Climbing Mt. Baker: A Beginner’s Introduction to Mountaineering
Originally Posted on July 29, 2016
Mt. Baker is part of the skyline in my home city of Vancouver, B.C. Looking south towards the United States, Baker looms large on the horizon, its permanent glaciers illuminated by the setting sun. Only two hours drive away, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the surrounding areas have been a common recreational escape for me on weekends. I’ve hiked and scrambled many of the surrounding trails, skied the runs at the winter resort and enjoyed more than my fair share of pizza at Chair 9 restaurant. On the return trips from Washington State, I often looked in the rear view mirror at the 10, 781 ft summit of Baker, picturing an attempt at the summit, but always relegating the idea to the ‘one day’ pile of outdoor objectives.
When my local British Columbia Mountaineering Club, of which I am a member, posted a Women’s Intro to Mountaineering course to be held at Mt. Baker, the mountain was suddenly yanked out of the realm of wishful thinking and into the space of tangible possibility. Was I capable of doing this? Could I haul my body and the necessary gear up a mountain while roped to 3 other women and negotiating gnarly terrain? I decided to see if I could.
As the trip date drew near, I started to do some reading on the route. Commercial mountaineering packages appeared in the search results. Delving further into these sites, I saw that most companies recommended starting physical training at least 4 months prior to the trip, culminating in several longer (10+ hour) hikes with heavy packs towards the end of the training program. With the trip only a measly six weeks away, I started to worry about my abilities and preparedness. I climb and run a few times each week and on the weekend usually do a leisurely hike. Nothing along the lines of the intense training program required by these groups! Luckily, we had a trip meeting a week before the climb to plan gear and supplies. I realised everyone was at about the same level of fitness as me and just as nervous about the weekend.
Although this allayed my fears a little, I still barely slept the night before the trip. Checking and rechecking a mental list of gear and food in my mind, I could hardly contain my excitement and nerves. The day was finally here!
Day 1: Heliotrope Ridge Trail to Base Camp
After meeting at Tim Hortons in Abbotsford near the Sumas border crossing we got our last hits of caffeine, introduced ourselves to the group and went over last minute gear questions and trip plans. Then it was a quick border crossing and on to the town of Glacier and the local ranger station, where we registered for the climb and picked up our poop bags for the trip. The trail head for the Heliotrope Ridge hike starts only a short way from the ranger station, up a forestry road in surprisingly good condition.
As we pulled into the parking lot, we quickly saw we weren’t going to be the only ones heading up to the summit this weekend. The lot was packed! It was to be expected, I guess, with the warm temperatures and bluebird skies we’d been lucky enough to score.
Unloading the car trunks, we started to realise the immense amount of gear we needed to haul up the mountain. In addition to crampons and ice axes and the usual backpacking supplies, ropes and pickets were distributed across the group. A collective groan rang out as we hoisted the straining packs onto our backs.
Our plan for the day was to ascend the Heliotrope Ridge trail to the Hogsback Camp. Slowly winding its way through the forest, across a roaring stream and up a ridge to stunning views of the Coleman-Deming glacier, the Heliotrope Ridge Trail is a wonderful day hike in itself. With a heavy pack on and plastic mountaineering boots, I was struggling a little too much to fully enjoy it.
We reached the camp area around 5.00pm, with plenty of sunlight remaining. Tents were set up, dinner was cooked and we settled in for a night of talk and laughter.
Day 2: Training Day
On Sunday we awoke early, as the sun was up and glaringly bright on our exposed alpine ridge. Snow travel skills, self arrest, roping up and alpine knots were on the education agenda for the day. The self arrest practice session was particularly exciting (and exhausting!). Armed with ice axe and nothing else, we trudged up a small snow slope near camp countless times in order to throw ourselves down head first, backwards, sideways, on our backs and on our fronts, trying to arrest our increasing momentum with the axe. The trip leaders drilled into us the importance of self arrest skills in the alpine. If a member of the rope team slips, the rest of the teams’ arrest abilities can be the only thing preventing that person from falling into a crevasse.
Sore and tired, the group had an early night in preparation for the 2.00 am wake up call the following morning on summit day.
Day 3: Summit Day
After a few hours sleep, the group awoke at 12.30am. I thought this was an early wake-up call for a 2.00 am start, but it turns out it takes a long time to make coffee, get gear together and rope up in the middle of the night. Headlights on, we started our way up the large slope behind camp, starting slow and getting into a rhythm with our rope partners. I soon discovered the hardest part of walking on a rope team is avoiding stepping on the rope with your crampons, and also ensuring you’re moving quickly enough so there is no slack for your fellow rope buddies. Harder than you might think!
At the top of the first ridge, the Coleman-Deming glacier spread out before us. Tiny crevasses crisscrossed our path. Jumping over the first one was quite exhilarating- the first crevasse I’d ever encountered!- but after the thirtieth it was simply part of the terrain.
The sun began to rise over the Cascade peaks as we made our way slowly up the glacier. With our rope buddies 10 meters away the distance was too far to chat, so the ascent was quiet, with the silence only punctuated by the sound of our crampons in the crunchy snow and swish of Goretex jackets.
The Roman Wall rose up before us- a steep and narrow challenge next to the comparatively wide and gentle slope of the glacier. Resting at the foot of the slope, we steeled ourselves for a few hours of tough hiking. Ice axes were plunged deeper and crampons kicked more vigorously into the snow on the steep terrain, each climber worried about the consequences of a slip on this crucial part of the ascent. We could see there had been a lot of soft slab avalanche activity recently in the area, which only made me want to move faster off the slope. But the lack of physical training was starting to take it’s toll. I was definitely employing the ‘rest step’ technique that we had learnt the day before! Being at the back of our rope team, I was also carrying the end of the rope, wrapped in a kiwi coil around my torso. It wasn’t a tonne of weight, but after moving steadily uphill for hours on end, I was starting to feel the extra pounds. A member of my rope team was struggling physically and mentally too, requesting multiple stops and starting to mutter that she couldn’t make it to the summit. Our team leader was an absolute champ though, talking the girl through it and encouraging her every step of the way.
It felt like an eternity, but we finally emerged onto the large rounded summit of the mountain. The view was phenomenal. Row upon row of mountains marched off into the distance and tiny blue lakes punctuated the landscape. Mt Rainier and Glacier Peak stood out I should have expected it, but it was still surprising to be looking down on the Artist Point area near the Mount Baker ski resort. Every time I’d been to that area before it had felt so high, and now here I was far, far above it.
We had done it! The group were super pumped on having reached our objective and there were high-fives and congrats all-round. It was a great sense of achievement having reached the top and I felt like so many more opportunities had opened up now that I had mastered some alpine skills and put them to the test. Mt Rainier and Glacier Peak stood out on the horizon and as we sat eating lunch the group discussed those climbs, with the guides sharing their experiences on each peak. A climb for a another day, perhaps!
After a good rest, lunch and an extraordinary amount of photos, we geared up for the descent. With everyone exhausted from the early wake-up call and the morning’s exertions so far, I knew the descent was going to be hard. With the sun well into the sky and temperatures hovering in the high 20’s, the snow had turned to slush and was hard to walk through. What’s more, the warm temperatures meant there was a greater risk of the crevasses opening further and snow bridges collapsing. We picked our way gingerly across the Coleman-Deming glacier, taking our time to stop and drink copious amounts of water in the heat. I was glad I had worn my Super Armadillo Nano gaiters, as the snow was wet and I sunk to my knees in places.
I think everyone was relieved to be back at camp with fresh water when we arrived around 2.00pm. It had been 12 hours since we’d left that morning. It took my last reserves of energy to pack up camp, hoist the overloaded bag onto my back and head off down the hill. But our adventure was not over quite yet. When we reached the river crossing, we discovered the warm weather and rapid snow melt meant the river was now at extreme levels. This was the scariest part of the trip for me, as I contemplated the prospect of shimmying across a fallen log with such a large pack on my back. One wrong move and I would be going over the falls. This is where our trip leader, Marlaina, really showed her colours. Sensing the group’s discomfort with the situation, she offered to ferry the backpacks across for those that were worried about falling. What a legend! I could not recommend Marlaina enough as a great mountain guide.
After the theatrics of the river crossing, the rest of the trail felt like a breeze. Tired, muddy and wet, we assembled at the trail head for a last chat, exchange of numbers and farewells. It was sad to say goodbye to the exceptional group of women that I had shared such a fantastic weekend with. But getting those boots off and a clean set of clothes on felt amazing, and it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep in the backseat on the way back to Vancouver.