first tracks | table mountain circumnavigation via ptarmigan ridge ski tour
March 29, 2023
10 mi . 3800 ft gain . 5400 ft high
Mount Baker Wilderness
Baker backcountry has been on my list to visit since I first ski toured there right after taking my AIARE 1 class. I think it’s just been a back burner location because the drive is slightly further than most other places and it’s entirely above tree line so avalanche risk tends to be slightly higher, but that also means the skiing is often better! We finally decided to make it happen and we vaguely planned out our route, open to changes and being mindful of the steep sections to either avoid or to push through. Route 542 has always been plowed decently in my experience since there’s a ski resort up there. We parked at the Bagley Lakes Trailhead and oddly enough, for a backcountry lot, there was a parking attendant! He looked a little bored since cars were slow to pull in.
Our main objective was to explore the Ptarmigan ridge. We were all familiar with Table Mountain already and wanted to push beyond. It’s way to easy to fall back to what you know and then fall out of the exploratory phase. For some people, ski touring is a way to get first tracks and powder. For others, it’s simply a way to be outside in nature. And for me, it’s a slight combo of both with a heavy emphasis on finding sweet winter views and exploring somewhere new to me, and obviously a good time with friends!
To get to Ptarmigan Ridge, you can either go around the back side of Table Mountain through Artist Point or Bagley Lakes. I honestly have no idea which direction people normally take for the circumnavigation. But we took the Artist Point approach. It was a mostly gentle skin track up to where we found a few tents from snowshoers camping overnight! I hope they got a good sunset or sunrise. The views were so good and the clouds helped keep the peaks from being over-illuminated. We continued further up the shoulder before dropping down a few hundred feet under the south side of Table Mountain. I suppose we could’ve made the run longer instead of a traverse, but the low light conditions with the chunky snow made it incredibly tricky to navigate. It was crusty where your skis would somewhat float but if you fell (like I did), it can be a struggle getting back up and out of the ensnaring snow.
A short ascent later we found ourselves looking straight at the Ptarmigan Ridge with no Mt Baker in sight. All we saw was zero tracks and beautiful layers of fresh snow. I was worried about the snow conditions, and we took our sweet time to transition, like we did every single transition this day. Soon other skiers caught up to us, but we did get first tracks down to the basin! It was still tricky for us and we couldn’t fully connect all our turns. But it was so cool to have the slope to ourselves for such a popular area. Soon the other skiers descended and we all still somehow dispersed to find different slopes afterwards. We stayed low to avoid the large glide crack, but eventually connected back up to the ridge follow another group’s tracks.
We made note of steep bits to avoid and barely were able to determine the smooth route in the low light. The other group went down their path but since the slope is so wide, we still got our own fresh tracks again! This time, it was so buttery smooth and I could fully enjoy it without worrying that my skis would get caught under the crust. We took turns heading down the slope, which was in fairly low avalanche terrain. Once we got down to the flat base, we were wishing for more turns, but with our slower progress, we decided to make a large loop around Table Mountain instead of an out-and-back tour. That way, we could see more!
Be careful when crossing some of the streams. There’s some steep chasms that are avoidable if you go around them. Check a map, or keep traversing along the river till you find a good snow bridge. It was easy to use visual cues to see where we were going – Table Mountain was in view the whole time in between the trees! We kept aiming upwards and eventually found a decent old skin track from the day before. Less work is always nice when you know it’s headed the right direction. We crossed over Iceberg Lake and decided to do a short run down the gully. The snow conditions seemed good and we were itching for more skiing, so 400 feet it was!
One final push and we were finally at the top of the ridge above Bagley Lakes. Taking a mellow route down, we ended up a good bit across the basin before we had to put skins back on. The skin route was nice wide highway with few people on it as we padded back up to our car. Surprisingly we stayed on relatively low angle terrain the whole time. I might get pounded for this, but to me, this was still a relatively mellow tour! Long, but gentle slopes!
Park at the Heather Meadows/Bagley Lakes trailhead where there’s a bathroom that might be heated.
Overall little trees to navigate, open terrain above tree line, mostly under 25 deg slopes