Mount Baker, North Ridge
July 3, 2001
“I’m in Jens, I’m going.”
“Great, I’ll see you at 10:30 then.”
I debated long and hard about this one. On the up side, the route has been on my list for a long time and the weather forecast was perfect. On the down side, I would be missing a “work” day. Even though I work for myself now, I still feel somewhat guilty taking a day off at short notice. But the weather was just spectacular and in the end, that is why I went.
Jens and his wife came over for dinner. We had do-it-yourself pizzas on the grill followed by s’mores over the deck fireplace. Jens and I stuffed our faces until we couldn’t eat another bite. They left at 8:30 PM.
“I’ll see you in a couple hours, Loren.”
I was still holding out hope that I would be able to sneak a little sleep in, but it wasn’t to be. After helping to get the kids to bed and finishing up my packing, it was 10:15. Jens and his brother-in-law Josh showed up ten minutes later. We threw the gear in my car, I said goodbye to my family, and we were off at 10:45.
The drive was mostly uneventful. My latest pre-climb CD megamix bombed- after the first song it was all static. A carefully timed Red Bull (I have “Sherpa” Jeff to thank for that habit) had me revved up by the time we hit the tiny town of Glacier, and I blew right past the turn off. But that error was quickly corrected and we arrived at the Glacier Creek trailhead at 2:30 AM.
Just a handful of cars dotted the lot, though a crew of five or so was up and heat a large (three gallon?) pot of water over a tiny cartridge stove while they packed what looked to be overnight packs. I should have asked what they were up to, but I didn’t. So I’m destined to always wonder about the rationale behind their activities.
We departed at 2:45 AM, just after I made a deposit at the nearby facility. I’m not sure if it was the good dinner, the Red Bull, or that I didn’t sleep at all, but I felt much better from the get-go on this trip. I had little of the muddle-headedness that plagued me on the Ice Cliff glacier car-to-car odyssey. The trail was not as dry as I expected, but we still made decent time in the dark with our light packs. The creek crossing below the waterfall was more challenging than usual, but we all kept our feet dry. I couldn’t help but wonder what Josh was thinking. This was only his second attempt on a volcano and he was attempting a challenging route in single push.
At about 4:00, while we were trudging up the loose moraine, my headlamp grew dim and then went dark. I’d consciously replaced the batteries when I packed with what I thought was a new set. I was wrong. I continued up the moraine, sandwiched tightly between Jens and Josh, horking (this became a popular word during the day for some reason) their light. At the top of the moraine (or near anyway, it isn’t exactly a distinct top as will be illustrated far below) we stopped to change into glacier mode. It was 4:15 AM and the sky was already
growing lighter to the east. We spent thirty minutes there, changing clothes, shoes, donning harnesses and a rope, and hydrating. We each carried only a single quart of water for the rest of the
route. We cached our water filter, approach shoes, a single pole each, and our superfluous clothes there. At 4:45 AM we left our little pile of gear at 5200’ and started traversing the lower Coleman towards the North Ridge.
Uber Jens hamming it up in the darkness on the moraine.
There was a decent boot track and we were thankful, because two feet of snow had fallen just a week or so earlier and it was neither consolidated nor frozen. Above we could see some activity and a tent. Headlamps bobbed about, though they hadn’t made much, if any progress since we started watching them at our moraine stop. It was hard to tell if they were still at the tent, or heading up the glacier. The headlamps disappeared while I wasn’t looking and, other than the tent, we never saw any sign of them all day. In the end we surmised that they didn’t like the soft snow and simply went back to bed to try again the next day.
Josh and Jens silhouetted by the dawn sky.
We passed close by their tent and continued up a rise, still following tracks. By then there was enough ambient light to dispense with the headlamps, but not enough, apparently, for my new digital camera: The pictures I took without the flash look like they were taken in the middle of the night. Oh-well, I am still getting the hang of it.
At the top of the rise we could see what lay ahead: Crossing the Coleman glacier is frequently the crux of the route. Despite the low snowfall this year, the glacier looked reasonable, and a boot track on the far side of the problem area lent encouragement. Jens led down and into the crevasse field.
The trail split and then grew faint as the snow firmed up, so we ended up improvising. Jens picked out a fairly direct, if not
easy line. As it turned out it was good for Josh to get some technical experience before we had to tackle the ice cliff of the
North Ridge, which was lit in pink by the sunrise far above. We did have some monkey-business to contend with, but we avoided any big jumps and soon cleared the worst of the crevasses. Looking back from below the Roman Nose, it would have been less technical, but less direct to go just a bit higher.
We took a short break for me to snap some pictures and pee for about the fifth time since leaving the moraine. There was little doubt that I was well hydrated. It looked like the ridge was getting close. Closer yes, close, no.
The broken Coleman glacier with our entry point in blue, and the
easier, but longer route pointed out in red.
We continued on, following what looked to be tracks from earlier that morning. I couldn’t help but stare up at the Coleman Glacier Headwall and think back about that climb last year. It looked to be in better (easier, anyway) shape than when we were on it at the end of July, 2000. Our route to the North Ridge was less broken up now, but also less direct. It wound around many of the surprisingly large crevasses that dot the Coleman and Roosevelt glaciers. Though similar in height to Glacier Peak, Mt. Baker is more similar in look and technical challenge to Mt. Rainier.
The North Face of Mt. Baker. The upper Roman Nose on the right
skyline and the Coleman Glacier Headwall to its left. The left skyline is the
North Ridge. Below the sunlit toe of the ice cliff is the wide snow-slope we
climbed to access the ridge.
The morning got interesting all of a sudden when the lip of a crevasse collapsed as Josh was preparing to step across. It was not especially wide, but it was exceptionally deep, fading into inky blackness. Josh somehow ended up with his feet on my side and the upper part of his torso on Jens’ side, kind of wedging him in. His butt was hanging in the breeze. I put tension on the rope as he made an attempt to extricate himself, but he was too far out of balance and he ended up dropping the pole he had been using in his downhill hand into the void and getting more scrunched into the slot. I threw in a quick axe belay and put tension on the rope. Jens tied in short and jumped to my side. Then, with me pulling on the rope and Jens giving him a hand, Josh managed to right himself. Much to his credit, Josh stayed calm and collected throughout two minute ordeal, which I am sure felt more like an hour to him. We took a short break to regroup and then headed out again.
By this time I was getting a little discouraged. That damn ridge just didn’t seem to be getting any closer and the day was going by quickly. We could plainly see the “shortcut” to the base of the ice cliff, a broad, steep snowslope too wide to be called a couloir. But our plan was to climb the ridge proper; we felt it would be an easier go for Josh on his second volcano. But as we rounded yet another rise, two climbers came into view ahead of us and they were headed for the shortcut. About the same time we hit the worst snow of the entire ascent: A sometimes-breakable crust with two feet of unconsolidated powder underneath. At the decision point we conveniently came to a palatial tent platform, so we stopped for a break. After a brief discussion we agreed that following the track on a shorter, if steeper route was preferable to breaking trail in the rude snow on a longer, if less technical route.
The approach slope to the North Ridge. Two climbers are nearing
the crevasse that guards it.
After hydrating and choking down some bars we headed up, following the tracks as best we could. Above we could see the other team, making slow progress in the challenging conditions. Even trying to follow their line to the crevasse marking the beginning of the slope was challenging. I think I was heavier than one and lighter than the other, so where their tracks diverged I had to try to guess, and guessing wrong resulting in a lot of huffing and puffing.
Eventually we made it to the crevasse. The other team looked to be about half way up the slope. I crossed on a wedged block and then a short vertical step. As Josh neared I set my axe and gave him a belay. Jens cleared easily and we started up what I called the “stairmaster”.
Josh preparing to cross the crevasse at the base of the approach
Jens' picture taken at the same time looking up slope.
“Ten minutes on the stairmaster, Josh, and we’ll take a break before we tackle the cliff.”
I should have learned long ago not to make time estimates like that. My ten minutes turned out to be more like 25, as the slope eased back from 45 degrees, but never really flattened. On the ridge proper, there isn’t what I would call a “safe” place to stop. The ridge is broad and continuously sloped and all of it is in the firing line of the ice cliff or accompanying rock bands above. But I needed and break and so did Josh before we went at the crux of the route. So we hacked out a couple platforms and I tied us in short to my axe. Fifty yards to the east I could see the other team taking a break, too. Now that we’d caught them, and just below the crux, we started worrying about having to wait behind them to climb the cliff. I’d read a TR on
site about severe dinner-plating high on the route and I was not interested in getting pummeled by falling ice for hours on end. But as we looked at the cliff Jens and I picked out several lines that we thought we could climb, so when the other team got up and headed out, I sat there and let myself relax.
Josh and Jens on the North Ridge just before our break.
While we took a good, long rest, the other team traversed out toward the toe of the cliff. They’d decided to climb the easier (AI2), but longer line at the end of the cliff. We opted to climb to the top of a rock band directly above us where we thought we could see a low-angle ramp cutting up to the top of the cliff.
The ice cliff. The red arrow marks our belay. The upper belay was
set at the small fin just above in the sun. Though it wasn't more than AI2+, it
was more difficult than it looks in this photo.
Me (leading) and Josh at our belay at the base of the ice cliff.
Interesting optical effect courtesy of Costco photo lab.
As rested as we were going to get without sleeping, we packed and started up toward the cliff. I tried to stay out of the fall line, but there is really no avoiding it. We passed the rocks on the right, then went up a short chute right in the firing line. Here there was simply no place to run and no time to get there. Any calving if the cliff above us was going to be very unpleasant. I cut left into the rocks as soon as I could and in short order I was belaying Josh up the final thirty feet to the base of the cliff.
‘Jens, I really want to have this lead.”
“Okay, I got the lead on the Ice Cliff glacier, after all.”
So it was settled. Jens improved the belay while I racked up. We took off our Kiwi coils and carefully flaked out the rope to keep it from sliding down into the rocks below and potentially getting stuck. Finally I was ready to go.
“Strap on the nitro, Loren.”
“Right, here I go.”
I’d been looking at a short pitch of AI3, but as I made a short traverse to get there a beautiful little hidden ramp appeared.
“Jens, we’re golden. This goes at AI2+”
I rambled up the moderate terrain thoroughly enjoying the spectacular position and the excitement of being on the sharp end of an ice lead. Up the ramp to the right, then a short traverse back left and over a short vertical step and I was in the sunshine atop the cliff. I was past the difficulty before I felt the need to place any pro. I ambled up another twenty feet and placed a screw in a wild fin of ice.
“Off belay Jens!!”
He responded, but it was unintelligible. I quickly placed another bomber screw, then a picket for show. I equalized the three and pulled up the slack in the rope and ran it through my belay device. In this case I opted not to use the anchor as a directional to reduce the force on it in the event that Josh peeled off the cliff.
“On belay, climb when ready!”
The rope came up, then stopped. The came up again. When Josh’s head poked up into view he was smiling from ear to ear and breathing hard. I took out the camera and snapped a couple pictures.
“Josh, this is quite an achievement for a first volcano (he’d stayed in Schurman with his wife on a Rainier attempt in 2000), a challenging route, car to car.”
“Wow, that was cool.”
Josh pulling over the top of the ice cliff.
He came up and I tied him in short to the belay, then put Jens on. He came up the pitch as fast as I could yard in rope and then led on past. I looked at my watch: 10:30 AM. We had ninety minutes to make our Noon goal.
Jens pulling over the top of the ice cliff.
Josh and I at the belay above the ice cliff.
Luckily the crust on the snow was firm enough to support even me, so we made good progress. Initially the slope was about 40 degrees, but after a couple hundred yards it laid back. We stopped for one more short break just below the seracs that mark the summit plateau. I passed around my Kendall Mint Cake, we gulped a bit of water, then started up, with Jens in the lead.
Last break before the summit, at about 10,000 feet. Mt. Shuksan
in the background.
He followed in an old set of steps in side-step French technique while Josh took a slightly different line employing “duck-foot” French technique. Jens followed tracks up through the seracs, then broke off, opting for a slightly more technical route that saved us twenty minutes or
so. Once across the small jumble and up a ramp we broke onto the summit plateau.
Jens leading thought the summit seracs with Josh behind.
Josh on the final ramp before the summit plateau.
The little knob that marks the true summit was visible a quarter mile southeast of us. We strolled across the ice cap and up the last little hill to the top. After climbing in windless conditions all day, the moderate wind on the summit felt strong. We dropped our packs and added some layers. I took some pictures and a short video with the camera, then settled in for a nice rest. It was 11:50 AM. We made our goal with ten minutes to spare.
Jens leading up the last few feet to the summit. 11:50 AM.
A solo tele skier showed up, but didn’t dally. “It’s too cold up here for me.”
He was in shorts and a t-shirt.
At 12:30, after eating and drinking more we saddled back up and headed across the broad summit plateau toward the Roman Wall and the Coleman-Deming route. Now I was wishing I’d carried my skis over. I really be wishing that soon.
After removing our crampons, we managed to make a couple glissades that carried us to the col at 9000’. The day was just spectacular: Azure-blue skies, golden sunshine, and all that beautiful white snow. Colfax peak with its distinctive overhanging ice cliff and the surrounding Black Buttes completed the picture. Descending down an easy route after successfully climbing a moderate or hard route is such a joy.
Josh and Jens traversing toward the Roman Wall with Colfax Peak
in the background.
But below the col things started to change. The recent heavy snow had yet to consolidate and the afternoon sun baked the upper Coleman into a giant, bottomless bowl of mashed potatoes. Just walking down the chaotic climber’s track was tedious and difficult. We eventually fell into silence as we tried to maintain our balance while moving as quickly as possible. Only my occasional apologies as I stepped on the (my) rope and caught Josh short punctuated the silence.
At the Black Buttes we passed a group of five packing up their camp. Jens exchange brief pleasantries with them as we continued our march. As we neared the top of the slope above the moraine, my mood improved, in anticipation of the fun ahead. Despite the heavy, wet snow we managed to glissade the entire slope back to the moraine. Or at least to a rock island in the snow. A rock island that looked like a bunch of its neighbors. Hmmm, now which one had our little gear cache, including the precious water filter? It was 2:30 and I’d been running for ten hours on one quart of water. After a couple minutes of futzing around, we coiled the rope and hunted separately. Jens and I spotted our pile at the same time, and ten minutes later we were greedily chugging down fresh, cold water.
Resting and hydrating back at the moraine. What a spectacular
Jens and Josh opted to change into their shoes, but with my miserable ankle joints, I went ahead in my boots. I dropped into the creek basin and got one more long glissade before boulder hopping for ten minutes to the trail. I looked up and could see Jens and Josh coming down the moraine. I changed into my shoes and had a few minutes to spare before they met me.
We continued down the thankfully short trail to the car. We were much less careful at the waterfall creek crossing, opting for speed over wet feet. At 4:25 PM we arrived at the parking lot and dove into the cold beer in the cooler. Beer never tastes better to me that after a climb, even in the winter.
The drive home was uneventful. We stopped at Taco Bell in Bellingham for dinner and a can of Red Bull kept me alert the rest of the way to Issaquah. I pulled into the driveway at 7:45, twenty-one hours after departing.
That evening I camped in our backyard with my recently-turned-four year-old daughter. It was her first night sleeping in a tent. The last thing I remember is saying, “Sage, I don’t think Daddy can stay awake much longer…”