Mt. Baker - North Ridge in a Day
May 26, 2001
Dave (above) and Greg climbing through the Ice step on the North Ridge.
Photo: Phil Fortier
The weather for Memorial day weekend was jinxed by me early in the
week sending out emails of great forecasts and low freezing levels.
Our original objective, the Coleman Headwall route, was looking good
for our "Alaska warm up" climb. However, by late week the
only nice weather window turned out to be Saturday. Thus the idea put
forth was to do the North Ridge route on Baker in one light weight push.
We left Seattle at 9pm, and drove out to the North side trailhead.
There was still a snow plug just before the actual trail head, so we
parked at the last bridge and suited up in the windy chill of the night.
With light day packs, a fair amount of technical gear and no sleep,
we set out from the cars at 12:30 a.m. Hiking up the mostly snowed in
trail was easy, and even the gnarly river crossing about 2/3rds the
way up the trail was thankfully still bridged by snow. The boot track
left the usual summer trail to follow a gully up towards the glacier,
and soon we were out of the tree cover and traversing over towards "camp
rock", the sites on the left of the standard route at about 6,300ft.
We could already see two lights up on the North Ridge, and by the time
we got to what we thought was their camp, they were on the ice step.
Speaking freely, we quickly woke up the real inhabitants of the tent.
Oh well, we roped up quickly and were soon crossing the Coleman glacier
at the 6,500ft. level in total darkness (no moon). The glacier crossing
was going very easy, much to our surprise, and we were all still feeling
strong and awake. Crossing the Coleman is like walking through a surreal
ice maze where seracs soar up out of the flat glacier, and rolling hills
tumble apart into cracks and oblivion. No doubt the early morning enhanced
the effects, but this is truly a beautiful place to be before dawn.
On the lower toe of the North Ridge. Photo: Greg Mueller
We were making great time, right on schedule when we made it to the
toe of the North Ridge. It was 5 am, and time for a rest. The sun was
now starting to rise, and we could see the magnificent peaks of the
Redoubt/Spickard area. My new XGK stove/portable-rocket soon had boiling
water, while Phil's canister stove plugged along, trying to make ends
meet. The party was still feeling strong, but I had started to notice
the first signs of fatigue in me on the climb up to the ridge crest.
Phil knew of a short cut on the lower ridge that avoids the far East
reaching detour that Beckey describes. We basically climbed strait up
a 45 degree snow slope (berchrund exposed later season) and curved right
around the headwall. This lead to another gully leading onto the North
Ridge proper. The climbing was spectacular--Perfect cramponing up 40
degree frozen snow in the glow of the rising sun. Before we knew it,
we were at 9,000 ft at a flat spot just below the imposing ice cliff.
The crux of the North Ridge is the
ice cliff at about 9,600 ft. Photo: Greg Mueller
The ice cliff is practically what makes this climb so popular. The
options vary from short sections of steep ice, to extended sections
of more moderate 65-75 degree sections. Most routes would probably be
about a pitch long in the early season. We were all starting to get
pretty exhausted about now, which was unfortunate seeing as we were
just about to climb the crux of the route! Greg lead our teams off on
the very exposed (over another icecliff) 45 degree snow, and through
the big crevasses to the base of the technical climbing. I racked the
screws and all 4 pickets from Greg, and lead off up to the base of the
wall. After crossing a rocky 'scrund on a warm snowbridge, the slope
turned to bare 45-50 degree glacier ice. Two ropelengths lead to where
the ice steepened considerably. We chose the absolute ridge crest, for
it looked cool, and we were tired. I climbed up a very brittle 30 foot
section of AI2, which tended to break apart with each swing and pummel
the guys below me. After turning a corner and finding two really nice
ice ledges, I decided to belay Greg on up and re rack. The pickets dangling
in my crotch were starting to get a bit annoying too, especially the
four footer! Greg left the screws in place, and Phil/Matt lead on the
same gear up to our location. After re racking, Phil lead off first
this time, and I lead second, while Greg cleaned. We were on the sun-exposed
ice now, where the climbing became less strenuous and more fun! We continued
up more AI2 ice for 30 feet or so, and then traversed left to exit onto
the upper ridge. This involved traversing a super narrow ledge cutting
across the middle of a warm-squishy-dripping-serac--we moved quickly!
Phil and Matt getting pummeled by ice while climbing the ice cliff.
Photo: Greg Mueller
Phil leading off on the second steep
ice bit. Photo: Greg Mueller
Now that we were established on the 40-45 degree snow above the cliffs,
we started to feel antsy about summitting. We had made good time through
the technical bits, but were starting to get behind our schedule. Feeling
the fatigue even more now, we opted to keep a picket in on the moderately
steep snow. Soon the ridge relaxed in angle, and I was walking back and
forth across crevasses (sorry Greg!) trying to find a good way to exit
onto the summit ice cap. Did Beckey's description say head way right
and exit? hmm, can't remember, seems to cliff out over there. Seems to
cliff out to the left too...
Me wandering around, trying to find the
exit slope. Photo: Greg Mueller
Looks like it's going to be strait up the steep snow. I knew
I was on track when what I though were icefall tracks turned out to
be boot-tracks going up our intended exit slope. This proved to be more
fun 45 degree bare ice, and soon we were dragging our sorry slow asses
up to the flat summit plateau.
It was now 1 pm, and we were pooped. We ambled across the broad expanse
towards to slightly higher bump on the far East edge. Unknown to us,
both Matt and I were suffering from AMS due to the quick ascent and
fatigued state of our bodies. In my exhausted, hypoxic mind, I felt
that they were moving too slow. So, taking matters into my own hands,
I zoomed on past Greg and beat them all up the knoll to the summit!
Ha Ha, I was laughing until I made a nice face plant into the snow.
We didn't last long on the true summit, for is was blowing and cold.
A nap was in order, so we walked down to the sag in the plateau and
totally zonked out for a half hour. In retrospect, we should have set
an alarm, because we might have woken up on Sunday if I'd had it my
A frequent pose for me that day, this
time on the summit! Photo: Greg Mueller
Eventually we got up, and started working our way down the Roman Wall. Having
climbed that route last spring while teaching a class, I was confident
that the way was going to be nice and easy... if I could only keep my
meager lunch in my stomach, and stay upright. Half way down the slope
we removed our balling-up crampons and stowed them away. The descent
continued, long and boring slog down through warm slush, with a couple
near crevasse falls to keep things interesting. With every couple hundred
feet down the mountain I started to feel better, only now realizing
that I had AMS. Soon we were passing all the tents of the poor suckers
in the basin. These people probably woke up to the inside of a cloud
the next morning!
Soon enough we were down on the trail, and hiking intently towards
the truck with visions of Milano's excellent Italian food dancing through
our heads. While picking up the rear of the line, I came upon Greg sitting
on the ground in the middle of the trail. While thinking of his Chicken
Cordon-bleu dinner to come, Greg had slipped on the icy trail and sprained
his ankle. Damn, dinner will have to wait. Luckily Greg has a "4-footer"
which could be used as a walking stick. The going was very slow, and
Greg was in a ton of pain. Finally it clicked to me that I could carry
both of our packs, and that would speed things up. So, hooking his (heavier?)
pack up on my front side, and him hobbling along, we covered about 1.5
miles and 700 feet in a quick hour!
Luckily, Greg could still walk fast enough to make it to Milano's in
time for dinner, and enjoyed a well deserved feast. We had left the
car at 12:30 am Saturday, and Greg and I arrived back a mere 19 hours
later, at 7:30 pm. I had been awake for just over 36 hours at this point.
To Greg's credit, he and Matt drove the entire way home, allowing
Phil and I to finally get some sleep. Who came up with this Baker-in-a-day
idea anyhow..... hmmm. :)