Labor Day SolitudeMt. Baker - August 30th, 2008.
Jess Rowe and I decided to team up again a week after our successful Mt. Rainier trip. This time the target was Mt. Baker and possibly Mt. Shuksan the day after. Once again Jess, being from the area, took care of the logistics and all I had to do was show up. I rented a car in Hood River, OR on Friday around noon and left to pick Jess up in Toppenish, WA. After a brief stop in Yakima at Pacific River and Alpine Sports for a couple of items we were off. The driving was a little unnerving because of the heavy rain and cold temperatures on the way in Seattle. I wasn’t too concerned about getting snowed on a little, because that was in the forecast, but a full out blizzard was not something either of us were looking forward to. Night arrived as we left Seattle, and we rolled into Bellingham around 9 pm on Friday. We fueled up and after a short argument with the burnout behind the register about the status of the bathrooms we headed out for the Ranger Station at the base of Mt. Baker. We signed in and moved up to the approach trail leading to the Coleman – Upper Deming Glacier route. We rearranged our packs, drank water, ate food, and set up our bivy’s a few steps into the forest from the car. By this time it was already 11pm and our planned wakeup time of 1 am seemed a little too painful. So, giving our selves a huge break I set my alarm for 1:30 am.
One thirty came unsurprisingly early and I immediately told Jess I was resetting the alarm for 3am. I didn’t hear a complaint from him. We finally got in gear at the next alarm ring and we were hiking at 3:45am. There was a light drizzle all night and the forest was dripping with moisture but whenever we broke out from the foliage we could see stars. Good Sign! We passed over several creeks with their valleys illuminated by the night sky making me wish, once again, I had a decent SLR camera on my adventures. We continued along and came to a large stream coming down from the mountain. Normally, the stream wouldn’t be a problem to cross but we spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out the easiest way across. The lack of light, our packs, and the need to make a 4 foot jump across several foot deep glacier runoff made the evolution a little dicier. Soon after the successful jump we made it to a crampon-on point just as the sun started to make our headlamps unneeded. A steep section of ice/Styrofoam awaited us as soon as we started moving. It only lasted about 100 feet up but it was a good warm up. The glacier proper started at that point and it looked like a gentle incline all the way up to the base of the Black Butte. As we were moving in that direction with the Baker summit to our 10 o’clock we got into some really good crevassed landscape. Most of the crevasses were not more than a few feet wide and 20 feet deep but catching a crampon would have hurt none the less. We attempted to navigate them un-roped until we started hearing some very ominous cracking sounds at which point we roped up quickly. During our break we saw a trail leading right to left directly underneath the Black Butte coming from the general direction we started our hike from earlier. We started to think we missed the actual trail and put in some extra miles. Regardless, the navigation of the crevasses was fun and worth the detour. After roping up we made a direct line toward the trail we could see.
Shortly later we were on the beaten path and plodding away up a relatively easy slope. The natural contour of the land directs you in a way that makes sense on Mt. Baker. With the Black Butte on the right, and Mt. Baker’s summit on the left, the only way to go is up the middle. The snow was a perfect Styrofoam consistency and the walking wasn’t very hard. We had to be mindful of the enormous crevasses that were present in this area. Some of them were 50 feet wide, 200 feet long and 80 feet deep. Once again we heard the creaking and cracking from below our feet but it was well below freezing and there wasn’t much we could do about it. We finally saw the ridge that would lead us toward the summit and we made it to the saddle below it around 9:30am.
The saddle below the ridge leading up sits at 9000ft and is a rock barrier between two different glaciers or at least two different sections of the same glacier. We took off our crampons and started to climb class 2 with a short class 3 section rock up the ridge. There is a break in the ridge that we had to cross with some pretty significant rock fall but despite my worries no rocks came down. At the top of the ridge we were sitting at about 9600ft and we could see the next vertical thousand feet or so was going to be on increasingly steep glacier. We roped up more for the peace of mind than actual safety and started up the slope. Not more than about 100 meters of walking I heard a “TING!” and saw Jess’s ice axe come sliding down to my right. I jumped over and covered it with my body before it could take a LONG ride. It turned out a rock from the Roman Nose had hit Jess right on his hand and the leash had gotten knocked off his wrist. I gave the axe back, he leashed it to his harness and we started quickly moving to the right and away from rocks. We continued on without incident up toward the right of the Roman Nose. About 200 vertical feet from the rocks and the end of the slope the snow turned to ice and the angle approached 45 degrees. Carefully front pointing and hoping neither of us fell we made it to the rock outcropping. I was definitely out of my comfort zone for that last 200 feet but it was really exciting. We both thought it would be a good idea to use screws on the way down.
After the extremely tiring, somewhat scary, climb of a few minutes before the last 20 minutes to the summit was a cakewalk. Across the plateau we could see Grant Peak, the true summit of Mt. Baker. We scrambled up the last few feet to the exposed rock peak at exactly noon August 30th, 2008. It was a more pleasant temperature here than anywhere else on the mountain. The wind wasn’t blowing – it was just really, really nice. We ate some food, put our frozen water in the sun, took pictures, and took a 30 minute nap. After Mt. Rainier’s summit, where I felt like I was going to freeze this was heaven. We packed up and left the summit at 12:45pm for the descent.
Of course, the first obstacle was the ice slope directly below and to the right of the Roman Nose. We used screws for protection and took turns repelling, and belaying down. After about 5 lengths of rope one of my crampons started getting messed up. This has been a recurring problem with my crampons, we I need them the most they screw up. I vow to never get on a serious mountain with this pair again. Anyway, I had to start rappelling every pitch and Jess would walk down toward me while I belayed. We placed pro for around 10 pitches and we had a 30m rope. Not very fast but I felt about a thousand times safer than the climb up the same section. We reached the ridge and down climbed that until we hit the saddle. Snow flurries had started by now and this was an inkling of what was to come.
We put on the crampons again and started down the glacier, the gentle slope was nice but the weather was not. The lower we got the worse the weather was. At about 8000ft we got into a snowstorm. Lucky for us, it wasn’t really very cold and our visibility was still around 30 ft. By this time we had lost what we thought was the way and we were navigating by generally keeping the sound of rock fall to our left. Not very accurate, to say the least. When the snow cleared for a couple of minutes we saw that we were dangerously close to rock fall and icefall off of the Black Butte. We knew that it wasn’t this close on the way up. I’d had enough of the guessing game so I pulled out my GPS and after a battery change got us back on course. We had strayed a quarter mile to the hill side of the route. Around 6500 ft we popped out of the storm and continued down on the trail we thought was shorter than the one we came up. The storm had dumped 3-4 inches of fresh snow in this area and I’m sure more up higher. This was also the time we saw the first other people on the mountain. I couldn’t believe that on a holiday weekend we were the only ones up there but it was nice. We rest of the descent off of the glacier was uneventful except for taking our crampons off too early and then getting forced to put them back on so we could navigate some crevasses safely.
At the bottom of glacier we could see about 15 groups set up to make the climb the following day. This confirmed we went much too far in the morning before turning up toward the mountain. The final 2.5 miles of the hike took about an hour and we wearily arrived at the car around 8:00pm. We totally underestimated the mountain and paid for it. We thought we could do the climb in 5-8 hours, it wound up taking 16 hours. Both of us were extremely tired and decided to let Mt. Shuksan wait for us until another day. We made the tired drive back to Toppenish, WA arriving at 1:00am Sunday. I crashed out on the couch for a few hours then drove the rest of the way to Hood River the next morning.
In comparison to the other mountains I’ve done, Mt. Baker definitely had my “Oh Crap” meter a little higher than the other three. Mt. Rainier (DC Route) was physically harder but I didn’t feel like I was in danger of sliding off the mountain. On Mt. Baker, I felt like one slip on that final ice slope and that would have been it. Compared to Hood and Adams, I felt that Mt. Baker was both much harder and more technical. On Mt. Hood, I did get that “Oh Crap” feeling a couple of times but because of rocks falling more than anything else. Overall, it was a great trip once again. A thanks goes to Jess, I appreciate you setting it up and inviting me along.