Technical climbing info:
- Mountain: Mount Baker
- Elevation: 10,778ft
- Route: North Ridge
- Length: 7,100ft
- Grade: III+, AI3
- Day 1: Approach via the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead, camp on the Coleman Glacier
- Day 2: Leave camp at 5am, arrive to base of the North Ridge at 7am, climb on!
The plan was to get on a PNW classic. Just not this classic. Three days before going up on Liberty Ridge, tragedy hit the route. A serious rockfall over Thumb Rock, likely due to the atypically warm spring, killed 1 and seriously injured 2. With Liberty Ridge out of the question, Jessica and I decided to aim for Mt. Baker’s North Ridge.
I had last climbed this route back in 2016, and with Jessica just moving here, it was a great opportunity for her to nail a classic and for me to get on the sharp end of the rope.
Our normal prep was pretty much tossed to the curb for this climb. We intended to have a rest weekend after hitting our workout routines pretty hard for the past few weeks. That didn’t happen, which would come back to bite me… We also neglected to print a route map or download any offline maps to our phones. We read one single trip report, downloaded a few images to our phones, and had a quick dinner while packing our bags.
The peak I call home
I’ve always claimed Mt. Baker to be my favorite peak in the Cascades. In fact, it was the first “real” peak I had ever climbed. We spent the last few months on the south side of Mt. Hood, so the hike up Heliotrope Ridge was a welcome treat. I felt good to be back on Baker, like coming home after a long time away.
Casually walking and chatting, we somehow found our way booting up some snow and accidentally ending up on the hiker’s trail. I didn’t realize that something was off until I was staring down at the glacial tongue while Jess was playing with an elderly couple’s two dogs. We booted up for 30 minutes cutting back across, only to realize that the two trails connected right around where we wanted to camp anyways.
We set up camp at the base of the Coleman Glacier, positioning ourselves for our not-so-early 4:30am start. With our limited research, we read only one single trip report that mentioned getting to the bottom of the route by 7am. We figured that the morning sunlight would help us navigate the glacier as well.
Setting up our camp, we had a great view of the entire North Ridge Route above us.
At some point as we were unpacking our food, we realized that we had possibly brought too little food. We had eaten a lot more than expected on the hike in. Our small dinner the night before and the previous week of vigorous workouts was making us eat a lot more than we normal do. Jessica dumped our climbing food onto the tent floor and calculated calories while I cooked our ramen and pea dinner.
Even though we weren’t sleeping up very high, my brain still managed to have weird high-altitude-esq dreams. By 3:30am, our alarms rang. I was still half dreaming, hearing Jessica’s alarm coming from somewhere in between my dream state and reality. I finally committed to opening my eyes, and could begin to hear another climbing party passing our tents. As we go up and began getting ready, I could see their headlamps making their way down to the North Ridge. In the distance, we could see another set of headlamps already getting close to the base of the route.
“Too easy”, for now
We began to follow the boot pack into the heart of the Coleman Glacier, mostly to find the boot pack making a hard u-turn back to the Coleman Deming. I called this the oh-crap-we’re-lost bootpack.
The glacier was in overall good condition and only required minimal weaving and crevasse hopping. Before we knew it we were booting up the ramp onto the North Ridge. Compared to when I was here back in 2016, these conditions were cruiser. We were at risk of thinking that this route may be “too easy”!
Although the route seemed to be in great shape, my body, on the other hand, wasn’t. I could feel my hips groaning with every step. My harsh workout routine without any rest days really wasn’t doing me any favors. Either way, this wasn’t the moment to get caught up in the negatives. I gulped down some caffeinated gel. Walk it off..!
Downward facing dog
Once we gained the ridge, we could see the parties who started hours before us just slightly above us now. We could see one slowly pitching their way up the center of the ice lobe, and the other extremely slowly pitching their way up the right variation.
Not really taking any significant breaks and not wanting to be directly under either party, we decided to take a breather. With my body pretty tight, I decided that this would be a good spot to get some stretching done. Jess was thoroughly freaked out when I popped into my downward facing dog stretch with crampons and ice tools.
We ended up killing almost an hour waiting for the two parties to crawl their ways up. I could feel the sun beating down on the snow beside us and my impatience began to kick in. As the party on the central variation looked like they were about to pull over the pitch, Jess and I began to make our way to the bottom of the ice wall.
There is only so much stretching can do
Arriving to the ice wall, I could see that it was a lot steeper than I expected, probably a dead 90°. Still feeling pretty tight, (there is only so much stretching can do..), I figured that wouldn’t be the way up for us. We set our eyes on the slightly less steep but much rockier right variation.
We traversed over, still waiting for the party above. They had been on the single pitch for at least 1.5 hours by now. We chilled for another 10 minutes, when I finally told Jess that we just needed to pass these guys. We had killed far too much time waiting around, and they seemed to be mostly off the rock. I intentionally wasn’t super quiet about it, and apparently that did the trick because they began to move. Our turn now.
“Is that ice above safe?!”
As soon as I got a couple meters above the belay, I could see that this was a lot more challenging that it looked from just below. Virtually all the big blocky rocks that I though would make for easy footings were actually loosely bonded death bombs. I gingerly climbed in-between them, using the overhanging serac above to place ice screws. Jess yelled up, “Is that ice above safe?!”. I figured a serac collapse was a lot less likely than me peeling off the mixed terrain. I yelled back “Yeah!”.
After a very strenuous 25 minutes on what I’d call loose-M3-ish terrain, I pulled up onto a very-much welcome poof of high quality neve and kicked in a step to take a breather. I climbed a bit higher and belayed Jessica up on a bomber anchor. I knew that the fall potential on that pitch was high.
After 20 minutes of muffled “slack” and “tension” commands, Jess pulled her way up onto the neve puff below. I could tell she was as rocked as me when I pulled up. I had my camera out and yelled, “Stop there and I’ll take a photo!”. I knew she wouldn’t be in the mood but, so I know it would be the perfect moment. She scowled at me. After a very brief pose, she continued her way up to the belay. Done with the crux.
Summit fever ain’t for me
Done with the crux, or so we though! We may have been done with the technical crux, but with our rushed preparation, neither of us had downloaded the GPS maps or made any printed maps. We weaved around crevasses looking for the serac pinnacle that we knew would lead us to the summit. After one floaty pitch up the serac, we b-lined for the summit plateau.
For being my favorite Cascade peak, I’ve actually only stood on the true summit only a handful of times. I’ve always had the habit of reaching the summit plateau and spinning back down. Maybe it’s because in the back of my mind I am thinking about Colefax Peak’s shedding seracs. Or maybe it’s the thought of the Coleman Glacier looming crevasses under the warming snow.
For whatever reason, peering down the Coleman Deming, our path of descent that I’ve gone up and down many times, I didn’t recognize the route sending us walking in a big circle. Killing a lot of time until then, for better or for worse, gave us the glacier to ourselves on the way down. It was good to be back on Baker.
Up next, another big Baker route
Stepping onto the route itself was pretty exhilarating. It was something I had been dreaming of for the last few years. Even more exhilarating was our high speed crossing of all the lower slope’s avalanche debris that we did not want to hang around in.[…]