Bryson Williams and I climbed the North Ridge of Mt. Baker on June 4th, 2017. Incredible conditions and good route finding allowed us to complete the route to the true summit at 10,781 feet and return to 6000 foot camp in 9.5 hours. This is a classic climb on a massive Cascades Volcano , originally ascended by the legendary Fred Beckey, Ralph Widrig and Dick Widrig in August 1948.
Bryson and I made the long drive across Washington on Saturday morning, heading to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead at Mt. Baker. We planned to meet up with some new friends from Portland. Alex, Kyle, Matt and SJ all seemed super stoked; more importantly, they were obviously highly competent mountain people. We all intended to camp together and climb the North Ridge the next day. The hike up to a good campsite adjacent to a rock rib at roughly 6000 feet took 3 hours. I felt excited! The route looked incredible in the evening glow, when it cleared up enough for us to see it. I used those brief moments of visibility to make mental notes about the route – most importantly, where will we climb through the famous ice cliff? It stood proud, 3000 feet above our camp.
The 2am alarm brought me out of my sleep. I never have trouble waking up on mornings like these. Still sealed inside my sleeping bag, I forced down a cold breakfast of water and energy bars. Slowly, I extricated myself from my ice-crusted cocoon of warmth. I stepped out of the tent to find that the snow was very hard – good conditions for climbing! However, visibility was low. Kyle, Matt, Bryson and I roped up as a team of four in camp and started charging towards the Coleman Glacier. Alex and SJ roped up as a team of two because they were on skis. Kyle took the leading position on our rope, doing a great job navigating through the heavily crevassed Coleman glacier in the darkness and fog. We weaved around several enormous crevasses and climbed over the bergschrund on a steep but solid snow bridge.
Snow conditions were incredible – I was securely frontpointing my way upward on alternating neve and ice. On this steep ground, I became a four legged creature, lost in the flow of climbing 1000 feet of moderate terrain. I worked hard to keep my breathing even while still moving as quickly as possible. Finally, we reached a safe rock ledge below the ice cliff where we took a break and split into our rope teams for the technical climbing.
Bryson and I split off from Kyle, Matt, SJ and Alex, planning to climb independently toward the summit. The Portland crew intended to traverse left to the other side of the ice cliff, where they would ascend a different section of ice. We chose a more direct line immediately above us, guarded by a couple of crevasses. I tied into our 7.7mm rope and cruised upwards, winding around crevasses to the right side of the rock pyramid I had seen from camp. Once we reached the ice cliff proper, Bryson placed a great ice screw while I worked hard to place a picket in the icy slope to finish our anchor. Always a gentleman, Bryson offered me the lead.
Until I made the traverse, I had no idea what I would find above. It could be anything from easy snow to scary, vertical glacier ice. I traversed left until I reached a vertical section of alpine ice. Yes! Looking above, I could see that after this steep section, the rest of the pitch appeared to be easy ice climbing at about 60 degrees. I cleared away some junk ice and placed a bomber ice screw from my stance. As I started up the steep step, I couldn’t help but to unleash excited yells into the alpine air. Swing, kick, kick. Swing, kick, kick. I repeated the sequence quickly and confidently. The sun began to peek over the ridge and bathed me in its luxurious warmth. I looked back at the top of the cloud layer, thousands of feet below. Moments like these are hard to come by.
I placed two more ice screws along the way before feeling the rope come tight on my harness – I’d used up all 60m of rope that we carried. Unable to reach the ice buried underneath the hard snow at this stance, I placed a strong picket and buried one of my ice tools in the slope. Bryson quickly climbed to my stance, grabbed some gear, and lead us to the crest of the ridge in two ropelengths of simul climbing. Here, we took a long break, waiting for the rest of our group to meet us atop the ridge. After 30 minutes sitting in the wind, we were getting too cold and could not wait any longer for the others. We would later find out that they were battling their way upward on two pitches of difficult ice up to WI4. Strong work!
Bryson took the lead again, dancing upward through a final maze of seracs and crevasses. We weaved our way rightward, arriving at a good (but not great) snow bridge over a gaping crevasse. It was at least 10 feet wide and went down so far that we couldn’t see the bottom. I placed a picket, took a breath, and gingerly made two steps across the bridge, at which point I could slam my ice tools into the good ice on the opposite side – sweet security.
The wind ceased as I crested onto the summit plateau. I looked back at Bryson, who could not wipe the smile off of his face. The sun had risen enough to provide warmth as we walked across the plateau to the true summit. I could almost hear trumpets playing as I looked hundreds of miles in every direction with unlimited visibility above the cloud layer. Emotions washed over me. Relief, pride, apprehension about the descent that still lie ahead… I reflected on how my own climbing journey brought me here. I thought about how I had depended on Bryson and how he had depended on me. Just short of the summit, I stopped. We had come so far that morning – we would take the last steps to the summit together.
After some routefinding confusion that had us accidentally descending the wrong glacier, we traversed a steep snow face over to the Roman Wall, part of the uber popular Coleman-Deming route. Skiers were everywhere, slowly trudging toward the summit. The snow still needed to soften for good skiing conditions, so nobody was in a hurry. At the base of the Roman Wall, a couple of guys were literally running a lemonade stand! Bryson and I took a long break here, enjoying free lemonade and conversation with fellow alpine enthusiasts.
We finished our descent of the Coleman-Deming without incident other than stepping over a few crevasses of varying sizes. Below 8000 feet, we entered thick fog that made it difficult to find camp. At 1pm we arrived at the tent – our roundtrip time was 9.5 hours. Hail chased us into our tent quickly. A few hours later, Alex and SJ skied into camp. Matt and Kyle arrived some time later – they got “distracted” rescuing a skier out of a crevasse. They did a great job, hauling the guy out of the crevasse in only 20 minutes! He had fallen about 40 feet and likely had fractured ribs along with a possible nose fracture. He was really lucky that Kyle and Matt were right there, along with another impromptu rescuer who assisted them.
The Portland crew packed up camp and hiked out to their cars. Later, Bryson and I ate dinner watching the rescue chopper circle the mountain before picking up the injured skier. We hiked out the next morning.
This route was simply incredible. Our strategy worked well, and we had a great mountain adventure. More importantly, Bryson and I cemented our partnership on our third trip into the mountains together. Perfect conditions, good weather, a strong partner and a powerful experience – this day will be etched into my memory forever.
Gear Notes: I think it is important to be prepared for a variety of conditions on this route. We placed four ice screws, all on the ice cliff pitch. For a team comfortable on WI3, I would recommend six ice screws and 2-3 pickets. This gives you two screws for each anchor and two screws to protect each ice pitch. A skinny 60m rope worked well for us. BRING SUNSCREEN.
Strategy Notes: This climb is very reasonably done in two days, as our Portland friends did. Due to our long drive home, Bryson and I chose to do it as a three day trip so we weren’t driving all night long. I was happy to have the opportunity to join with another team for the navigation of the Coleman Glacier, which was comfortably done with 4 people on a rope.