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From Bali to Baker

Climbing Mt. Baker - Pat Grubb


Story and photos by Pat Grubb

Ascending the local volcano is within your reach.

Two years ago, I had the good fortune to spend nearly a month in Bali. The Balinese are a deeply spiritual people whose religion is a syncretism of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. They believe the sea is the source of many evil spirits and the further one is away from the sea, the safer one is. The mountains in the center of the island are considered the most sacred places of all. Personally, I think they’ve got it backwards given that their ‘mountains’ are volcanoes, which spew flames, ash and lava at distressingly frequent intervals. And let’s not talk about earthquakes, one of which I experienced on my visit.Climbing Mt. BakerBali got me thinking. Out my windows at home in Point Roberts, Mt. Baker looms over the landscape. I see the same view out my office window in Blaine, and I’m not alone – on a clear day, Mt. Baker can be seen from Tacoma, the Olympic Peninsula, the San Juan and Gulf islands, Vancouver Island, greater Vancouver and much of the Fraser Valley. In all, a few million people can see our own volcano on any reasonably clear day. And while present day inhabitants don’t ascribe a spiritual meaning to the mountain, it still must have some kind of psychological impact on all of us. How can we gaze upon this massive, glacier-covered presence without feeling just a little insignificant in terms of geological time and size? It was time, I concluded, to climb Mt. Baker.

There are a few organizations and guide companies that offer Mt. Baker climbs. One of the best and most well-known is the American Alpine Institute (AAI). Among other trips, it has Mt. Baker Skills and Climb courses that are offered from May to September. What follows is a description of that climb, actually two climbs, and how readers can also stand on top of the Pacific Northwest. But first, a little history.

Most people know that Captain George Vancouver named the mountain after his third lieutenant Joseph Baker during Vancouver’s 1792 exploration of the Pacific Coast aboard the ship Discovery. For many centuries before that, it was called Koma Kulshan by Native Americans. Koma Kulshan means Great White Watcher. There is a lovely account of how Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker and the Nooksack and Skagit rivers came into being that involved a handsome young man named Kulshan and his two wives, the comely and jealous Duh-hwahk and the less comely but open-hearted Whaht-kway. Intrigue, hubris, regret and geological transformation play heavy parts in this native account, which can be found in the Skagit River Journal (a link can be found on the MBE website).

Climbing Mt. BakerThe first man in recorded history to climb Mt. Baker was Edmund Coleman who made two attempts in 1866. He was forced to turn back the first time after natives refused to let him cross the Skagit River. He made it to within a few hundred feet of the summit on his second try that year but turned back after encountering a dangerous cornice with weather rapidly turning treacherous. Two years later, he returned with two other climbers and reached the top at 4 p.m. on August 17, 1868. Today, most late summer climbers strive to reach the top by early to mid-morning to avoid falling ice on the descent.

As long as you’re in good shape with recent hiking experience, you can. I strongly recommend you take a guided trip for at least your first climb. AAI offers a number of trips but their beginner skills and climb trip up the classic Coleman/Deming glacier route is your best bet. Although you’ll be roped in, wearing crampons and armed with an ice axe, you won’t be doing any technical climbing.

AAI provides climbers with an equipment list well before the climb. Should you show up with everything on the list, you’d need to hire sherpas to get you and your gear up the mountain. In fact, the only thing that will be the least bit light will be your wallet; speaking of which, AAI recommends that you leave your valuables in safekeeping at their office in Bellingham.
Before leaving for the trailhead, your guides will do a gear check to make sure you have everything you’ll need and nothing you won’t. Although you’ll be sleeping on the glacier and traveling at night, it’s a mistake to take or wear too much clothing, at least in the summertime. While climbing I wore a shell jacket and a synthetic long sleeve t-shirt and I was plenty warm. It’s only when you take a rest stop or arrive at the top in windy conditions that you’ll need to put on something warmer. Go by what the guide tells you and the conditions on the day you climb.

There will be one piece of essential apparatus that will be new to you. It comes under the heading, Leave No Trace. What this means is, what you bring in, you must bring out. This includes the food that you have consumed, if you get my drift. In order to do this, you will use what appears to be a plastic garbage bag that has three ‘arms,’ two of which you tie around your waist while the other one comes up between your legs to join them. You’ll probably want to drop your pants down beforehand. Tip: It’s windy up there so make sure the bag is downwind. It’ll fill up like a spinnaker (from the wind hopefully) but that’s way better than the upwind results. Don’t worry – you’re going to love this.

Sometime around 9 a.m., you’ll hop in the van and head up to Glacier. There will be a stop in Maple Falls and one at the ranger station in Glacier. These will be your last opportunities to use Western civilization’s crowning achievement: flush toilets. Just up the highway, the van will take a sharp right and you’re on the way to the Heliotrope trailhead. Anyone who has been in a ‘crummy’ on a logging road will feel a sense of deja vu – it’s bumpy.

After a final gear check and a minute to put on your gaiters, you’re off. Ahead of you is a moderately strenuous hike that will take a few hours depending on the group and everyone’s fitness level. It’s hard to decipher what AAI’s fitness requirements actually mean. When they say beginner, they are referring to climbing skills only. When they say you should have hiking experience, they mean you should be in good shape, able to walk a rough trail carrying a reasonably heavy pack for a few hours and not have a heart attack while doing it. (If you lie, it’s ok. The waiver you sign frees them from any liability. Joke.)

Don’t under-estimate the need for recent hiking experience – I spent a few weeks with a pack full of five one-gallon water jugs (about 40 pounds) walking up steep hills and trails and I came just shy of a myocardial infarct. Mind you, I was carrying a 55-pound pack on a hot August day but that’s no excuse. For my second climb, I upped my backpacking plus multiple times I did what I previously swore I would never do – the Grouse Grind. (Google it if you don’t know about it.)

All the same, the hike is pretty good until you get to the last stretch – Hog’s Back Ridge. It’s aptly named; this loose-rocked, steeply pitched, razor of a trail is a real pig. One step up, two steps sliding back. You wanna know how bad it is? Well, when we came down it heading home my mind had sealed it away with all my other bad memories and I totally forgot how bad it felt. When I told my guide this, he said “What? This just about destroyed you. How could you have forgotten?”

All the same, as you ascend, you are rewarded with expanses of alpine flowers and the growing promise of the now-looming summit. Like you care.

That evening and most of the next day will be spent getting the basics down. Climbers’ knots, carabiners, climbing harness, rope, crampons and ice axe will all be explained to you before getting out on the glacier to practice. You will learn multiple ways to self-arrest – on your front, on your back, head-first, feet-first. You need to know this in case you slip or someone else does and starts to pull you with them. On the way down, another group’s guide fell into a crevasse and this training came in handy for those attached to him.

You’ll be ready for bed after the second day. First, you make yourself dinner, get your gear ready and watch the sun go down. You’ll probably be in your sleeping bag and looking through the flap to see it. After everything quiets down, you’ll start to hear the glacier talking to you. Constantly sliding downhill to a melted oblivion, it doesn’t go silently. It’s pretty cool, actually.

It’s 2 a.m. and now, after a few hours of fitful sleep, you’re fully awake. Man, it’s cold. Boil some water for tea or coffee, eat breakfast, get dressed and get on out there. What time you leave depends on the size of the group you’re with. On my first climb, there were two groups of five and it took until just after 3 a.m. to get going. On my second climb, it was just my guide and me and we were ready to go pretty damn quick.

All roped in, guide in front, and off you go. Each climber will be separated from the climber in front and the one behind by about 15 to 20 feet of rope. Any alerts will be passed from climber to climber as voices only carry so far. ‘Crevasse ahead, pass it on,’ someone says. What do you mean, crevasse? There in front of you in the darkness is a crevasse that you will jump in turn. And on you trudge upwards, headlight illuminating your space, with the stars and the moon shining brightly. Depending on the steepness of the slope you’re traversing, you’ll be planting your ice axe (in your uphill hand) as a third leg as you go. Some climbers use a trekking pole to balance. Generally you’ll climb for about an hour between rest stops. The snacks come out along with fleece sweaters, as you’ll rapidly cool down.

Climbing Mt. Baker - Pat GrubbSometime between 8 and 9 a.m. you’ll arrive at Pumice Ridge. Early in the season, it will still be covered by snow. Later in summer, you’ll be walking a steep shale-ridden trail that switches back and forth until you want to scream. At each switchback, you have to step over the rope to keep it on your uphill side. While you’re doing this, the person in front of you is going merrily along and gives you a nice tug just when you’re balancing on one leg. The crampons that felt so secure while in the snow don’t feel that way on loose scree. On my second climb, the guide suggested taking them off and it made all of the difference. You take your final rest at the foot of the Roman Wall.

“Holy smokes,” is what you’ll say to yourself after looking up at the next stretch. “Am I actually going to go up that?” Yup. Depending on the guide and the size of your group, you’ll either go pretty much straight up or you’ll do long back and forth traverses. The latter is far easier as the straight up route eventually reaches a pitch where you need your ice ax and feet to climb. The wall is nearly 1,000 feet high, with a 35 to 45 degree pitch of snow and ice. In another hour or so you’ll reach the top of the wall and, off in the distance about ¼ mile away is the actual summit. A lazy stroll ensues.

The summit itself is a cinder hill, free of snow, at least in August and September. From here, it feels like you’re at the top of the world. You’re tired, it’s cold and windy but you’ve made it to the summit of Mt. Baker. How did it feel to one of our group? Seattle resident Gloria Cropper had this to say:

“I feel like summiting Mt. Baker opened up a whole new dimension. The confidence I gained on Mt. Baker isn’t just limited to the outdoors; it has transferred over into my business and personal life. I have fallen in love with the mountains and I know that is where I want to be. I solo summited Mt. Saint Helens just six days later. I have added CrossFit training to my regimen to make sure I’m physically prepared to summit Mt. Rainier in July. I plan to climb Mt. Adams in August 2013 with three other female mountaineers. Mt. Baker will always be that first mountain that scared me but taught me to dig deep within myself.”

Good for her. Me, I’m thinking about a kayak trip in the Sea of Cortez. Reasonably flat, no crevasses and the boat carries the weight. But Mt. Baker – would I do it again? Sure, with my daughter or son, I suppose. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to other people? Yes. I think anyone who is physically, emotionally and financially capable who lives in sight of Mt. Baker should do it at least once in their life. To stand on top of that cinder hill at the summit of Mt. Baker and to look around the horizon is a feeling and an accomplishment that you will never, ever forget.

Weight – Go as light as you can. My pack on my second trip was 25 lbs. lighter and it made a huge difference. I carried a lighter tent, less clothes and fewer supplies.

Food – Make sure you do a taste test of your food before your trip. I left behind all of the freeze-dried dinners and carried nothing but energy bars and Ramen (Ramen was a mistake – read on). You need to keep up your energy level but you more than likely won’t have a huge appetite. The energy bars were tasty and did the job.

Hydration – Under no circumstances should you bring Ramen on this trip. The sodium content was so high I was constantly thirsty the night and day of my climb. We had camped below the Black Buttes above the snow line and needed to melt snow for our CamelBaks. I left with two liters of water but I ran out just before the Roman Wall. I was reduced to actually licking up muddy melt water ¼ inch deep at the bottom of Pumice Ridge while my guide mused about where climbers tend to take a leak. I would fill the full three liters next time.

Thanks to American Alpine Institute and my guides Everett Chamberlain, Justin Wood and Chad Cochran. You’re in good hands with these people. x