The world didn’t want me to climb Mt. Baker. That’s right, you have to listen to my weepy self before getting to the good stuff. First of all, it took two tries. Three if you count the time we bailed because of weather. The first try was a general disaster. But even leading up to the first try, I was having some problems.
- Left my keys on an airplane on the way to Chicago.
- Lost my license at a bar after a wedding in Chicago (yes, you could say I was slightly inebriated, yes I flew back sans ID the next day, it is possible)
- Learned that my car had been robbed while I was out of state. In my double gated, video monitored garage. On the bottom floor. Who robs the bottom floor? That shit takes a master escape plan. Anyway, my car was down a few windows. My only question when security called me: “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS?”
- Found my keys! I’m not that much of an idiot! Woo!
- Just kidding, I am an idiot. I forgot that I had left my whole climbing pack in my car, and it had been taken. $1200 worth of gear. Some Seattle hobo is sleeping in style in a nice hammock with a nice sleeping pad and waterproof pants and warm mittens glacier glasses (okay) and an ice axe (uhh) and a bunch of other stuff.
- I had 24 hours until I left for Baker. Seriously, world, you couldn’t just let me oversleep on Friday or something?
I pulled my shit together and loaded up the credit card at REI. Airline points, guys. Luckily I still worked there, and that discount went a long way. And since it was in my apartment building, there was a chance that renter’s insurance would cover it. After giving my last few paychecks right back to REI (Recycled Employee Income, have I made that joke yet?) I got in my car and headed up north to Baker.
I thought it was going to be a crevasse rescue class with Adventure Explorers. It ended up being a group of hikers looking to learn snow skills, so I got to fine-tune my knowledge by helping out with putting on crampons, knots used when roping up, things like that. If you can’t teach it, you don’t really know it. I finally got my set of prussiks straightened out thanks to our guide Chris, and grilled Heidi (the bad ass guide they somehow found on Craiglist of all places) about Orizaba, which I’m going to hopefully climb in November.
Our summit day attempt was a long shot, I knew from the night before that we probably wouldn’t make it but hey it’s still time logged on a glacier, which was all I needed. And when I was going crazy with the slow pace, one of the guides said words that have stuck with me since: “When you have that much gas left in the tank, instead of dwelling on being bored, think how reliable you can be if something does go wrong. The people pushing their limits mentally and physically aren’t going to be the effective ones in those scenarios.” The ones who still have the energy to run in circles around us are the ones who will make the difference. Okay, you got me. I’ll spend the time fantasizing about daring rescues. We ended up turning around on the scramble just below the Roman Wall for a myriad of reasons. Inadequate warm layers, running out of water, running out of food, exhaustion, you name it, someone probably had issues with it.
I did not take it well. Interestingly, when I confessed that to another girl on the climb, she said she was surprised to hear it. But I had to come to terms with the fact that it just wasn’t happening, I was down $450 for a class I expected to learn z pulley rigs through and out $900 for all the gear I had to re-buy and I was working part time retail and who knew when my next weekend off would be? I pulled it together, passed around my extra water and chocolate covered espresso beans and combos and eventually laughed it off. Learning experience. And it was hazy anyway, so there wouldn’t have even been views at the top. We could barely make out Twin Sisters.
The second attempt was thwarted by the snow level dropping to 7000ft for the first time since like January. We didn’t even try. But third time’s a charm, right? So here we go, folks! Climbed 8/9/2015.
- Distance: I have literally no idea.
- Elevation: 7000ft gain (ish), 10,781ft highest point
- Weather: 40’s and rainy, 50’s and sunny(!)
- Commute from Seattle: 2:30
- Did I Trip: Good question. I did not! I did stumble in pain at one point, sneakily.
So we had a two day window. Head up Saturday, camp, get started for the summit early Sunday. Weather was not looking good, but the guides (Ben and Anthony with Miyar Adventures) for this trip were down to try it anyway. We got to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead Saturday morning (after I spent a night at the most AWESOME airbnb, seriously if you need a recommendation shoot me a message this place was ridiculous – old school claw tub if you’re into bubble baths, log cabins built by the host himself, a pool, and home cooked breakfast! Ahhhh) and started up towards camp at Black Buttes.
The first part of the trail goes by quickly. Heliotrope ridge is a hike in itself, with access to some great seracing at the base of the Coleman Glacier and of course access to the Coleman Deming route. The trail crossed two large rivers which were tricky enough this time of year (especially when you’re being a princess about getting your boots wet on the way up like I was) I can’t imagine how they are in the early season. After about two miles the trail splits: left takes you to a nice overlook of the glacier, and right takes you up the climber’s path. For me, the “climbing” doesn’t start until you’re on snow or a scramble, so this was still hiking, despite the steepness. It’s about a quarter mile I believe until low camp, which is where we camped on our first attempt. I recall wanting to move to high camp that time, but we didn’t have a shovel to make tent platforms, and not everyone had camping gear adequate for snow.
This time around, we hiked straight through. We had to go very far to the right before getting on the glacier in order to avoid exposed ice and crevasses. The first time, you could essentially go straight up from the campsites, but it was much more open a month later. Everyone donned their gear, we roped up (six person rope… I had my concerns, but I’m not a guide) and started up.
Weather had been clear ish, but there were clouds above us, and we did have a few minutes of trekking through fog. Luckily it lifted just enough for camp at Black Buttes to be completely clear. We set up the mid, a floorless tent made of cuben fiber that ended up far surpassing my expectations. Ashwin had his backpacking tent, which he set up for him and Naman.
As wind picked up, we realized the mid needed some reinforcements, and I was beyond excited to get to chop snow blocks with the snow saw. Anthony made a good example of the ice layers for me too, since I had been asking about avalanche conditions and how certain snowpacks consolidated compared to others. With the snow saw, you could see the layers in the block of snow, and you could tell which were weak and where you could expect things to happen. The weak layer was crumbly ice almost, “like the bottom of italian ice!!” I exclaimed. I heard Zuzana laugh from inside the mid. She spent time on the east coast, she knew what I was talking about. No one else knew what italian ice is, I realized. When you get to the bottom of italian ice and it’s melted you can flip it over and get to the really sugary icy part on the bottom. It’s the most delicious part. That’s what the weak layer looked like, especially when the block broke free along that line and I flipped it over to stack it near the mid.
After we had secured the tent, it was bedtime. I’m all about bedtime. The mid fit four of us pretty comfortably with all of our gear, and I was pretty cozy. We got in just in time. Rain and wind picked up, and I wasn’t sure it’d clear up. I couldn’t believe I stayed dry. I had my bivvy, but still. I expected to be damn. Around 12:30am or so, the rain finally stopped, though the wind was still blustery and cold. We opened the door and peeped out, only to realize we were completely socked in by clouds. Couldn’t see the tents of the other group, or the rock wall 20ft from where we were. It was eerie. We figured we’d wait and hope for the best, so we lay there chatting for two hours. Luckily I was with a hilarious group, and it was more or less two hours of me giggling. Eventually, Anthony stuck his head outside, and I heard “Ah!! Guys! Guys I have fantastic news.” My heart fluttered. Stars?! No, that’s asking for too much. 100ft visibility? I couldn’t hold back. “STARS?!?” “Stars!” “FUCK YES!” I would have leapt out of my sleeping bag if that was possible while squished in between two other people. Instead I wriggled and started getting everything together. I knew we’d be slow getting ready, so I thought I’d make tea. Nothing beats tea on a summit morning.
I sipped my earl grey with an absurd amount of sweetener and watched everyone prep. Ben and Anthony helped everyone get their bags down to a reasonable weight (I usually just take warm layers, food, water, glacier glasses, and that’s about it but we had some over-packers apparently) and just when I thought I was going to have to start doing push ups and jumping jacks for warmth, we finally got moving.
We traversed far to the right of the normal route to avoid some exposed glacial ice, and eventually regained the regular route after a small off-trail hiccup involving steep snow climbing. I think if it had been just me and guides, or me and friends, I’d have had a total blast, but I was too worried watching everyone else, waiting for someone to slip (sorry guys, call me paranoid). Ben and Anthony were great about setting up anchors and a running belay, but I was still on edge. Some of our group was just in hiking boots, which make front-pointing a pretty difficult feat.
In the midst of that, the sun began to rise. Damn, guys, we were above the clouds, sunrise was turning everything pink and orange, and I knew I’d (hopefully) be warm soon and be able to feel my fingers and toes again. Hell yes! Sunrise is the best. Talk about gaining momentum. We found the highway (there was a pretty well traveled path up to the summit, no idea how we missed it originally – it was dark, okay?) and officially started making our way up.
We were slow, but going at a better clip than the last time we tried Baker. Conditions were great, too, which meant that even if we weren’t the fastest, we’d have a shot. I started to think we might actually make it. Ben and Anthony were great at being encouraging when people were slowing down, and I think that’s a huge reason we ended up making it. The crevasses were there, complete with snow bridges, some dicier than others. But in daylight, it was all pretty navigable even for my noob brain. We got to the point where our last group had turned around on the rocky ridge around 9500ft, and we kept going. Up to the Roman Wall, which wasn’t as steep or wall-like as I expected (though it looked like it from a distance). Here’s where views get real. Twin Sisters and Colfax behind you, the Coleman glacier to your left, the Deming glacier on your right with the north cascades in the background. You can see all the way to Glacier Peak.
I started playing the “guess how many steps to that rock!” game. I’m pretty bad at it. I’d guess 250 steps, and be at around 530 when I’d announce to the group how bad I was. I never got better, either. Finally we got to the brief (icy) scramble before the summit plateau. Don’t be fooled! It’s another 20 minute walk or so from where you gain the plateau to the little nub that is the true summit. And you don’t freakin see Shuksan until you’re right there at the nub, either! I mean let’s be real, looking at Shuksan is basically why I wanted to do this climb. And it was totally worth it. Look at that peak poking through the clouds and tell me it doesn’t look awesome. It looks awesome.
I signed the summit register, took selfies, everything you need to do on a summit. Actually I might have forgotten to take a panorama. Rookie mistake, I know. I was too busy being proud of the group. What’s amazing is that we had the whole mountain to ourselves. Besides one group at Black Buttes, we were the only ones all day. And that other group was just practicing technical skills, not making a summit bid. It was just us. The forecast had scared everyone off. No complaints here, you all know I hate people. Jokes aside, the solitude was amazing. Just rocks, ice, and you. And views. Damn, Washington. I’ll never get bored here.
Going down went much faster than going up, as usual. We took one break to refuel, apply sunscreen (did I mention how swollen my lips were after Rainier? Bring your damn chapstick! And put it in a really accessible pocket! Or else you’ll spend the entire next day drooling uncontrollably) but besides that, it was one solid push to camp, where we spent some time packing everything up before heading the rest of the way out. Unfortunately, there was one casualty: Ashwin’s lightweight backpacking tent had succumbed to the wind, and the poles had broken. At least it was anchored well!
Overall, I gotta say the Coleman Deming just felt like a standard slog up a glacier. It sounds mean, but it doesn’t have the dramatic seracs and crevasses of Rainier or the awesome alpine views and rock of Shuksan. I think for me it was a one-and-done thing, unless I have a free weekend and friends want to go back. I hear the North Ridge is a party, so perhaps I’ll aim for that someday. Ha, I can’t believe I’m saying all this as I look back at pictures. It’s freaking fantastic. It just goes to show what else is out there.
I just can’t believe how lucky we got with weather. I thought I’d be showing up to a group of people I didn’t know and spend some time holed up in a tent on a glacier in shitty conditions, getting experience in “how to deal with sleeping in a wet down bag in subfreezing temperatures and high winds and not be a little bitch about it.” To everyone who was on that trip, I can’t thank you enough. Ben and Anthony were fantastic guides, and dealt very well with our small off-route extravaganza and I learned a lot just watching how they encouraged the group. Going to the mountains is always the right decision, despite whatever hesitations I had beforehand.