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Thursday, October 21, 2010
Updated: October 22, 7:47 PM ET
La Niņa is coming


The place to be this winter? The mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Zach Giffin at Mt. Baker last winter. Launch Gallery»

La Niņa is supposedly coming this winter and for the mountains in the Northwestern U.S. and Southwestern British Columbia, this is particularly good news. Why? During La Niņa, colder ocean temperatures around the equator in the Pacific Ocean drive the jet stream farther north than normal, which results in warmer and drier winters in the American Southwest and increased precipitation in the Northwest. (Click here for more on what La Niņa means for the rest of the U.S.)

All of this means, of course, that storms pummeling North America this winter are set to collide directly with the mountains in the Mt. Baker region of Washington's North Cascades, which gets 100 inches more snowfall on average during a La Niņa winter than they do during El Niņo, which we've seen the last three years. Case in point: In the winter of '98-'99, Mt. Baker received a world-record setting snowfall of 1,140 inches, and that was a La Niņa winter. So in preparation for the Northwest's pillow-smashing frenzy that could be on its way, we decided to check in with pro skier Zach Giffin, Powder magazine's October cover athlete, who lives in Glacier, Wash., the closest town to Mt. Baker ski area.

ESPN: What are your expectations for this winter?
Zach Giffin: It's hard to not build up expectations too much. La Niņa weather patterns have a reputation for breaking records, and this year could be another one. If it is a huge year, then I'm stoked. If it's a typical year, then I'm stoked. Either way I'll be there.

Please define spillows, a rare and exciting occurrence at Mt. Baker.
Ah spillows, yes. They are pillow lines that get buried to the point where the pillows grow together and are connected at the top by fluted spines. If it snows a little bit the pillows never form, if it snows a lot the pillows grow huge and if it snows every day for a month the pillows get totally buried leaving only a bumpy, spined ridge to indicate the presence of the feature.

So you moved from Colorado to Washington. Why?
My first time skiing at Baker was on a ski trip in January '99 during the record-setting season. I kept coming back each season after that for a few weeks at a time until 2003, when my brother Sam and I got jobs in the terrain park and moved to Glacier. For most of the locals, the idea that I moved from the light, dry pow of Colorado to the Cascade concrete of the Northwest was beyond comprehension.

What was your first impression of Baker?
We had just come from Interior BC, skiing the deepest snow and base I had ever seen. When we got to Baker, the snow reports were the same, only the snowfall was in inches [not centimeters]. It was so deep that it was scary. The ability to get way over your head was in every direction.

You mostly skied park before moving to Washington, didn't you?
I went through a phase when I was maybe 18 through 23 where I focused most of my energy in the terrain park, competing in slopestyle, halfpipe and big air, but I always thought of it as training for the real thing. I became focused on skiing the nastiest lines in the deepest powder I could. The game now is the same as it was back then.

So this winter should be good for your game.
The snow type at Baker allows me to push things farther than I could anywhere else I've found. I used to wake up some mornings ready to huck. Now I try to listen to the mountains and wait for the triple threat combination of sun, snow and stability. When I find it all coming together, I almost feel an obligation to go off.