Climbing Mount Baker via the Easton Glacier Route
Mount Baker rises 10,781 feet above sea level in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State. The Lummi Tribe call it Koma Kulshan which means, “white sentinel” Many people choose this mountain for their first technical glacier climb before going on to climb bigger peaks such as Mount Rainier. That doesn’t make this climb easy. There are crevasses the size of school busses and the Roman Wall is a steep and exposed 1000 foot final push before you reach the summit. You need to have appropriate snow travel skills and know crevasse rescue before attempting this climb. Many guide services will teach you these things on a long weekend ending with a climb of Mount Baker, my friends and I learned with a group of women being mentored that I mentioned in my post about climbing Mount Saint Helens.
My journey to climb Baker started earlier this year, and to be honest I still can’t fully believe I signed up for this willingly. Heights aren’t my favorite—danger in general isn’t my favorite. I have backpacked with views of Baker multiple times, once even watching climbers make their way up the side of the mountain late in the night. Slowly, the desire to climb the mountain and others like it started to build inside me, but I had no idea how to start. I started to look at mountaineering courses through a few local organizations, but fate seemed to intervene when Sarina told me she would be joining a small group of women being mentored in the sport by Teresa Hagerty and Sara Simmons. These two very generous women donated their time to teach us these skills and take us on this climb, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Preparing for Mount Baker
We learned all of the necessary skills from January-March, and the climb up Baker was scheduled for June on the Coleman-Deming route. In the days leading up to our proposed dates we learned the major snow bridge leading to the Roman Wall had gone out and rangers were sending everyone up the Easton Route instead, so our route changed. Having something like that happen on the mountain right before our scheduled trip definitely made me nervous, if the snow bridges were collapsing on one side, could it really be that much better on the other? Deep down I knew Teresa would make the right choice for our team, she had never shown any signs of summit fever and seemed to enjoy being alive just as much as I do. I attempted to let my anxiety go and prepare before we would meet at the trailhead later that week.
Arriving at the trailhead my nerves seemed to be much better, I kept telling myself, “It’s only extreme walking” I was as prepared as I could possibly be, the only way to get better at this was to climb the mountain and start building experience. To climb the Easton route, you use the Park Butte Trailhead. After a few miles it splits to the Railroad Grade trail, which happened to be our first run in with exposure. The trail follows a ridge with a steep drop onto the glacier below, I was a little sketched out, but I knew I would be dealing with much worse later on in the climb.
We set up camp right before the glacier began at around 6500 feet. We got right to work digging tent platforms, setting up the ropes, and melting snow for our climb in the morning. With the weather forecast in mind, Teresa elected we begin climbing at 1am with a turnaround time of 8am. The goal was to be off the summit and down the Roman Wall before the snow was dangerously soft, all of that sounded fine by me. After everything was prepared for the next morning, we went to bed at 6pm. I surprised myself by being able to fall asleep easily, although I woke up to hear sleet hitting our tent and got a little nervous for our weather on the climb. Call it foreshadowing for what we ended up experiencing.
I woke up 15 mins before my midnight alarm to prepare for our climb. The sky was clear above us, but we could see clouds coming in on all sides. It was hard to tell what our weather would be. Based on Teresa’s advice I had laid out all my clothing I planned to climb in the night before. I pulled it all on, stuffed a meal replacement bar down, drank half of a 5-hour energy, and pulled on my harness and crampons. I ended up being ready way faster than expected and stood around a bit waiting to clip into the rope and get going. Once everyone was ready, we started climbing out of camp around 1:15am.
Climbing Mount Baker
I was surprised when we started crossing crevasses less than a half mile out of camp. Part of me expected to have a little more time to get used to the idea of them, but nope. The snow bridges began right away and were my wake-up call. I laughed and muttered to myself, “well f*ck me and my fear I guess” and continued on. This portion of the climb was lit by our headlamps and I was so tired from the early wakeup that I don’t remember much of it other than putting one foot in front of the other and keeping the appropriate amount of tension on the rope between Sarina and myself.
As we climbed higher up the mountain, things started to get interesting. The clouds and wind began to move higher up the mountain and our views were swallowed up. As we went higher, visibility and wind got worse and worse. I could just make out the outline of Sarina 30-feet in front of me. I am not the best navigator, so these conditions made me extremely nervous, but I remembered I was not alone, and someone with much more experience than me was leading our team. If it got too bad Teresa would turn us around. I went back to focusing on one foot in front of the other. Minus my first run-in with crevasses and the white out, this part of the climb felt straight forward and not too steep. Honestly, it felt a lot more gradual than Mount Saint Helens, but we weren’t at the Roman Wall, so I knew that would change.
The sun appeared for a short time when we reached the crater, so we stopped to get photos of the only view we were likely to have that day. The smell of Sulphur filled the air around us and members of our other rope team were feeling sick. At this point, I thought it was completely possible we would turn around. Winds were picking up, our views were non-existent, and teammates weren’t feeling great. I felt 50/50 about it. Summiting to see nothing seemed pointless and I wanted to be safe, but I had also come so far for this summit and I didn’t want to quit 1000 feet below it unless we absolutely had to. Once again, I left the decision in Teresa’s capable hands. If she felt it was safe and my other teammates wanted to continue, I would go along with that plan.
It’s a good thing I came to that conclusion, because everyone elected to continue up the mountain. We were at the base of the Roman Wall and visibility was non-existent, which may have been a good thing since so many people told me it was the scariest part of the climb. After our slow ascent up the Roman Wall we reached that flat traverse before the true summit. We couldn’t see anything, but we were still so excited to have made it up there. Some tears were shed as we dropped out of the rope and ran up the final thirty feet to the summit. The wind was whipping and our hair was covered in ice, we stood up there for about five minutes before running down and roping back up to climb down. I was elated, but in the back of my mind the thought that most mountaineering accidents happen on the way down was nudging its way forward. Anxiety started to build again as I considered the Roman Wall we still needed to climb down.
The descent down Mount Baker
The climb back down the Roman Wall was…interesting. Many people were still climbing up, so we had to keep stepping off the main boot pack to allow them to pass. I trusted my crampons in the snow but standing with my ankles at weird angles while rope teams climbed by at a snail’s pace wasn’t fun. The visibility was also at its lowest point. My brain started playing tricks on me imagining what was below us since I had no idea what it looked like. I won’t know if the Roman Wall is as scary, or scarier than I imagined it until the next time I make it up there. Teresa guided us down slowly and surely through this section. When we were off the wall and making our way back to the crater, we all cheered, the hardest part was over.
Our descent was fairly uneventful until the clouds opened up and we were finally able to see all of the crevasses we had missed on our way up in the dark. Some were small cracks and depressions in the snow, others could swallow school busses. They were amazing and beautiful to see, but also terrifying. We took it slow during this section since we finally had views until we needed to cross some sketchy snow bridges. Plunge stepping has been a struggle for me throughout this whole mountaineering experience, but while descending I finally felt comfortable with it. Teresa navigated us through the glacier until we were in another set of clouds near camp.
We passed the crevasses at the base of the glacier and made our way back into camp safe and sound. Everyone unroped and then took the chance to sprawl out in the rocks and snow for a moment before we needed to pack up and hike back to the trailhead. At this point I realized I had my first blister forming on the side of my foot. I didn’t think much of it which turned out to be a mistake.
After a couple of hours spent resting and cleaning up camp we started our hike back out. Some members of our group wore approach shoes and carried their mountaineering boots, at first I made fun of them for the extra weight, but on the trail out I was extremely jealous. Everyone knows, but let me reiterate that mountaineering boots are NOT COMFORTABLE. A couple of miles down every step began to feel like pure torture, especially once my baby blister popped and it had no protection from the friction of my socks and boots. My rage hiking nature was at it’s finest as I carried out one of the ropes and grumbled in pain every step. I managed to make it back to the trailhead where Teresa and I cheers’d with car beers and waited for the rest of the team.
Climbing Mount Baker was a huge goal of mine and I am so excited to say I have accomplished it. Two Washington volcanoes down, three more to go. If things go as planned I should be summiting Mount Adams and Glacier Peak this season as well. As for Mount Rainier, I am thinking I will save her for next year.