Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Red Hot Drive to the Snow

For the past eight years, I've been making the trek up to Stevens Pass, our local ski resort, nestled in the heart of the Cascade Mountains. Depending on the quality of the snowfall, our schedules and the price of gas, I've driven this route between 50 and 90 times per year. That's a lot of trips. 

I've written before about the hassles and hard work that precede and follow the time we actually spend on the mountain. It's true that there are a lot of nuisances and drudgeries, such as loading all the gear in and out and in and out of the car; and checking and double-checking to make sure that every necessary glove, hat, goggle and sock is packed in our bags.

But of all these pre- and post-skiing tasks, driving this 75 mile-long stretch of adventurous terrain, much of it on the notoriously dangerous U.S. Highway 2, is by far the most challenging and rewarding.

Here's the map of the trip:

View Larger Map

The drive is extraordinary. Starting out in the heart of the suburbs, just a few hundred feet from the salty waters of Puget Sound, I pull out of my driveway and head east. Within a few miles, I pass right in front of the largest building in the world, the Boeing Everett Factory where giant planes are assembled, and then head north along the major west coast interstate highway, I-5. If I'm smart, I've avoided the shift change hours at Boeing and the massive traffic overloads that they create.

Maybe five miles north, I'm wheeling along the edges of Everett, a decent sized city, when I make an abrupt right turn onto U.S. 2, cross over the Snohomish River and then, suddenly, everything changes. Instantly, I'm in farmlands; cows and horses graze along the side of the road, and one of the very few remaining signs of civilization is the ever-present State Patrol car hiding in the curve of the hill.

For the next 30 miles, I'll be traveling through lots of open land like this, punctuated by the meandering river and a series of increasingly isolated and decreasingly populated towns. Monroe, Sultan, Startup and Gold Bar: useful for their gas stations and McDonalds, but not much else.

Once I pass through Gold Bar, the road lurches uphill and begins to earnestly climb through the foothills and into the proper mountains. Both the beauty and the danger of the drive kicks into high gear. Towering firs, steep precipices, rocky bluffs and the quick-flowing river with its gravelly sand bars create breathtaking scenery for those who can afford to take their eyes off the road. Drivers are fed a video game-worthy series of challenging twists and turns, bridges with insanely narrow abutments, hidden turnouts and even a rocky tunnel, all the while travelling at 60-plus miles per hour and facing on-coming traffic just a few inches away. And then there's the weather - if it isn't snowing, it's definitely raining. Or foggy. Or dark. Or maybe even gloriously sunny, but once you spend a few moments darting in and out of the tree shadows that fall across the road, you'll realize that even sunshine presents a hazard on this beastly drive.

But the natural beauty leaves me speechless, even after my 400 or so trips. Yesterday was no exception. By mid-afternoon, the cloudy skies cast a gloomy vibe and most of the time, some form of precipitation was falling - it rained on and off in the lower elevations and snowed hard at the top. My co-pilot snapped these pics for your enjoyment as I white-knuckled the steering wheel. Haha just kidding.. I have nerves of steel.

{I used an auto-fix to sharpen up these images, but I did not use any other editing tools. Despite the dramatic effects, these are just ordinary color photos taken on my Android. Some of the original uploads are on my Diane Again Facebook page if you want to see for yourself.}

There are a few buildings here and there along the foothill-stretch of the drive. But for the most part, the only signs of civilization are telephone poles and train tracks that run alongside the highway.
Raindrops, fog, towering trees.
Abstracted beauty.
Many of the cars coming down the mountain are loaded up with skis and snowboards and there is a sense of brotherhood among us down here on the highway as well as when we are up on the mountain.
There are a few sections of passing lanes (like this one), especially on the steepest uphill sections, but for the most part, this is a simple two-lane highway. 
Love the lines of those black treetops against the murky grey sky.
About five miles below the summit, the road takes on a significantly steeper ascent. As the altitude changes, the snowfall along the side of the road increases proportionately.
The sky here was filled with snowflakes and the trees in the distance were beginning to show signs of being dusted by the fresh fall. The range of mountains in the background is obscured.
You can't really tell, but that sky is full of snow. If it was clear, you would see layer after layer of mountains receding into the distance. But judging by the heights of those tree tops, I'm sure you can figure out how steep this mountainside must be...we are almost to the top, kids.
Final push up the steepest stretch. Right about here, I once saw a semi truck that had slid, rolled and ended up laid out on its side, blocking all four lanes of traffic. Another hundred meters downhill was an SUV that had been shattered into tiny bits by the impact. Everyone involved seemed to be uninjured and that was quite a miracle.
Stevens Pass is the name of the mountain summit as well as the ski resort. As I reach the very tip top of the climb, the driveway is just a few meters further ahead on the downhill side. When I turn off the highway to the resort parking lot, this is what I see. Yay, we made it...what a relief!
The fine art of finding a good parking place.
One last element of danger: negotiating the skiers and snowboarders who are walking through the narrow and icy parking lot. A few weeks ago, we saw someone drive over their own snowboard. Oops.
Whew. Parked at last, behind the bunker of snow built up from plowing out the lot. This is a perfect time to listen to some music while we finish getting dressed and pump up for the day!

How do you feel about driving in the snow? How do you feel about driving up steep mountain passes? And how do you feel about driving up a steep mountain pass in a blinding snowstorm? Are you for it?

Also, how do you feel about the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

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