Mount Baker Ski Area

Snow Day

Spring is officially here- but I managed to make it through the entire winter without enjoying a single day on the ski slopes. I had to go at least once so I made it happen on Friday. Not a whole lot to say about this; a beautiful day up at Mount Baker with partly sunny skies and about 4″ of new snow to start the day. After my break for lunch, I spent some time photographing Mount Shuksan before the clouds swallowed it whole. The afternoon brought the snowy weather back and eventually the expansive views completely disappeared. The ski area shut down at about 4pm and before I headed home, I stopped off at Hannigan Pass Road. I hoped to check out a particular spot overlooking the North Fork Nooksack River where Mount Shuksan is visible. The mountain wasn’t visible but I did experience a crazy snow squall that passed through my location despite the presence of sunshine. Very cool experience! A great day and just what I needed..
Mount Shuksan and the White Salmon Creek valley from the Mount Baker Ski Area
Clouds drifting over Shuksan Arm
Shadow and sunlight on Mount Shuksan's lower slopes beneath Winnies Slide
Mount Shuksan summit pyramid and clouds
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
I also put together a little snowboarding video from my day on the slopes which you can view here:

New Years Sunset

South Twin Sister. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Panorama of South Twin Sister (L), Hayden Peak (C), and Little Sister (R). Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Mount Baker from Huntoon Point on Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Lately I’ve a a run of photographic bad luck. Before Christmas, I visited Mount Rainier National Park and came away with no photos. I followed that up this past weekend with a hike up to Artist Point for sunset. Forecasts called for clearing skies an hour before sunset so dramatic skies could be in play. I was welcomed by wind and near whiteout conditions at Artist Point. Adding insult to injury, the skies did begin to clear out but that happened well after I had turned around and made it back to my truck. I couldn’t get shut out a third time, could I? To test that theory, I returned to Artist Point on New Years Day where the forecast was for “mostly clear” skies. On my way there, I couldn’t help but stop along Highway 9 to photograph the Twin Sisters Mountains. As I have learned, clear skies and sunshine may not be great for color photographs but they can be great for black & white photos.

I arrived at the Heather Meadows parking lot at the Mount Baker Ski Area and skies weren’t clear. To be more specific, they were “mostly overcast” and actually trending towards cloudy. Where the hell did this come from?? A bad omen but I still had a couple hours til sunset so anything could happen. Doning my snowshoes and a sense of deja vu, I headed yet again up towards Artist Point. It looked like many other people had the same idea (watching sunset from Artist Point) because I noticed just as much uphill traffic as people heading down. After a couple more days of sun and no new snowfall, the snowshoe routes were packed down a bit more and quicker. Even with the 30+ pounds of crap in my backpack, I made good time and reached the Artist Point parking lot in 1 hour 15 minutes (roughly 1.3 miles and ~1,000 feet of gain). The route up to Artist Point is, for the most part, benign but I am constantly shaking my head in disbelief as I watch people hike the direct route up towards Huntoon Point through the most dangerous terrain possible. The ridge between Huntoon Point and Artist Point gets SEVERELY wind loaded. Now throw in the switchbacks of the summertime road and you now have terrain traps. You’re asking for trouble by crossing this zone. In fact, in 2003 three people were caught in a slab avalanche which ultimately killing one of them. This is why I always head straight towards the parking lot, taking the short, steep headwall just left of the Blueberry Chutes or contouring around the headwall and doubling back at the first chance.

Anyways, at Artist Point, I admired the view south down the Swift Creek valley towards Baker Lake but also lamented the change in the weather. It was now completely overcast everywhere except towards the far south. My dreams for a colorful sunset were dashed. I still had time to kill before sunset so I headed out towards Huntoon Point. Along the way, I scoped out the various trees encased in ice just like the trees in the Finnish Lapland. Eventually, I topped out on Huntoon Point’s 5,247 foot summit. Despite skies which still weren’t clearing out, I was determined to take at least some photos. I began my hike back towards Artist Point but stopped along the way to photograph the gigantic ice trees. One grove in particular hand a number of interestingly shaped limbs which I used to frame Mount Baker in the distance.
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
The only color to be seen was over 50 miles to the south/southeast and so I made the judgement call to head back to my original viewpoint over the Swift Creek drainage where I figured I could come up with some sort of composition. I passed another couple enjoying the views with some hot beverage and set up my camera to begin shooting. After a while, the couple near me headed back to their car and the clouds above Mount Baker had the faint hint of reflected color. More time went by and the color began to slowly build up. I couldn’t believe it- the color turned a fiery, vibrant red! I was cold to the point of my teeth almost chattering but I quickly attacked the developing scene in front of me. This metamorphosis of color lasted about 15 minutes. It faded away and I felt extremely lucky to have witnessed it. I should know better, especially since I have been witness to these types of displays before. None the less, it always leaves me in awe when it does happen.

Awe doesn’t keep you warm so it was time to go! It was already dark enough to don my headlamp for the hike out. My hike out was peaceful except for the crunch of snow beneath my snowshoes. Across the Bagley Lakes basin, I could make out the headlamps of two skiers making an ascent of Mount Herman for some night time turns. This was a fabulous way to start the new year!

Welker Peak and the cloud covered Baker Lake valley from Artist Point
Mount Baker and Swift Creek drainage from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point

White Salmon

Mount Shuksan and the White Salmon Creek valley
Mount Shuksan and Shuksan Arm panorama from above the White Salmon Creek valleyFive weekends in a row of sunshine? Amazing. Temperatures were flirting with 70 degrees but I still had winter somewhat on the brain. Due to our normally abundant snowpack, I wanted to scout out a “pseudo-winter” shot I’ve been visualizing for a while. It centers around the White Salmon Creek, which flows away from the sheer cliff face of Mount Shuksan’s northwest face. There’s a certain level of commitment to my vision so I really wanted to be sure of its possibilities before attempting it.

White Salmon Creek lies outside the Mount Baker Ski Area, and it’s that ski area that provides the best and most direct access. The ski lifts stopped running at the end of April so the best time to make an attempt is now. Winter snowpack is still close to maximum and the travel is much easier (White Salmon Creek has a reputation for Sitka Alder thickets which abuse anyone who dares travel through them).

Backcountry ski tracks on Mount Shuksan
Slope details on Mount ShuksanIt’s only 0.75 miles from the White Salmon Day Lodge to the base of Chair 8 and under bright, cloudless skies it was a pleasant 30 minute snowshoe hike. Much to my surprise, White Salmon Creek in the valley below me was buried under deep snows. Hmm. So much for my plans. On some level I was a bit relieved to see this. The sun was BAKING the snow and I know I would have had quite an ordeal to posthole back out of the valley.

It was still a fantastic day so I set up my tripod and scoped out Mount Shuksan. On my hike in, I was following a pair of skin tracks which continued on towards Shuksan. High above on the mountain’s slopes, I could see their skin track uphill and graceful figure-8 turns from their descent. I had come this far, lugging my snowboard, so it was time to make it worth my while. I double-backed to the base of Chair 8 and proceeded to hike up towards the top of Chair 8.

Shuksan Arm study
Shuksan Arm studySince the ski area’s closure, the snow has continued to fall. In fact, enough snow has fallen to freshen up every slope within the ski area. Moguls, ruts, mounds…all gone. My visit also was the first in a quite a while to this part of the ski area. As I plodded along, I looked back at my progress and my snowshoe tracks were the only tracks in sight. For a few hours, the ski area was all mine.

The higher I progressed, the deeper the snow got. My trekking poles would easily sink into the snow at least a foot and my snowshoes were slogging through 4 inches of sun crafted corn. My goal was to reach the top of Chair 8 but time was running out for me on this day. I settled for a spot where Chair 5 spills out and joins Chair 8’s traffic. Not the top but still over a mile long descent and 1,000 vertical feet. A fabulous day in the mountains and another reminder of how blessed I am to live here!

Snowshoeing through the Mount Baker Ski Area. Iphone picture
Snowshoeing through the Mount Baker Ski Area with Mount Shuksan in the background. IPhone picture
Ready to descend fresh ski slopes within the Mount Baker Ski Area. IPhone picture

Now I Say Goodnight to Winter

An ironic title, given the title I used for last week’s posting. In fact, as I write this, the snow level will dip below 1,000 feet again. All this just days from the month of May! Nonetheless, winter for me isn’t over until the Mount Baker Ski Area season comes to an end and that finally happened this past weekend. A gorgeous day of sunshine was forecasted so sticking around after an afternoon on the slopes for sunset was in order. For once, the weather forecasts were actually correct and the day progressed with clear skies.

Stronger composition of the shot I took last weekend. Cornice along the Shuksan Arm on Mount Shuksan. Black & White conversion using Nik Silver Efex 2
Backcountry ski tracks on the flanks of Mount Shuksan
By 5pm, things around the ski area had quieted down and the last wave of snowshoers were returning from their day trips up to Artist Point. As they returned, I was geared up and on my way up to Artist Point. I attempted a sunset from up here last winter and had some keepers with great pink alpenglow colors on Mount Shuksan. One thing about that visit was that I felt rushed looking for compositions due to a short lead time into that sunset. This time, I made it up onto the ridge before the “golden hour” before sunset and that allowed me to traverse along Kulshan Ridge and check everything out.

Huge cornice looms over the Blueberry Chutes near Artist Point
I hike all the way out towards the high point of Huntoon Point. Before the last ascent, I noticed a snag sticking out of the snow. I immediately recognized it as a snag I had photographed last fall. I put together this side by side shot to give you an idea of how much snow really accumulates in this area:

Side by side comparison of snag out along Kulshan Ridge. Right hand picture was taken fall of 2010. Left hand picture last weekend.
The snag (the right-most one in the right-hand photo) was probably 12+ feet tall and is situated on a rise that is 8-10′ above the trail. Seeing only the top 3 feet of the snag leaves a whole lot of snow underneath my feet!

I hoped I could find a spot which would leave me with compositions of both Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker but found this a challenge. In winter, the ridge top takes on a convex shape due to wind transport of snow. The only trees that aren’t buried are located down off the crest on either side. This means that you have to physically relocate from one side to the other in order to shoot either mountain. Now throw in a slew of snowshoe tracks and ski traverses throughout your foreground and you have your work cut out for you!

My decision was to hunker down and face Mount Shuksan and the Swift Creek headwaters. Besides, I enjoyed the vast scene dropping away in front of me. As the minutes of the golden hour ticked away, the light began to change from white to golden light. I hoped and patiently waited for the peak colors to appear but they never graced the slopes of Mount Shuksan. A bit frustrating because I could see better light to the south towards Whitehorse Mountain and to the northwest towards American Border Peak!

Mount Shuksan at sunset
Sunset light on the backside of the Shuksan Arm
Sunset light
As luck would have it, I stood up and looked back towards Table Mountain & Mount Baker and the sky had some nice orange color but was starting to fade. Before committing to my vantage point of Mount Shuksan, I had scouted a composition for Mount Baker. I further prepped the spot by stamping out a firm pad in the snow. Now that time was of the essence, I was able to quickly set up and not have my tripod legs sink down into the snow pack.

I snapped off a few shots and was quite surprised to see that my camera was able to contain the entire dynamic range within one exposure. My visit last winter was with my Pentax K10d whose sensor technology was three-ish years old. My current Pentax K-5 has some of the best dynamic range you can currently buy in the APS-C format and I’ve become a firm believer in this. I remembered another scene just on the other side of Huntoon Point so I humped all my gear as quickly as I could over to a half buried small snag.

Mount Baker near the end of sunset
Tree burdened by recent snowfall after sunset
Mount Baker after sunset
After a few more quick snaps, any magic light that was left faded away. Donning my snowshoes once again, I quickly made my way back towards the buried Artist Point parking lot and the descent back down to Heather Meadows. So ended the day, and so ended another ski season and winter. Despite the obvious abundance of snow, it was personally a weird winter. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by previous winters but the lack of a lower elevation snowpack was a real disappointment.

Along with a number of other locations, Nooksack Falls received intermittent snow which prevented me from getting the truly winter scene I’ve been hoping for. The Ohanepecosh River valley was virtually bone dry all the way up close to 2,000 feet. Closing the door on winter does open the door for summertime, wildflower meadows, and the beautiful high country. Granted, it will be a while before it will be accessible but the trip planning and research can begin now!

Bigma Fun

Sigma 50-500 'Bigma' mounted to my Pentax K-5
I recently ended a long quest to pick up my “wildlife”zoom lens. As a brand, Pentax has not kept up with developing long length zooms (or primes for that matter) for use in wildlife photography. The Pentax branded lenses out there hail from the end of the days of film and the FA series of lenses. For modern times, options are really limited to a few offerings made by third party lens developer Sigma.

Sigma has been producing their 500mm (750mm equivalent with the Pentax 1.5x crop) beasts for a while and their offerings boil down to the 150-500 or the 50-500, which is affectionately known as the “Bigma.” Based on my research, the 50-500 was held in high regard for both it’s image quality and value. The current version of this lens retails for about $1600 in a Pentax mount and uses a HSM motor for focusing. Pentax’s own lenses with HSM motors have been suspect so I wanted to avoid this and target a used copy of the previous version of this lens (the 50-500mm F4-6.3 APO DG).

I thought I had scored a deal on one using eBay but the seller had mistakenly listed their Nikon mount lens as a Pentax mount.There’s nothing worse than opening a box and realizing the lens you see won’t fit your camera! Anyways, fast forward a few weeks and I found an individual selling their one year old Bigma for $825 on a Pentax forum. For an additional $50, the seller threw in a UV and Polarizer filter so I jumped on it.

I’m not really a wildlife photographer but occasionally find myself in those kind of situations. What’s more, there have been a few times when I knew that the extra length beyond my normal 300mm tele would have yielded a much stronger composition and image. I’ve wanted to take this lens out for a spin but haven’t had the time until a few days ago. I tried stopping by the Mosquito Lake Rd bridge over the North Fork Nooksack River but there wasn’t a single Bald Eagle to be found. If I was going to use this lens, it would have to be landscapes.

Before that, however, I stopped briefly at Nooksack Falls. I hoped to get a “wintertime” counterpart to my ladder-aided shot of Nooksack Falls from last summer. To my disappointment, much of the snow that fell a couple weeks ago has melted away..

Nooksack Falls (Portrait version)
Nooksack Falls (Landscape version)
After that, I continued up the Mount Baker Highway to hit the slopes at the Mount Baker Ski Area. The skies were partly sunny with clouds drifting in and around the neighboring peaks. Perfect for dramatic photos! I decided to only use the Bigma so all of these photos were taken with the 50-500 and a UV filter:

Mount Shuksan summit clouds (Sigma 50-500 @ 138mm)
Mount Shuksan summit clouds (Sigma 50-500 @ 420mm)
Snow Cornices along the Shuksan Arm (Sigma 50-500 @ 420mm)
Snow Cornices along the Shuksan Arm (Sigma 50-500 @ 500mm)
Snow flocked trees along Ptarmigan Ridge in the Mount Baker Wilderness (Sigma 50-500 @ 500mm)
I’m really happy that I picked it up. It is a HEAVY lens and weighs in at over 4 pounds. I won’t be taking this out on a hike very much! Another caveat is its construction so you should be mindful of its use during extreme conditions. Living in the wet confines of the Pacific Northwest, I’m very accustomed to being out in rain and snow. My camera body has weather seals but my lenses do not. I have not found this to be an issue overall but the Bigma is put together slightly different.

Front most element is retained by six screws to the barrel. I would have concerns about water penetrating this seal and take some precautions
Six screws retain the front most element of the lens to the rest of the extending body of the lens. Given our proclivity to rain, I’m real concerned about moisture penetrating this seal. Thankfully, I have found an inexpensive solution but I’ll blog about that after I have had some time with it in actual rainy conditions. My Manfrotto ballhead can support the weight of the lens and camera but it is sensitive to vibrations. Using the camera’s timer or better yet a remote control helps mitigate for this.

The extra 200mm at the extreme end of the range does make a difference. There’s been one composition out along the Shuksan Arm that I’ve wanted to shoot but have been unable to since it won’t fill the frame at 300mm. It now does and hopefully I’ll be able to shoot it before the end of ski season next month. Focusing is fairly fast and snappy but it has hunted for focus in low light and low contrast conditions. I’ve been able to work around this by either selecting a higher contrast focus point or by pointing the lens at a higher contrast portion of the scene and then recomposing for my original scene.

The Canon / Nikon versions of this lens have a few switches near the mount which control zoom creep and manual / auto focus. The Pentax version only has the zoom lock switch and I gave myself a heart attack as I unintentionally discovered that manual / auto focus is controlled by a push/pull of the focusing ring. I thought I had broken the lens!

My last comment is about the lens hood, which requires some consideration. The horizontal petals almost half the depth of the vertical petals, presumably to avoid appearing in the frame at 50mm. My very first attempt using this lens was at a local estuary wetland during a windy rain. Although I was perpendicular to the wind, it was blowing water droplets in and onto the front of the lens. This is something I have not encountered with my Pentax DA55-300 which uses a lens hood with a uniform, deep length. This isn’t calamity by any stretch but I think folks should be aware of such things. Sometimes the photos we take can’t be duplicated so I would hate to loose a photo because I didn’t check for water droplets!

[UPDATE] I haven’t had many opportunities to use this lens until recently when I visited Boundary Bay in British Columbia to photograph the Snowy Owls. You can see those photos in my blog post here.

A Winter’s Day

Not much of a story for this entry. Here’s a variety of photos from another bluebird day up at the Mount Baker Ski Area and the North Fork Nooksack River valley. The river photos are from another new section of the river for me. A nice spot with some twists and turns in the river and the added bonus of a view of Mount Sefrit in the distance.

Razor Hone Creek inside the Mount Baker Ski Area


Snow flocked tree at the Mount Baker Ski Area

Table Mountain and the Bagley Creek Basin just outside of the Mount Baker Ski Area

North Fork Nooksack River with Mount Sefrit in the distance

North Fork Nooksack River with Mount Sefrit in the distance

Downed tree limbs trail into the North Fork Nooksack River

Fallen tree limb arches out over the North Fork Nooksack River

Mount Sefrit with fresh snow viewed from the North Fork Nooksack River valley

Near sunset view of South Sister (one of the Twin Sisters)

Near sunset view of the Twin Sisters

April Powder

15″ of fresh snow and bluebird conditions in April at Mount Baker are hard to pass up. Here are some more shots from around the ski area. This time around I was more focused on small intimate scenes rather than grand views:

April Powder - Mount Baker Ski Area
Lonely Trees - Hemispheres
Curves - Hemispheres
Swift Creek Drainage
Backcountry snowboarders hiking out of the Swift Creek drainage
On my way home, I stopped off at an unsigned trail which enters some beautiful old growth. I couldn’t explore all of it but it had some interesting sights:

Three trees
Roots growing around a knot on an old-growth Douglas Fir
Interesting overturned tree stump

Kuhlsan Ridge

Another high pressure system brought clear, sunny skies for the weekend. It’s been awhile since I’ve shot a sunset so I decided to set up on Kuhlsan Ridge near the Mount Baker Ski Area for the evening’s show. Time got away from me during the day so I was running a bit behind schedule when I donned my snowshoes for the hike up to Artist Point. I topped out at Artist Point during the “golden hour” so I didn’t have much time to find a location with an interesting foreground.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky so the light reflecting off of Mount Shuksan held most of my interest. not the best sunset I’ve shot but the solitude of witnessing it was very rewarding..

Sunset on Mount Shuksan
Sunset from Kuhlsan Ridge
Sunset reflected off of the Mount Shuksan summit pyramid
Last light of sunset on Mount Shuksan
Last light on the Swift Creek headwaters
Time to go home

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