Corn harvest in the Nisqually Chutes

It’s a bit of a brain-bender: Where in Washington can you ski 5,000 feet of vertical with only 3,000 feet of hiking and no assistance from a chair lift?

The answer: The Nisqually Chutes on Mount Rainier. But for a limited time only!

When friends first pitched the idea of skiing the Nisqually Chutes — a long, easily accessed backcountry ski run where you get to ski more vertical than you work for — it sounded like a used-car sales pitch. Much too good to be true.

Believe the hype. During a good snow year, if you find a warm, sunny day in March or April where the avalanche danger is low and the odds of corn snow are high, there’s no better place to be in Washington than ripping down the Nisqually Chutes.

Thanks to the earlier gate opening at Longmire, our group of seven was skinning toward Muir Snowfield by 9 a.m. on a bluebird Sunday morning in late March. Ryan’s girlfriend was planning to meet us at the bridge at 2 p.m. to give us a ride back up to our cars at Paradise. As one of the slower people in the otherwise-all-dude group, I was already worried that I wouldn’t be able to huff it enough to make the tight schedule.

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Skinning up the Muir Snowfield

 

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Photo by Garrison Hoe

The snow was firm but softening quickly. We had to boot up the steep part below Panorama point, but everything was smooth sailing after that.

After a couple of breaks to chug water and re-apply sunscreen, we stopped for lunch at around 8,500′. Our plan was to drop into the chute around 1 p.m. — early enough to minimize the potential for loose-wet snow slides, but late enough for a proper corn harvest. We timed it perfectly.

I was a little worried about the steep entrance to the glacier, but the conditions were in our favor. I cut farther left than the rest of our group in order to access the most-mellow entry point. We skied one at a time down the steepest part, and our buddies were nice enough to wait for me to get my wits about me and go for it.

The first few turns were white-knuckled, as thoughts of “If I fall, how far will I slide?” ran through my head. The other (more competent) skiers in our group yelped out their glee, and I began to ease up.

We regrouped a few hundred feet down and off to the left, out of the way of any movement. I came to a stop, sidehilling a slope that was still a bit too steep for my comfort level.

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Regrouping below the steep section. Photo by Garrison Hoe

“Holy shit,” I said, quads burning, looking down on several more hundred feet of steep turns. “This just doesn’t give up!” I’d skied terrain like this before, but not for so long.

Eventually, I found a rhythm, and the pitch started to mellow out. We regrouped again below the chute, took off our helmets and outer layers (I had my own personal sauna happening inside my jacket) and looked back at our drop in.

“Look at what you just skied!” Michael said. I smiled, and exhaled. The hard part was over.

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We skied that … err, a little to the left.

The remaining 3,500’ was all fun, soft turns. We were able to keep our skis on all the way until the bridge, when we had to hike up a bit to get at the road level and meet our shuttle ride — who had graciously taken our cooler of beer so it would be there for us at the parking lot.

I looked at my watch: 2:10 p.m. We relaxed and chatted for about 30 minutes while waiting for our drivers to retrieve their cars at Paradise, and then headed back toward Seattle. At around 10 hours front door to front door, it was definitely the most backcountry vertical I’ve skied with such a low amount of effort.

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The fun stuff

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It goes! Photo by Garrison Hoe
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Looking back at our route from the bridge

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