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Nisqually Chutes, MRNP, March 18, 2015

The 2014-2015 ski season had been a disaster from any standpoint you chose to look at it from - the lowest snowfall totals in decades, only a smattering of skier visit days at the resorts, and brutal for the retailers in the Pacific Northwest and California. March, normally a month to gloat in our snowfall totals and look forward to the spring and summer touring season, had skiers scrambling to high elevations just to scratch out a few runs on icy groomers, since the base of most of the ski areas (not to mention the approaches to our usual tours) was dirt, rock and grass.

Elissa and I jumped at a midweek chance to head to Rainier after looking at the Paradise telemetry and seeing 3 inches on the chart. We jammed the familiar road to Eatonville, sitting across from the table of regulars at the bakery while we enjoyed a scone and coffee. Drizzle and fog at the Paradise Visitor Center had us feeling a little apprehensive, but we'd seen a quick flash of blue sky looking up the Nisqually Glacier on the way up, so we skinned up with some confidence that it would clear. At least there was still adequate snow to skin from the lot - it looked about like a typical Fourth of July in terms of snow depth.

Sure enough, about 800 feet above the parking lot the fog broke wide open and the sky turned bluebird. Ka-ching! With no one on the mountain except for a handful of hikers and Asian tourists, none of whom got far above Paradise, we had the mountain to ourselves on a perfect day. Skinning was fine in a few inches of fresh until we hit the Pan Face, where the hot sun turned the heavy new snow into a sliding layer on top of the weeks-old frozen corn. There were plenty of rollers and pinwheels, but none big enough to cause a hazard. Near the top, however, the skinning turned tricky - I'd find one or both skis totally losing grip on the sliding surface and go down on my hip. Still, it went well enough with a bit of care, and we headed on up to the Nisqually Chutes.

We saw one climber heading down from Muir, but no other people at all above the cloud deck. There's something incredible about laying down fresh tracks on a huge mountain with no one else around, and at a popular destination like Mt. Rainier it's very rare. We went a bit higher than the main chute, laid down on our skis, ate some food, and got set to ski.

The pictures tell the story - even in an off year, there's something magnificent about the simple act of skinning up and skiing down. Here's to a plentiful snow year next season, and we'll do our best with what we've got this spring and summer.

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