Climbing Mt. Baker via Easton Glacier
DATE HIKED: 6/22/19
TOTAL DISTANCE/ASCENT: 14 MILES AND 7,400 FT
HIGHEST POINT: 10,781 FT
DIFFICULTY: VERY DIFFICULT/ TECHNICAL SKILLS REQUIRED
REQUIRED PERMIT: NO
DOG FRIENDLY: NO
LOCATION: NORTH CASCADES
RECREATION PASS: NORTHWEST FOREST PASS
How does one climb Mt. Baker?
Mt. Baker is one of Washington’s 5 volcanoes and every route up requires technical skills. This means knowing how to travel on a glacier and knowing how to rescue someone if they were to fall in. For me, it was a long journey to get to the point of being ready to attempt that mountain and even hitting the trail I was filled with anxiety and uneasiness of what was ahead.
A group of women and myself embarked on a journey all winter and spring learning mountaineering skills. We started off by literally learning the ropes by learning knots and hitches required for traveling on a rope. We learned the alpine butterfly, figure eight, the prusik, munter mule hitch and much more. A couple women dropped off before our next time of meeting at a local park to practice traveling on a rope and learning the crevasse rescue system for the first time. In March we met up at Mt. Rainier to practice snow camping skills, self-arrest, crampon technique and a mock alpine start. We then practiced at a local mountain pass ascending a rope (if you were to fall into a crevasse and getting yourself out) and then the rescue haul system again (how to pull someone out of a crevasse). We met one more time to practice the rescue haul system before the climb to dial that in. To climb a mountain of this caliber, one would need these skills at minimum.
We ended up with 10 people joining for the Baker climb, 4 of which were with for all of the training above and two were the amazing mentors that guided us through it all.
Days Leading Up
The week before there was major news of the Coleman Deming route going out with a collapsed snow bridge, the main way up the mountain on that side of the mountain. This was a refreshing reality that glaciers are moving, wild, unpredictable things that will do what they want. We planned to do the Easton route and kept a close eye on conditions and weather. Weather was very iffy leading up to it but we had a narrow weather window that looked in our favor, so we went for it. I meticulously packed my giant pack and checked the list three times. All seemed to be accounted for. Snow camping gear, mountaineering gear, check and check. I got a decent night sleep and would awake at 4:00 AM the next day to get to the trailhead by 8:00.
We hit the trail at about 8:30 with heavy packs in tow. The first few miles were easy going through forests, rivers and switchbacks. We took a break every hour to snack and hydrate. It was foggy out and hopes were high that it would burn off.
We made it past the split for Park Butte and went towards Railroad Grade. More meandering through woods brought us to beautiful alpine meadows and then to a sharp, long ridge. We hiked along the steep drop offs with Baker still hiding from us. I called this part Marmot land because I had never seen so many marmots in my life.
Past Railroad Grade we got to the main basecamp for the Easton route- Sandy Camp, which was indeed full of campers. Many just getting there for the day and many whom had attempted a summit that morning. We wanted to push on a bit past this camp and move on to a higher camp to be a bit closer for summit morning.
As we hiked higher the views started to finally open up and the mountain revealed herself. It looked giant and unattainable. We pressed on to find an ideal campsite.
We made it to camp at around noon and took out the shovels to make a platform for our tents for the night. We ate lunch, discussed logistics of the climb and our plan and then started prepping all we could the night before. I brought my Big Agnes 3P 3 season tent for this and shared it with two others. The next couple of hours would consist of making lots of water and prepping our ropes and gear for the night ahead. I was on a team of 4 and was a middle person. I set up my prusik, got my harness ready with some rescue gear and made sure my pack was all ready for the night ahead. Wake up would be midnight for a 1:00 AM start, so bedtime would be as early as possible. I ended up laying down at 7 and probably actually falling asleep after 8:30. It also rain/sleeted for an hour in there which got me super worried for what the day would bring.
My entire tent woke up before midnight with nerves and excitement. I got up right away having to use my blue bag. I had made a list on my phone the night before of everything to remember or things to do so I wouldn’t forget with my midnight foggy brain. I got my pack together, harness on, crampons, helmet, and everything else I would need for the day. The skies were clear and the stars were out. I was feeling hopeful.
We got onto our ropes in our respective places and did our checks to make sure everyone was ready to go. Thinking back, this moment still gives me chills as we all gave the ok to go at 1:30 AM with bright headlamps and anxious minds. One at a time we rolled out. You are about 30 feet apart from each person on the rope so as Michelle went off ahead of me, I was then on my own. Or what felt on my own 30 feet apart from each climber and climbing through the dark.
Unbeknownst to us, we camped pretty close to the start of the glacier. Not far in I passed my first crevasse. A big hole in the earth that looks like it wants to swallow you whole. You want to let your eyes linger in it’s depths but also shouldn’t let your mind wander on the possibilities of meeting it too close. I shook it off and pressed on. We kept a good relaxed paced. My stomach really started bothering me right away and it wouldn’t shake for hours. I took pepto pills, but besides this, this would be the only physically aliment that would bother me all day.
We climbed for an hour and then took our first break. Every break I tried hard to eat something and care for myself. I got nervous about my stomach and if it was going to be too much. I pressed on anyways.
By the time we got to our second break, or a couple hours in, the low clouds and wind came in and it got really cold. Really, really cold. Sunrise was happening but we couldn’t see it. I was looking forward to the magical sunrise on a glacier, but today wouldn’t be that day. Many other groups of climbers were now catching up with us and some passing us. We kept our moderate pace. We continued on and passed our first snow bridge. I saw a crevasse on one side and than about 5 feet to the side of it another one and we were walking right in the middle. Later in the day these can pose a hazard for melting and breaking apart. For now, it was cold and frozen. The climbing was easy so far. Nothing very steep. Just long and meandering around crevasses and other hazards. We couldn’t see much beyond the boot track ahead of us. We took a break before the crater where the wind was the strongest it was throughout the day. We looked at each other in dismay with the weather happening around us. This wasn’t predicted, but the mountain makes its own weather sometimes. We said if it got any worse than this that we would turn around and it would no longer be safe. For now, we pressed on. We made it to the crater which lies below the summit. We stopped and took in the views of one of the only clear sections on our ascent.
From this point we gathered as a group asking if we were all comfortable going up the Roman Wall (the crux or hardest part of the climb) in these conditions and with how everyone was feeling at the moment. We all decided we were gonna go for it. We were 1,000 feet below the summit and worked so hard to get to this point. What’s another 1,000 feet?
Turns out another 1,000 feet is a lot when conditions go to shit. Getting on the Roman Wall involved first a narrow traverse with a semi-steep drop offs. We really couldn’t see how much of a drop off it was with the white out conditions. This was a pro and a con in itself. We then started switchbacking up the steep side. I mostly felt very confident through this except for one section we did without good steps. The Roman Wall lasted for about 600 feet and really wasn’t too bad. We then got to the top plateau and walked on flat ground forever. I’ve been told this is about the size of a football field.
We made it just below the real summit and it was safe to come off of the rope and run up to the top, tag it, and come down. Winds were now about 30 MPH +, I had every warm layer on I had with and could barely stand to stand still. We grabbed our ice axes and ran the last little push to the top and cheered with relief that we really made. Hugs were given. Tears streamed from my eyes as I thought back on how far this group of women have come from that first night sitting in a living room practicing knots to standing on the summit of Mt. Baker together. So. Damn. Proud.
We couldn’t relish in this feeling forever though as I was loosing feeling in my hands it was so cold. We ran down from the summit. Got on our ropes and got the heck out. It was now the most white out conditions it had been of the day and we still had to make it down the steepest section. I could barely see my teammate in front of me now as we began our descent. We took it slow and steady. I was doing fine until we had to come off the one narrow boot pack to let another team pass. This involved an awkward stance on steep snow for a good amount of time. I was uncomfortable and the position felt unsafe under my feet. The groups passed and we continued down. A couple areas caught my attention and made me uncomfortable. It was also laborious managing the rope in front and back of me trying not to trip or step on it as we made traverses. Managing the rope through these sections proved to be quite tricky. We got to a spot where the steps literally ended and it was ice. I yelled to Teresa “where are the steps” and she said “there are none and trust your feet.” I stomped as hard as I could across that ice to get back on the trustful boot pack and continued on. With one more long traverse we were past the crux and what would prove to be the hardest part of the climb. If we would’ve had 100% views in this area I wonder how much more my mind would’ve spun with the steep drop offs and crevasses below.
We made it back to the crater rim, which felt like a big relief. The weather still wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t as windy and now we could focus on getting back to camp. Our biggest hazard going back would be the melting snow bridges as the warmth of the day hit the snow. Going down we made good time and the views started to open up. All the crevasses and seracs we couldn’t see before were now right next to us reminding us this terrain wasn’t to be taken lightly and there were death traps at every turn. We crossed a few snow bridges and moved quickly through them. The crevasses blew my mind with their size and beauty. It felt like I was in another world. A world I knew I wanted to return to again and again.
We had made it to the summit just before 8:00 and were back to camp before noon. I was so happy to make it safely off the glacier and not needing to deploy our crevasse rescue skills. We relaxed for a moment but then got to packing up as we still had a 4.5 mile hike out. I was feeling good. Not spent and drained like after other big climbs I have done. Taking a relaxing pace, eating and drinking enough really contributed to this I think.
Our packs were full once again and I was carrying a rope down. It was soul (and back) crushing to put that heavy pack on. We hit the trail and made our way out. It was socked in and foggy the whole way down. That seemed to be the theme of the trip.
The last few miles out were so hard on my feet in mountaineering boots. We made it to the parking lot and threw off the heavy packs, cracked the cold beers and ate all the snacks. We made it back to the parking lot around 3:00. We sat in our post climb joy and physically agony. I was so blissful to have made it up and down with this group.
Mountaineering is a wave of emotions for me. Anxiety leading to the climb- can I do it? Will it be too steep? Too scary? Am I in shape enough for this? To just doing the damn thing one step at a time. With being connected to your teammates as your life line passing real, life threatening hazards and safely moving past them. Digging deep and moving past personal fears. Reaching the high. Accomplishing something as a team and making it back safely.
I love these big goals and big objectives for all the things that come with it and the beautiful, wild places I get to see along the way.
Such a strange, wonderful sport this is.