Mt. Baker: a Quiet Volcanic Beast to the North

so, that's what blue ND filter can do, huh!

When I decided to move to Seattle seven years ago, many friends talked admiringly about the beautiful geography around here: Puget Sound and Olympic National Park to the west, Lake Washington and North Cascades to the east, Mt. Rainier to the south, Vancouver to the north. But I had never heard of Mt. Baker. In the first winter after I moved to Seattle, I was driving up to Whistler for a ski trip and that’s when it occurred to me that there is a jagged conical peak towering on the border of US and Canada. There is a giant beast of a mountain standing to the north of Seattle that I had somehow never paid attention to: Mt. Baker.

In the subsequent four years, I saw Mt Baker from the distance time and time again. It was there whenever I summited a peak in the North Cascades or sailed on Puget Sound or Lake Washington. Mt. Baker to the north and Mt. Rainier to the south are like two pillars holding up Seattle’s sky. It is unmissable. But I had never thought I’ll one day stand on top of it.

After living in Seattle for four years, my friend Marcus and I dared each other to challenge ourselves to summit Mt Rainier that summer. We each did our research and came to the same conclusion that we needed a lot more knowledge and skills to safely complete this task. We needed help. We needed to learn how to mountaineer. That’s when we set our sight on Mt. Baker and a mountaineering course taught by American Alpine Institute.

We signed up for a 6 day course on Mt. Baker culminating in summiting the volcano. Our first day was rock climbing practice on Mt Erie. It’s the first time I’ve climbed outdoors. It was both exciting and scary, especially rappelling. I don’t have a fear of heights but it was damn scary to find myself dangling out some 30 feet above the ground, relying totally on the rope to support me.

Our second day was a long hike up to the base camp. We took an alternative route, rather than the normal 4 miler, to explore a new route that the team instructors hadn’t hiked in the past. This route was more tortuous and turned out to have more down trees than expected.

To make the matters worse, I was hit with a bout of diarrhea and felt totally debilitated half way up to mountain. By the time I dragged my defeated body up to the base camp as the last person in the group, I barely had the energy to set up camp and to dig a basement in the snow for the storage of our food and gear. Fortunately, Marcus was there to help me out and did most of the work that evening. Thanks, buddy! I passed out pretty hard that night.

The next day was for recovery and altitude acclimation. We marched around the camp, tried out our crampons, practiced various basic glacial travel skills, and practice traveling as a roped-in team on a hill next to our camp. I was feeling much better by the afternoon after plenty of water and electrolytes. But I wasn’t going to risk anything. I had plenty of rest that day.

On our fourth day, we had the bulk of our lessons, including prusiking, various rope ties, crevasse self rescue, rescuing a partner by using a pulley system. It was one of the most rewarding day of this trip. That evening we sat down and learned how to navigate in the mountains, especially how to triangulate using a compass, topographic map and the landmarks around us.

We also verified the weather. We knew that day five was the perfect day to summit, as it offered the best weather of the week. Instead of moving the camp one up to the high camp as we had originally planned, we decided to stay put and summit from low camp next morning.

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We woke up at 1am, made breakfast and packed up all the necessary gear, and headed out of the camp by 2am. It was pitch black around us. We could see a couple clusters of lights from some small towns in the distance. The stars were bright and large over our heads. The air was chilly and still. It was a calm morning. The sound of snow cracking under our feet was soft and rhythmic. We swung the rope from side to side as we zigzagged up the hill and switched the ice axe between hands like pros.

Our team leaders navigated the route confidently. Before long, we saw the first light breaking through the horizon on my right hand side. We knew the day was about to break. We were making good progress at our pace and took breaks every 45 minutes: refueling, rehydrating and snapping a few pictures. As soon as we took a break, we had to immediately put on layers, as the temperature was cold enough to send chills down our bones within minutes.

The sun finally came up after teetering on the horizon for a while and it was warming to our faces immediately. We could both see and smell the crater of this live volcano at this point. White smoke was belching out from Sherman Crater, reminding us of the danger below our feet.

After turning left next Sherman Crater, we reached our final ascent on a section called the Roman Wall. It was the steepest part of this climb and we pounded in a couple anchors both for safety and for our practice.

We summited a little after 8am. It was a gorgeous day and on top of Mt. Baker we had an unobstructed, panoramic view of the North Cascades’ countless peaks to our east, Mt. Rainier to our south, and the San Juan archipelago islands to our west. It was truly breathtaking.

The descent was a drab, however. Plunging steps was useful until the snow surface become too soft and the thin layer of ice broke through, leaving us thigh deep in the snow every step we took. I was more exhausted from coming down than going up.

But our team leaders were high spirited and were super excited to take advantage of the good weather to teach us ice climbing techniques. I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to crawl in my sleeping bag for a nap, which most of us did. I napped for a couple hours and woke to find our awesome team leaders set up anchors and ropes passionately waving at us over for an ice wall climbing lesson. It was heartwarming. The instructors and leaders of our group were undoubtedly one of the highlights of this adventure.

Our last day of the trip was both exciting and sad. We were all excited to go back to civilization and have some real food after a week on the mountain but we were also sad to leave the beautiful campsite we set up. It’s not every day you get to linger in a remote snowy wonderland with a gorgeous view like this. We packed up everything we packed in, doing our best to leave no trace behind before heading down the mountain.

I have no business associations with American Alpine Institute but I had such an wonderful experience with everyone involved with the company, from the trip coordinator to the team instructors and leaders that I highly recommend this course for people who are interested in some beginner mountaineering experiences.

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It’s funny– both Marcus and I told ourselves that would not do this wilderness craziness again on our drive back from Mt Baker. We were clearly both wrong about ourselves. The skills we learned from this experience opened doors to many wonderful trips in the subsequent years. Marcus and I lead a group of friends to summited Mt Adams together a few months later. My wife and I went on many self guided hiking and camping experiences around the world including navigating treks on our own in remote corners of the world like Patagonia and Nepal. Marcus went on to challenge himself on a solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for over a thousand miles a year later. He narrowly escaped death on that trip– a crazy story that you can read here. We are happy to have Marcus back with us safely in Seattle.

I’ve learned much from this experience and, unfortunately, have since forgotten many of the skills. But I think the most important of all, I’ve learned to love and respect the mountains. I learned where my limits are and how far I can push my boundaries safely. I also learned to admire mountaineers, who summit peaks like Everest, from a safe distance.

This is a super long post. If you are able to get to this last paragraph, I want to thank you for your patience and your support. I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please leave me a comment if you have a minute. I would love any feedback from you!

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