Ascending Mount Baker, Washington
by Curt Remington
Mt Baker, Washington state’s second most active volcano, is a hulking mass of rock and snow that towers over anything around it. Those of us living in Whatcom county look up at it regularly, as you can see it from miles away. In June of 2005, four friends and I made our way up the Coleman Deming Glacier route, to the top of the mountain. Having stood amongst the seracs and crevasses, looking down on the clouds below, gave me a whole new perspective on Mt Baker. Since our route is visible from much of the county, I’ve looked up many times, remembering.
The mountain is thickly covered with glaciers, holding the world record for snowfall. The nearby ski area got 96 feet of it in the winter of 1998/99. With all that ice and snow, climbing the mountain required specialized glacier gear & techniques.
One of the most serious dangers is crevasses, cracks in the ice that can be as deep as 100 feet. Many of these crevasses are covered with snow bridges, which have the potential of breaking as you cross them. To avoid plunging to the bottom of a crevasse, we roped together and carried climbing harnesses, prusiks and other rescue gear like snow pickets and pulleys. For traveling on ice, we also used mountaineering boots with crampons and carried ice axes. Along with all the climbing gear, we carried a lot of backpacking gear for camping on the mountain.
Actually climbing the mountain turned out to be an intense mixture of misery and euphoria. Most of the misery came from carrying all that gear through snow, trudging step after step up 7100 feet of elevation gain.
Euphoria came during the moments that I stopped, took a few deep breaths and turned to see the incredible views. By the first afternoon, we climbed high onto the glacier and set-up camp at an elevation of 8500 feet. The sun dropped beyond the mountains and San Juan Islands stretched out to the west of us.
The camaraderie of my climbing partners also added immensely to the trip. We worked well together as a team, and all us remained in good spirits, picking on each other just enough to keep things light.
I woke up that night, having slid towards the opening of our steeply sloped tent. That got me to thinking about the snow outside, which was freezing into slippery ice. I also realized that we’d never staked the tent down. What if it starts sliding toward that crevasse field below us? I could feel that the snow wasn’t freezing directly under us. Whew! My next thought was that I really had to pee, and two other guys were blocking the exit. I sat up in my sleeping bag and pondered whether I should wake them. Instead, I laid back down to think about it some more.
Before long, 2:30 AM arrived, and it was time for everyone to get up and start climbing. In the early morning hours, snow bridges and the loose snow would be solid, safer and easier to cross. After a quick breakfast, we strapped on our gear, roped together, turned on our headlamps and started up the glacier, carefully watching for crevasses in the dark. And yes, we came across a few. On one snow bridge, we looked down into a hole where someone’s leg broke through. A number of crevasses required jumping over. On the far side of one, Kerry caught his crampon and did a spectacular flip, while the rest of us plunged down onto our ice axes to pull the climbing rope tight and prevent him from going deeply into the crevasse. He landed clear of the crevasse, got up and brushed the snow off.
By sunrise, we climbed over a ridge, opening up stunning views of the North Cascades. Mt Rainier glowed orange, 100 miles to the south of us, and the early sun just lit up many of mountains between us and Rainier. It felt like nothing but clear, thin air separated us and heaven. Next, I looked up at our last obstacle, the Roman wall, a thousand vertical feet of steep, icy terrain. We slowly made our way up in a line, stopping regularly to catch our breath. We used the “french technique” or “flat-footing” to keep our crampons in contact with the snow, walking sideways with ankles bent at peculiar angles. Occasionally, I looked down on the crevasses far below and realized that if we all started sliding, they would be the only thing to stop us. With that thought in mind, I placed each step, and each thrust of my ice ax, very carefully.
Eventually, the slope lessened and we reached the massive top of the dome. What a wonderful relief. We strode across with pride to stand on the knob that is Mt Baker’s true summit. I was elated! This confirmed what I had wondered most of the way up, that I could do it. We were on top of the world. My next thought was that it’s all downhill from here.
The downhill felt worse than the climb up. We were tired, sore and started breaking through the soft snow on the way down. But the long trudge down gave me plenty of time to reflect on our trip and to contemplate the big plate of pasta I planned to eat at Tino’s Restaurant that night.