Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mount Baker

Finally! For the last few weekends I have been trying to rustle up partners for a real mountain adventure, but I kept coming up empty handed. Luckily this weekend my "partner needed" smoke signals happened to drift by the window of my friend John from Vancouver, and he was on board right away. We spent the early evening on Saturday coordinating our plans, and then we each left our respective cities soon after and rendezvoused at the halfway point (Kendall, midway along the Mount Baker Highway) at 10:45pm. From there we continued on to the trailhead, which we found with the help of my GPS. We had taken John's Forerunner to the trailhead, and planned on sleeping in the back of it for a few hours before getting an alpine start at 3am. John's Forerunner is a rolling gear box, so before we could lie down in the back he had to spend about 10 minutes making a small clearing amid the piles of gear. Here he is at the 5 minute mark, it may still look cluttered but this is greatly improved from how it started!

We finally crawled into our sleeping bags and lay down to sleep just past 12:00am, and drifted off to sleep with dreams of the upcoming climb dancing in our heads. The alarm went off at 3am, and we roused ourselves from our slumbers and set about eating breakfast and organizing our gear. The night before we had decided to start the climb at 3am, but had neglected to pack our gear and in setting the alarm had allocated exactly 0 minutes for breakfast and gear prep, so by the time we actually rolled out of camp it was 4am, an hour later than we had planned. This didn't cause too much consternation, as they say in the airlines business we would just have to try and "make it up in the air" (climb faster). Snow on the road had prevented us from driving right to the trailhead, so we spent the first 30 minutes covering the final 2km and 500 feet of elevation gain on the Forest Service Road, and started up the Heliotrope Trail at 4:30am. Here is a shot of Markez at the trailhead with his super-charged headlamp:

The snow in the forested part of the trail was quite soft and easy going, but when we broke out of the tree cover and into the open below the glacier we found an icy crust that made the going quite difficult as our skins did not grip very well. This gave me an opportunity to try my new ski crampons that I had acquired a few weeks prior in Salt Lake City, these worked really well. The only downside is that you can't use them with your heel risers up, so while you don't slip backwards, the actual climbing is a bit more awkward. We made it up onto the glacier (or at least what seemed like the glacier, it was hard to tell since there was snow everywhere by around 6am, at which point the sky was starting to brighten and we had a clear view of our objective:

After downing some food we continued on, and as we skied we were able to spot two climbers starting up the final section from the saddle. The snow on the glacier was much easier to skin up than the icy crust lower down, as it was consolidated wind-packed snow that gripped the skins well. We continued up toward Black Butte and then traversed towards the saddle between Mount Baker and Colfax Peak. Here is a shot of Markez making his way along the track:

As we continued the sun rose high enough to begin hitting the cascade mountains to the northeast of Baker, making for some spectacular views:

It was shaping up to be a bluebird day, though we were still in the shade since most of the slopes we were ascending were north facing and shadowed by Baker. We gained the saddle at 9000' at around 8:30am, and were dismayed to find that the wind was howling like crazy over the final ridge that we would be ascending. We could still see the team of two ahead of us on this section, they appeared to be moving pretty slowly. The last section was too steep to ascend using skins, and since we didn't want our skis on our packs acting as giant sails to catch the wind whipping off the ridge, we elected to leave our skis at the saddle and ascend the final 1800' to the summit using crampons. We headed up into the maelstrom, and after getting blasted by frozen ice pellets we finally made it to a more sheltered spot that allowed for a photo, here I am nearing the top of the steep section:

We continued up and over the final steep section, evidently passing something called the Roman Wall though I never quite clued into what feature that was. We emerged onto the crater (after all, this is a volcano) and a pungent sulphur smell that was evidently coming from an active vent. We then had to cross the crater to ascend the final short section to the summit proper, shown in the photo is John making his way across the crater as the party of two in front of us ascends to the summit:

We met the party of two in front of us on the summit, it turned out that the had started the night before at 10:30pm!?! Holy smokes! We reached the summit together at about 10:20, so at this point they had been on the go for just under 12 hours, while we had been going for just over 6 hours! They were really nice, and we exchanged summit photo duties, here ours:

At this point it was still really windy, you can see the snow being kicked up by the wind in the photo above. There were great views from the summit, with Rainier visible to the south, Bellingham and the water to the west, and Mount Shuksan and many other mountains visible to the west:

(Look at all those mountains! Maybe moving to the PNW from SLC wasn't such a big mistake after all!). After savoring the summit for a few moments longer we headed back down, anxious to get out of the wind. We made it to the saddle in short order, and donned our skis for some good turns on the rest of the way down. The snow was pretty fun to ski in, definitely not fluffy powder but soft enough to easily set an edge and make some good turns. Here is the savage demonstrating his flawless ski technique:

We continued on down along the trail that we had ascended in the dark, and made it back to the car by 1:30pm. We had parked at 3200' (the trailhead is at 3700'), and since the summit is at 10,800' we had completed the 7500' trip in about 9.5 hours, not too bad for a days work! Here are in front of the gearmobile, savoring a day well spent.

Markez had initially suggested that we go get a beer before heading our separate ways, but three factors led us to choose an alternate plan: 1. Had just three hours of sleep in the gearbox, 2. Just climbed 7500' up a mountain, 3. Still need to drive 2 hours back to Seattle. With this in mind, we decided to hit a bakery and drink some strong coffee instead, which we did while making plans for our next mountain adventures.

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