Mount Baker Ski
Summit Elevation: 10,778 feet
Trip Length: 20 Hours
Route: North Ridge
Difficulty: Nelson: 3+ / AI3
Trailhead Elevation: 3700 feet
Elevation Gain: 7078 feet
Roundtrip Distance: 14 Miles
Date: June 16, 2003
Photos: Scott Harder & Sergio Verdina
Media: "Fear & Loathing on the North Ridge"
Reference: WTA "Northwest Explorer" Column: "The Agony & the Ecstasy"
Monday June 16, 2003
So there I was, dangling the majority of my body weight on 2 ice screws that were plunged into the side of an overhanging serac. Why were we doing this again? It was 9am, and I had 20 minutes worth of sleep in the past 25 hours, and we would be awake for another 15 hours before any of us got close to any sort sleeping.
The day had finally come, Sergio Verdina and I got what we wanted, a chance to climb the North Ridge on Mt Baker, and attempt to do it in a day. Our new thing is all about getting down really fast in any type of quick transportation whether it be bikes, skis, or whatever is available. I chose to bring my skis and Sergio was to bring his splitboard. I was quite hesitant about this scenario since the route is technical, I assumed the skis would get in my way on some of the steeper ice with the tails hanging down near my ankles. Then I was shown an image of a climber on the Coleman Headwall in Nelson's book and he was carrying skis, so I thought, "Why Not"? Sergio and I drove up to the Heliotrope trailhead on Sunday night and met Dan Young and Cory Groom. We arranged our gear for what lie ahead and got situated for a few hours sleep in the back of the Subaru. We got to bed around 9pm, and then awoke to Dan and Cory arriving right next to us. We told tails of previous trips, and then found ourselves nestling in our bags around 1030pm. At midnight we awoke to the infamous quiet beeps of the Suunto Alarm clock, all in all we got about 15-20 minutes worth of sleep. We started walking at 12:45am. It was quick moving, even though my pack felt like it weighed too much and the ski boots were quite heavy on our feet. We hit snow as soon as we broke out of the trees and found ourselves heading straight for the toe of the Coleman Glacier. Once we got there we roped up and headed up the incline that takes you towards Heliotrope Ridge and high camp for the majority of climbers ascending the Coleman/Deming Glacier route.
From there I was in front and followed some tracks that went in the vague direction of the North Ridge over the crevassed Coleman Glacier. It was already starting to turn light as soon as we started the traverse, so it was pretty straightforward. Sergio navigated once I had no idea where I was going. After a few interesting negotiations by some big gapers we found ourselves trudging over avy debris that the Coleman Headwall had sweated off of it's flanks. Earlier that morning we heard some icefall up above, but it never made its way toward us. We found our exit slope onto the North Ridge by following more steps and ski tracks and traversed a pretty steep slope that had perfect snow and ice conditions. Once we got onto the North Ridge we took a much needed rest break, and ate some food. It was 7am and we were all feeling pretty good except myself, not feeling altitude sickness as we were only at about 8000 feet or so, more like the flu. The sun warmed us all up as we gazed upon brilliantly lit up peaks into Canada and the remote regions of the North Cascades. Dan and Cory took off as Sergio and I rested for a few minutes longer. The going was very slow from here on out and Sergio and I slowly made our way up towards the imposing "Ice Cliff Crux" of the North Ridge. It is a hanging glacier like area, with the majority of the cliff being almost vertical and about 2 pitches in length (approx 60 meters). Dan and Cory tried to negotiate the easiest way to go, and wound up doing the far left ramp exit that generally has an easy ramp onto the upper North Ridge, but since the route changes continuously from the movement of the glacier, we found ourselves in some interesting terrain.
Cory belayed Dan up to the first belay and then Dan brought Cory up. Sergio and I followed and used their pro and we all met at the 1st belay. The next bit of climbing was junky, even though it looked icy it was crust on snow that I continued to punch through, not sure what lied underneath me at the time, I assume a large moat. Sergio and I bypassed Dan and Cory at this "Serac Traverse" pitch that was quite interesting as it was overhanging and the exposure was straight down to the chaos of the Roosevelt Glacier. Sergio belayed me up to the 2nd belay and told me that it was a "Dead End" and that we had to retreat. I knew at this point that retreating would be more dangerous and that this route is a "no fail" route meaning you must continue upwards and onwards. Sergio did not want to lead it as it appeared to be sluff on a vertical 15 foot wall, and it was highly exposed. We set up our own personal anchors, and after much turmoil Sergio finally led out as it appeared to be bomber ice underneath all the sluff. The traverse out was pretty scary as it was a drop off down the Ice Cliff, but once up and over the wall, it was easy climbing that stayed at about 35-40 degrees for the majority of the climb to the summit. Sergio and Cory were both balling up really bad on their crampons, since there was about 6 inches of fresh snow or spindrift on the upper slopes, and the last thing we wanted was someone to slide off the ridge and down the Coleman Headwall. That being said, we climbed the remainder of the route with running belays that took forever and a day. I had never placed so many pickets and screws on a route in my life. The weather was still cooperating with us, mostly sunny, but a cold breeze that was always present. All I had on was my short sleeve shirt and my shell jacket, wishing that I could put on my down jacket……but to do this meant I had to take my pack off that had my skis on it and a steep slope at a belay and dig to the bottom where it lay in my pack. It's just one of those things you tell yourself to do over and over but it never really makes it was fro your brain to your extremities to perform the final function. Since I wound up being the last one to the summit I had the pleasure of cleaning the last pitch and topped out with 5 pickets on me, making it most difficult to walk.
We arrived at the summit at around 5pm, only 16 hours since we had left the car, and now barely surviving on no sleep for 33 hours. We rested on the summit for about 30 minutes or so, and we all swapped gear since Sergio and I would be making a quicker descent than Dan and Cory. Once I got my skis on my feet, and off my back, I was darn happy. My feet were totally trashed though, as steep ice and extended time periods is not the best thing with Scarpa Boots in my opinion. After I got my skis on, I found it quite difficult to maintain direction so I checked all my adjustments to make sure that I was in the correct mode with my boots, etc. I realized that my legs had just given up, that's all, complete exhaustion!. Sergio dropped in on the Roman Wall and I followed down the 1800' foot slope. The snow was perfect, as it had corned up perfectly during the entire day. I had to rest several times on the descent down the wall as my legs would continually lock up in pain. We reached the saddle in no time and made a darn quick descent to the upper camps as we glided across the Coleman Glacier, rather flat, but fun to cruise through. The lines down from 6400' to the trail were pretty bad as they were runneled out. Very difficult skiing, pretty much survival skiing the entire time. We reached the trail in a little under an hour from the summit while taking media back and forth during the descent. We kept as fast of a pace as possible on the way out so we would endure shorter amount of pain on the way out. The last mile out was excruciating pain for both Sergio and I as our ski boots were rubbing us raw, and in the end, Sergio lost the battle as his feet turned to hamburger.
In the end, we were happy that we brought our skis, as the descent was completely awesome, and the route was top quality. Doing it in a day is the only way to go, if your into masochism that is……
Maps: Click Here
USGS: Mt. Baker, Groat Mtn.
Green Trails: Mt. Baker #13
Directions: State Highway 542 heading east from Interstate 5 (I-5). A mile past the Glacier Public Service center turn right onto (poorly marked) Road 39 that leads to the Heliotrope TH. After 8 miles the road will turn to gravel and soon after you will be at the trailhead.
WTA Article I wrote
Greg's Climbing & Skiing page
North Ridge Rescue