Rolling the Dice on Mt. Baker
Washington state’s Mt. Baker towers 3300 meters over the Fraser Valley and is one of the loftiest landmarks in the Northwest. It can be clearly seen from almost anywhere in the Chilliwack area and many are beckoned by its sheer magnificence. Climbing Mt. Baker is a demanding challenge which requires fitness and experience in mountaineering and glacier travel. Most climbers ascend Mt. Baker in two phases – on day one, they climb with camping gear to approximately 1900-2100 meters, set up a base camp and acclimate (get used to thin air) by sleeping until about 2:00 am. Then they get up, have a light meal and complete the final 1100-1300 meters with just light gear, liquids and snacks. The climb down is a long one as they usually climb down to their base, have a rest, break camp and descend all the way back to the parking lot at 1400 meters asl.
For those of us who have flown paragliders from Mt. Baker, the challenge is magnified in two ways. First, we complete the entire climb overnight, all the way from 1400 m to 3300 m in one long go with no acclimation time. Second, we carry all our climbing gear, food, liquid and our flying gear all the way to the summit, so the weight is considerable. Exhausted doesn’t nearly begin to describe how I feel when I step onto Baker’s summit, but if the winds are right, the physical ordeal is over. I can’t even put into words what is feels like to take those four or five steps and then fly seventeen kilometers and descend 3,000 meters to the town of Glacier with its warm, thick air and a fine meal just thirty-five minutes after standing on a the vast snow sculptured plateau of Baker’s summit.
I have flown from the top of Mt. Baker five times. I have climbed it four times without a wing. Thankfully, I have never needed to carry a wing down from the top of Baker- until last Sunday. Despite, our usual pre-trip weather research which indicated a perfect 18 km/hr (or less) WNW wind, the conditions did not allow me to launch. This was the first time I’ve rolled the dice on Mt. Baker and lost. The adventure was nevertheless, wonderful in other ways so here is a brief synopsis with photos.
This climb was done with my long time adventure partner, Richard Teszka. We began hiking at 12:30 am on June 7, 2015. I have always tried to climb on a night with a moon and although it wasn’t full, the moon was stunning as it rose above the Deming Glacier after we had been climbing for about three hours. We could see the twinkling headlamps of several parties slowly making their way up the glacier above us, but by the time we reached the col at 2700 m, we had caught up to two of the parties. The snow conditions were perfect. We followed the obvious climber’s highway in snow that didn’t even require crampons. In late summer and fall the snow melts and exposes blue ice as well as crevasses and then crampons become essential on the steeper sections. For us, the crevasses were still mainly covered over and we stepped lightly over the thin depressions indicating what could could be huge crevasses below. There was only one gaping crevasse and it still had a nice snow bridge over it.
The last part of the climb, up the Roman Wall is very steep and seems to take forever before the slope slowly rolls out onto a vast escarpment that a skilled pilot could land a plane on. We had noticed a significant amount of north wind on the Roman Wall, so we had an inkling that conditions might not allow a flight but at this point we just maintained our climber’s enthusiasm and hoped it would change.
We completed the climb in record time (for me), six hours, forty-five minutes arriving at 7:15 am . Normally we launch between 9 and 10 am after the sun has begun warming the west side to create an updraft, so we we opted to hang out on top for a while and complete the 500 meter trudge to Grant’s summit. the highest point on the mountain.
It was cold, bitterly so. We bundled up and sat with some other climbers on the leeside of the summit but the wind was swirling from everywhere and it was gusty. Eventually, we walked back over to the west shoulder where our paragliding gear sat in the bright, snowy sunshine and accepted the reality that we would have to shoulder these packs and carry them back down. We began the descent at 8:30 am and despite feeling exhausted and nauseous from the altitude, we were back down to the col in forty minutes and with each meter descended, the effects of the altitude began to dissipate. Even the wind calmed down below 2600 meters and by 10 am it began to get very hot on the warming snow slopes. As the snow softened, we elected to remove our crampons so we could slip more easily down the slope and by 11:00 am we reached the toe of the glacier, called the hogsback. From here the trail descends steeply down to thick old growth forest and then all that remains is a long traversing trudge down another 600 meters, fording several creeks swollen with snow melt from the sun-baked snow slopes above.
Although the trail is easy, the hard ground and rock surfaces are are jarring on tired bodies wearing stiff climbing boots. Blisters began to form on my feet which had gotten damp from snow sliding into my non-gatored boots. My own fault – exhaustion leads to laziness when the end is in sight.
Finally, at 12:30 pm, Richard and I staggered into the stifling parking lot where we at last doffed our sweat-soaked packs and guzzled the water we had waiting for us in the vehicle. A frantic search of the vehicle yielded some Advil to ease the ache in our battered bodies. Soon we were down to my truck, stashed at the landing field just north of Glacier where I could, at last, take off my boots and expose my feet with several bleeding blisters to the fresh air and slip on a welcome pair of sandals.
Richard was so tired, he opted to sleep in his car for a while before driving home. I can hardly remember my own drive apart from the usual joy of using my Nexus to slip past the vehicles lined up at the border. By 3 pm, I was home. By 3:30. I was showered and horizontal on a couch. Apart from missing the opportunity to fly, we had enjoyed a safe climb in splendid conditions and I’m sure that when the blisters have healed and the sore muscles and joints have recovered, I will be listening once again for Mt. Baker’s beckoning call.