Mount Baker is a spectacular volcano in the North Cascades that offers excellent mountaineering to beginners and experts, alike. Baker tantalizes the residents of Seattle on clear days and stuns ferry passengers in the San Juan Islands. Located only 55 km inland from sea level at Bellingham the volcano has dramatic relief.
Mount Baker also achieves prominence as the 3rd highest summit in the State of Washington and the iciest mountain in the Cascade Range. An unbelievable annual snowfall (world record of ~30 meters in 1998) sustains more than 100 square kilometers of glaciers and permanent snow fields. Consequently, crevasses are a major danger, dictating that all parties be proficient at glacier travel and rescue. Avalanche danger is commonly high because the notoriously variable weather can create unstable snow, even on moderate slopes.
Despite these risks, Mount Baker is an excellent first volcano for those learning to climb on snow and ice. When weather and glacial conditions are right, the ascents can be straightforward and relatively non-technical. Ice fills the summit crater, creating a broad, rounded summit that allows beginners to relax and enjoy the views.
The Coleman/Deming route is the most popular. The North Ridge is more difficult. The Easton route is the easiest, but can be less pleasant because it lies in the Mount Baker Recreational Area (where snow-mobile access is legal). The other routes fall within the (motorless) Mount Baker Wilderness.
North Side Routes: This is the most common approach. Get on State Highway 542 heading east from Interstate 5 (I-5). A mile past the Glacier Public Service center turn right onto (poorly marked) Road 39. Note that this turn is easy to miss! After 8 miles the road will turn to gravel and soon after you will be at the trailhead. Until the snow melts in mid-June or so, drive in as far you can and then hike, snowshoe, or ski to the trailhead.
Easton Glacier Routes: (via the Baker Pass Trail) Get on State Highway 20 heading east from I-5 or west from State Highway 530. Go north on Baker Lake-Grandy Lake Road for 12 miles until the road splits. Here take Service Road 12 for 3 miles, and turn right onto Forest Service Road 13. Take this road for 4 miles until its end at Schreibers Meadow trailhead.
Ptarmigan Ridge Approach: From Bellingham, take State Highway 542 east from I-5 to its end at the trail head. Take the trail 5 miles to Camp Kiser. This approach is for the Park Glacier route, the Cockscomb, and the Roosevelt Headwall.
Vehicles parked at all trail heads as well as some picnic areas and dispersed campsites within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest require a Northwest forest pass which can be obtained from participating stores or ranger stations.
The Forest Service does not require permits for climbing Mt. Baker. It is strongly advised that all climbing parties register for their own protection. Registration is optional. It will, however, provide valuable information in case of emergency. Download the form (pdf) (doc) or pick one up at the ranger station. Then submit your completed form at the ranger station before attempting the climb. When your party returns, sign out at the station or call and let them know of your safe return. Failure to sign out may result in a needless and costly search effort.
Summit attempts are made year round but the summer months (May-August) are much more popular and have better weather.
NOTE: Party size limited to 12 members when entering the Mt. Baker Wilderness. Back-country permits are not required for climbs of Mount Baker.
Camping on the mountain is free (once you have the regional pass), but to learn about pay campsites in the park check with the Mount Baker Ranger District. If you climbing north side routes, a comfortable base camp (open mainly on weekends) is the Mount Baker Lodge run by the Mountaineers.
Baker gets loads of snow (average of ~50ft/year) and is white year-round due to its high elevation and geographic location (significantly west of the Cascades, breaking trail for the North Cascades through thick Pacific moisture). It is slowly becoming less glaciated, however.
Be aware that the weather is often bad. Exposure and low visibility can be the greatest challenges on the mountain.
For a smooth approach check for trail information as well as helpful guidance regarding crevassed glaciers in the Mount Baker Climbing Notes.
Mount Baker exhibited a small amount of volcanic activity in 1975-76 (steam release) and is expected to erupt again. Steam is often observed emanating from Sherman Crater, just south of the summit. Baker has a geologic history of frequent lahars (torrents of ash, rock, and water), the mountain's greatest geologic hazard.
Baker's summit, known as Grant Peak, is actually a volcanic crater that is ~1,300 feet deep and overflowing with ice. Younger, smaller Sherman Crater is partially ice-filled and its highpoint, Sherman Peak, is only elevation ~600 feet [200 meters] below the main summit. Two other prominent sub-summits are the Black Buttes -- Colfax Peak and Lincoln Peak. (Colfax was Grant's Vice President.)
Baker's proximity to the ocean has motivated a long history of races between the mountain and sea level. The contemporary version of this competition, the Ski to Sea, takes place over Memorial Day weekend (last Monday in May).
Some notes to keep in mind during summer ascents when crevasses dominate the climber's mind (from the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center):
"Because avalanches continue to occur at higher elevations during the summer months in areas having either residual snow cover or permanent snow and ice cover, and several people within the Northwest have been killed by these events, here are a few notes about summer avalanches.
Avalanches occurring during the summertime can be generally grouped into three types:
Climbers, hikers and other back-country travelers during the summer are advised to evaluate snow stability and use normal safety practices for travel in avalanche terrain with snow cover."