Our Mount Baker trip was 4 days, 3 nights, from June 23 – 26, which is probably at least a day longer than most people’s climb. This trip was part of the Bushwhacker Climbing Club course so we spent most of our time learning mountaineering skills.
As mentioned before, a classmate of mine died in a freak accident on his outing back in 2008, so this trip was three years delayed for me. Having three years to freak out over all the possibilities of different accidents caused all kinds of jitters for me before the trip. I pretty much wrote a will and gave the boyfriend all my account info in case something happens to me so he would have instant access to all my fundings and retirement accounts if I didn’t make it back. I know it sounds overly dramatic now, but really…three years.
The night before the trip, I think I got maybe two hours of broken sleep at best. There were at least one nightmare about a nasty accident on Baker which lead to me to believe it’s a bad omen.
Before I get on your nerves with all the “Oh, I’m freaking out talk!” Let me just start with, we did summit Baker and I can honestly tell you now, there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of. The only thing that was honestly scary was the unknown. Our day 2 plan was to take turns dropping each person inside a crevasse and rescue them, I kept imagining the rope snapping while I was dropped in, and I fall into the bottomless pit. Did not happen. I also pictured giant gaping crevasses along the path up waiting to swallow us up, also did not happen. See, I’ve spent too many years getting creative on ways I would die tragically on Baker. The trip went extremely smooth, the only thing that I might have had a chance to die from was hypothermia, and even then, it was me being dramatic and thinking, “By God, I will never feel warm again.” It was honestly the coldest trip I’ve been on, but it’s not hypothermia bad.
We met up at Chris’, our instructor’s, house at 6:30. From there, we carpooled over to Baker. On the ride to baker, Chris asked me what I was doing next Thursday, and I told him, nothing yet. He said, “Want to climb Rainier?” I didn’t even think about it, “What? Really? Fuck yeah I want to go.” I would later rethink this decision many times during the Baker climb. Keep in mind, we would not get home till Sunday, so I had a whopping three days to rest in between climbs.
We had to stop by the ranger station to sign in for our climb and to pick up blue bags (doggie bags for human). We were there before the ranger station opened, so I insisted on getting a group photo while we’re clowning around at the parking lot.
Once the station opened we gathered inside to use their magical flushing toilet one last time and sign in. Each person had to sign in with an emergency contact and we gave them a date to expect us to sign out in case we need to be rescued. One of the ladies in our group, Ronda, asked the ranger if she could have some blue bags, and the ranger said sure and took out a box and asked her how many she would like. Ronda sheepishly replied, “Maybe five or six?” The ranger’s eyes widened and said, “Well if you need that many, I’ll teach you how to make your own.” She brought out all the supplies: a blue bag, a thick clear plastic bag and twisty ties. It became a blue bags craft circle for a few minutes there. Ronda declared, “Sorry, I poop a LOT.” In case we didn’t understand her intentions with them.
We had some very regular people in this group. That person was not me. I ended up giving away the blue bags I made. I saved one for emergency but that was never needed. I was grateful to not have to be the person that needed to use a blue bag while tied to the rope team.
From there, we drove out the trailhead, which was still covered in snow, so we drove to the point where the snow hasn’t been plowed and hiked in with our giant ass packs. With half the tent, my pack was close to 50lbs. This was after cutting off half the food I wanted to bring and leaving behind clothing layers that I later wished for. It was a tough choice, food and comfort, or a pack that I can reasonably manage. I chose the latter.
Soon as we got to the actual trailhead, we were asked to take out our map and compass and took turns navigating.
The instructor intentionally lead us astray a bit when we weren’t paying attention and had us fix our path. This lead to a somewhat longer trek up. A good part of the extra time was spent learning more about navigating with our maps and compass.
It rained on us most of the way up to camp destination, so I thought it would be okay to not go out of my way to reapply sunscreen. I got the worst sun poisoning of my life that first day. My skin was red and puffy the entire trip and was oozing liquid by the time the trip was over. I had giant scabs on my face and nose, it was so terrible, I thought it would scar. Okay, because words can’t describe the terror, I will share the unsightly-ness with a photo.
Public service announcement: Use sunscreen! Apply frequently on snow covered mountains even if it’s freaking raining.
We started hiking in around 10:30am and got the our camp around 3:30pm. Not great, but not bad for getting lost and being lead by me part of the time when I sure as hell didn’t actually know where I was going. Once at camp we set up our own tents and dug out our kitchen area.
The kitchen wall provided great comfort and warmth from the howling wind. Mount Baker sits in a weather convergence zone, our instructor told us he’s experience far worse weather with greater frequency there than Rainier. As we were setting up our tent, we had to anchor everything down or we would lose it to the wind.
That night was the coldest night I’ve spent camping outdoors. I couldn’t tell if it’s because of my crappy 15 degrees synthetic bag. I’ve previously snow camped in conditions so cold, I could watch ice form in my water bottle. I was using my 30 degrees down bag then, and it was fine. At Baker, we were required to bring synthetic, that bag was worthless.
We woke up at somewhat normal hours. We roped up at 8a.m. to head out to find a nice crevasse to jump into. This was our first time together, on full length rope, as a true rope-team. In our previous class outing, we used a half length rope for practice.
It was a frigid cold day, I had my full face balaclava and it was still cold. The instructor had already scouted out a nice crevasse about 15-20 minutes walk away from camp, so we practiced our group snow travel skill there.
Once there, we set up our crevasse rescue station with a back-up belayer. Then the first person went into the crevasse and soon we were taking turns learning what role we played depending on if we were part of the rope with someone that fell into the crevasse or the second rope team that comes to the rescue.
We were all very nervous before being dropped in, we told each person we love them before we dropped them in. Inside the crevasse was magical. I feared for my life when I was lowered, then soon as I was inside, I almost didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful place.
Looking down, it was definitely deep and looked somewhat bottomless. Then the sun camp out for a little bit and I could see blue skies above me and the valley off to the side.
It was a surreal experience. One that my instructor reminded us to appreciate for what it is, because we certainly hope to never see the inside of a crevasse under “normal” circumstance. It rained and snowed on us on and off during crevasse rescue class.
After everyone had a turn inside the crevasse, we headed back to camp to make dinner. There were very few actual sit down meals during this trip, dinner each night was pretty much it. The rest of the time, food was being crammed into the pie-hole while standing around.
Wake up call was at 2am. Soon as I was able to sit up on my sleeping bag, I crammed a breakfast bar in (I’m still amazed how quickly this felt normal). Getting dressed in the frigid cold night was a chore. Everyone was jamming up the designated bathroom area. We would be tethered to each other for MANY hours once roped-up, so if we wanted any privacy, this was our last chance. It was so cold that I put on every layer I had even though I usually get sweaty hot after a bit of hiking. I was worried that I would regret putting on the long johns and topping everything off with my heavy rain gear, but I ended up wishing I had still more layers to pile on.
We were fully roped up and ready to head out at 3:30am. We had 3 rope-teams, with 3 in front, 4 in middle and 4 in back. One of my classmate felt sick after the first day, so she decided to stay at camp while we did the climb, she was happy with just doing the crevasse rescue. Really though, being dropped into a crevasse is quite an experience.
Being the shortest and slowest, I was the last person on the last rope-team, which was quite erie in the dark. All I could see in front of me were the glows from the headlamps, and nothing behind me. It was pitch black.
Being on a rope team in the dark felt like I was being fished. If I saw the rope move, I moved, I followed the rope wherever it lead me. We had a few standing water and snack breaks here and there. At some about 6am we stopped for a 20 minutes breakfast break, but that was cut a bit shorter because we all started freezing the moment we stopped moving. The wind was digging in deep, all the layers in the world didn’t help.
Baker was frigid cold throughout the night hike and the sun never truly came out even in daylight. We had hoped once we hiked up past the cloud layer, there would be blue bird sky, instead another cloud layer rolled right in and we were stuck in a nasty cloud sandwich from then on. We had moments of almost clear-ish skies here and there, but definitely nothing to get excited about.
The wind howled louder and harder as we climbed. We had our only off-rope break at Lunch Rock around 8:30am, where we tried to tuck ourselves away from the wind. One of our climber, Rachel, started feeling nauseous right about there. We tried to feed her extra snacks, some meds and extra water. She was also feeling very cold, so a couple of the guys help her put on some puffy pants that our instructor had. It’s a good thing she’s tall, because those pants would have been worthless on me.
By the end of lunch break, she was feeling quite a bit better, so we all continued onto the final stretch climbing up Roman Wall. We set up a quite a few pickets going up so the going was slow, which made the climb easier.
After Roman Wall, the climb flattened out quite a bit, but the high elevation with less oxygen made moving slow from there. When we got to the flat spot right before summit around 10:30, we coiled up our ropes and unroped for the photo at summit. The bad weather made the summit photos less than spectacular, but we were all just giddy to be at summit, especially knowing that one of our class section got turned around from bad weather last weekend. The wind at summit was around 50mph with -10 degrees windchill factor. It was extremely cold. We snapped a few group photos and headed back down to rope up. I accidentally set my camera to video mode during the group photo and came away with an awesome couple seconds of video:
Right after Roman Wall, we had pretty much white-out conditions all the way back down. Because of the lack of visibility, we kept the rope teams really close together. As a speed demon going downhill, I was put in front of rope on the way back down. I kept a good enough pace to be within chatting distance of the last person of the rope-team in front of me. The hike down was pretty uneventful saved for the two people in the back of my rope team forgot their anti-balling plates, so balled-up snow was tripping them constantly, causing them to ask the teams to “turtle” (code for slow down) or stop. Because of the bad white-out and deafening wind, communication had to passed between the front and back of teams by means of “telephone game”. Anti-balling plates were class requirements because of this very reason, so the instructor was definitely not pleased to hear this while we were all tired and wanting to be back at camp resting.
We got a little bit lost in the white-out, but found our bearings soon as we realized we were off-track. We got back to camp around 2:30pm, took off our ropes, and went back to our tents to crash for a bit.
It was right about this point that I questioned if I could climb Rainier in a few days. My hiking buddy, Daniel, climbed both Baker and Rainier with this class two years ago and he told me at the time that he thought Baker would be very easy for me, Rainier is definitely going to be a challenge, but still very doable. I did not think Baker was easy. There were points when the team was keeping a faster pace to keep us warm, and I felt like I was going to throw-up. Between freezing my ass off for most of the climb and being generally tired from constantly moving uphill, I was mentally and physically drained. There was not a single point where I thought, gee, they should really go faster because this leisurely stroll is putting me to sleep. Not once. Wait, unless you count the downhill part, that I’m a monster. Uphill, I’m dragging my sad ragged teeth-chattering corpse up.
Around 5:30 people started crawling out of their tents to seek nourishment. I think I skipped doing the rehydrated meal thing and just ate whatever snacks I could stomach. I just wasn’t hungry for some reason. I spoke to Chris about Daniel finding Baker extremely easy, and how Baker just soundly handed me my ass. Chris said, oh, yeah, that’s because Daniel’s climb was extremely easy. He explained that with mountaineering weather plays a huge part on the climb difficulty. Battling 50mph and crazy windchill was exhausting for everyone. When Daniel did his climb, they had perfect weather. They were able to hike up in a thin t-shirt and which made the hike cakewalk. This somewhat restored my faith in my ability to climb Rainier.
We all went to bed early in hopes of getting an early start out.
We woke up to perfect blue skies. This should have cause some disgruntled feelings toward the weather gods regarding our summit weather, but I was just happy to not have to pack in the freezing cold while fighting the wind for our tent. Three solid days of crap weather was wearing me out, basking in the sun did much to re-energize us. We goofed around and had a great time packing.
We did some good glissading back down and took turns navigating the trail back with our map and compass. The great weather made for a wonderful hike out.