The Best Worst Day of the Season

It was Saturday March 1, the day before the Spokane Nordic 20/30/50K Challenge Loppet, and I was at Mt. Spokane setting up in the Selkirk Lodge. The preceding couple of days had included a dozen emails back and forth discussing whether to cancel the event, and today was proof of why some of the people closest to the event had lobbied to call it off.

The temperature was in the low teens, with winds howling at forty-plus miles an hour. The place looked deserted. The lone skier in the Selkirk Lodge, Mark Bitz, had just come in from a couple of hours out on the trails with a report that the conditions were pretty bad. The high overnight winds had brought down a blanket of pine needles and buffed the snow into a hard crust.

Photo: Brad Thiessen
Photo: Brad Thiessen

But there was one exception. The one-way Shadow Mountain loop was amazing, he said. Somehow, perhaps because the loop was mostly on the far side of the mountain and protected from the wind, the ground was clean and in perfect shape. “Since there’s no one out there,” he said, “I skied it forwards, then turned around and did it backwards. You never get that chance.”

If Bitz hadn’t held out that carrot, and if it wasn’t near the end of the season, I might not have been so determined. But once you strap the skis on, there’s no going back. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one on the trails. The youth ski team from Ellensburg had come up for the Loppet the next day and were staying at Big Bear Lodge just down the hill, so they were up making the most of their time on the mountain.

After a few brief words with their leaders, I headed past Junction 1. The parking lot is always the windiest place on the hill, so my hope was that if I took Blue Jay, a trail that winds back and forth among the trees to a high ridge before coasting down to Junction 2, I might avoid the worst of the detritus the wind had blown from the Lodgepole pines. No such luck.

Photo: Brad Thiessen
Photo: Brad Thiessen

Skiing on bits of bark and needles is like trying to rollerblade from a sidewalk onto grass. You kick off and get maybe a half-second of glide before the lead ski catches and you’re shuffling over the snow. Fine if you’re just there for a walk, but a bit discouraging if you’re looking for the smooth flow that launches you forward and, at the best of times, almost feels like flight. I determined to keep going, though; partly because of the promise of better skiing ahead, and partly because calling it quits and heading back to the lodge would have been a declaration of defeat.

I half-coasted down the sticky trail at the end of Blue Jay into Junction 2, and continued the same half-glide, half-trudge out the other side. As I headed up the incline of lodgepole, things only got worse. Out in the open, the wind picked up again and the accumulation of needles and branches only got worse. I left the tracks and switched from side to side, in the vain hope of finding cleaner snow, but it was basically just a slog.

An amazing thing happened five minutes later, as I skied down past Junction 3 and reached the mouth of the Shadow Mountain Trail. It was almost spooky how everything abruptly changed. The wind was gone. The snow was clean. The skis glided. Heading up the familiar first slope, my body immediately set into the rhythm of kicking off with the lead foot and pushing with the opposite pole: glide, kick off with the other foot and pole, repeat.

As I reached the top of that first slope, my spirits were high enough that I almost believed there’d be a clear view of the valley to the east. Instead, I was cocooned by clouds in that quiet white of trail and hillside, with the groomed tracks leading to the left. I rounded the side of the mountain and headed up the steepest part of the trail where it’s always a test to see if it’s possible to hop-ski up without doing a herringbone – or worse yet, stopping to catch my breath before conquering the slope. At the top, the view cleared to reveal the slopes of the downhill area and the peak of Mount Spokane on the other side of the valley. I couldn’t help letting out a whoop.

Photo: Brad Thiessen
Photo: Brad Thiessen

I followed the trail for the next ten minutes around the northwest side of the mountain, up a steep stretch to the next crest, then coasted back down to Junction 3. Bitz was right – there was no way I was heading back yet. The forbidden fruit hung there; the chance to turn around and go the wrong way, back up that long slope, counter clockwise around the mountain. The chances of meeting someone coming the opposite way was pretty slim.

By the time the reverse trip back around the mountain was over and Junction 2 was within view, the crusty drifts were a couple of feet high, enough that with a couple of pole-shoves, I could sprint and get air, then promptly wipe out as my skis landed back on the needle-encrusted trail.

Back at the Selkirk Lodge, Bitz was long gone, but the team from Ellensburg was warming themselves around the stove, the joy of skiing evident even in those conditions that had discouraged most of the die-hard locals from hitting the trails.

The next day I was back in the lodge coordinating the Challenge Loppet. The trails had been groomed clean overnight, the promised high winds hadn’t materialized and a gentle snow began to fall by nine in the morning. Part of me was jealous not to be out on the trails with all the other skiers, but the high from the previous day stuck with me. It was enough. //

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