Braving The Backcountry

by Rachel Remington

Horizon Reporter

Mt. Baker, also referred to as “Koma Kulshan” by early Nooksack Indians, is known to many as an active volcano in Washington state.  However, it hasn’t erupted for years, so over time it has developed into a well-known ski resort.

As much as it has potential for great backcountry endeavors, like hiking and skiing, it also has the potential to be a deadly danger to some unfortunate thrill seekers.

Although there is always the impending risk that Mt. Baker may erupt again, there are more common dangers in the area that visitors should be aware of. 

Doug McKeever, a geology teacher at Whatcom Community College, has summited Mt. Baker 68 times, and has learned a lot about the dangers that visitors to the area face.

Avalanches are among the hazards that occur at Mt. Baker on occasion.  McKeever explained that one way to determine if a certain slope of the mountain may be more prone for avalanches is by measuring the degree the slope sits at.

If a slope is between 35 and 40 degrees, there is a higher risk of an avalanche occurring in that area, said McKeever.  If a slope is more than 45 degrees, the snow regularly slides down the slope throughout the day, leaving less snow to build up and cause an avalanche.

A steady amount of snowfall throughout the day can increase the risk of an avalanche occurring as well.  McKeever explained that if snow is falling at a rate of at least an inch an hour, the threat for a landslide increases.

Bernie Dougan, also a geology teacher at Whatcom, has been snowboarding for 17 years, and has discovered that the temperature during snowfall can impact the risk of an avalanche occurring. 

If the temperature in the area is very cold during snowfall, the snow being produced is much lighter and drier, said Dougan.  However, if the temperature is close to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the snow is much heavier and wetter, making for more of a risk of snow movement.


Tree wells are another danger in the backcountry, and similarly to avalanches, have the potential to bury or trap a person in snow. Tree wells are the hollowed area of snow surrounding a tree that one can fall into and get trapped in if one gets too close.  McKeever once fell into a tree well in the backcountry, and wouldn’t have been able to get out without assistance. 

“If someone doesn’t dig you out, you’re probably not going to survive,” said McKeever.

Among other dangers in backcountries are crevices, which are gaps in the snow that snowboarders or skiers can fall into if the crevice isn’t very visible.  Having good visibility while enjoying the backcountry is important for one’s safety. 

McKeever mentioned that recently several people fell off the switchback at Austin pass at Mt. Baker because they couldn’t see the edge of the run.

Although the uncharted backcountry is unpredictable and dangerous, the ski area of Mount Baker is maintained in order to keep it safe for visitors. 

Amy Trowbridge, marketing director for Mount Baker Ski Area, said that the ski area has a professional patrol that works to maintain the safety of the slopes with a number of techniques.

The patrol uses a method called cutting, which involves skiing diagonally across a run in order to release loose snow.  The patrol also uses hand charges, which are large firecrackers that are thrown on part of a run to get the loose snow moving.

In order to make the backcountry experience safer for one’s self, one should be carrying the right equipment.  McKeever said that having a transceiver, a shovel, a probe pole, a partner, and “knowledge, along with consistently checking out what avalanche experts have to say” are all important things to bring into the backcountry.

McKeever also said that taking an avalanche safety class can be very useful for one’s safety.  REI, Mount Baker Ski Area, and the American Alpine Institute are just a few places that offer such courses.

The Mount Baker Ski Area Web site and the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center Web site are updated daily, and are useful sources for checking the snow conditions, and the potential dangers up at the mountain on a day-to-day basis. 

“Every day that a person goes to the backcountry, they have to evaluate the avalanche conditions,” said Dougan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *