Excluding whatever types of pagan rituals that might have once been observed, I have my own summer solstice tradition. By waiting until June 21st, the official beginning of their summer glory, I torment friends and family members by reminding them of one simple, basic fact: from that point forward, the days will be getting shorter. The summer has only really just started there. And it will get hotter. And neither of those things prevents me from adding a wintery pall to their summer solstice with that simple, hopeful notion about the shorter, darker days that will soon be back.
Of course, this is only projecting my own wintery preference onto people who like sun and dry trails and such. It’s only pleasure at their pain. I’ll still daydream of floating through powdered glades and skinning across alpine traverses, and in those daydreams, there’s always the small hope that maybe, just maybe, the freak storm will materialize, obliterate the summer hillsides under a coat of fresh snow, and we’ll be there to revel with our skis in some June pow. This never seem to happen though.
Until a storm drunkenly careened down from Canada, slammed into the hills, and sat there for two days straight. Upwards of four inches of rain soaked the valleys, translating to feet in the alpine. Strange phone calls were made, because for that moment, we were that darkly shaded area of snowpocalypse on the storm maps. The place everyone wanted to be. A crew was rallied, and it was time to fulfill those strange dreams of solstice face shots.
Access roads that had recently melted out seemed our best bet. On June 17th, Clay and I piled into Jason’s truck and we headed for Jewel Basin. The thermometer on the rearview crept down to 37. Then to 36. We parked in a light rain, and started skinning with dampening spirits. Sheltering on the porch of the closed ranger station above a parking lot still deep under old snow, the general thought was that we’d missed the fresh for a tour in the rain.
Getting off the porch was the hard part. As we gained elevation, the rain turned to snow glopping on our skins and soaking our gloves. Atop the ridge, it was full on winter, and the damp stoke started to show. With skis that no longer slid due to the sludge ingrained into the bottom, each step was an experiment in something more walking than sliding. The summit came and went, and we transitioned in an alcove above old snow coated in six inches of late June glory.
Ski cuts confirmed the obvious–the bond between the new and old snow was nearly nonexistent. After cutting a wide path, we skied the slide track and then wandered out into new snow on the lower angles of the apron. Heavy snow flew up past our faces, and the instead of sun cups, the unweighting joy of those missing winter days rose from our legs and spilled out into howls of excitement that probably would have echoed, had it not been for the snow.
Since the snow stuck to my bases so well on the trip down to Picnic Lakes, I decided to try touring up without my doomed skins. It worked perfectly. And just as I was thinking this, negotiating a steep spot around a tree, one ski slipped out and I nearly went head first into a consolidated tree well.
No goggles, no skins, not even close to winter, but on the aspects near the trees, it was just what we came for.
Which meant that another lap was in order, despite the soaking we’d all received from the wet start and constant snow. It was a good thing I put my goggles on, because some snow came up and hit me in the face.
Clay managed a creek gap on the way back to the truck, and as we got close, the fact that we were still skiing were we’d walked over dirt brought it home: the snow level had plummeted. We’d skied pow. And now we’d have to drive down through it on a steep dirt road with no plowing or chains in a light pickup truck.
Jason took the helm with Clay and I seated on the dropped tailgate for ballast. At least twice we felt the back end break free and begin to slide sideways until it dug into gravel through the snow.
“Well, if the truck goes off, I guess we’ll just bail.”
And thanks to Jason’s masterful driving, we didn’t have to. Once at snow line, we switched into the cab, and descended into the valley and the rain.
But of course, the snow was still piling up, and with positive June snowpack, we’d have to go pillage again. Such luck demanded another foray. Essex emerged from discussion as the target, and the next day, I found myself walking up the Marion Lake trail in my ski boots.
Elkweed and alder that had only recently sprung up from the melting winter snowpack were festooned with fresh snow. It felt like Christmas. And as we switched into skis nearer to the lake and headed up the slopes of Essex Eountain, the bond between our June gift and the winter’s remnants reminded us that it certainly wasn’t December. Note Clay’s slide in the foreground.
As we ascended, it got deeper, and deeper. Which just made us smile that much more.
And on our second lap, Clay negotiated the melt out to survive a small drop.
At the end of our second lap, it was noticeably warmer. Our fresh was beginning to remember that it was actually June, and prudence suggested a retreat from increasing slide danger.
So descent on the access trail offered an opportunity: we’d be able to ski through some of the snow we’d walked up. As our bases played chicken with barely covered rocks and gravel, we made hashy turns through the alder and thin snow. Clay proved to be the most adept until a corner served up a clatter of a stop.
The walk down proved easy, and as we reached the truck, I considered the slide risk we’d seen increase. Larger piles of snow had fallen in the alpine, making much of the interesting terrain even sketchier than what we’d skied. So I checked out thankfully, dedicating the next day to errands and chores.
Which were necessary, but boring. Climbing at the crag seemed to be a good way to finish too much time on the computer, so I called Taylor.
“Oh, you wanted to climb? I’m going skiing. Jewel with James and Kathy. You want to come?”
And so day three of Juneuary started at 5pm.
Leaving the car a little further than where we’d been snowed in just two days previous, it was a pretty different day. For one, it wasn’t raining.
And for another, the evening was positioning itself for a gorgeous sunset.
Taylor and I made it to the microwave shack. To the west, the sun headed down, kicking alpenglow onto the peaks of the Great Bear and Glacier to our east.
And we headed down. After some ski cuts, we dropped into a fun chute that had slide naturally earlier in the day.
This time, the trip out required skins. Transition at Aeneas Notch.
With some scuffling around in the trees, some turns, and the same creek gap, we got back to the car just as headlamps seemed like a good idea. Our trip down the road went much more smoothly with just dirt. It’d been three days of wet, then pow, then sludge. The storm had come. We’d been ready. And as the hot days resumed, bringing with them the daydreams of the snow on our faces, they didn’t seem quite as far away.
Thanks to Jason, Clay, Taylor, James, and Kathy for their companionship and photos. Thanks especially to Jason for motivating and not going off the road.