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Mt. Baker
posted by John : July 23-24, 2011


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Hello, Baker


Four down, one to go.

I picked Scott up at the ungodly hour of 5:30am. By 6:30 we had picked up Tom and crammed the car full of gear. By 9:30 were were stepping onto the trail on the north side of Mt. Baker.

In this year's eight month long winter, Baker had hardly been seen at all. Even when it had made an appearance it was just an apparition floating on the horizon far to the north to be seen from another peak or, if the day was really clear, from the bus crossing the I-90 bridge. As we drove up to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead there were a couple of peakaboo views of snow, but the trees hid most everything. Plus, me squinting through the trees would be hazardous to our health.

The trail was a frustrating mix of steep and flat with a couple of creek crossings and at least one little blow down for fun. At least it wasn't hot. Or buggy. In fact, it was pretty pleasant. Except for the 50 pounds on my back. Or the mountaineering boots on my feet. Just like last year on Mt. Rainier they would prove to be troublesome. Nonetheless, we made good time to the snow.

Ah, snow. Friend or foe? Too low and you go slow. Too high and the trail is longer and the snow bridges get thin.

Today, the snow was welcoming. A climb up a last steep slope and finally, Baker revealed himself. From Seattle, Baker looks like a flat topped pyramid, but from this vantage point it appeared a diminutive Rainier.

As we prepared to step onto the Coleman glacier (yes, with crampons and ropes and all that) a helicopter dropped off a present for the rangers. Mountain toilets ready for delivery to the various camps. They didn't look too comfortable, but it beat a blue bag in the snow...

With few clouds in the sky the sun beat down. Under my helmet sweat dripped off my nose as Tom led us up to camp. Tom's been on Baker many times before, but he still couldn't answer our many questions. Well, my many questions. "Lincoln, Grant, Sherman... are all the features named for Civil War era people?" and "Who was Deming?" or even "What's the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" At camp we saw a spot we liked and stalked it. Thankfully, they were leaving (or hanging around would have been awkward) and we got the best spot around.

It was only 1:30 and we had little to do but wait for it to get dark. And melt snow. Lots of snow. It seemed to be a never ending battle for hydration. The biggest problem was that to make the snow safe to drink we needed to boil it, but then it was too hot to drink. We could put snow in it, but that kind of defeats the purpose. Instead we filled thin-walled containers (bladders, thin plastic bottles) and buried them in the snow. When it was cooled we'd move them into Nalgenes (that tend to hold the heat more) and start again. Along the way we made water for dinner and generally lounged around getting sunburned. Or at least I did. I clearly need a better plan than applying sunscreen because that's not cutting it.

We did run into a complication while melting snow: worms. Tiny little nasty snow worms emerged in the later afternoon. Everywhere. Where'd they come from? Must have been in the snow. Had we been drinking them down in worm tea all this time? Ew. Nasty.

On a lighter note (than worm eating?) we came up with a couple of great concepts for kids' cartoons. One was called Awesome Possum. Why was he so awesome? Uh... we didn't get that far. But seriously cool name, huh?

The other was The Adventures of Jasper and Old Tom. It was mostly Tom driving around with his blinker on yelling at kids. An aged Jasper sits in the passenger seat and barks half heartedly trying to scare kids straight.

Gold. Pure comic gold. (And no, there was no drinking going on.)

When it finally got dark, about 9pm, the brilliant sunset that we had hoped for was obscured by a bank of clouds sitting directly between us and the sun. Nowhere else, mind you. Just there. Bah! One last photo and I crawled into the tent for a few hours of sleep. I dreamt of... nothing. It wasn't long enough to get into dreams. Alarms went off at 1am and we were quickly gearing up, melting more snow (always), and an hour later with Tom at the head of the rope we were off again.

Unlike on Rainier, there was no massive flood of climbers heading up with us. We thought we could see lights far ahead and we knew the group below us was waking around 2am, but as we climbed we were alone in the dark. On a 30-meter rope we were too far apart to talk more than shouting a few commands to each other.

Wait!

Ready!

Climbing!

Wait!

We're going to start climbing now!

This last was from Tom.

From camp, it looked like it was a little up, a little down, a little flat, and then up. But we hadn't gotten to the up yet. It seemed to be taking forever to get to the actual ascent. That meant it would be even longer until we got to the saddle where we'd start the really steep section. Except we were almost at the saddle. Go figure. It had looked a lot steeper from camp than it really was.

There were two tents at the saddle and although they had a much shorter approach to the summit they had lugged their overnight gear up an extra 2,000 feet. Suckers. (Of course, the people that camped at the base of the glacier probably thought the same of us.) A few rocks were exposed on "Pumice Ridge," but otherwise conditions were great. The snow was firm and traction was good. This was important, because next came the "Roman Wall."

Tom said it was named after the first ascent team, the Romans. From Rome. Led by Caesar himself. It seemed a little incredulous, but one acquires wisdom with age so he must be really wise by now. Who are we to doubt him?

Regardless, it was the steepest part of the trip. Although there were tracks up, they were muddled by people coming down them. Tom had to weave back and forth looking for solid steps or kick his own. All the while I'd call for photo stops. The sun was just about on us so the shadow of the mountain was cast to the west. The few wispy clouds above us were lit in pinks and orange.

When we crested we could finally see the true summit ahead. Between us and it was a simple walk across the "Football Field" that we could have done unroped, but then we'd have to carry the rope. Actually, it was Tom's rope so maybe that's why we stayed roped up. He's crafty as well as wise. The true summit was an easy few feet above us and we were officially half way done with the trip. The wind was nowhere near as bad as on Rainier and it wasn't that cold so we had the chance to futz around a bit. When others showed up we descended to a spot on the Field where we sat down. I know! Sitting while hiking? It's blasphemy! (But it felt so good.)

When the hordes arrived it was time for us to go. We'd been on the summit for about an hour and we'd seen all there was to be seen. The Roman Wall was a joy to descend. Teams were still making their way up as we descended (including one guy with the sound of crowds cheering coming from his backpack) so Scott led us away from them and down. Always down. If only it wasn't certain death we would have glissaded and been down before we knew what happened. Stupid death.

Back at the saddle we glanced briefly at Colfax Peak above us. Tom had suggested we tag a couple other summits while were here anyway, but both Scott and I were ready to bail so I guess Tom will have to wait until he's ready for yet another trip up.

The snow was starting to soften and the rising sun (even at just 8:30) was toasty. Layers came off for those of us with the foresight to wear something under them and vents were opened for the others. It was late enough that even the lazy skiers were now showing up at the saddle. It was definitely time to leave.

Apparently, it was also time for my camera to give it up. On the descent near Pumice Ridge it had shown me a couple of messages about "lens errors." I thought nothing of it. But after a last shot of some ice fall it started showing only black. The shutter was toast and wouldn't open. Pleading with it was a waste of time and threatening it with a fate like my little Nalgene had no effect. (What happened to the BPA-laden half liter? I dropped it and watched it slowly skitter away and fall into a crevasse. In 50 years or so you might find its pulverized remains in the creek at the toe of the Coleman glacier. ) So after that there were no more pictures. At least not taken by me.

At camp we had a few moments to relax and eat. I had a mini Coke bottle and chips that came close to inciting Tom's rage. My guess is he'll have something similar next time around. A ranger heading to the saddle had said it was going to pour rain that night and although it didn't look like it possibly could we packed up for the hike out. Although I desperately wanted to shed a few layers, I kept them on to prevent a worse sunburn. That meant long pants and sleeves, gloves, and my hat. Needless to say, those items weren't so fresh later.

We avoided glissades down the glacier, but once we were off we took advantage of the one we could. My feet were pretty beaten up by this point so I was thrilled to not have to downclimb the steep snow. We saw other climbers on their way up and as we got lower started seeing dayhikers who seemed woefully unprepared given our heavy loads. After two miles (or so) of dry trail we were back at the parking lot, quickly shedding packs and clothing in favor of slightly less stinky garb.

Over the two days we accumulated just over 11 miles and 7,500 feet of gain as near as I can tell. The weather was astounding, especially given how lousy Summer's been so far, and I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten this trip in. Next up: Glacier Peak in 2012.

Scott's pics

Tom's pics

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