18 tips to survive the drive up Mount Baker Highway in winter

Opening day at the Mt. Baker Ski Area should be any day now.

Planning to hit up the mountain? You’ll want to get there in one piece. Here’s some driving advice, with fun facts mixed in, from state troopers, road crews and ski area experts who know Mount Baker Highway best.

1. The Mt. Baker Ski Area can be considered, literally, the Snowiest Place on Earth. In winter ’98-’99, the ski area was blanketed by 1,140 inches of fresh snow, the most ever recorded in a single season in the world. “Last year, we had what we’d consider a pretty marginal snowfall, but we were still No. 1 in North America,” said Mike Trowbridge, operations manager at the ski area. “We get a lot of snow at Baker.”

2. So, obviously, it’s tougher in winter to drive up or down Mount Baker Highway, also known as State Route 542, one of the most popular and scenic dead-end highways in Washington. Collisions on the road roughly double in colder months. This year, for example, the highway had 65 crashes from May to October, while from last November to April there were 124 crashes, according to the Washington State Patrol.

3. What’s the most important thing for drivers to keep in mind? “Just be patient,” says Trooper Brandon Lee, who’s been assigned to patrol the highway for the past two winters. Many of the collisions he’s seen could have been avoided, he said, if people would simply slow down and stay a safe distance behind the car they’re following. Often skiers and snowboarders rush up the mountain to get to the lifts as they open. Consider leaving earlier, if you want to get there early.

4. On the home stretch to the ski area, the elevation rises more than 3,000 feet in eight miles. That’s a tricky, winding slope to drive in snow. There are no guardrails. Lee pointed out one spot where, last winter, a Jeep took a turn too sharply and rolled 200 feet into the woods before it hit a tree. (One man was airlifted.) There’s another blind curve, near milepost 51, where cars often crash over a steep embankment. Lee responded to at least four bad crashes there in his first winter, he said.

5. It’s also tricky for the state Department of Transportation to keep those last few miles clear. Two rotating crews of workers, seven people total, start work at 4 a.m. and keep plowing late into the afternoon, seven days a week. They’ve got two snow blowers; three dump trucks for sanding and plowing; and a front-loader. They do stop, eventually. So the later you stay into the afternoon, the icier the road gets.

6. On Thursdays, the road’s at its widest because that’s the day the two crews’ schedules overlap. “That’s the day we get everything punched open,” said Theo Donk, a DOT maintenance supervisor who has worked on the highway since ’89. “On Friday, they try to hold it to that level. Saturday, try to hold it to that level. But you start losing it. By Monday, it’s really tight. So the road kind of opens and closes on us. The tighter it gets, the more nerve-wracking it gets.”

7. It’s about eight miles from the Shuksan DOT station, at Twin Lakes Road, to the ski area. The record for a dump truck plowing and sanding that stretch in a single day, Donk said, is about 223 miles. (That’s about 14 roundtrips.)

8. If you can help it, don’t park along the shoulder, and if signs say no parking, just don’t park. Sounds obvious, but a lot of those signs are new. Plows need those spaces to be clear so they can keep the road safe.

9. One of the toughest spots to keep clear is near one of the crossings of Galena Greek, between the upper and lower parking lots. The ski area explodes 50-pound bags of ammonium nitrate there, around a dozen times a year, to blast away snow and prevent avalanches, Donk said.

10. Snow and wind brought down 175 trees onto the highway in December 2012, east of Chair 9 Woodstone Pizza & Bar. No one was trapped, but it’s a good reminder to (a) check the forecast for severe weather before heading up and (b) to bring survival essentials.

11. A good start, if you want to live, would be water, a blanket, gloves, boots, a flashlight, batteries, snacks, a First Aid kit, jumper cables, an ice scraper and road flares, per the DOT.

12. Don’t forget snow chains. Just keep them in your car. Practice putting them on at home, before you absolutely need to.

13. On the mountain, actually use the chains. “Maybe you don’t need them when you go up there, but in the afternoon conditions have changed,” said Tony Hernandez, DOT maintenance and operations superintendent. Signs by the Shuksan DOT station, near milepost 46, will tell you if they’re required.

14. Even if you have all-wheel drive, use chains. Your 4x4 heavy-duty pickup might get you going faster in bad conditions. But it won’t help you to brake quicker. Chains will.

15. Remember, the entire highway, like any highway, can be dangerous. “I can drive up that road and almost remember a car (that crashed), from one point in my career, every quarter mile,” Donk said. “It’s hard to pinpoint one really bad area.” However, the road’s not the one that’s causing wrecks, said Trooper Mark Francis. “The turns aren’t causing wrecks. The ice has something to do with it. But everything’s controlled by the drivers,” Francis said. “People need to know what they’re driving into, they need to be able to accommodate for those driving conditions. Understand that you’re in mountain terrain. Slow your speed down. Increase following distance.”

16. Also, turn on your headlights.

17. And don’t be that guy who puts on his chains in shorts and sandals.

18. Have fun.