Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mt Baker - Return to North Cascades

About a month ago I stood on the summit of Middle Sister and looked North to see the faint outline of Mt. Adams.  Two weeks later on the top of Mt. Adams I peered North again, this time to see Mt. Baker in the distance.  It seemed only right to drive north, just short of the Canadian border, to ascend up the slopes of Mt. Baker.  We assembled in Glacier, Washington with Mazamas climb leader Whit Fellers.  This was my first climb of the season where I was not the Assistant Climb Leader.  I was looking forward to being just a team member, even though I would have to take turns carrying the rope.  As a University of Washington alum I was pleased to see that the colors of our ropes were purple and yellow.

Mt. Baker is the second most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, so once we left the trail we roped up.  Only when we arrived at our campsite at Black Buttes Ridge did we unclip from our rope.  While others went to nearby rock outcropping to fill up water bottles I dug out a eating area in the snow.  Later we assembled for dinner.  Above us was the summit, towering over the vast fields of broken ice.  With out stomachs full we reviewed crevasse rescue and then retired for the night.

Our slumber was interrupted by the crash of icefall in the distance.  We stepped out of tents  to clear skies and the moonlight shining off of the snow, which did not last for long.  As we gained elevation wisps of dark clouds started to encircle the summit.  A lenticular cloud was forming there.  These flying saucer like clouds are often a suggestion of precipitation within 48 hours.  They can form fast and I have heard that one does not want to be caught in one on a mountain summit.  We continued to ascend and monitor, placing extra wands to mark our trail.  These would help us navigate back to base camp should the mountain be shrouded in a whiteout.

When I first saw that cloud forming, I thought there was a good chance that we would not reach the summit, so I decided to observe how our leader assessed and handled the situation.  That would help shift my focus from the summit to learning from the experience.  It seems that the patron saint of mountain climbers was looking after us during this trip.  First the Forest Service had completed a new bridge across Grouse Creek just before we started.   Then hours before we arrived at our base camp they had installed two privies at our base camp.  Then the lenticular cloud broke up, so we continued upwards, past the crevasses and ice fall.  The toughest part was the slog up the Roman Wall.  Upon the crater the clouds cleared up and we could see the summit in the distance.  Soon we were on top and it was windy.  I was surrounded by memories of biking in the San Juan Islands, camping in British Columbia, and climbing in the North Cascades.

The snow was getting softer so it was time to descend.  As we returned to Black Buttes more climbers were arriving.  Not long after we took down our tents others were pitched in the same place.  I was really impressed when our climb leader asked us for feedback.  The chance to discuss how the climb went made it even more meaningful.

More photos can be found here.

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