Mount Baker, Elevation 10,778ft
Coleman/Deming, April 14, 2001
Ben, Jason, Josh
Northwest Face of Mount Baker seen from below Heliotrope Ridge. The standard ascent from the saddle is seen in green.
It's June 6, 2001 and I am almost done. I finished my last final today and have my last presentation tomorrow and then it's time for a vacation. A couple months of playtime is well overdue. Before I start fantasizing about the future, lets go back a few months and check out what I've been up to during my last quarter at UW. First of all, I purchased a whitewater kayak just after new years so I've been spending most of my free time in the froth. Running Class III and IV rapids without knowing how to roll has been entertaining. My first lesson was that swimming is painful, especially in a low water. My second lesson was not to mess with logs. Finally, I learned how to roll.
The snow hasn't been all that inviting but I have managed to squeeze in a few good ski trips. The first trip was North Twin Sister in early March, then Glacier Peak in late March, then this, then Stuart and Little Tahoma in late May and of course a few short skis in-between. The plan was to climb and ski Baker in a day. The Hummels had done it the previous fall and I was told that it was easy. My only recollection came from several years back when I summited this route with my dad during the summer.
This was a few days after the couple on this route disappeared during a spell of bad weather and less than a day or two after a snowmobilier died in an avalanche on the other side of the mountain. As if weather and avalanches weren't enough, I began to fear the publicity.
We weren't able to drive all the way to the trailhead despite the Sport Truck's attempt with 2-wheel drive and chains. We did manage to set a new record but we ended up spending over an hour digging ourselves out while trying to turn around to get back to the original tracks (less than 1/4 mile down the road). I thought we learned our lesson at Glacier Peak.
We skinned the remaining 2 miles to the trailhead in less than an hour.
Jason nearing the trailhead on 5 feet of snow. What were we thinking?
There was at least a foot of fresh snow on the trail but we were fortunate or late enough to have a skin track to follow. It wasn't long before we emerged from the trees. The weather and snow conditions made a lasting impression. The weather was excellent. The snow conditions were either excellent or horrible depending on where you were going.
At first we were headed through some trees and up a nice gully to a ridge -- excellent.
Jason and Josh skinning up the gully.
Jason skinning up the ridge.
Then we realized that we needed to continue up the glacier and across some moderately steep slopes which meant hidden crevasse and avalanche danger -- horrible.
Jason with the Coleman Glacier and Baker in the distance.
The skin tracks continued via several switchbacks up a 30-degree slope (from now on I'll refer to this as the scary slope). Josh was several minutes ahead because Jason and I had stopped to take photos. As I mounted the final knoll along the ridge I saw that he was already a good ways up the scary slope. It didn't look like a good place to be and when I got to the base of it I confirmed my decision to avoid it. I ended up traversing about 1/2 mile to the west to ascend a ridge with a more moderate slope. Jason decided to follow his brother despite my warning. I think he was just lazy and ignorant -- two qualities that are likely to get oneself killed (see Humor, Avalanche).
Anyway, Josh and Jason continued up the scary slope while I struggled to break trail up the ridge. As it started to flatten out I realized that continuing up the glacier was not a good idea. I knew this section to be crevassed and with the new snow on a relatively low snowpack, there was a good chance that we might find our permanent resting place. I took off my skins and traversed the scary slope to the middle switchback. It's funny how I feel completely comfortable skiing a slope like this yet the thought of climbing it makes me tremble. I considered putting my skins back on and following the ignorant but my better judgement and perhaps a bit of laziness told me to ski down. I made a few good turns in the powder before cruising back the ridge where I found a nice rock to chill on.
I tried yelling to the Hummels at several locations along my journey but there was no response. I figured they would get the picture eventually. About an hour later I heard some voices from above. It was Josh and Jason trying to figure out where I was. I yelled at the top of my lungs but they didn't seem to respond. Just more questioning. I couldn't see them but I heard them well. I continued to yell but there was no response. I could tell they were headed towards my high point but I had no way to let them know that I had turned around. They would have to discover my tracks for themselves. They did and it wasn't long before they made their way down the scary slope. Josh got some good turns in but Jason seemed to be struggling. Turns out he had left his lifters up.
I explained to them why I turned around and they agreed that it wasn't a good idea to continue on the glacier without a rope. We rested for a bit before heading down. There was good powder to be had but the sun was warming things up quickly. A group of two climbers passed us, roping up before the scary slope, but continuing as though it were safe.
Josh heads down as the two climbers head up the scary slope. You can see where I cut off to the west and you can also see my ski tracks heading down.
We skied down the upper bowls while more climbers made their way to basecamp. Some on skis, a few on snowshoes and a few on foot. The snow was sticky which made for difficult skiing and frustrating photos. I suppose it could have been worse but this was our punishment for not waxing in a long time or in Jason's case never.
Jason trying to get some speed in the sticky snow.
If only he had some wax.
The snow improved as we headed into the trees. We followed several gullies before catching the trail and traversing back to the road. The ski along the trail provided the most fun I had in a long time. A super fast slalom through the trees on a track that would be nearly impossible to escape. Your best bet was to stay in it. We yelled most of the way down hoping that anyone coming up would realize that a voice getting really close really fast meant get out of the way. Perhaps this is why mountain bikes are banned from most hiker trails. I didn't time it but I imagine that we skied over 3 miles in less than 10 minutes.
Josh catching some speed in the gully.
Josh catching some air into another gully.
The ski down the road was slow but painless. I shouldn't complain because it was much better than walking. Most of the climbers were on foot, not to mention those with overnight packs. I'm not sure if anyone summited that weekend and I really don't care. For me it wasn't worth the risk.