Four hours of sleep treated me pretty well although I really wanted more. For breakfast I ate a cold can of chili, some pre rolled cheese/salami sticks, and a few bites from a slice of cherry pie, a strange assortment from my cooler. Having packed the night before I grabbed my pack and we were hiking at 3:01a.m.
As we broke tree line at 4:30 a.m. the horizon was already bright enough that we turned off our headlamps and got our first views of the mountain in the beautifully clear sky. It stood proud and alone, nothing challenged its height. At 10,781 feet, Mount Baker is not a very high mountain but considering the fact that you begin the climb from about 3,600 feet, it makes for a long day.
We hiked past a field of climber tents and traversed snow slopes towards the Coleman
Glacier. There are many significant crevasses on the Coleman so we periodically moved our two man rope team en echelon to mitigate the falling hazard. Eventually we crossed the crevassed section of the glacier, reached the toe of the North Ridge, and put the rope away to move more effectively up some steep snow slopes.
There were a lot of buckets kicked into the slopes from other parties attempting this famous route. Ahead of us a party of three were making their way to the base of the North Ridge so we kept our distance and gave them space. I would have preferred no signs of humans but it did make the travel much easier.
From a break spot on the rocks, we scoped out the technical crux of the route. A 200 foot ice cliff blocks easy access to the upper ridge. The difficulty of the climb varies greatly due to conditions but it's generally called AI3. As I nervously prepared to lead the crux first pitch of the route I remained focused.
Towards the top of pitch 1 the climbing was even slushier. I ran it out for 50 feet from my last screw instead of using the energy to place marginal protection. My confidence soared knowing I wouldn't fall and decided to just climb. We were climbing with a 40 meter rope and knew I was getting close to the end. Just then I felt the rope tug and knew that it was Jere and I was out of rope. But I was so close to a solid ice ledge to set up a belay. Quickly I placed my last screw, saving two others for an anchor. At the same time Jere disassembled the picket anchor and climbed up a little while not being in a strained position. He did a damn good job and gave me just enough rope to work with. Outstretched as far as I could, reaching way out in front of me, I placed two screws and equalized them with a dyneema double runner. I was so close but didn't have enough rope to put Jere on belay. So I extended the master point with a basket just enough that I could put the rope through my ATC guide. Once Jere was on belay he climbed enough to give me the slack I needed to clove hitch myself into the anchor. It was good teamwork. Jere cruised the pitch, thoroughly enjoying it the whole way. I could not stop smiling.
Once on the summit ice cap we had a wet, slushy, difficult but short walk, a small price to pay for having beautiful and sunny weather. We spent just long enough on the summit to refuel, snap some pictures, and transition to get ready to glissade.
At the end of the day, the North Ridge of Mount Baker stands true as one of the best alpine climbs around. It was a great experience for my first time on Mount Baker and I look forward to coming back to repeat this route and likely try some others as well.
Author: Paul Barish