Mt. Baker - North Ridge in a Day

May 26, 2001

Dave (above) and Greg climbing through the Ice step on the North Ridge. Photo: Phil Fortier

The weather for Memorial day weekend was jinxed by me early in the week sending out emails of great forecasts and low freezing levels. Our original objective, the Coleman Headwall route, was looking good for our "Alaska warm up" climb. However, by late week the only nice weather window turned out to be Saturday. Thus the idea put forth was to do the North Ridge route on Baker in one light weight push.

We left Seattle at 9pm, and drove out to the North side trailhead. There was still a snow plug just before the actual trail head, so we parked at the last bridge and suited up in the windy chill of the night. With light day packs, a fair amount of technical gear and no sleep, we set out from the cars at 12:30 a.m. Hiking up the mostly snowed in trail was easy, and even the gnarly river crossing about 2/3rds the way up the trail was thankfully still bridged by snow. The boot track left the usual summer trail to follow a gully up towards the glacier, and soon we were out of the tree cover and traversing over towards "camp rock", the sites on the left of the standard route at about 6,300ft.

We could already see two lights up on the North Ridge, and by the time we got to what we thought was their camp, they were on the ice step. Speaking freely, we quickly woke up the real inhabitants of the tent. Oh well, we roped up quickly and were soon crossing the Coleman glacier at the 6,500ft. level in total darkness (no moon). The glacier crossing was going very easy, much to our surprise, and we were all still feeling strong and awake. Crossing the Coleman is like walking through a surreal ice maze where seracs soar up out of the flat glacier, and rolling hills tumble apart into cracks and oblivion. No doubt the early morning enhanced the effects, but this is truly a beautiful place to be before dawn.

On the lower toe of the North Ridge. Photo: Greg Mueller

We were making great time, right on schedule when we made it to the toe of the North Ridge. It was 5 am, and time for a rest. The sun was now starting to rise, and we could see the magnificent peaks of the Redoubt/Spickard area. My new XGK stove/portable-rocket soon had boiling water, while Phil's canister stove plugged along, trying to make ends meet. The party was still feeling strong, but I had started to notice the first signs of fatigue in me on the climb up to the ridge crest. Phil knew of a short cut on the lower ridge that avoids the far East reaching detour that Beckey describes. We basically climbed strait up a 45 degree snow slope (berchrund exposed later season) and curved right around the headwall. This lead to another gully leading onto the North Ridge proper. The climbing was spectacular--Perfect cramponing up 40 degree frozen snow in the glow of the rising sun. Before we knew it, we were at 9,000 ft at a flat spot just below the imposing ice cliff.

The crux of the North Ridge is the ice cliff at about 9,600 ft. Photo: Greg Mueller

The ice cliff is practically what makes this climb so popular. The options vary from short sections of steep ice, to extended sections of more moderate 65-75 degree sections. Most routes would probably be about a pitch long in the early season. We were all starting to get pretty exhausted about now, which was unfortunate seeing as we were just about to climb the crux of the route! Greg lead our teams off on the very exposed (over another icecliff) 45 degree snow, and through the big crevasses to the base of the technical climbing. I racked the screws and all 4 pickets from Greg, and lead off up to the base of the wall. After crossing a rocky 'scrund on a warm snowbridge, the slope turned to bare 45-50 degree glacier ice. Two ropelengths lead to where the ice steepened considerably. We chose the absolute ridge crest, for it looked cool, and we were tired. I climbed up a very brittle 30 foot section of AI2, which tended to break apart with each swing and pummel the guys below me. After turning a corner and finding two really nice ice ledges, I decided to belay Greg on up and re rack. The pickets dangling in my crotch were starting to get a bit annoying too, especially the four footer! Greg left the screws in place, and Phil/Matt lead on the same gear up to our location. After re racking, Phil lead off first this time, and I lead second, while Greg cleaned. We were on the sun-exposed ice now, where the climbing became less strenuous and more fun! We continued up more AI2 ice for 30 feet or so, and then traversed left to exit onto the upper ridge. This involved traversing a super narrow ledge cutting across the middle of a warm-squishy-dripping-serac--we moved quickly!

Phil and Matt getting pummeled by ice while climbing the ice cliff. Photo: Greg Mueller

Phil leading off on the second steep ice bit. Photo: Greg Mueller

Now that we were established on the 40-45 degree snow above the cliffs, we started to feel antsy about summitting. We had made good time through the technical bits, but were starting to get behind our schedule. Feeling the fatigue even more now, we opted to keep a picket in on the moderately steep snow. Soon the ridge relaxed in angle, and I was walking back and forth across crevasses (sorry Greg!) trying to find a good way to exit onto the summit ice cap. Did Beckey's description say head way right and exit? hmm, can't remember, seems to cliff out over there. Seems to cliff out to the left too...

Me wandering around, trying to find the exit slope. Photo: Greg Mueller

Looks like it's going to be strait up the steep snow. I knew I was on track when what I though were icefall tracks turned out to be boot-tracks going up our intended exit slope. This proved to be more fun 45 degree bare ice, and soon we were dragging our sorry slow asses up to the flat summit plateau.

It was now 1 pm, and we were pooped. We ambled across the broad expanse towards to slightly higher bump on the far East edge. Unknown to us, both Matt and I were suffering from AMS due to the quick ascent and fatigued state of our bodies. In my exhausted, hypoxic mind, I felt that they were moving too slow. So, taking matters into my own hands, I zoomed on past Greg and beat them all up the knoll to the summit! Ha Ha, I was laughing until I made a nice face plant into the snow. We didn't last long on the true summit, for is was blowing and cold. A nap was in order, so we walked down to the sag in the plateau and totally zonked out for a half hour. In retrospect, we should have set an alarm, because we might have woken up on Sunday if I'd had it my way!

A frequent pose for me that day, this time on the summit! Photo: Greg Mueller

Eventually we got up, and started working our way down the Roman Wall. Having climbed that route last spring while teaching a class, I was confident that the way was going to be nice and easy... if I could only keep my meager lunch in my stomach, and stay upright. Half way down the slope we removed our balling-up crampons and stowed them away. The descent continued, long and boring slog down through warm slush, with a couple near crevasse falls to keep things interesting. With every couple hundred feet down the mountain I started to feel better, only now realizing that I had AMS. Soon we were passing all the tents of the poor suckers in the basin. These people probably woke up to the inside of a cloud the next morning!

Soon enough we were down on the trail, and hiking intently towards the truck with visions of Milano's excellent Italian food dancing through our heads. While picking up the rear of the line, I came upon Greg sitting on the ground in the middle of the trail. While thinking of his Chicken Cordon-bleu dinner to come, Greg had slipped on the icy trail and sprained his ankle. Damn, dinner will have to wait. Luckily Greg has a "4-footer" which could be used as a walking stick. The going was very slow, and Greg was in a ton of pain. Finally it clicked to me that I could carry both of our packs, and that would speed things up. So, hooking his (heavier?) pack up on my front side, and him hobbling along, we covered about 1.5 miles and 700 feet in a quick hour!

Luckily, Greg could still walk fast enough to make it to Milano's in time for dinner, and enjoyed a well deserved feast. We had left the car at 12:30 am Saturday, and Greg and I arrived back a mere 19 hours later, at 7:30 pm. I had been awake for just over 36 hours at this point. To Greg's credit, he and Matt drove the entire way home, allowing Phil and I to finally get some sleep. Who came up with this Baker-in-a-day idea anyhow..... hmmm. :)