Our 2011 hiking trip to Mount Baker was ambitious but so worth the preparation and hard work. Not only were all the required variables for a major trek accomplished but the alpine Gods were friendly. Led by Pierre, John, Jack, Bob and myself travelled to the US and made a successful summit of Mount Baker, the volcanic peak that looms above all others in the pacific northwest. Mount Baker, also known as Kulshan, is an active glaciated stratovolcano in the North Cascades. It is the second-most active volcano in the range after Mount Saint Helens. About 31 miles (50 km)due east of the city of Bellingham, Mount Baker is the youngest volcano in the Mount Baker volcanic field.(USGS)
The British explorer George Vancouver left England a year later. His mission was to survey the northwest coast of America. Vancouver and his crew reached the Pacific Northwest coast in 1792. While anchored in Dungeness Bay on the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, third lieutenant Joseph Baker made an observation of Mount Baker, which Vancouver recorded in his journal: “About this time a very high conspicuous craggy mountain … presented itself, towering above the clouds: as low down as they allowed it to be visible it was covered with snow; and south of it, was a long ridge of very rugged snowy mountains, much less elevated, which seemed to stretch to a considerable distance … the high distant land formed, as already observed, like detached islands, amongst which the lofty mountain, discovered in the afternoon by the third lieutenant, and in compliment to him called by me Mount Baker, rose a very conspicuous object … apparently at a very remote distance.” (Wikipedia)
We all had prepared for the trip with mountaineering practices at home and a sample climb on the Asulkan glacier at Glacier National Park but the ascent of Mount Baker was in another league. With huge snow pack this year, the new skills and physical fitness demands of the 5000 ft elevation rise to the 10,781′ summit was a challenge. The climb started Monday from Glacier,Washington, with a 4 hour hike from the parking lot along the Heliotrope Trail to the base camp above the Coleman Glacier. Immediately, we had to cross a huge avalanche flow that blew apart the new creek bridge, we all wondered what might lie ahead. A chute of large trees were sheered off for hundreds of meters down the slope. Although the trail through rainforest up onto the ‘hogsback’ moraine was beautiful and busy with day hikers, the 50-60lb packs of equipment were an early indication of the strenuous hiking ahead. Meeting many travelers and other climbers along route and at the expansive snowy base camp was a fun distraction. The weather was sunny but cool and perfect for the initial setting up.
The entire summit and return took 13 hours. We geared up and started out at 3:00am trudging straight up in groups of 2 and 3 under the tenuous guidance of headlamps. Passing dark crevices as we slowly climbed the huge crusty snowfield was a new and weird experience. It was a strange feeling periodically looking up from my boots and crampons to see 4 roped up headlamps shining and creeping upward into the dark blue snow like a string of Christmas lights.
As we progressed upward, the night slowly receded into the glow of early morning whites, blues and pinks. I’ve never seen so many shades of white when contrasted with the jet black volcanic rock of the Black Buttes above us. Repeated rest stops and breaks for navigation and refueling of water and calories became and steady routine. Encouraged by the holding good weather our team spirit was very confident, especially considering Bob and I had some initial worries of our preparation and fitness. Bob Lindsay
was remarkably steady and positive as he was also monitoring his diabetes. His management and work effort was so inspiring. What a testament to education and self-assessment! Jack was doggedly following John’s trail breaking and Bob and I lined behind Pierre’s perfect pace setting.
By 11:00am we were all tired but now facing the almost vertical ascent of the ‘roman wall’, a daunting icy pitch up the upper reaches of the Deming Glacier on way to the summit. I was putting the pain of nasty blisters out of my mind because I was so close to the top. Our last push upward was methodically paced by Pierre who literally counted our line with 12 steps and rest. As we approached the final swale to the top, the bright sun glistened like diamonds on the snow. I was so excited to reach our goal but also relieved. My stumbling body was screaming to lie down and sleep.
We dropped our day packs and ropes and strolled along the crispy snowfield toward the absolute summit point a few hundred yards ahead. The views were breathtaking. The sky was cobalt blue and we could see for hundreds of miles in 360 degrees. A fluffy flat blanket of cloud covered all the landscape below us except for the largest peaks and mountains of the Cascades. We could see the bright peaks of Mount Rainer to the south and Mount Shuksan nearby among others. The peaks looked like islands rising out of a blue-white cloudy ocean. We soaked in our achievement while Jack crawled around the snow setting up our self-timer group shot. ( see gallery ) We returned to our packs on the top of Mount Baker and enjoyed more food and water for a relaxing deserved rest stop. I embraced a much needed nap.
Our return descent, although not riskless, was under very sunny conditions and softening snow. Finding footing under tired legs is a challenge as much as preventing severe sunburn. Our long trip home down the glaciers was a trek unto itself but we eventually all returned to base camp to change clothes and prepare a much deserved dinner. With Pierre’s hummus and soup appetizers, red wine and gallons of water, we heated up Nancy’s amazing butter chicken. We even downed Moisan’s cheesecake and emptied our flasks! No one can ever say we don’t eat well on our treks!
Unlike the leisurely spectacle of a burning sunset and brilliant moon of Monday night, Tuesday night we were all exhausted and sore. Not surprisingly, even after a lazy full meal and post-climbing banter we crashed in our tents at 6:30pm and didn’t rise for breakfast for another 12 hours.
The hike down to the truck Wednesday was a cool and delightful trip. We again met some interesting people along the way and at the trailhead as we dropped our gear and cracked open the cooler full of local brew- a ritual between friends who achieved another goal and concluded another summer adventure. Thanks to Pierre’s expertise and patience, a superior team of supportive men, and some persistent hard work, I succeeded in reaching my personal best altitude climb.Thanks boys!
ps If you ever get to Glacier, Washington, you have to enjoy the food and hospitality of Wake Bakery, Graham's Restaurant and Chair 9 Woodstone Pizza and Bar. These folks were superb!