Mt. Baker: It's On

You can stop drinking (as much) now.

With a bluebird sky, 72 inches of Northwest love at the summit, and a 67-inch base at the lower lodge, Mt. Baker opened Thursday to a ravenous crowd. Even with both base areas filled and more people than I can ever remember on an opening day in my last 9 years at Mt. Baker, many turns off the main throughways remained untouched until after the lunch hour, and numerous claims of, "Best opening day ever!" were heard at the lodge when the lifts closed for the day.

According to Gwyn Howat, who runs the mountain along with her sister and father, it was the third earliest opening day in the last 20 years, and the best snow consistency for opening day in the last 40. It is an El Nino year, which means high amounts of precipitation for the Northwest, along with warmer than normal temperatures. Howat contends that it's setting up to be a weak-to-moderate El Nino pattern this season, and that they expect 580 to 700 inches of snowfall. One thing I have learned from past El Nino's: get it while it's good -- before it rains.

Every walk of the Northwest snowboard experience was in attendance -- too many names (like Peter Line) to throw out. I rode solo in the morning because even though I knew most of my friends were there, I couldn't find any of them. I was also trying to avoid the crowds, as there were way too many people for comfort, but around noon I was really starting to trip on how I hadn't run into anybody and so decided to poke my head out of the trees. Baker has two summits, so I went to the other side of the mountain and halfway down the frontside of Chair 1 where I passed a man in a green jacket who had just tagged a rock. I looked back and saw the smiling face of Tarek Husevold, one of the most committed snowboarders I know.

Two years ago Tarek hit a tree in the backcountry of the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest and almost died of blood loss. The bone in his lower leg was thrust sideways, and by the time the Blackhawk helicopter lowered its rescue basket, Tarek was near death. Talk to him about it now he just makes jokes and laughs.

With Tarek's good friend Johnny Martens we hiked The Arm, a sidecountry playground off the top of the ski area boundary line. By the way Tarek rips on a snowboard, and at the speed at which he hiked the sinking boot pack, you would never know that he has a steel rod from his knee to his ankle and that he lost most of his calf muscle from the accident. Walking past snow ghosts with Mt. Shuksan looming ahead, he told me how he had met the rescue team a year later, and how they divulged that they gave him the nickname Cherry Snowcone to break the tension on the flight to the ER because of the excessive blood bubbling over his body and the surrounding snow when they lifted him out.

Because of the experience, and the downtime it took to heal, Tarek was forced to reevaluate his pursuit of snowboarding as a profession. Instead of wallowing in misery, Tarek took an inspiration from the experience that most would never see, and this week he'll take one of his last tests to become a helicopter pilot, with the hope of one day helping those who are stranded in similar situations.

With Mt. Baker's version of a mellow Alaska pitch below us, I pulled out my camera and shot Tarek digging into a few waist-deep pockets on the way down. Then I put my mind-cam back on, for it takes a much better picture.

Besides a rising snow level for the next two days, Washington is looking to go off in the coming weeks. Crystal Mountain also opened with full operations on Thursday, and the Summit at Snoqualmie opened Saturday, with Stevens Pass not far behind.

As Washington real estate mogul and two-time Banked Slalom Older Ams champion Marcel Dolak put it: "It's On!"