Fresh Tracks of the Sun Chaser

Fresh tracks in the snow of Sourdough Mountain.
The glow begins as it would, blanching the sky to make invisible the cosmos. Black becomes cornflower and a fiery fuchsia lights the very highest tips of the frosted peaks. The sky will grow brighter, but many cups of tea will be consumed before the sun’s winter-warm rays make their way to Diablo, Washington. At 9:48 AM, the first beams flash from behind Colonial Peak. Only two hours remain before they dip behind Pyramid Peak and Diablo’s brief flow of Vitamin D is capped for another day. This all assumes that we are not immersed in a saturating and seemingly endless cloud for days on end, the winter weather most expected in the North Cascades.
On a morning free of obligation, when the rising light stirs me from sleep and the moon drifts pale in the western sky, I really have no choice but to run. I gulp down a power smoothie, take my tea to go, and throw my 10 essentials in a pack before finding a trail that will undoubtedly make my quadriceps burn and my knees wish for a quicker death.

Sourdough trail ElissaRace of the Day: The sun rides a snowy ridge two miles up the Sourdough Mountain Trail.

It should be noted that prior to my departure I would also check the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) website, NOAA and take other precautions that would undoubtedly be considered tedious by most readers but essential by people like our Operations Director, Kristofer, and my mother. Suffice it to say that I am not reckless, and avalanche danger, weather and trail conditions should all be evaluated prior to any backcountry trip. It is also prudent to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. There you are, Mom and Kristofer, safety for all.

Sunset ElissaSoon to be Sunset: Late afternoon colors the Skagit Valley.

The sun chasing often begins a few hundred paces from my front door up Sourdough Mountain. This beast of a trail gains 3,000 feet in the first two miles by way of a series of utterly relentless switchbacks. I am spurred on by the glow of sunlight on the trees above me and rejoice at the two-mile mark where the forest opens, the mountains are in view and I (had I the time) could watch the earth turn beneath the sun until it painted the sky in pale pinks as it dove into the valley. Here, however, the snow is deep, the wind blows icy cold, and light can fade quickly in the deep woods of the descent. Best to sigh, accept gracefully the few extra radiant hours, and go before the going becomes perilous.

Fresh powder ElissaBlazing fresh powder on Sourdough Mountain.

The next time I ascend Sourdough, I take my best asset: a friend. We went further than I had previously, through four-foot drifts of fresh powder. I let him blaze the trail. We did not choose a clear day. On the contrary, we left on a day that promised snow and wherein thick clouds moved swiftly exposing only the faintest breaks of blue from time to time. Several hours in, on a steep slope, slogging through deep powder and tiring quickly, we paused. At that very moment, when turning back seemed the only option, the sky opened up revealing a heavenly blue. The sun illuminated the once hidden peaks and set the frosty trees aglow. We reveled in the surprising warmth, took copious photos and headed back down the mountain just as fresh flakes began to fall.

Trees aglowThe sun “peaks” out to set the trees aglow on Sourdough Mountain.

The presence of a good friend and a rare mid-week day for play prompted a longer journey to Artist Point. This well-travelled route near Mount Baker is popular in all seasons for hikers and snowshoers alike. On that glorious Tuesday, however, the mountain was ours for exploration and (not a little) make believe.The ski lifts were silent, the parking lot was all but empty, and we made our way up the slopes as though we were trudging through uncharted wilderness. White upon white, the snowy mounds blended into one another as we scaled the snowfields, trying to keep our eyes on some semblance of trail. Suddenly, as breath came quickly and muscles burned, Mount Baker revealed itself, gloriously adorned in thick, creamy drifts and glowing in the low southern light. Mount Shuksan dominated the eastward view, covered in luminous glacial blue. The southern sky provided views of Whitehorse Peak and many others in a sea of salmon-orange with thin bright silver strips of cloud strewn about. We posed heroically before the mighty panorama before finding our way down then on to Bellingham for well-earned sushi and beer.

Mount Baker ElissaMount Baker from Artist Point.
Mount Shuksan ElissaMount Shuksan from Artist Point.

Thus is the life of the Sun Chaser, ever leaving blinds cracked to observe the morning skies from a cozy bed; ready to either jump up to meet the sun or pull flannel sheets lazily over a sleepy head. Squares of ever-present frost live in the northern shadows of the houses in Diablo, fixed and never free to chase the fleeting rays of these mountain winter days.

Lead Photo: Fresh tracks in the snow near the National Park Boundary on the Sourdough Mountain Trail. All photos by the author, Elissa Kobrin.

Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.

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