Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Climbing Mt. Baker

An old friend from graduate school days at Berkeley, Roger, came to visit and prompted me into trying something I never thought I would try: climbing a heavily glaciated peak. Since neither of us had experience we booked a trip to climb Mt. Baker with Alpine Ascents. Although using a guide service is expensive, I would highly recommend Alpine Ascents and am very happy with our choice. We had a gear check on Thursday and met the other climbers who would be joining us. Apparently a couple of people canceled and we ended up with 3 guides for only 5 clients. Friday morning we all met at the Schreiber Meadow Trailhead on the south side of Mt. Baker and began a 4 mile, 4 hour hike up 2500 feet to base camp at 5800 feet. It was a relief to get the heavy packs off and set up camp since we wouldn't have to carry much in the pack the rest of the way to the top. After setting up camp, we had a short snow school to learn how to walk on the snow with crampons and how to use the ice axe.

Railroad grade trail on the ridge leading to Easton Glacier.

Our route started on the left side of the glacier, just right of the rocky ridge.
Summit day started with a 3:30 am wake up call and we were roped up and walking on the glacier by 5:15 am. We had two groups of four people on two separate ropes. Each person was spaced about 30 feet apart from the person on the rope in front of them since the largest crevasses in this area might extend to 30 feet. We were hiking up at a very deliberate pace, each climber trying to step into the footprints left by the preceding climber. About every hour we took a 5-10 minute break sitting on our packs, taking in the views, and refueling. At first we climbed about 1,000 feet an hour but later in the day our progress slowed, I think primarily because route finding became more difficult and we began to zigzag a lot to avoid crevasses. Around 9,000 feet we approached the lip of the crater but there much too much of a gap between the snow and the dirt rim to climb up and look directly down into the crater. We had been smelling and seeing gas rise from the crater all morning and I had been looking forward to peering into the crater.

View of the San Juan islands

Our route from base camp to the top

After traversing left from the rim of the crater, we began one of the steepest sections of the day, known as the Roman Wall. The guides were taking more time to find a route through this section as the number of crevasses kept increasing. I had been concerned prior to the trip that we would have to jump over crevasses but up to this point although we had stepped across several gaps in the ice there had not been anything that caused me any particular anxiety. I have to admit, though, that after staring deep into several crevasses, I tended to keep my gaze fixed more on the footprints in front of me and not think too much about the depth of the crevasses. As we neared the plateau on top of Mt. Baker, we came to a final crevasse which required a fairly large step to get across with the far side being significantly higher than the near side. The first 5 climbers went over this fairly easily, but the climber in front of me struggled a bit as several chunks of snow fell into the crevasse as he tried to cross. He made it over and I stepped up to cross. As I raised one foot to step across, my other leg plunged through the snow and I fell to my waist with one leg dangling in the crevasse. For some reason I wasn't really scared. Probably because it happened so fast and at that point I was still lying mostly on top of the snow. But I was lying with my face looking down into the cavernous open space below me. The guide had the climber in front of me and in back of me lie down in the snow with their feet dug in and their ice axes in the self arrest position while he came back to coach me. I was able to pull my leg up and back onto the surface of the snow. I was a bit nervous to stand up but did so downhill of where I had fallen through. The snow the previous climbers had used to step from in crossing the crevasse now contained two holes. The guide suggested that I step between the two holes and cross. This wasn't what I really wanted to do. But lying on the couch wasn't really an option at that point so cross I did.

Gas escaping from the crater

Looking down from the summit plateau
At the top of the Roman Wall the slope eases considerably and we walked across a relatively flat snow covered plateau over to a small dirt peak which is the true summit at 10,781 feet. Another group of climbers arrived at the peak about the same time we did but they had climbed the Coleman-Deming route starting from the Northwest side of the mountain. The views from the top were stunning, although forest fires burning for the last week or two had resulted in very hazy conditions despite blue skies. We left the summit about 1pm and I was a bit non-plussed to learn that we would attempt to go down and cross the problematic crevasse at the same point where I had fallen through on the way up. But fortunately everyone made it across without incident on the way down. The trip down was much easier and faster not surprisingly and what took us 8 hours to climb up only took 3 hours to go down. The next morning we woke and broke camp to arrive back at our cars around 10:30am.

Happy to be at the top!
View of Mt. Shuksun from the Baker summit
Baker lake from the summit

Looking down into the crater
Hiking out on the railroad grade trail in the morning clouds (photo by Pete Lardy)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mt Adams Circumnavigation

Continuing my practice of running around volcanoes (see Mt. St. Helens here and the first half of Rainier here), last weekend we decided to attempt the circumnavigation of Mt. Adams. Although only 35 miles with about 7K of climbing, this route sounded potentially more difficult due to the lack of trail for a 5 mile section on the eastern side of the mountain. In the end, navigating through the off trail section (although slow) proved to be less challenging than the PCT section on the western side due to the heavy snow cover on the western side. If you are game for the challenge of the off trail section, I can't recommend this route enough. The scenery is amazing, with endless mountain/glacier views, green meadows, wildflowers, buffed out runnable single track, plentiful water, and it's readily doable in a day.

GPS recording of our route
Rich, Justin and I made the four hour drive to Cold Springs campground Friday night and camped at the trailhead. We started just before 6 am on a beautiful morning with a forecast for sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s. Since I was unable to find any blog posts or descriptions on the route I will provide some detail on this although if you are interested in the route I highly recommend the book Trekking in Washington, by Mike Woodmansee. You can read more about Woodmansee's route in this Seattle Times article. We began by ascending the South Climb trail for a little over a mile and then turned right onto the Round the Mountain Trail. We followed this for 2.3 miles at which point we entered the Yakama Indian Reservation and continued on the Round the Mountain trail for another 1.1 miles before turning left on the Flower trail. This trail leads up to the Viewpoint at 6500 feet at which point the trail ends.

View of the south east face of Adams from the end of the trail.
From the end of trail Viewpoint looking into Hellroaring Meadow

The ridge we came down into Hellroaring Meadow
I am not going to provide the detailed directions for navigation of the off trail section since the route was developed by Mike Woodmansee. But if anyone wants guidance while attempting the route,  I am happy to provide the GPS file. Just leave a message in the comments. The directions provided in the book, combined with careful attention to the elevation (barometer measurement from the Ambit as well as GPS measurement by Garmin) worked perfectly for us and we never had any significant issues with navigation. There is a dotted line route marked on the Green Trails map that I carried, but this route is very different (goes much higher on the mountain) than the route described in the book and I would advise against trying to follow the route marked on the map. It was fairly slow going without a trail and we averaged 50 minutes per mile through the off trail section.

Upper basin of Hellroaring Meadow
Hellroaring Meadow from the climb up to Ridge of Wonders

We descended into Hellroaring Meadow and then climbed up onto the Ridge of Wonders which led to a very steep rocky scree filled descent into the next basin. Fortunately Justin and Rich were braver than I was and led the way down this descent. I am embarrassed to admit that I basically did a crab walk/butt slide down most of this. One day I will learn how to ski on my feet down scree, but it does not come naturally. The next navigation challenge is crossing the Big Muddy Creek which is really mis-named. This is the glacial runoff from the Klickitat Glacier and it comes roaring down the basin. It took a while but we eventually found a place to jump across at around 6000 feet elevation although I have to say it was a much longer jump than I wanted to do and I was tempted to attempt wading across although this is certainly not recommended. Later in the day we ran into some backpackers who had crossed much higher on snow above the water.

Eastern side of Adams from Ridge of Wonders
Finding a place to cross Big Muddy

From there we had only to cross Avalanche Valley with 4 more streams before rejoining the trail at the camp/springs at 6700 feet just west of Goat Butte. From the camp the trail ascends to the highest point of the circumnavigation at Devil's Garden, 7700 feet. At this point we exited the reservation and started the most enjoyable running section of the day as we descended almost 2000 feet on soft trail with stunning views of Mt Adams on the left and Mt Rainier to the right. Another 2 miles and we joined the Pacific Crest Trail which we would stay on for most of the western side of the mountain.

Green meadow with spring just west of Goat Butte at 6700 feet
Enjoying some sweet single track after regaining the trail
Rich leading the way
Mt Rainier from the north side of Adams

The PCT should have been one of the most enjoyable sections of the day since when we could see the trail it was smooth and very runnable without a lot of elevation change. I haven't been unable to understand how the trail can circumnavigate the west side of the volcano without frequent elevation changes down into gullies/canyons carved by glacial runoff but for some reason the western side is relatively flat. Unfortunately for us, however, the smooth running did not last very long because most of the PCT was still buried in deep snow. In addition to slippery footing and not running very much, this became a real navigation challenge since the snow covered sections lasted much farther than you could see and unless there were footprints going the correct direction we had no idea where to go. If Rich had not had a handheld GPS with map/trail loaded onto it, I'm not sure we would have made it through all the snow.

Northwest view of Adams from the PCT

Snow covered PCT lasted for miles along the western side

I was pretty much mentally defeated by all the snow and frustrated by not being able to run. But eventually we made it past the PCT section and once we turned onto the Round the Mountain Trail along the south side of the mountain the trail was relatively snow free and it was nice to finish off the day with 6 or 7 runnable miles. We were happy to finish without the need to use headlamps for a total time of about 14.5 hours. Even though the direct glacial runoff is too silty to purify with the steripen we were using, water sources were plentiful and I never had any issues carrying only two 16 oz water bottles.
Rich and Justing at the finish line around 8:30pm