Mount Baker Adventures

Mt. Baker on a rare clear day.
Mt. Baker resides in the North Cascades of Washington state east of Bellingham and north of Seattle. This dormant volcano is one of northern Washington's most dominant features, second only to Mt. Rainier. Unlike the Rockies, the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest ensures a massive snowfall each year and the entire Cascade range is covered in permanent snowfields and glaciers. Mt. Baker, itself, has at least 5 major glacier systems flowing from its flanks making it a perfect training ground for learning the art and science of alpine climbing. I had the pleasure and the challenge of spending many days and nights on its slopes, climbing, sliding and stumbling, in two mountaineering courses I attended in 1999 and 2000. Unfortunately, on both occasions bad weather kept me from the summit, a goal which eludes me still. But I learned a lot in my two weeks on Mt. Baker's flanks.

My first visit to Mt. Baker occurred in September, 1999, as part of the itinerary for a program hosted by Alpine Ascents International, an expedition guiding company based in Seattle. The goal of the course was to spend at least a week on Mt. Baker learning the fundamentals of safe glacier travel, use of ropes, crampons, ice-axe, etc. That was the "official" purpose, anyway. The real purpose of the course was to make it possible for duffers, slackers and generally inexperienced outdoorsmen, like me, to learn something about how to exist on a mountain without embarassing oneself.

It turned out that I learned even more than I bargained for on this, my first, week of real alpine mountaineering.

At treeline on south flanks of Mt. Baker.
I've got a smile on my face but, truth be told,
I was a hurtin' hombre.
With the Alpine Ascents International group we approached Mt. Baker from the south, starting from the Schreibers Meadow trailhead and working our way up toward the Squawk Glacier. I was among eight climbers and two guides. It was during this approach hike that I learned my first lesson of alpine mountaineering: training for a climb by running 4 or 5 miles a day isn't enough. It wasn't just cardio-vascular fitness that I needed but leg and back strength. We lugged 70 pound packs the entire distance and I simply wasn't as prepared for the exertion as I needed to be. By the third hour into the hike I felt like my femurs were going to leap out of their hip sockets. I also discovered, painfully, that the butt is a muscle group, too, and I needed every ounce of its strength to keep on my feet with the heavy pack and occasionally steep sections of muddy, icy ground. The trail was also littered with blown down trees, adding considerably to the difficulty of the approach. I was somewhat surprised by the extent of the physical challenges on what was, after all, just a 5 or 6 mile hike. But the elevation gain, the heavy pack and the poor trail conditions amplified the hardship. I did not make the same mistake of being physically unprepared on the second Mt. Baker trip. But on this first attempt I was essentially wasted by the time we made our base camp just below the Squawk Glacier.

Our camp consisted of five tents, two to a tent. I have always done my camping in the woods and this was my first camping experience on an open snowfield. Discovering the secrets of anchoring guy-lines in the snow took some effort. But we finally got camp squared away and we had our first meal in the open under the darkening skies of the North Cascades. For the moment the weather was clear and we had a commanding view of the entire Cascade range, including Mt. Shuksan to the northeast complete with a wispy band of cloud around its summit. I slept pretty well the first night (note: always take ear plugs for protection against snoring!)

Self arrest technique with ice axe.
From "Freedom of the Hills"

Unfortunately, the predictably bad weather of the North Cascades moved in the next day and we learned ice-axe self arrest techniques and belay methods in an unrelenting downpour. By the second and third day, a complete whiteout had descended on us and we could not see more than 15 feet in any direction. Nevertheless, we practiced step-kicking our way up steep slopes and then falling down them to learn how to arrest our slide using the ice axe from any position: feet first on our back and stomach and head first. Deliberately flinging oneself onto the snow and launching down a steep snow gully on your back, head first, definitely takes nerve!

After some days of this bad weather, including rain, sleet, and whiteout, we were all a little frazzled. But we were making decent progress on our training curriculum. Unfortunately, we probably would not have a chance to summit the mountain. At the time this was not a big concern for me because I was just trying to get from one moment to the next. I had no idea where I was going to find the energy to get myself up Baker, when the summit-push came, much less crawl back up the 100 foot snow gully I had just shot down practicing self arrests.

Then, one late afternoon I looked up the mountain during a partial clearing in the overcast to see an ominous lenticular cloud covering the summit. Crap. I knew that meant we were in for some truly serious weather. And sure enough, that night a powerful autumn storm blew in from the Pacific and clobbered us with 60-80 mile per hour winds. Our exposed position in the couloir below the Squawk Glacier acted like a wind tunnel. As we lay in our sleeping bags, the tent absolutely smashed flat into our faces, we could hear the wind howling like a freight train over the icy expanse of the Squawk Glacier. All night long we listened to the gale and were repeatedly hammered. Every few minutes the wind, rain and sleet would relent just enough for the tent to spring back to its proper shape, but then we could hear the awesome sound of the freight train winds on the glacier and we knew that in mere seconds the tent would be flattened again. And it was. This fury went on all night.

Our snow camp below the Squawk Glacier.
This exposed position proved interesting when
gale force winds pummelled us later.
By first light, the storm had abated but we were in relatively poor shape. Our tent fared the worst of the lot. When your tent loses its shape during a storm, it doesn't keep water out very well. Our sleeping bags were soaked. Some of my gear that was stored in the tent's vestibule was blown clear during the storm and tumbled 100 yards downslope. This wasn't a big problem. I retrieved the gear and we could have eventually dried out the sleeping bags, but the mountain had about 2 or 3 feet of new, unstable snow on its upper flanks. Our plans for making an exploration of the Squawk glacier and, ultimately, a stab at the summit had to be scrapped. So, we descended the mountain. About a half hour into the descent, my participation in any further adventure came to an end as I slipped twice on steep ice and managed to sprain my right ankle. Fortunately, the Scarpa Invernos mountaineering boots I was wearing were so stiff that it was almost like wearing a cast and I was still able to walk the entire hike down to the trailhead carrying a full pack. But by the time we got to the bottom, my ankle was gone and that was the end of the climb for me.

But I did learn some valuable lessons from this experience:
  • Train at least half of the time by stair climbing with a heavy pack and boots.
  • Do not use a non-aerodynamic tent on a glacier. If your partner brings crappy gear, use your better stuff. And get the best mountain tent you can find.
  • Make an investment in snow tent stakes and anchoring bags.
  • Do everything possible to make sure the tent fly is massively anchored.
  • Use trekking poles whenever possible during the approach hike.
  • Practice with knots ahead of time.
  • Don't expect North Cascade weather to be "good". It's always bad. That's why there are glaciers here.

Things didn't go so well on the first outing but I was not daunted and within 9 months, the following June, I was back on the flanks of Mt. Baker for another go.

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