Ice Towers on the lower flanks of the Coleman Glacier
I moved to Bellingham in April 2008 and immediately had my sights set on Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters, 3 peaks grabbing my gaze as I commute between Bellingham and my workplace (careful, watch the road). On Saturday, September 6th I managed to climb both of the twin sisters as a dayhike bushwhack from hell (the 2nd half was bushwhack from hell, the first half an amazing scramble fest). Since I had very limited glacier travel experience, I had decided that the safest way for me to ascend Mount Baker was with American Alpine Institutes’ 3 day Skills Clinic and Mount Baker Climb. So I signed up and then we met at AAI in Fairhaven on Saturday, September 13th at 7:00am to begin our journey. We first went over our gear and the 4 of us (1 guide and 3 clients) drove up to the trailhead in the AAI van. The weather was forecasted to be excellent for the 3 day duration with the added bonus of a full moon for our alpine start Sept. 15th. We loaded up out packs and headed up towards the base of the Coleman Glacier to the Hogsback camp north of Heliotrope Ridge. We arrived, setup camp and then I traversed to the east in order to check out the lower ice fields of the Coleman Glacier. The vast amount of ice and magnitude of the glacier awed me and I was eager to get closer to glacier. The towering blocks of ice haphazardly jumbled along the edge of the glacier had a certain presence to them that drew me closer, but I dare not climb on them as their permanence is just an illusion and they can give way or shift anytime. That afternoon/evening we practiced knot tying, setup our prussiks, tied into our harnesses and discussed general safety rules for traveling on glaciers. The following day we found a nice snow slope with run out and practiced everything from walking in crampons, use of ice axe, self arrest, crevasse rescue, roped travel and much more. We then started preparing for our Alpine start the next morning, ate a hearty dinner and tried to get to sleep early.
Final Ascent - Summit Plateau
Sunrise on Roman Wall
11:30 pm came quick and I did manage to get some sleep. The moon was bright and temperature mild as we prepared to leave camp at 12:00 am. Our group was working together well and we were set off as planned up the final trail to the base of Coleman Glacier in the glow of the moonlight. We donned our crampons and ice axe, roped up and headed up the glacier. Immediately a solo elderly climber started following us, appearing as if he was waiting on the rock for such an opportunity. I spoke with him and found out he had summited 33 times and at 72 years old he was going for his 34th summit. Since he was obviously much more experienced than I was, I did not voice my concerns regarding his solo glacier travel and his stowed ice axe. We continued up the glacier towards the Black Buttes at a slow, steady pace. There was some zigzagging involved to get around the crevasses. Being later in the year the glacier had opened up more than seen during the peak climbing season, however the route was pretty well established and you could follow the trail in the ice/snow for the majority of the ascent. We rested every hour and for the first couple of hours played leap frog with this elderly climber that we had encountered. As the morning progressed we continued our steady pace but did not see the elderly climber anymore. We heard from another group climbing up in order to parasail off the summit that he had turned around. Too bad I thought to myself. We stayed on the glacier up until Pumice Ridge, where we ascended a steep section on snow and ice and then gained the ridge up to the base of the Roman Wall. The Roman Wall was definitely the crux of the climb. The rock band about ¾ ways up was fully exposed and we had to traverse far to the right in order to find a route on ice/snow up around it. At one point one of the other climber’s crampon fell off. It was a little unnerving hanging out up on the wall while he tried to fix his crampon. In the end our leader set an ice screw anchor and went down to help. We then continued our way up the wall as the sun started to rise and presented us with amazing views. At the top of the wall we were close to the summit, had competed the crux and were rewarded with some of the best views of the day. The sun was starting to shine on the mountains to the west, highlighting the Twin Sisters in an amazing glow. Because we were on the dark side of the mountain, we could even see the shadow of the peak formed as the sun shone on the mist in the air to the west. Words can not describe the beauty, here is a photo but it just is not the same either.
From the top of the wall we ascended the gently summit plateau to the dirty mound of a summit. The views were amazing! We were now in full sun and if felt great after climbing all morning in the dark. We chatted a bit with the parasailers who were getting organized for the sail off of the mountain. Now that would be amazing to be able to launch off the mountain and descend on the warm air currents. Of course we asked if we could catch a ride down, I am sure they hear that a lot. We hung out on the summit for a little while, taking in the views, relishing in our accomplishment and mentally preparing for our descent. For the first time I really came to realize that we were on an active volcano, one that could erupt basically at anytime, as you could see steam escaping out of the crater below and could even get the odd whiff of sulphur fumes. Nothing quite like fresh sulphur fumes first thing in the morning...
After about 30 minutes on the summit we said farwell to this amazing summit and started our descent. I was leading the way down and started to plod the way down the summit plateau and then the Roman wall. Now that it was daylight the views were even more spectacular but it was often hard to get the camera out without holding up the team so I did not take many photos. We made it down the wall fairly fast and followed our ascent route down basically all the way back to camp. During our descent the parasailers launched and we were able to watch them sail overhead down towards the town of Glacier. We also nervously watched some icefall off of the face of Colfax Peak as we traversed around the north side of the peak amongst previous chucks of ice that had fallen off of the glaciers far above. We were nervous that a large chunck of ice could break free and potentially take us out. I definitely felt safer traveling in the cold of the night rather than the heat of this day. Also in the daylight we were able to realize the shear magnitude of some of the crevasses we crossed as they spread out beyond us to what seemed like an infinite depth. The sun shone brightly and we felt like we were cooking on ice as we shed layer after layer until all that was left was our baselayers. Finally, after just over 12 hours we returned to camp, I was hot, thirsty (ran out of water over an hour ago) and sick of being on a leash. I came to the realization that I would have issues being roped up to a team for long durations; I am the type that likes to be able to run ahead and go at my own pace.
Shortly after returning to camp we noticed that the guy in the campsite next to us was the elderly man who had been following us for a while, and he was with a young couple who were all waving at the helicopter that was now flying overhead. We quickly investigated and found out that the elderly man had fallen into a crevasse on his descent after turning around (he stated he had fallen 25 ft into a crevasse and hit hard) and this young couple had been on their way to ascend Baker via the North Ridge when they heard him calling for help. They had the experience and gear for crevasse rescue and were able to get him out and lower him off of the glacier and back to camp. The chopper that had been flying overhead had now landed near the toilets and we all assumed they were there to rescue this man. Our leader went up to talk with them only to get very puzzled looks from the chopper pilot and copilot. Eventually one of them told her, “we are just here to pick up the shitters”. As it turns out, they were indeed there only to take the small, sealed toilets off the mountain as they do every year at the end of the season and were not allowed to participate in the rescue. Shortly after, another chopper appeared and this time they were here for the rescue. They touched down long enough to drop off 2 rescuers and a litter to transport the injured gentleman. They rescuers then prepared the man in the litter, carried him back over to the landing site and signaled the chopper to touch down again so they could load up the injured man and themselves. It was over quick and then we proceeded with packing up our camp. The hike out back to the trailhead seemed long and hard after such a long strenuous day. But we still made good time and were back to the Van and then back to the AAI office by 5:30 pm. I was home in time for dinner, went to bed and got up at 4:30 am the following day so I could go to work. It was too dark to see the mountain on my way to work, but on the drive home I was able to gain a good view and will from now on be looking at the summit differently as I reflect on my memories upon the summit. I am confident I will be back next year. Overall a great trip with a great leader and great team. The weather was perfect, I had a great time and learned many new skills that will allow me to climb safely.