Glacier travel tips and etiquette

Glacier travel tips and etiquette

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By Jason Martin

Mount Baker is a big and beautiful mountain. The fact that it can be seen from both Seattle and Vancouver is one of the reasons it’s the second most climbed mountain in the state. With nearly 5,000 ascents every year, it’s not surprising that there is occasionally friction between parties on the mountain. Two things can help diffuse a stressful situation between teams: a calm and friendly demeanor, and a basic understanding of mountain etiquette.

Climbing etiquette is a weird and wily thing. What is acceptable in one area may not be in another. A common practice in one place may be looked upon with horror in another. In the larger climbing world, there are millions of etiquette questions. But on a glaciated peak in the Pacific Northwest there tends to be only a handful. Following is a quick breakdown of the most common ethical issues mountaineers face on Mount Baker and on other local mountains.

What is the etiquette for passing a rope team on a glacier?
A glacier is broad and anyone can walk anywhere, especially when the snow is frozen. When everything is frozen solid, it’s easy to pass. There’s no good reason to follow behind someone in such conditions.
However, regardless of conditions – soft or frozen – there is often a boot-pack; many people like to follow it to ensure they are going the right way. In soft snow conditions, the boot-pack is the easiest place to walk, which means everyone follows the same path. This occasionally creates friction, as teams don’t always move at the same pace.
It is acceptable to pass a rope team on a glacier in the boot-pack. However, this must be done without hindering the progress of the team you’re passing. If a team has a pace and continues to hold that pace, they have a right to the trail no matter what speed they’re moving.
The best way to pass a slower team is to step out of the boot-pack and pass without slowing them in any way. This may take considerable energy if the snow outside the boot-pack is soft or deep. The passing team should not complain about having to pass, as they didn’t get up as early as the slower team.
If you are leading a slow team and you notice that you’re slowing other teams, it’s polite to step out of the boot-pack and allow others to pass. If your team needs to take a break, they should do so outside the boot-pack, allowing others to pass. There’s no reason to force another team off the path and into deep snow while you break. If your team is slow and takes a lot of standing mini-breaks (stopping for a few seconds or even a minute or so), then you should step out of the boot-pack and allow faster teams to pass on the path without protest.

Who has the right to the steps that have been kicked in the slope?
Often in spring soft snow conditions, a team will kick a nice line of steps up the slope. Clearly, it’s easier for teams following later in the day to use pre-existing steps than to create their own. However, the mountaineers who follow later in the day don’t own the steps. If the people who kicked the steps elect to use them for their descent – effectively destroying them with their downslope plunge steps – they have every right to do that. In very soft conditions, this is often the only way to move down the mountain effectively.
If you create a series of steps up the mountain, you certainly have the right to use them on your descent. However, it is far more polite to leave the steps for others. The only reason not to leave the steps is if the snow is extremely soft. In such conditions it’s safer and more effective to descend the uphill steps.

What if I’m camping in the coolest spot in the world and another team arrives and wants to share my cool spot?
Sometimes on busy weekends the only dry sites left late in the day are very close to other teams. No one owns the mountain and you don’t own your campsite. Just think how it would feel if you hiked in and there was no place to camp. The most polite thing to do is to share the space.
If you arrive late in the day and can’t find an open site, be polite and ask if it’s OK to camp in close quarters to another team. Or better yet, spend more time scouting the area. There are a lot of barely hidden pre-impacted dry sites on all aspects of Mount Baker.

How loud can I be when I get up at 2 a.m.?
This one should be common sense; if there are people sleeping anywhere around you, you should be quiet.

My best friend passed away recently. Can I leave her sunglasses on the summit as a remembrance?
The summit of Mount Baker is a heavily visited place and anything you leave there will have an impact on other climbers. Last year somebody left a metal box with human remains in it on the summit. As of the end of the 2015 season, they were still there. However, it’s unlikely that they will remain. Eventually somebody will chuck them off the side of the mountain or carry them out. The deceased person and their relatives probably don’t want that.
Nothing – not litter, not coffee grounds, not random wands, not metal boxes full of ashes – should be left on the mountain at the end of your trip. The best way to keep the wilderness wild is to pack out everything you packed in.

What should I do with my human waste? Should I leave it on the summit for all to see with a nice pile of toilet paper, or should I do something else with it?
You should do something else with it. The current rule of thumb on the mountain is to Leave No Trace and pack out all human waste. Both the Heliotrope Ridge and the Schriebers Meadows trailheads have plastic bag dispensers stocked with “blue bags” for this purpose. You may also use a higher end commercial waste bag, like a WAG Bag, a Biffy Bag or a Rest Stop. These are a little bit more secure and have special powder in them to counter the smell.

When it comes to glacier travel etiquette on Mount Baker, the best advice is to be friendly and think about how not only your team experiences the mountain, but also about how other teams experience it. If you can leave the mountain in better shape then you found it and if you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated, everyone will have a good time and our mountain will be better for it.
Isn’t that what it’s all about?   x