One view from the top of Mission (Mt. Stuart).

A second view from the top of Mission Ridge (Rainier).

When we called Brad Whiting, the Patrol Director at the Mission Ridge Ski and Snowboard Resort, for the beta about backcountry skiing up the downhill slopes, he joked about the irony of the concept. “Isn’t backcountry skiing at a ski area an oxymoron?”

Indeed it is. It might be more exact to define this activity as ‘skiing up’ the ski area, or ‘ski touring’ around the downhill resort, but why get hung up with semantics? The fact of the matter is that lots of people like to ski up Mission Ridge’s cut runs and then turn around and ski down them. They do this for exercise and stress release after work. They do it for views of the Cascades and the Columbia by day, or city lights and starlight at night. They do it in winter for fresh snow on those days (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) when the ski area is closed. And they do it after the ski area closes in April because they’re simply off-kilter and unwilling to give up on skiing when the snow is plentiful (which it usually is for several more weeks).

Other reasons they do it? It’s fast – you can pop up from Wenatchee, skin up the hill, and blast back down to the valley in about three hours. It’s fairly safe – the odds of getting caught in an avalanche if you stick to the cut runs is small…good news for folks skiing alone or lacking snow assessment experience (note: skiing the bowls you can hike to from the top of Mission is not nearly as safe). And it’s a way of getting some backcountry experience (skinning, touring, and turning) without yet owning the full quiver of backcountry skills (navigation, route selection, map reading).

So while some pooh-pooh it, many enjoy ‘backcountry skiing’ the downhill area. Those who do enjoy it (or want to try it), need to be aware of some rules, recommendations, and restrictions that vary by season.

Ski touring at the Mission Ridge Ski Area during ski season

(Including early season during preparations for opening)

There are a two designated uphill routes leaving from the Mission Ridge parking lot that leave the Ski Area Boundaries and can be skied at any time. Those routes are described in this article. If you are planning to ski uphill within the Ski Area Boundary, however, you must follow the summer road behind (uphill) of the Hampton Lodge, to Bomber Bowl, to North Bomber, to Boundary Road, to the summit. This route has these restrictions:

  • As you climb, stay on the right edge (skier’s left) of the route. This keeps you out of the way of people and machines working on the hill.
  • When the ski hill is operating, this route is closed 2 hours before the lifts start until the ski patrol completes its Trail Closing Procedures (about 5 p.m.)
  • Throughout the winter, dogs are not allowed on this route.
  • If avalanche danger is high, or the ski area is doing avalanche control, this route is closed.  Assume that when the ski area has received four or more inches of new snow, this route will be closed due to avalanche control. Also if you hear bombs going off, the route is closed. This may seem obvious but Whiting says, “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to deal with people skinning up Bomber while we’re detonating explosives on the slopes above them.”
  • Additional clarification added 2/17/2012. On winter days when the ski area is closed (i.e.,non-holiday Tuesdays and Wednesdays) this uphill route is still to be used. Even on closed days there is often grooming, run maintenance, and snowmobile activity on the hill and the ski area employees want to know where the uphill skiers are.

The Down Route for Uphill Skiers in Winter

2/17/2012. This section has been added because the downhill issues of people skiing Mission when it is closed have become as big a problem to the resort as the uphill issues. It is frustrating to the ski-area staff that the night’s grooming is getting tracked (sometimes significantly) and that the corduroy is not fresh when the ski area opens in the morning. The ski area believes this does not represent high-quality grooming to paying customers who arrive early in the morning. An official policy is being worked on but the bullets below represent what the ski area has told us.

  • Uphill skiers may leave the ski area and descend via routes outside of the ski area boundary. (e.g., head northwest toward Mission Peak and come out via the Clara Lake Trail, or traverse east and north toward the Stemilt Basin and descend north of the ski area boundary by the Outback.)
  • Descend the approved uphill route. This eliminates the issue of damaging the grooming.
  • This has not been specifically sanctioned but our impression from talking to the General Manager is that the ski area will look the other way if you descend off-piste slopes or steeper ungroomed slopes within in the ski area boundary if 1) you realize the ski area takes zero responsibility for you, 2) you are not present when any form of avalanche control is taking place, and 3) you know how to link together slopes that don’t see the groomer all the way down the hill. In this respect you and your tracks are invisible to the area.
  •  Anyway you slice it, know that laying tracks over freshly groomed slopes riles up the ski area personnel and is one of the big friction points that could get the ski hill closed to all uphill travel.
Ski touring at Mission Ridge after the ski season

(Once the ski area closes in early April)The ski area has heavy machinery moving around and working on the hill after the resort closes (especially in the weeks following the closure. Employees and machinery are often moving around the hill at odd hours and skiers are not an expected sight. Skiers need to be vigilant and make themselves visible. To reduce soft-skier-hard-steel encounters, follow these rules:

  • While snow lasts on the uphill route described above, use it. Once the summer road melts out, ski to the mid station via Mimi, then follow the uphill route described above. Once Mimi melts out, find whatever corridor you can.
  • On the downhill, ski where you want but watch for machinery, pipes, hoses and other hazards. You are responsible for making yourself seen, and avoiding unpleasant things that break bones.
  • Important. If you’ll be skiing in dim light or darkness, bring a headlamp and use it. This not only makes you visible to employees working on the mountain, it keeps you from scaring them. Little courtesies make a big difference in whether said employees, acting out of spite, opt to run you over with their machines.
  • Expect variable snow conditions. As the ski runs freeze at night they get pretty exciting, especially when you intersect the frozen treads left by cats and snowmobiles.
  • All of this madness is done at your own risk. The ski area is not responsible if you impale yourself on a pipe or splatter on a groomer. They’ll feel bad about it (though not as bad as you), but they won’t be picking up your medical bills.
  • If you’re caught in an avalanche, that’s your problem and responsibility as well. Particularly if you ski Mission’s off-piste terrain in and around Bowl 4 or Bowl 5, avalanches are possible and you should be following proper backcountry protocols (ski with friends, carry proper avalanche safety gear, know how to assess the hazard, ski suspect slopes one at time…)
  • Finally, park off the main road and in a way that doesn’t block the gates into the parking lots.

For more about skiing uphill at Mission, the area’s uphill/backcountry policy, and conflicts caused by those who ignore the policy, read this article.

For trail maps of the ski hill, click here.

This post was originally published on 4/9/09. 

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