NOLS/Mount Baker Ascent - Days 10-14
Day 10: The Foothills
We started our day off covered in dew. My sleeping bag was drenched, the wind was howling, and we were in a cloud. When we chose to bivouac again in our dirty campsite, the stars were out and shooting, and the sky was clear. Morning in the Cascades has a way of changing things.
Gusts of 40-50mph slammed into us, telling us to go back.
I am usually the first one up. Today, I was the last. The day began with crevasse rescue training, and would end with a 6 mile hike to the foot of Mount Baker. We are at base camp, and will be for two days while we spend tomorrow completing crevasse rescue training by simulating a real rescue. To get to the base camp, we had to press forward in whiteout conditions as the temperature plummeted in the wind and sleet in which we travelled. Gusts of 40-50mph slammed into us, telling us to go back. But we pressed on in our glacier teams.
I immediately slammed into the hillside of snow beside me, all seventy pounds of my pack and every bit of me underneath it leaning into the shaft of my ice axe.
At one point, the lead team guided us down a hill to avoid a giant crevasse, only for us to discover a much smaller one beneath it. When our team was nearly over it, our third man, Matt—a fourth grade teacher looking for adventure to shake up the routine of life—lost footing and tumbled down the hill. “Falling!” was what rang in my ears, echoed by Bryan, a software engineer and sea kayaking guide who anchored the team and was presently yet above the smaller crevasse. I immediately slammed into the hillside of snow beside me, all seventy pounds of my pack and every bit of me underneath it leaning into the shaft of my ice axe. Quickly, I kick the front teeth of my crampons into the snow and brace for impact—that moment when Matt’s rope finally tensions and shock loads me and potentially everything connecting me to the ground out of place. It never comes—Matt traveled twenty five feet down the hill but I never felt it.
Austin, an up and coming technology security and privacy lawyer, saw the whole thing from his front position on the team trailing us, “As soon as I saw Matt go and yell ‘Falling’, all three of you immediately arrested him—it was perfect!” I guess we passed the test. Matt, who was ever grateful, only incurred a wound to his ego for violating rule numero uno of glacier travel: “Don’t Fall.”
We pressed on, dead ending on an early peak because it was surrounded by a cliff. After managing to unrig and scramble down the rocks, we pressed on to our campsite—now in sight. The problem, however, was that it was surrounded by a six foot deep moat. This air gap between the snow and the rock was a barrier we could not pass. Luckily, there was an alternate location. We arrived, finally, at 10pm in the dark and set up base camp. It is 1am now. Time for some sleep.
Day 11: The Crevasse
Step one of crevasse rescue begins with rule number one of glacial travel: “Don’t Fall.”
My camera won’t charge. The solar panel I bought to charge it drained it of its energy yesterday instead of charging it. The fact that my solar panel has become a pack weight in a world where the snow reflects as much light as the sun gives is a true Sarah Mclachlan brand of irony. Technology. Sigh.
I suppose it would not make sense to spell out a route to the summit of a glaciated peak when the ground itself is constantly moving and shifting, opening and closing its many icy maws.
I’m sitting on a ledge, writing this before Mount Baker, which towers above me without apology. I don’t understand how anyone can look at the so called “Boulder Route" and see a path up. There are literally hundreds of crevasses up high. Down low there is a huge icefall, with spires of glacial ice rising from the cold depths. The rocks that do show through the snow are sheer and jagged. And the top most crevasse—the Bergschrung—towers three stories tall, and wraps around Mount Baker’s domed peak like the rim of a helmet. The instructors spy with binoculars a path but I have no idea why they decide the paths they do. I have seen notes from previous NOLS courses, which describe paths in coarse-grained terms, highlighting which paths are impassible, but leaving the details of the passable ones as an exercise to the reader. I suppose it would not make sense to spell out a route to the summit of a glaciated peak when the ground itself is constantly moving and shifting, opening and closing its many icy maws.
Day 12: High Camp
The training was appropriate, as there were crevasses all along our way to High Camp. We stepped across many of them, walking alongside others. Our two mile trek today took five hours, and included 2000 feet of gain with our seventy pound packs. We unfortunately had to give up 200 feet of that to find a place to camp on the mountain. After moving hundreds of stones for a tent pad, it turned out that the space was too narrow for our tent. So for the next two hours, we shoveled a snow platform for it into the glacier beside our would-be rock campsite.
Our view of Mount Shuksan shows us the path we had taken from it to here. For the past two weeks, we have travelled from terrain that when I look back I have no idea how we did it. Mount Shuksan’s spire reaches into the sky, only eclipsed now by Mount Baker’s shadow as the sun goes down. Far off in the distance, Mount Rainier towers above the clouds. Below us, Lake Baker far away. We drove up alongside it to be dropped off on this journey. Tomorrow is summit day. Early start. 4am.
Day 13: Summit Day - Mount Baker
Matt, the fourth grade teacher and Austin, the soon-to-be-lawyer bowed out. They woke with us at 4am, made us breakfast, and decided against it. Reuben, the film major looking to see if mountaineering is something he would be interested in doing, turned back after 500 feet of rock scramble. Counting Amber, who was injured on Shuksan and Lindsey Lavender, a woman who inexplicably never showed up on day one, we went from twelve team members down to seven.
Lingering in my mind was the idea that if we returned that way, the snow bridge may no longer exist.
Leaving our 1300 foot rock scramble for snow, our introduction was to step out on a snow bridge and walk along the gigantic crevasse over which it formed. The sun was rising. It would be well after nightfall before we returned. Lingering in my mind was the idea that if we returned that way, the snow bridge may no longer exist.
We climbed from there into what was a wonder world of glacial terrain—a tumble of ice and crevasses that became our most significant barrier to the summit. The next 700 vertical feet would take us five hours. The crevasses that appeared man-sized from high camp were the size of houses. We reached the saddle between Mount Baker’s two peaks, Sherman and Grant.
We were presented with an option—continue or turn back. Our cutoff was 1pm; it was 12pm and we had another 1000 feet to go. Our path was obvious, and spirits and energy were high, so we summited. The path down, however, was where the battle began. Mount Baker’s crux was the glacier we had passed below, and our plan was to descend between the saddle on a crevasse field that it appeared we could weave through reasonably well to get back to high camp.
The problem is—Mount Baker is a volcano and a vent spitting sulfur fumes had opened up right in our proposed path and killed any hopes of an easy descent. We would have to go back the way we came. That way included the fifty foot ice climb that we now needed to down climb. It also included reverse front pointing for nearly two hours. My toes are going to punish me tomorrow.
Brandon ran to the side of its path, threw himself on the ground with his ice axe firmly planted. The easily-one-ton snowball missed him.
Also included (for free!) was a serac the size of a Volkswagen falling from above and rolling straight for Brandon, the only other Southerner on the trip as he hails from Chattanooga. Brandon ran to the side of its path, threw himself on the ground with his ice axe firmly planted. The easily-one-ton snowball missed him.
Lower down, our snow bridge, while undoubtedly smaller after the heat of the day, was still intact. However, the sun was setting, and night would no longer permit the loose-rock scramble down. On the way up, the primary concern was rockfall. Even rocks half the size of my body would come dislodged from climbing on them. So going down it at night would spell disaster.
We chose glacial travel instead, which with the exception of a rock band between us and camp proved to be a good choice. After crossing it, we realized another challenge lay ahead—there was a fifteen foot moat between the rock band around the glacier on the other side. The glacier on the other side is what connected us to high camp. We decided to down climb the rock—twelve feet high—into the moat then follow it until we could escape it to the glacier. We found our way shortly and, after another hour of reverse front-pointing in the dark, we made it down to high camp. Back at camp, Reuben, Matt, and Austin awaited with lights on to beckon our return.
Finally, after settling down into camp, we were rewarded with the Northern Lights, dim and far in the distance.
Day 14: Breaking Camp
After seventeen hours on my feet above 8000 feet, I was weary. My leg muscles were catastrophically sore and after being on tilted, snow-covered ground for so long, traveling along the rocky, flat outcropping that was our high camp the morning after made me look drunk as I stood at a 70 degree angle and stumbled over most rocks that found themselves beneath my feet.
We planned on a late start and began even later, but the rope teams formed and were off. And just like that, it was over. A couple hours later, we were at our new campsite. The next day we would hike out along a well-groomed woodland trail, eating wild blueberries along the way.
Surely, someone planned this route to include this final camping spot, where everything we accomplished over the last few weeks is readily apparent.
Looking back on the course, it would seem our route was carefully thought out—from the simple but rigorous hiking, to learning basic snow skills, to living on a glacier, to rock climbing, to glacier team travel and crevasse rescue, to summiting a mountain, to this moment. Looking around me, I see Lake Baker, where we began this journey; Mount Shuksan and all the treacherous terrain around it including Fisher Chimneys beneath leading to the blueberry-filled trail that took us to our re-ration; I see Mount Baker, the path we took to summit it, and the footsteps originating from the rock outcropping where our high camp nested to here, where the foothills just under the glacial waterfalls erupt with colorful flowers. Surely, someone planned this route to include this final camping spot, where everything we accomplished over the last few weeks is readily apparent. It is all too perfect.