Mt. Baker - North Ridge

November 29 - 30, 2002

Dave Svilar, Matt Alford

 

Route showing the north ridge as the left-hand skyline.  We descended the Coleman-Deming route which is basically the right hand skyline.

 

Our route from another perspective.  We camped above the seracs on the left and ascended the thin red line the next day.  The route curved left around the large serac on top towards the summit which is not in the picture.

Matt and I had set aside the day after Thanksgiving to do something together.  Most Americans would spend the day shopping, while many others would go skiing.  Unlike most Americans our options were limited - a day at the mall was out of the question as I was unemployed and Matt was surviving on financial aid.  Skiing was also out of the question as most Washington resorts had bases of 0".  Brainstorming on Thanksgiving morning I came up with an idea.  While out with Darren the day before it had seemed like spring conditions above 5,000 feet.  If we could cross the severely broken Coleman Glacier who was to say that we couldn't climb the north ridge of Mt. Baker?  This route normally doesn't see much action after July, so a climb of the north ridge after Thanksgiving?  Preposterous.

Before proposing my idea to Matt I was a little nervous that he would think it was ridiculous, but his answer was simple: "Let's go."  After meeting at Matt's place in Bellingham and driving to the trailhead we set off on the trail towards Heliotrope Ridge that should've been buried in snow in any normal year.  We made quick work of the lower part of the trail and before long were roped up and weaving through crevasses of the Coleman Glacier. 

At one point we stopped to fiddle with our gear and grab a drink.  In an attempt to make conversation Matt asked me if there were any good stories from our trip up Snowking two days before.  I tried to think, but replied, "neither of us did anything stupid."  Ironically, a split second after muttering these words I heard a scraping sound on the glacier behind me and turned just in time to see Matt's glove skid into a crevasse.  Matt had some choice words for himself, but luckily upon closer inspection the crevasse wasn't that deep, so he crawled in and retrieved the glove. 

Matt near a crevasse on the way to camp on the Coleman Glacier.

The key to the climb would be getting to the climb.  Accessing the north ridge requires crossing an enormous and heavily crevassed glacier (Coleman).  Fortunately, Matt had tried to access Baker's Coleman Headwall a month before, and although he wasn't successful he knew which way not to go through the crevasses.  We were just like two rats trying to find our way through a maze with the north ridge acting as our cheese.  At one point we were forced to work our way through a field of seracs.  This section would have almost certainly been impassable a few weeks before, but the crevasses seemed to be covered with a sufficient layer of fresh snow.  I wasn't sure how strong the snow bridges were, so I had Matt keep the rope tight.  With each step I expected to plunge through the fresh snow into the black void of a crevasse, but each time the bridges held.  After exiting the serac field we looked straight ahead and could see that no major obstacles would keep us from the north ridge.  We let out a jubilant cry and found ourselves a place to bivy on a flat section of the glacier.

We spent time scouting the route for the next day and decided we'd gain the ridge by climbing around schrunds on a steep face.  Matt was kind enough to treat me to dinner, making some sort of vegetarian concoction that was supposed to resemble tacos.  I pretended like I enjoyed it although it tasted closer to cardboard than a real taco.  Excursions in the winter have their disadvantages, the worst being daylight.  By 5:30 pm it had long since turned dark by which time Matt and I had already retired to our sleeping bags nestled on the glacier below the imposing north side of Mt. Baker.  Opening my eyes and looking straight up it never took longer than 15 seconds to spot a shooting star, and with a little more effort I could tilt my head and see the lights of Vancouver B.C. glistening in the valley below.  I laid wide awake for almost four hours as my thoughts drifted, but never drifted far from the north ridge of Baker.  Tomorrow's climb would be a challenge for me so my nerves were on edge.

Matt prepares his tasteless dinner at the bivy while the last light from the sun illuminates the ice cliff that would prove to be our nemesis the next day.

We both awoke well before sunrise to temperatures far from the expected frigid.  We were in no hurry to get going as we knew snow conditions would be solid - at this time of year the sun barely even shines on the north side of the mountain.  We slowly packed up our gear and ate some breakfast as the sun finally began to rise.  At one point Matt and I were approximately 15 feet apart in the dark morning and simultaneously cursing our blue bags.  Struggles with our blue bags provided a bad omen to begin the day - how were two jokers who couldn't even manage a blue bag supposed to climb this burly mountain?

Sometime after 7:00 a.m. we set off on the course agreed upon the night before.  Headlamps were only required for the first 20 minutes as we passed a small bergschrund and made a traversing ascent up the steep (45 degree) slope that would connect us to the north ridge.  Elevation was gained quickly as our perspective of the Coleman Glacier turned into that of a bird's eye view.  For no apparent reason Matt let out a random joyful yelp.  The morning really was superb, so I answered his cry with a yelp of my own that seemed to echo off the headwall next to us.  A fall on this steep extended face may have proven deadly, so my tired mind and calves were relieved to finally gain the more moderate ridge.

Looking back at Matt above the steep face with the Coleman Glacier retreating into the valley below.

 

Dave with the ice cliff awaiting us above.

Straight above us awaited the ice cliff (10,000') feet that provides the crux of the climb.  All indications from previous trip reports suggested a couple of pitches of 60-70 degree ice.  However looking at the ice cliff both of us were confident that we saw a ramp that would provide no more than a pitch of 55 degree ice.  With great anticipation we climbed the last 45 minutes through loose unconsolidated snow to the base of our "ramp."

My stomach dropped upon closer inspection of the "ramp" - there was no ramp, just a wall of vertical ice.  Looking up at the sheer wall of ice I was quite intimidated.  Not only was I not the world's most experienced ice climber, but the exposure on the ice cliff would be dreadful.  As scary as this seemed it sounded worse to have to retreat back down the steep face and across the myriad of crevasses that made up the Coleman Glacier.  The only way was up.

I was equipped with an ice axe and ice tool whereas Matt carried two tools.  We had spent a couple of weekends practicing on the ice, and Matt felt he was capable of leading the first pitch.  I confess that as Matt led out on the ice cliff that I have never been so nervous belaying another climber.  For starters my skinny rope was not designed to take leader falls.  In addition, the ice was rotten requiring Matt to take between four and six swings to get a good placement.  With each swing large plates of ice, some as large as 12" in diameter busted loose and skidded several hundred feet down the cliff.  Using the mantra "each placement is a belay" Matt made sure to keep his placements safely spread apart to avoid one large plate that would rip out both tools.  Adding to the difficulty was fresh snow that made climbing over lips extremely sketchy.  While Matt calmly climbed and place several ice screws for protection, I quivered at the belay praying that Matt wouldn't fall and rip us both off the ice cliff.  Sometimes it pays to have friends that are braver than yourself.

To my great relief I heard the highly anticipated words from above, "off belay."  Now it was my turn to follow Matt's lead.  With a top rope I had no worries about my abilities to quickly follow the climb.  After a few swings my ice tool found a solid placement.  Next I swung my ice axe that bounced off the rotten ice with a retarded thud.  I kept trying, but each swing produced no worthy placement.  Not only was my my ice axe not meant for vertical ice, but I also hadn't sharpened it in over a year.  My confidence turned to a subdued state of panic as I realized I'd have to climb vertical, rotten, and wickedly exposed ice cliff with one tool (my prusik was buried in my pack).  Matt assured that his belay was solid and I began working my way up using one tool.  My desperate climbing made it feel like I was climbing the ice with my fingernails.  After climbing over the final lip to the belay I doubled over in exhaustion trying to catch my breath.  The last few minutes had been the most intense, concerted, desperate effort of my life and I was worn out.  Instead of swinging leads Matt lead out again on the second (and much easier second pitch) while I found enough energy to give a decent belay.

Matt sinks in his tools as he starts out on the second pitch of the ice cliff.  As you can see there is plenty of air below Matt's heels.

After safely passing the ice cliff we tried to find a way around another jumble of seracs and crevasses.  The effort on the ice cliff had taken a toll on me, and while trying to navigate I found myself on a steep slope with mixed hard and soft snow.  With no way of protecting a fall (all we had were ice screws) and a yawning crevasse below we retreated to try another route.  My energy was sapped, so I was overjoyed to find that our next effort got us past the remaining obstacles with the summit lying straight ahead.

Mt. Baker is a frequently climbed mountain, so we took extra time to enjoy the pristine beauty and solitude that the summit offered.  There wasn't a single track to be found, and it appeared that no one had been there in days or even weeks.  The atmosphere was crystal clear providing views north to Vancouver and the buildings of Seattle clearly visible to the south.  As enjoyable as this was, I had to tend to my low blood sugar.  Like a seasoned gambler I had left my ace in the hole: my entire supply of mom's cookies were still in my pack.  After devouring these (and even giving one to Matt) I felt like a new man and was ready for the descent.

Dave bundles up on the summit with his early x-mas present from Santa - a down, puffy coat.

The north ridge is too hard to descend, so we did a carry-over toting all our gear on our backs up and over the mountain.  Even though this makes climbing more difficult, both Matt and I are big fans of carry-overs as we enjoy seeing more terrain.  We started descending the easier Coleman-Deming route plunging along in deep snow that made our crampons ball up with each step.  Our minds were eased on the moderate terrain, but we kept our guards up as the new snow could easily cover up crevasses lurking below.  After crossing back onto the north side and the Coleman Glacier our descent just became a game of navigating through the crevasses.

Matt looks down onto a sea of ice and snow that is the Easton and Deming Glaciers on the south side of the mountain.  Looking at this picture it's not hard to tell why Baker is pound for pound the iciest mountain in the lower 48 states.

 

Back on the Coleman Glacier, Matt poses in front of Baker's satellite peaks - the Black Buttes.

 

Dave on the Coleman Glacier.

We wound our way across the expanse of the glacier and finally set our feet on dry ground.  I savored the hike back out through the woods knowing it would be my last in the Cascades for some time.  Adding to the fact that it was a great climb, I felt we had almost got away with murder by climbing at this time of year.  To this point my retirement had been full of enjoyable climbs, but all climbs which I felt were at or below my meager abilities.  This climb provided the challenge I was seeking to satisfactorily complete my summer.

-written December 2002

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