Mount Baker in a Day
It’s become a bit of a theme this Spring that the weather gods choose only to bless those who are able to take time off during the week to go adventuring. Tuesday through Friday morning of every week are clear and cold and simply beautiful. Then, Friday afternoon, a storm rolls in that drop 2’ of snow on top of everything within a 5 hour drive of Portland. Trust me, if I could just peace out of work on Wednesday to go climb something, I absolutely would. But I can’t, so I have to make do with the Weekend Warrior lifestyle I’m currently pursuing with a fiery passion.
When the forecast for Mount Baker rolled around early in the week, Andy and I were psyched. For the first time, we were being presented with a great weather window to climb our first “new to us” mountain since January. We were incredibly psyched. And then…. Thursday happened. I’m not sure what kind of sacrilege I uttered to piss the universe off but our window to climb had shrunk to a single day. We would get to climb Mount Baker in a single push or we would not get to climb it at all.
Being the overly ambitious people that we are, we decided to go for it- light and fast style- up the Boulder Glacier/Cleaver route from the South Side. It would be a long push but with skis and what was touted to be a maintained trail for the approach, we were confident that we would be up and down with more than enough time to grab a beer and some food before driving back to Portland after accomplishing our goal.
Oh boy how wrong we were.
After a brutal 7-hour drive out of Portland (thanks, traffic), we arrived at the trailhead at 10:30pm, surprised to see a few cars there since the route was not supposed to see much traffic. We quickly prepped for our 3:30am alarm and got to sleep.
Bright and early we boiled water, secured our skis to our packs, and downed oatmeal with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. 20 minutes after we woke up, we were off. The trail was very, very overgrown. I was continually waving my ski poles in front of my face to knock damp cobwebs out of our path. The overgrowth, however, was the least of our worries after about a half mile of hiking. We soon began encountering monstrous windfalls at increasingly frequent intervals- trees so big that we had to climb around them or belly flop our way over them. To make matters worse, before we reached the end of the ‘maintained’ trail, our path was intermittently interrupted with deep puddles that left Andy’s feet soaked and my feet very damp (thank you, Merrell for using Gore-TEX!).
By the time we hit the bog slash would-be “meadow” we were both pretty cranky. About halfway across, however, we caught our first glimpse of Baker and our energy was renewed- it’s funny how that happens.
About 3 miles up the trail, we hit snow and were finally able to ditch our wet shoes and switch to skis and ski boots. At that point, we heard voices behind us and saw a group of 4 guys rolling up- more day-trippers!!
We made our way up to the section of 3rd class climbing and easily scaled the fixed line- this was made more challenging by a number of things:
1. Skis on pack
2. Ski boots on feet
3. THICK overgrowth at the top that we had to bust through
At that point though, the only thing that stood between us and the summit was a LOT of skinning and a big, cracking glacier, so we quickly transitioned back to skis and began making our way up.
Still nursing my knee/IT band, I moved slowly and I could sense Andy’s impatience at my pace. I definitely felt like a total gumby when the group of 4 guys caught and passed us, their superior skinning skills kicking ass on the steeper sections of snow. Being such a new skier, I still don’t have the amount of confidence it takes to skin straight up steep sections of snow and although my skins are a nylon-mohair blend, they still don’t have best traction for steep skinning. Andy patiently waited for me to fumble my way up the steeper sections and we made decent time up to the Cleaver.
Before reaching the meat of the glacier, we put on harnesses in preparation for needing to rope up- it’s better to get ready for anything when you’re not facing something, right?
On our way up, a group of skiers were heading down. After a quick conversation we learned that they had bailed after one member of their party had dropped quickly into a crevasse. They had pulled him out without much trouble but had decided against tempting the fates with any more excitement and headed back down to camp. I watched their tracks in envy - the snow at 10am was perfect corn and I wanted so badly to ditch my skins for a quick jaunt… okay, maybe I just wanted a quick break from all the uphill skiing…
I fought the urge, however strong it was, and we continued up, leaving our skis at the top of the cleaver since neither of us was psyched at having to ski down through a maze of snow bridges and crevasses. Andy set out to break trail for the first section since I was still wary of how well my knee would take climbing the perma-stair master.
Traveling as a rope team takes FOREVER. This climb reminded me why we don’t do it unless we’re at risk of falling to our deaths. Navigating the traverses across steeper bits of solid snow, however, was quick and easy and I grew more appreciative than ever of the partnership that Andy and I have.
As the summit grew closer, we switched spots and I led us up to the top. My body felt good- better than it has in a while. We met the group of skiers at the summit and they did a little good-natured shit talking as they stepped into their bindings for the ski down. “Getting old already, are ya?” one of them chided. I laughed and replied, “I definitely feel old! And I’m wishing I hadn’t forgotten beer at home!” They laughed at the ridiculousness of my only concern and jested that they might leave us a beer at the trailhead- if we were lucky.
They started down and we stood on the summit for a few moments, excited that our early season climb had left us with an amazing few that we had almost entirely to ourselves. The North Cascades are so beautiful and I was once again reminded and impressed at the world we live in.
The way down went without incident- quickly plunge-stepping our way through solid snow and carefully tip toeing (and in some cases, jumping) across snow bridges until we made it back to our skis.
We hustled down to the edge of the snow and quickly switched to hiking shoes as the light faded. We then ran into the reason we got back to the car in the dark- the GPS was dead and all of our tracks had either melted out or been washed away by snow melt. It was time to bushwhack and use our map, terrain navigation skills, and compass to get back.
TWO HOURS later, we navigated our way back to the Boulder Ridge trail and began the brutal process of climbing over the same giant trees in the dark. Exhausted, cursing, and covered in bruises from falling, we made it back to the car at 10:30pm- over 18 hours after leaving the trailhead- to find 2 beers waiting for us, courtesy of our skier pals :)
It was a horribly long day and I was pretty worked for a couple of days. However, Baker was such a beautiful mountain that I would be happy to go back for another push. This time, however, I’m bringing waterproof trail shoes and a change of socks.
Our hope at having decent conditions faded quickly as the familiar “ckkkkkkk!” sound shot out from underneath us as we tried to turn. Ugh. I packed my skis down a couple hundred feet- post-holing and getting even more snow melt inside my soaking wet ski boots. Eventually, the snow softened and we got into some sweet, sweet snow.