Nerves slippery for Washington’s Ski to Sea race

Cross country skiers line up at the start of the 2014 Ski to Sea race. (Credit: Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network)
Cross country skiers line up at the start of the 2014 Ski to Sea race. (Credit: Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network)



Snow-covered undulating trails will stretch out in front of hundreds of cross country skiers as they line up at the start of the multisport Ski to Sea race. The racers will skate through four miles of trails at the start of this seven-leg relay. Once finished, they will pass timing chips off to downhill skiers.

However, race day jitters are nothing compared to what race director Anna Rankin feels for months leading up to the big event, which runs from Mount Baker Ski Area to Bellingham Bay. For nearly 10 years, the lack of snow has been a concern for this race that kicks off Memorial Day weekend.

“Even when there’s been a really good snow season, a really hot April or May has made it so that there’s barely been the snow that we’ve needed to do the race,” Rankin said.

This year has been no exception. February looked sketchy, but a snow dump in February helped Rankin breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

“They get very creative with big equipment up there pushing stuff together and creating the course for us,” she said.

This year, they had to get a little creative with the cross country course, too. Right now, officials said they’re “quite sure” both ski legs will happen this year.

According to the most recent race newsletter, “We don’t have a 100% thumbs-up on the ski legs from the Mount Baker Ski Area, but we do have a 95%, which is very darn close to 100% while offering a little wiggle room to pivot if we get unexpected 80-degree weather between now and race day.”

Melting snow, or a lack of it, is a race against a changing climate.

“In the past, people up at the ski area have said, ‘Oh, man, we’re really glad the race is this week because if it was next week, this would be a lot harder to pull off,’” Rankin said.

As of now, Washington is at 66% of normal snowpack. According to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, Mount Baker is at 67 percent of normal as of May 1.

“A few of our mountain sites saw a little bit of snow at the end of April, but it wasn’t enough to make any significant changes to our snowpack. Snow is still melting at most of our stations,” said Karin Bumbaco, interim state climatologist.

According to the Climate Prediction Center, May could be hotter than average.

Recently, the Washington Department of Ecology issued a statewide drought declaration.

In April, Rankin and Mike Trowbridge, operations manager at Mount Baker Ski Area, checked the course conditions in a video posted to Instagram.

“If we get a great spring down in the flatlands, we get the sunshine. We get warm temps. That’s great,” Trowbridge said. “But it means that we’re going to lose the snow quicker. If we get the cool wet spring that we can often get in the Northwest, that really helps to preserve our snowpack as we go through April into May and into that Memorial Day weekend.”

With 3,384 confirmed racers out of 4,000, this year’s race is sold out, a first in the race’s 51-year history. A leg switch up could cause headaches, Rankin said.

Downhill skiers climb up a hill before putting on their skis in the 2014 Ski to Sea race. (Credit: Courtney Flatt.)

Downhill skiers climb up a hill before putting on their skis in the 2014 Ski to Sea race. (Credit: Courtney Flatt.)

The seven-leg racecourse typically includes cross country skiing, downhill skiing, downhill running, road biking, canoeing, cyclocross biking and sea kayaking.

This past February, race officials developed a Plan B. In 2015, they changed the racecourse at the last minute.

This year, the plan would have scrapped the ski legs, likely replacing them with a trail run at Lake Padden Park in Bellingham and a mountain bike leg at Galbraith Mountain, according to race officials.

“The fact of the matter is, this is Mother Nature, and we just have to be flexible,” Rankin said.

Plus, she said, a lack of snowpack also can affect the canoe leg, which runs for 18.5 miles down the Nooksack River.

Then, there’s the problem of too much precipitation.

“We had the wettest May on record two years ago, and that made the cyclocross course just insanely muddy,” Rankin said. “We were barely able to get through the field.”

It would be rough to change the timing of the event, she said, because Mount Baker Ski Area typically runs through April. It’s also good for traveling racers to have the extra days off Memorial Day weekend, she said.

“I think if we saw two years in a row where we had to cancel ski legs because of a lack of snow, then our board would seriously have to look at moving up the race and work with the ski area,” Rankin said.