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Mt. Baker, Washington, USA

At 10,778 feet (3,285 m), Mt Baker is the fourth-highest mountain in Washington State and the sixth-highest in the Cascade Range. It is a heavily glaciated peak with lots of ice climbing opportunities year round on the north side of the mountain.

In July 2010, I climbed Mt. Baker as part of an ice climbing course offered by the American Alpine Institute. This fit well with a goal of improving my technical climbing skills which I had decided upon after returning from Aconcagua the year before.

A key piece of gear that I needed to get before this trip was an ice climbing tool. I tried a few different ones at the ice climbing tower in St. Boniface and narrowed it down to the three pictured here - the Black Diamond Viper, Black Diamond Cobra, and Petzl Charlet. In the end I purchased a pair of the Black Diamond Cobras - one with a hammer and one with an adze. For this trip I only used the one with the hammer along with my regular ice climbing axe but the pair will be useful for future climbing in St Boniface and waterfall ice climbing.

Saturday July 3rd, 2010

Our group met early Saturday morning at the American Alpine Institute office in Bellingham. The team consisted of:
     Guides:  Ben Traxler,  Alaina Robertson,  Scott Massey
     Climbers:  Michael Dyck,  Jonathan Fischer,  Cindy Howard,   Alan Carter,  Kelly Baumgartner,  James Whitcomb

Everyone had arrived by about 7am except Scott who was only going to join us for the summit climb and would be meeting us on the mountain on Wednesday. We spread our gear out on the grass next to the office for a final pass through the checklist. A few items like tents and cooking equipment were shared between team members and extra items were put into bags to leave in Bellingham.

Once fully packed, my blue Arcteryx (pictured blow right) weighed in at about 70 pounds including about 8 pounds of food and 6 pounds of water.

Gear checkPacks

After the gear check we got in the van and headed out towards Mt. Baker. It was about a 2 hour drive to the Heliotrope ridge trailhead. We stopped along the way at a gas station convenience store for some refreshments and then once more at the Glacier Public Service Center to get a permit for the climb.

Glacier Public Service Center

At around 11:30 we started the hike up the trail. The trail was a bit wet from recent rain and there were quite a few day hikers out on the trail. We passed a few climbers who were making their way back down the mountain and a few park workers along the trail who were doing work on a new wooden bridge being built across one of the streams. Other stream crossings along the way were easily passed by stepping over rocks and we moved along fairly quickly arriving at our first camp on the ridge at about 2pm.

My pack weighed in at about 65-70 pounds on the first day and my hips felt a bit sore while walking with the pack on but recovered almost immediately whenever I stopped and took the pack off. I've noticed this problem before and I think it's because the pack is not quite the right length for my body making it difficult to adjust properly in order to distribute the weight evenly between my hips and shoulders.

Camp 1

After arriving at the camp site, we spent about an hour setting up our tents and relaxing a bit before gathering round to do some review of climbing gear and knot making. After a short dinner break (I had a nice tuna steak with lemon sauce and rice) we reviewed some map and compass skills before calling it a day at around 8:30pm.

Sunday July 4th, 2010

I got up at about 8am with a sore back from sleeping on the hard surface. Even with both a thermarest and a ridgerest stacked one on top of the other I found the ground to hard for my back. Fortunately it started to feel better as soon as I got up and started moving around. Breakfast was my favourite for camping - instant oatmeal. It's easy to make, easy to clean up, filling, and tastes good.

At 9:30 we headed a little way up the snowfield to the south of the Heliotrope ridge to do some snow-school review. The fog was thinning a little and it got quite bright out so I had to jot back down to camp to get my sun-glasses and put on some extra sunscreen. When I tried squeezing the sunscreen bottle (actually a small hand sanitizer bottle that I had brought the sunscreen in) it split along one side and made a mess of sunscreen everywhere. Jon later gave me a bit of duct tape to fix this up a little, but despite my best efforts it still remained a messy nuisance for the rest of the trip. We spent the next three and a half hours practicing how to self arrest falls from various positions. I was a bit worried about the effect that this would have on my left shoulder which was still recovering from some bad tendonitis that I had in early June, but it seemed to hold up ok.

Around 1pm we walked back to the camp and had a quick lunch break. Then at about 2pm we headed down the north side of the ridge onto the lower Roosevelt glacier to practice some low angle ice walking and climbing skills. The main thing we concentrated on was placing our crampons flat on the ice surface which requires bending your ankles and knees in order to get as many points of the crampon as possible to engage in the ice.

Practicing crampon placement

We headed back up the ridge to our camp at about 5:30pm. Once we were back in camp we spent a bit of time practicing knot tying before stopping for a quick dinner around 7:30pm. I made a simple but tasty noodle dish with sausages. After dinner we hung a rope from a tree in order to practice climbing the rope with prussiks. There was so much stretch in the rope that you actually had to climb for a while before your weight came off the ground completely. A little after 9pm I'd had enough for one day and headed off to sleep.

Monday July 5th, 2010

I got up at about 5am and walked around camp for a while to stretch out my back which was getting quite sore again from sleeping on the hard ground. At about 5:30am I went back to the tent and managed to get about another hour and a half of sleep. At a little after 7am I had breakfast and then got ready to head out and do some climbing with the group.

Around 8am we headed back down the ridge onto the lower Roosevelt glacier to the foot of an ice fall area and practiced some ice climbing on the sides of some seracs. We tried climbing with several combinations of climbing tools and ice axes on a few different angles of ice ranging from about 70 degrees to slightly overhanging.

Ice climbing on lower Roosevelt glacier

We stopped for lunch around 1pm and after lunch began working on making anchors with ice screws. After doing some basic anchor construction with the ice screws we tried making some V-thread anchors in the ice. These are made by drilling an ice screw into the ice at a 45 degree angle and then repeating this so that the two screw holes intersect. A rope can then be threaded through the holes. Once we had finished practicing the various types of anchors we moved on to lead and follow climbing to get down the basic techniques of setting up the belay, climbing and cleaning the anchors as the last climber follows up the line.

Around 5pm we headed back up the ridge to camp and had a bit more practice tying knots and climbing with prussiks on a rope hanging from a tree. Dinner was around 7pm and I made a full box of Kraft dinner complete with cheese sauce made with skim milk powder and some butter that I had brought in a small tupperware container. We got to sleep around 9pm after what was starting to seem like a very long day.

Tuesday July 6th, 2010

I got up at around 5:30, had an early breakfast, and packed up early so that I could relax a bit before we headed out. The weather had cleared overnight and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. There was an area near the ridge at the north side of our campsite where the sun was starting to shine through the trees, and I found a good branch to hang my gloves on to finish drying them out from the previous day's climbing.

Climbing towards Hogsback

At around 8:30 we loaded up and hiked back down and across the mountain a little ways and then up a ridge towards a place called Hogsback. The sun was shining brightly by now and we had beautiful blue skies for our hike. Plenty of sunscreen and water was the order of the day. We arrived at Hogsback at about 10:30 and just as we took our packs off and started to settle down for a short break I realized that I had left my gloves on the tree at our previous camp. Arrgghhh! Lucky for me, Alaina was nice enough to volunteer go back for them while the rest of us got started on some more anchor building practice.

We worked on building snow anchors until about 12pm, stopped for a short lunch break, and then started to work on our crevasse rescue skills. Steve, the third guide, arrived at around 4pm shortly after we finished our crevasse rescue practice. We formed into three rope teams and headed on up the slopes to set up what would be our high camp in preparation for the summit climb. Our high camp was at an elevation of about 7200' on a flat area just over the first crest of the Coleman glacier above Hogsback.

Camp 2

We arrived at the site of our high camp at about 5:30pm and after surveying the area for crevasses, spent about an hour preparing a flat surface in the snow to set up our tents. After dinner we spent about another hour melting snow to make drinking water that we would use for the climb the next day. I packed up my gear so that it would be ready to go for the climb which we planned to start around 3:30am the next morning. There was a beautiful sunset starting to the north-west with the light reflecting off the waves of the Pacific Ocean. It was around 9pm when I finally settled into my tent to get a few hours of sleep.

Wednesday July 7th, 2010

I'm not sure if my alarm woke me or if I awoke on my own, but it was just a few minutes after 2:30am when I got up. We had breakfast first thing and made a point to have an extra dose of hot drinks. The snow around camp which had been melting during the day was now frozen and very slippery. It was almost exactly 3:30am when the group loaded up and headed out across the Coleman glacier towards the North Ridge. From our camp, we would be traversing across the Coleman Glacier and then up the North Ridge to the summit.

North ridge route

I kept my headlamp on for about an hour but there was almost enough light to go without it given the sky being clear and a little moonlight reflecting off the ice. There were only two significant crevasses that blocked our path to the base of the slopes leading up to the North Ridge and we were lucky enough to have two conveniently placed if somewhat precarious snow bridges to cross them. Another couple days of sunny weather and I'm sure those bridges would have been gone. We got to the steep slopes below the North Ridge at about 5am just as it was beginning to get light out.

Approaching the north ridge

Having crossed the Coleman glacier, we spent the next hour slogging through foot deep snow up a 40 degree slope towards the base of the ice cliffs. We had started out in three teams of three. Ben, Jon and I formed the first rope team, Alaina, Alan and Kelly formed the second rope team, and Scott, Alan, and Cindy formed the third rope team, but a little more than half way up this deep snow slope we let Alaina and her team take over the lead trail breaking duties. When the ground began to flatten out we took a break at a point that also had some convenient rocks nearby to facilitate bathroom breaks for those who needed.

Resting below the ice cliffs

From here it was a relatively short climb up to the base of the ice cliff where we set up to begin pitching out the climb up the ridge. There was about a 15' section of 70-80 degree ice here which was the crux of the route. Steve's group took over the lead at this point and was the first team to head up onto the ridge. Our team went last, and being the last climber on our team I ended up waiting almost an hour before finally setting off up the ridge at about 7:15am.

Preparing for the first pitch up the ridge

I found it interesting that the ice on the north shady side of the ridge was hard like concrete, but the ice on the east side facing the morning sun was a bit softer and quite brittle. Because of this, I decided to take my ice tool in my right hand to use on the hard ice, and my general mountaineering axe in my left hand to use on the softer ice where it actually seemed to fare better than the ice tool. Once we got over the initial steep crest of ice there was one pitch of 60-70 degree ice which we climbed mostly in a high dagger position.

The second pitch was 50-60 degree ice which we climbed mostly in a low dagger position. We secured these lower pitches with ice screws and I found this part of the climb to be quite a workout for my calve muscles which seemed to be doing a lot of the work. Although it wasn't what I would call front pointing, your heels still remain off the ground for most of the time and that puts a lot of weight on your calves.

Starting the second pitch
Jon belays Ben
3rd pitch, 4th pitch, repeat until exhausted.

There were about 4 more pitches of climbing during which the ice gradually eased off to about 25 degrees and became more and more like hard packed snow. We eventually shifted from the low dagger climbing position to upright walking as we made our way up these pitches and rather than using ice screws we simply secured the pitches with a picket anchor at each end.

Upper pitches leading to the bergschrund

Once we got to the bergschrund it was a simple traverse around to the summit dome. We arrived at about 11:30am and spent the next half an hour enjoying the beautiful weather on the summit. We could see Mt. Shuksan to the east, Rainier to the south, the Olympic mountains to the west and the Coast Mountain of B.C to the north.

On the summit with Kelly and James

Around 12pm we shortened up our ropes for the descent and then headed back to camp on the Coleman - Upper Deming route. We were moving quite quickly as I don't think anyone wanted to stay out in the sun any longer than we had to. It took about 2 1/2 hours to get back down to our high camp and so we arrived back at about 2:30pm. After taking a few hours to relax, we broke camp and headed down the slope to Hogsback where we wouldn't have to melt snow for water. We also figured that it would be easier to get down the snow now while it was soft from the afternoon sun rather than doing it in the morning when it had refrozen.

I spent a bit of time exploring the moraine where a creek was forming by the glacier runoff and found a very large marmot who I imagine was quite successful at feeding off scraps left by climbers. He didn't seem at all afraid of me standing only about 10 feet away.

Thursday July 8th, 2010

The next morning we got up early, had breakfast and packed up our camp. Around 8:30am we went back onto the snow slopes around Hogsback and did some more crevasse rescue work. We practiced a two man crevasse rescue and learned how to convert the 3x pulley system to a 6x system. Then we tried a simple and quick 2x hauling system that could be used when two rope teams are at the site of a crevasse rescue.

Around noon we took a short break for lunch and then headed back down the mountain. It took about 2 hours to make our way back to the trail head. Because of the warm weather the water in the streams had risen quite a bit with runoff and the stream crossings were a bit trickier than they had been a week earlier. Once back at the road, we packed up the van and headed back to Bellingham - the end of another great mountain adventure!