jen yu: mount baker - july 2004

mount baker - july 2004

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3 days: 10,778 ft.
mount baker wilderness, washington
july 2-4, 2004

I hadn't planned on climbing Mount Baker, ever. When I called AAI about crevasse rescue training, I had naively asked if it was possible to do this in the Sierra. Needed bigger glaciers. They told me Baker had some pretty good glaciers. "Baker is near Bellingham," I thought. "Bellingham has a sushi bar..."

Arrival in Seattle was without incident. Getting out of Seattle took a long time because people who don't know how to drive manage to get themselves on the freeway with great frequency. Once in Bellingham, we stopped by the AAI office to look at gear, meet Jake (big furry dog), and ask some questions. We checked into our motel and then headed to Miyoshi's for sushi. I really really wanted to love the sushi here. It's good stuff, but the hamachi and the toro were average compared to what Fumito serves up at Ai. We shall never stray again... Below: satellite imagery on the left and digital elevation model on the right of Mount Baker.

day 1: heliotrope ridge trailhead to camp
3700 - 5700 ft.
3 miles

I felt like hell when I woke up in the morning. Despite my best efforts to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, I kept myself and Jeremy awake with my sobbing late into the night. I can go for days on end and be fine, then out of the blue, it hits me hard that my sister is gone. I shook off my zombie-state and we putted our way over to the AAI office where we met our instructor, Cory, and the equipment manager, Thierry at 7 am. We engaged in the "What do I REALLY want to carry up the mountain" game. Weather forecast was good and we set off for the trailhead. On the road, we became acquainted with Cory and learned more about the area and the folks at AAI. In the town of Glacier, we purchased parking passes and perused climbing reports. It was refreshingly green and lush outside.

From the trailhead, it is approximately 3 miles to where we planned to camp on the Hogsback. We walked through lovely stands of firs, western hemlock and cedars and had some mild stream crossings. The melt had begun in earnest. It was humid but thankfully overcast. We paused for a snack/break and then passed the trail junction. Our route rose steeply over the terrain and all I could think of was how I didn't want to come down this stuff in my double plastic boots. Cory pointed out the wildflowers at the start of their bloom and then hoofed it up a snowfield to our ridge. We set up camp at Cory's designated "Hilton" location. Here's the lower Coleman glacier from our camp.

After a rest, we walked over to the glacier for review and practice. More people arrived at camp while we played on the snow. Some folks were coming down the mountain and butt-sledding down the hillslope - alarmingly close to crevasses that they couldn't see, but we could see from below. Ignorance - bliss, you know. Jeremy builds an anchor while Mountain Zen Master Cory dispenses wisdom to the grasshoppers. My favorite advice from Cory: "Be mindful." It's quite all-purpose, really.

Toward evening I noticed Jeremy's face was particularly pink. Sunburn. Suddenly I recalled chatting with Cory while he sat in his tent smearing sunblock on his face BEFORE we got on the snow. Cory remarked that Jeremy was pretty burned. We'll just chalk that up to laziness and stupidity - we knew better. (I should note that my friend, Elisabeth, pointed out that I was also horrendously sunburned when she saw me at work on Tuesday). Clouds rolled in and out while we ate. Then there was drizzle, then rain. We got into the tent and began to wonder when the last time was that we had seam sealed our rainfly (never - although Jeremy claims it was a few years ago).

day 2: crevasse rescue training
5700 ft.

I always have trouble sleeping well in the backcountry, so I usually start waking up every 30 minutes starting at 1 am. By 3 am, I decided to get out of the tent and pee. There was a lot of activity in the camps as teams were preparing to leave for summit. Clouds still lingered, but it was dry. I caught sight of a pink glow on the horizon and a breathtaking view of the valley below bathed in the blue pre-dawn light. I felt like I should be getting ready to go too, but the plan was to practice crevasse rescue, hike up the ridge, and then rest early. Little mice scampered all around the camp. They were bold little things, approaching my feet, checking out our trekking poles, sniffing our packs. Bad mice.

That's the prize, Mount Baker. Second only to Rainier in ice mass, but more heavily glaciated in proportion. An ice cap sits atop the summit and if you look at the map, the glaciers radiate from the peak like flower petals. The lenticular cloud was the Cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing. Sometimes the mountain was obliterated from view. It was that quiet time when everyone in camp was headed up the mountain, and those coming up had not yet arrived. We moved out onto the snow and spent several hours on crevasse rescue, then worked on roped travel and hiked up to the top of Heliotrope Ridge to scope out the route (well, Cory knew the route, but it was for our benefit).

On our way back to camp we passed a couple of guys screwing around on the snow, and then closer to our camp, we passed two young women lounging on the rocks watching the guys screwing around on the snow. In camp, it was time to eat and rest because we were going to wake up quite early to start our summit attempt. One of the fellows approached Cory and asked him about self-arrests. I think it's amazing how so many people zero in on Cory and ask him for advice. It's not amazing because he's rock solid in his safety and knowledge (which he is), but because there are a lot of jokers running around out there that don't know their head from their ass. Anyway, what bothered me about that group was that the MEN were doing "man things" like practicing self-arrest, and the women were not. I would pay money to see those roles reversed... and while we're at it, I would also like to see someone design a decent mountaineering boot for women.

Cory got the rope and our prussicks in order while we ate dinner. He announced our ETD would be 2:30 am. It was hot in the sun and so I went to lie down in the tent. Sleep? How can anyone get sleep at 4 pm? I think Jeremy was mildly successful (being an astronomer, it's not new for him). I don't think it got dark until 10 pm out there, but I dozed periodically, thought of Kris and cried quietly, listened for mice, counted grids in the tent nylon, and wondered if the weather would hold.

day 3: camp to baker summit, hike out
5700 - 10,778 ft. (back to 3700 ft.)

The weather held. We set off at 2:30 by headlamp. Two parties were ahead of us, which Cory liked because they would break trail. Within the first few minutes, we stopped and put crampons on - the surface was hard enough. Hurrah! We plugged along up to Heliotrope Ridge and continued to the next bench. After crossing a couple of linear indentations, I asked Cory what those features were. "Crevasse" he said as he continued his deliberate and steady pace. They weren't the big ones that swallow whole nations, but tiny ones that you couldn't put your arm down. They stretched across the glacier. So cool.

We took a short break on the Coleman glacier alongside the second rope team. I say short because I began to chill quickly while I scarfed down a zone bar (tasting especially nasty that morning). The moon was close to full and it shone upon us as we quietly made our way past the crags above high camp, up the benches and skirting an ice fall - what Cory termed a "bowling alley". Below is a hanging glacier. There were some enormous "gapers" (crevasses), but there weren't convenient times to photograph any. Beyond the ice fall, we paused for another break at 8500 feet. I could see the features that Cory had described to us the day before from Heliotrope Ridge: Pumice Ridge, the Roman Wall. We continued in the trench that had been stamped out by previous parties.

Next stop, Pumice Ridge. It was windy when we got to the base of the ridge, so we stood about chowing down on some food and then began to make our way up the mostly snow-free backbone. Here's a nifty crevasse big enough for a school bus or two on the Deming glacier. I took this photo on the way down (the sun hadn't reached us yet on the way up). I periodically glanced at the Roman Wall. It looked really steep. Cory had assured us it was as steep as the first 1000 feet to Heliotrope Ridge. We paused briefly at the base of the Roman Wall before continuing on. It got steep toward the top - I think it was steeper than going up to Heliotrope Ridge. At least my quads and my butt felt it was steeper... At some point Cory said it wasn't much further. It's like how Jeremy and I disagree on the meaning of "a few" and "several". "Not much further" means I'm gonna be there in another minute. It took more than a minute.

But we made it! Hurray! We got there in under 6 hours (by 8:20 am) which is so great because we were never ascending in the sun. It was Cory's 21st summit on Baker. Now for the hard part - getting back down. Boo... I just want to emphasize, that the Roman Wall is a very steep slope to walk down. I think I heard Cory say 40-45 degrees? This part was more painful, but more fun because I could actually talk to Cory as he had brought in the rope and was essentially walking just behind me. We took a break at the top of Pumice Ridge to apply sunblock, remove layers, water up and take pictures. There were so many things I wanted to photograph on our way up and down, but I also didn't want to waste a lot of time. Below: Jeremy's mosaic of Colfax Peak from above.

Below: view of the upper Deming and Easton glaciers. Some folks were climbing up from there in the early morning. Also: The lower Roman Wall. Sense of scale escapes me out there. It plays on your mind like Alice in Wonderland. The rest of the way down was a slog. The snow got mushy, I got hot, and I started developing a blister on my left foot. We observed a lot of rope teams traveling the "wrong way" (as opposed to the Max Power way - "the wrong way, but faster"). Cory had pop-quizzes on the mountain asking us what was wrong with various groups. It was both educational and frightening. We got to camp by noon.

We spent an hour or so decompressing and then packed it up to head for the car by 2:00. Despite my feet, I was anxious to hike out (as usual). Clambering down the Hogsback was just a series of "ouch" "ouch" "ouch" in my mind. When we got on the main trail, it was 2 miles to the car. I have experienced long 2 miles before, but this one tops the list. Okay, close competition with those 2 ridiculous miles to Osgood Camp at dark in the Whites of NH. It felt like it would never end. Luckily, it eventually ended. Cory took care to use "not much further" encouragement sparingly. We hiked out at 3:30 pm and Jeremy drove us back to AAI to drop off gear and Cory and to pick up our extra bags. Cory is a first-rate human being.

On to Seattle, we stayed with Erin and Caroline who had just moved into their gorgeous new house that week! Our brains were as good as mush, so we had to pass up an invitation to their friends' July 4th barbecue. Their friends, Bruce and Bion (in their 80s and 70s) came by to see the house and we discovered that these two adorable little men had been climbers back in the day. Bruce was delighted to find out that we had climbed Baker that morning (could it have been the same day?! I couldn't believe it). They were so cute, I wanted to pack them up and take them home with me. We passed out by 11 pm and the next day we flew back to the Pacific Plate.

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