Mount Baker North Ridge/Ski

Baker North RidgeMount Baker is a special mountain to me. One of the most memorable sunsets I’ve experienced was on the west side of the summit on the Coleman glacier. THE most memorable and enjoyable number two I’ve ever taken was on the Coleman glacier. I don’t say this to be crass. It truly was a memorable experience.

So I’m excited. Excited to get back to the west side of Mount Baker. Excited to climb the challenging North Ridge. With a late start leaving Seattle Forrest and I squeeze through the tiny late-morning traffic window heading north. We make it to the Deming Subway for Forrest’s ritual double foot-long pickup. This disgusts me. Subway is gross. I don’t know how he can down two feet of Subway sandwiches and expect to perform well in the alpine. In any case we continue on in the hopes that I can pickup my two lunches at a much finer establishment: Wake ’n Bakery in Glacier. Unfortunately they’re closed from a power outage. I decide that despite not having much for breakfast I can still power through the day without lunch. After all it’s really not a terrible approach to our campsite on the Coleman.
baker north ridgebaker north ridgeOnce at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead we quickly pack, strap our skis to our backs and start humping down the trail. Fool that I am, I think the snow is coming much sooner than it actually is. I leave my sneakers in the car and hike in my ski boots. Three miles of dry trail later and I’m ready to use my boots for what they’re intended: skiing. Thankfully the forest gives way to snowy meadows heading up Heliotrope Ridge. Glad to get the skis off our backs, we skin quickly up the ridge and towards the glacier.
We push above most of the cloud layers welcoming occasional sun breaks, and occasional views of the Coleman Headwall and Baker’s ice-capped summit. Heliotrope ridge sends us seamlessly onto the vast, low-angle Coleman glacier where we find an even spot to pitch our tent. As we setup camp and melt snow the clouds constantly change, swirling around us granting extravagant views of the North Cascades, then closing in around us once more. The clouds come and go all afternoon and evening slowly receding leaving just a puffy marine layer in the valley below, and a setting sun to the west. The summit is bathed in a warm glow for a few moments before the sun retires for the night. The air is warm and calm as is my heart after such a peaceful sunset on the flanks of Mount Baker.

baker north ridgebaker north ridgeIt’s two AM and the alarm sounds. The air is calm and the sky is clear. Somehow it takes us two hours to pack, eat and get moving. This puts us an hour behind schedule right off the bat. Thankfully the glacier is still in good spring form lacking its typical maze of crevasses. We crank our way up the Coleman still on skis, but wishing for ski crampons all the way to the bergschrund below the North Ridge. Here we put our skis on our backs for the rest of the climb. In the process I leave my pack unzipped and end up sending a few energy bars down the slope and into a hungry crevasse. Crossing the bergschrund is straight forward with a fun, steep step up and onto the snowfield above. I quickly realize that the skis on my back are going to be annoying as they keep bonking into the ice above me.

baker north ridgebaker north ridgebaker north ridgebaker north ridgeOnce on the snowfield we unrope and start the steep slog up toward the ridge. The slope is a good fifty to sixty degree angle. A fall here is probably un-arrestable, but the snow is perfect for tooling and cramponing. So I feel as snug as a bug in a rug. Now that we’re on steeper terrain I have to rest more frequently. Every stop I make I turn to admire the rising sun shedding light on the lower mountain. Then I look up towards the ridge above in anticipation of resting in the warm sunlight.

baker north ridgebaker north ridgebaker north ridgeProgress slows as we gain the ridge. It’s only now that I realize that my body is running on fumes and I’m about to bonk. Yesterday I made it through the approach on very little food, but didn’t consider it’s toll on my body for today. Dinner was pretty minimal and didn’t re-charge my body either. And now I’m without a lunch and down a few energy bars thanks to my sacrifice to the glacier gods. Oh man. A cold-cut-combo five dollar footlong sounds so good right now. Thankfully Forrest’s foot-longs are still fueling him and he has extra food to share. My lack of energy slows us as we make our way up the ridge towards the exciting ice pitch. After a few bars and starbursts my body begins to recover.

baker north ridgeWe traverse left below the ice cliff to where the guidebook speaks of a nice almost vertical arete. We find the arete, but instead of being a nice unhindered line to the top of the cliff, it runs straight into an overhang that’s impassable (at least with skis on our backs). After wasting over an hour exploring the left side of the cliff, we decide that we should probably follow all the other tracks that lead right to a smaller step that leads to a notch that ramps up and through the cliff. From far away this step looked boring and small. But it turns out to be a fun traversing pitch on good ice followed by a short vertical pitch that had the feel of a boulder problem.

baker north ridgebaker north ridgeOnce above the cliff we stay roped for a couple hundred feet placing occasional pickets. The ice quickly turns to snow and we unrope once more for the final push up the steep slope. By now my energy level is through the roof and we’re only a thousand feet from the summit. The thing about Cascade volcanos is that the summits round off so subtly. As I come around the plateau I just keep front pointing and tooling until I realize that I’m on a twenty degree slope, still on my hands and feet, and probably look like an idiot. So I stand up and wander the last several feet to the false summit and drop my pack for a well-deserved rest.

baker north ridgeThose foot-longs must finally be enacting revenge on Forrest because it takes about forty five minutes for his head to finally float into view coming over the false summit. Apparently he took a small fall on the final steep section. But I don’t buy it. I blame the subs.

baker north ridge
 At three PM It’s too late to cross the quarter mile to the true summit. So we put away our climbing gear and lock into ski mode. The nice thing about it being three o’clock is that the snow on the upper-mountain is perfect corn. We rip turns down the Roman Wall, down past Colfax peak and the Black Buttes, down the Coleman to our campsite, stopping every few minutes to let the legs rest. It took us eleven hours to summit from our camp. And it takes us a mere twenty minutes to descend back down.
We pack up camp and make like bananas, making nice turns down Heliotrope and to the trail where three terrible miles await my booted feet. Oh well. Forrest has work at ten PM in Seattle. So we put our heads down and book it out to the car.
Mount Baker never disappoints. The spectacular sunset, always-changing clouds, gorgeous sunrise over the San Juans, a spicy, and excited ice climb, and a five star ski descent down perfect spring snow.

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