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)

1 comment:

  1. That last pic might be my favorite! You're filling up the ledger sheet with adventures!