Mt. Baker, Coleman-Deming Route, July 20-21, 2004
O'Brien was sidelined with kidney stones and sporadic serious pain, so Kevin called his mountaineer friend Scott Otterson about coming along on a climb and ski of Mt. Baker, which Scott readily agreed to. Kevin and I made a last minute push to flesh out our randonée racks, agonizing over which cheap and light pulleys would work best to mind prusiks without being official "prusik minding" $35 pieces of hardware, finally settling on a $10.95 SMC alloy one and a couple of emergency Petzl plastic ones. After setting up a practice "z" system, the plastic ones turned out to kind of bogus; you had to have a perfectly oval biner to get it to turn without friction, and the prusiks of course went right through the biner body. Man, I could have bought 3 lattes with that money!
We tested out the new 8mm Beal rando rope from the third-floor roof of the Madison Valley firehouse and learned that, among other things, 5mm prusiks with three loops were needed to get sufficient friction to ascend, but it worked fine, just a little painful in Tevas and no gloves.
Kevin, Scott and I got on the road about 11:20 from Lake Forest Park, with marginal overcast weather in the offing, and cruised unimpeded to Bellingham, proceeding on to Glacier and a stop at Milano's for caffeine. The road to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead was a mixed bag of new pavement only wide enough for about 1½ cars and bomb crater laden gravel, but we made it in good time without doing serious damage to the Montero. The fog and light mist at the trailhead didn't seem too exciting to us with none of us having done the route before and this was reinforced when two climbers came out who had been waiting for a weather break to climb the North Ridge but given up in the rain Tuesday AM.
We saddled up anyway amidst constant complaining by all involved about how much weight climbing gear and skis and boots added to one's pack, and hit the trail. The Heliotrope Ridge trail is in beautiful shape and very well maintained up to the junction of the climber's trail, which of course veers sharply straight up the hill. Every once in a while the fog would part and we would catch a glimpse of the huge shattered shards of ice making up the lower Coleman Glacier, grey, menacing and spectacular, the texture reminiscent of a bed of amethyst crystals. We cruised at a brisk but reasonable pace up to the first climber's camps at 6,000 ft. where 3 parties were camped waiting out the fog and drizzle - one group of five appeared to be doing crevasse rescue practice on the slope just above the camps.
We switched to skins as the visibility went from crap to worse, and started the ascent to the high camps at 7,200 ft., playing it safe and going around the end of several large crevasses and thereby adding a fair amount of distance to the ski - on the way down we would descend straight down to this same spot. On the ridge at a little over 7,200 we got a break in the cloud cover that enabled us to see the incredibly rugged Thunder Glacier far below, then skied down to the official campsite where a party of 3 from Michigan and Iowa was waiting for a chance to climb. We were a little surprised by the obvious former bivy sites located about 10 yards from the three chemical toilets (the diarrhea party?) and selected a nice one about 100 yards away instead to set up the MegaLite.
After a dinner of soups, cheese & salami, and Scott's incredible tuna burrito thing, the weather remarkably started to clear, first in fits and starts, then in a wholesale manner, turning the emerging mountain into beautiful alpenglow shades of rosy pink, surely a good sign for the next day. We contemplated rousing the Michigan/Iowa climbers who had already hit the sack, but ended up simply climbing back up ridge for photo ops, some of which you see here.
We were awakened several times as early as 3:15 AM by bellowing climbers passing the site ("come on, let's stay together, close it up!") as well as the persistent sounds of the myriad of tiny mice scampering on our bags looking for food. Fortunately our makeshift mouse-bag arrangement foiled them (I knew there was a reason we brought these skis!) and there was no rodent puncturing of packs or shelter (the Michigan/Iowa guys could not say the same).
Wednesday dawned clear as a bell around Mt. Baker, with just a few puffy cumulus cotton balls floating around the lower peaks - it had frozen during the night, making for a pretty firm snow surface for skinning without ski crampons (Kevin and Scott had none), so we took our time eating breakfast and stowing gear under the tent. Several climbers looked at us with typical disdain (damn lazy skiers!) as they passed, one women rope leader barking at her charges as they walked by.
Eventually we managed to get the gear in our packs, sunscreen on bodies, and all tied in to the rope, and headed up toward the summit. The ascent went without incident, although wide crevasses were definitely opening up and the glacier gear was absolutely called for. We skinned until just under a long section of dirt and gravel boot-up, where the combination of steepness and hard snow made the switch to crampons necessary, then left them on to ascend the winding dirt section, which turned out to be pretty long - it was borderline whether or not it was a good idea to climb it in alloy crampons, but none of ours seemed to suffer any damage.
We met the party with the woman drill sergeant rope leader, who pointedly asked us if we intended to ski the Roman Wall. When we insisted that we had packed our skis for that very purpose, they exclaimed, "Well, good luck. That's glacial ice up there!" We left the crampons on and the skis on the packs for the next pitch and the Roman Wall, as both were fairly steep and still fairly hard, and made the true summit (Grant Peak) at around 12:15 PM.
Conditions at the summit were ideal, with temperatures in the 70's and a light breeze blowing - we hung out in shirtsleeves and ate a leisurely lunch, checking out the steam-spewing crater and the various approach routes and ski possibilities. After checking the summit register and finding nothing viable to write on (only a wet and moldy notebook, a rusty sardine tin, and a few loose sheets of notepaper) we decided to bag signing in and use the top of the metal register box as a support for some time-delayed self portraits.
We put the skis back on around 1:15 PM and skinned back over to the false summit, checking out the top of the awesome Park Glacier on the way - the dip between the two summits is such that you have to skin uphill for a couple hundred yards to get back to the west side descent.
As we started the descent of the Roman Wall, the words of the climbers echoed in our minds, but other than a few patches of mildly translucent nevé, what we found on the slope was just . . . pure . . . buttah! Perfect summer snow, firm base with about 2-3 inches of sun-softened corn to soothe the soul, no significant suncups or runnels. The next pitch down was the same, as was the pitch below the dirt ridge. Fast, smooth, and minimally sun-effected, this was by far the best snow I've encountered this summer.
We were able to get past the several serious crevasses we had passed on the way up without using the rope, either by end-running them or simply getting up a head of steam and crossing them at a near perpendicular angle. The slope mellowed, and we opened up and cranked big GS turns down to camp, passing a group of climbers who displayed the usual mix of admiration and scorn for the guys that had just descended in 20 minutes what had taken them 2 hours. We cracked the Heinekens we had buried in the snow and simply enjoyed the moment while breaking camp and re-packing the packs, then traversed over to the slope above the low camp at 6,000 ft.
Even the final ski down to the end of the skiable snow was epic, though lightly etched by runnels and crossed in a couple of spots by nascent crevasses - we looked back up the hill at our tracks and were happy with what we saw. After a quick change to trail runners and sliding the skis back into the packs, we booted it down to the trailhead in short order, made the short drive into Glacier to load up on caffeine drinks, and drove off into the sunset toward Seattle.