the “vacation package.”

Mount Baker is different. It has been a ski area for almost 60 years, yet it does not sell real estate and has no overnight accommodations. It is a bare-bones mountain with a freethinking policy toward backcountry skiing and a following so loyal that every February, some of the world’s best pro boarders tear down its slopes in a race whose only prize is a trophy based on a wad of duct tape.

“You don’t have to read a marketing article in some magazine to know it’s going to be good up there,” said Travis Parker, a Tahoe-area professional snowboarder. “You can count on just blasting off stuff and going superfast.”

Mount Baker was among the first ski areas on the West Coast to allow snowboarding, at a time when the sport was forbidden on most mountains. It didn’t take long for riders to figure out that the area had more to offer than simply being a place where they could actually ride.

“At first, there was kind of an underground cult following,” said Mike Yoshida, a professional photographer in the Mount Baker area. “Now a lot of people go there to film snowboard and ski films because they realize the terrain is so good.”

Mount Baker is known for consistently deep snowfall, a reputation that was cemented over the 1998-99 winter season when it counted 1,140 inches of snow, one of the highest totals recorded for snowfall in a single winter. Added to this is a steep pitch that gives Mount Baker the feel of a scaled-down Chamonix. The mountain has a vertical rise of 1,500 feet, with 1,000 acres of compact and highly challenging terrain.

“At Baker, the hill just goes straight up; they have the nastiest terrain ever,” said John Laing, a professional snowboarder from the Bellingham area.

Mr. Laing has ridden at resorts across North America and Europe, but said he chose Mount Baker as his home area for three reasons: “The good terrain, the weather that’s like nowhere else and the freedom of riding the whole mountain.”

The Howat family has been running Mount Baker’s operations since 1968. The secluded location that now works in their favor posed huge challenges at the beginning: there were no public utilities nearby to work with.

“We’re completely off the grid,” said Gwyn Howat, the ski area’s business manager. “No electricity, no water, no sewage treatment, none of that. We’ve had to build and maintain the entire infrastructure.”

Because of this limitation, the Howats chose to develop the resort slowly and meticulously. When the ski-area boom of the mid-90s hit, along with the invention of the high-speed quad and the advent of multimillion-dollar investments in resort development, the Howats kept to their same, measured pace, sticking to small upgrades and a conservative business plan financed by short-term loans.

“We don’t have a parent company feeding our bottom line or carrying us through tough winters,” Ms. Howat said. Mount Baker has added seven lifts since the first one went up in 1953 and has turned a steady profit with consistent increases in lift ticket and season-pass sales. But the parking lot is still dirt, there are no plans for big hotels, and all the lifts are still fixed-grip. No crowds, no cellphones, no après. For riders at Mount Baker, culture is defined by the mountain itself.

“The mountains have always been awe-inspiring for people,” Ms. Howat said, “and what we try to do is kindle that, versus commercialize it.”

Mount Baker has some of the wildest terrain on the West Coast, and it’s accessible too. Although some resorts close their boundaries or severely limit access, Mount Baker Ski Area has developed a progressive backcountry policy.

“As part of our operating philosophy,” Ms. Howat said, “we believe first of all that the ski area and surrounding land are public, and that the public should be able to maintain access.”

Mount Baker’s backcountry policy requires riders to carry an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel and have a riding partner. Once riders venture past the ski area’s boundary, it’s understood that they won’t be guaranteed a rescue if things go wrong; the resort won’t deploy its patrol if it believes more lives would be put at risk.

Within the area’s boundaries, rope lines can be ducked under freely. Mount Baker policy assumes that riders make this choice consciously, and the same rules of patrol safety apply.

The combination of a slow-growth business plan and a safety policy based on personal responsibility has resulted in a ski area that has developed organically, responding to what the natural environment dictates, and in tune with the needs and wants of its riders. For the dedicated ski or board bum, it’s a culture that gives and gets respect.

The Legendary Baker Banked Slalom race is the prime example of the ski area’s appeal to the hardcore rider. For 22 years, the race has survived as the original contest run by snowboarders, for snowboarders. There’s no money to be won, just a trophy topped with a bronzed roll of duct tape, and the recognition of peers.

Each February, top professionals like Tom Burt, Terje Haakonsen and Victoria Jealouse pass up the television exposure and big purses of mainstream contests elsewhere in the world just to compete in the Baker slalom and celebrate the simple and unsullied passion for riding that brought them to the hill in the first place.

Riding with this group of people is an opportunity to live out the dream of their sport’s heyday. This year’s slalom will take place on Feb. 9, 10 and 11.

“You go because it’s about a lot more than just the contest,” said Jen Sherowski, a rider who writes about the sport. “It has a roots feeling. You see old friends and a lot of the people that were around for the birth of snowboarding.”

Justin Heath has been working at the Mount Baker Snowboard Shop since 2000, and he summed up the appeal of Mount Baker. “The snow, the terrain, the community,” he said. “Surfers search for their perfect wave their whole life. For a snowboarder, this is the perfect wave.”
post #2 of 5
Nice write-up.
post #3 of 5
What carrier has cell coverage at Baker? I haven't had any luck getting a signal....
post #4 of 5
Thread Starter 
I'm with Verizon and I get a very strong signal all over the mountain. I was with T-Mobile a couple of years ago and I got nothing.
post #5 of 5
Thanks! Good to know which companies cover which mountains for the next time my cell contract expires.
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