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Foothills Man

Foothills Man
by Andy Dappen

I met him a few miles west of Saddle Rock on the north-facing slopes above Number Two Canyon Road. I was snowshoeing uphill through of week-old snow—plodding. He was weaving parallel turns around sagebrush—gliding. He caught sight of me when we were a hundred yards apart and rounded a turn to a stop. He stood there deciding how to confront this queer animal contaminating his ski run. Reaching a decision he pulled his hat down low, moved ski goggles from forehead to eyes, and approached.

Ten feet away he halted. I looked him over, trying to determine if I knew the mystery man behind the low hat and goggles. “Looks fun,” I commented, nodding at the turns he had scribed in the snow.

“Yup.” His voice was low, gravelly, middle-aged.

“Ski here often?”

“Yup.” There were other lines of sweeping turns. Someone had skied this slope a few times.  

“Is there really enough snow to ski?” I asked.

“Yup.”

“You’re not worried about blowing a ski edge on a rock?”

“Nope.”

Trying to get beyond monosyllabic esponses, I took a gamble.

“You say anything besides, ‘yup’ and ‘nope?’”

The corner of his mouth lifted. A smile. He hadn’t taken my poke as an insult.

“Sometimes.”

I smiled back. This was headway. “Don’t these slopes destroy your skis?”

He hesitated, wondering whether to prolong the cloak-and-dagger. “Not many rocks -- it’s mainly grass underneath.”

“But you must smack hard stuff sometimes.” 

“Of course.”

“And you don’t care?”

“That’s what ski swaps are for. I'm not too worried about cheap skis.”

His ski-swap boards were wide…and short for his frame. “170-centimeter boards?” I ventured.

He was surprised. Despite my footwear, he accepted I knew something about his sport. The dynamic shifted -- he was addressing another skier now.

“I like them wide and short. Width keeps me high in the snow, and short boards are nimble. That helps around here.” He gazed out at the hillside dotted by sagebrush, tufts of bunch grass, and dried stalks of wildflowers.

“How often you out here?”

“When there's snow, I’m on it most days. The season is short and some years the snow never comes."

“Today's crust kind of ugly?”

“Crust, powder, ice…it’s all snow.”

“And that which doesn’t kill you makes you a better skier, eh?”

“Exactly. Sometimes after a warming, the snow freezes at night and it’s like skiing armor – you can descend on an inch of snow without hitting anything underneath. Most would call that terrible skiing, but I think it’s tremendous.”

“How’s this season compared to others?”

“Good. Snow came early and it hasn't warmed up. With some luck maybe we'll get 30-day season in the foothills.”

“And you ski every one of those days?”

“Most of them. I’m up early, skin uphill in the dark, and descend after sunrise. Makes the work day tolerable if you’ve already been out skiing.”

“Ever done a number on yourself hitting rocks or snagging a bush?”

“Nope…but I ski slow. This is no place to rip.”

The rapport felt good. It was time to pop the big question. “So what are your favorite foothills runs?”

He paused looking irritated; then he smiled. “Good try. I’ve spent years figuring which slopes hold snow and which slopes are grassy; you can do the same.”

These words proved prophetic. Years have passed since I encountered Foothills Man and, indeed, more than half of the fun has been in the exploring. Interestingly, I’ve never met him again. Occasionally, however, I find a slope with a lone ski track winding downhill. Then, rather than crafting my own route, I’ll descend figure-eighting that lone track: A salute to my mystery mentor.

Like Foothills Man, I’m not revealing my secret spots. I’m just here to tell you that some years (like this one) there’s good backcountry skiing a whole lot closer to town than you might suspect. Have fun figuring it out.


Details, Details -- Foothills Skiing (and Snowshoeing)

  • Snowshoeing is an excellent (and safer) way to explore the foothills -- you can go anywhere skiers can go and more. On snowshoes it doesn't matter if you step on shallow rocks or stumps -- no harm done to equipment or body.
  • Backcountry skiing in the foothills usually qualifies as stupid fun -- you probably will hit hard matter and your skis can get tangled up in green (e.g., buried sagebrush). Skiing fast and out of control is a bad idea. A helmet is a good idea.
  • Also bring climbing skins, warm clothing, matches, fire starter, water, food, some basic first-aid supplies, and a cell phone -- don’t let your proximity to town lull you into believing you needn't be prepared.
  • A good headlamp will greatly extend your ability to enjoy an outing at the beginning or end of the day. For this application, a lamp with at least a 200-lumen output is recommended.
  • Many slopes in the foothills have no avalanche hazard but some can avalanche when weather cycles bring enough snow or when strong winds create wind slabs.
  • Skiers wanting to explore the lower-elevation foothills close to Wenatchee should use an old pair of rock skis -- don't expose new boards to the abuse.
  • Because the Sage Hills and the Horse Lake Reserve are closed in winter, the only legal option here is to walk, snowshoe, or cross-country ski Horse Lake Road.
  • Saddle Rock and Dry Gulch have fun snowshoeing but the trailheads are lower and adequate snow coverage for skis is rare. The exception to this rule is the gravel road at Dry Gulch heading up to the earthen dam -- this road can be cross-country skied during good now cycles.
  • There is fun snowshoeing and skiing off Number Two Canyon Road a few miles out of town. Most of the road is flanked by private property where the public is not allowed, but there are a few pockets of public property where you can snowshoe or ski. Study a 7.5-minute topographic map and have fun exploring these areas.
  • Twin Peaks offers many off-road skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. Park at the end of pavement up Number Two Canyon Road, head up the snowed-over portion of the road a mile or two, and then climb one of the many slopes flanking the road. These slopes are interesting to explore, offer nice views, and afford some fun skiing on mellow terrain.

Looking down on the city and the Columbia River Valley from the Wenatchee foothills.

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a story published in January 2008.