Mt. Baker Summit Climb Trip Report
C4: Chrohn's and Colitis Climb for the Cure, August 2013
by Jake, Steve, Arthur, Dave, Sam, and Charlie
As many of you may have heard through the grapevine, the 2013 Mount Baker Crohn's and Colitis Climb for the Cure was a great success! The team of Sam and Charlie Peterson, Jake and Steve Stenberg, and Arthur and David McCray reached the summit of 10,781' Mount Baker on Sunday, August 11, at 1:15 PM, after some great climbing, awful weather, and definite adventure.
The team would like to thank all our family, friends, and colleagues who supported us and were so generous with donations for CCFANW. You are all amazing the Climb is going to end up generating over $13,000 for Crohn's and Colitis research! Believe it when we say that you were all in our minds as we tackled the challenges each day brought.
Day 1 Approach to Base Camp
On our first day, we met our guides from International Mountain Guides, Mike Haft and Dallas Glass, at the ranger station at Sedro Woolley, WA at 8:00 AM. After exploding our gear all over the parking lot, and helping us pare down our packs to about 50-60lbs. apiece, they led the drive to the trailhead and we geared up for our approach climb to Base Camp:
This would prove to be in some ways the most physically challenging portion of the climb. While not yet on snow, and with the grade not as steep as summit day, we were nevertheless carrying heavy loads more than 3000 vertical feet over a distance of about 4 miles. As the "old guys" in the group noted, it wasn't so much the legs that bothered us it was our backs. While we had trained with that weight coming into the climb, we hadn't carried it for the 5 hours or so it took to climb to Base Camp, so the "core" muscles were complaining a bit!
Rocky Creek Near Disaster
Our first major challenge came about a mile into the climb, when we were still on relatively flat terrain. We reached Rocky Creek, a multi-channel waterway that lives down to its name. It's located in a glacial washout and constantly changes its path based on avalanches, boulder and log movement, etc. Thus, there is often not a bridge available, which proved the case this day.
Mike and Dallas scouted an area to ford up above, so we headed upstream and eventually began hopping from rock to rock (which seems ok until one puts 50 lb. on one's back!)
It was at this point that potential disaster struck. Sam, wearing tennis shoes in case his feet got wet, slipped in crossing and jammed his big toe into a rock while simultaneously having it get cocked back sharply. He came up lame and in pain, and when we took off his shoe, his big toe was extremely crooked and numb:
It was obviously either fractured or dislocated (or both). If it was fractured, Sam's climb was done almost before it began. If it was dislocated, Charlie could possibly relocate it and we might continue onward. So Charlie had Sam "hug a big rock," say all the cuss words he wanted, and pulled hard on the toe. Happily, it popped it back in place (on the third try...) with a satisfying clunk! It immediately felt better, now just like a sprain, and the sensation came back. So with some buddy tape, a switch to his stiff mountain boots, and a huge team sigh of relief, we blazed upwards.
We next ascended through some beautiful alpine meadows just starting to show wildflower sprouts. The mountain kept tantalizing us as we slowly ascended:
The Railroad Grade
We now hit a part of the trail called the "Railroad Grade;" so-called because it runs along the sharp ridge of a glacial moraine, pretty much straight up the mountain. Beautiful meadows on our left, desolate rock falls on our right, and Baker growing large ahead.
As we got higher, the views became ever more spectacular (and the packs ever more heavy!)
At about 6000 feet, we put on the glacier boots and began to trek on snow as we approached our camp: Finally, at about 6500 feet, we found a great camp site in a retively protected cirque with "running water" (snowfield melt water pooling and flowing from the bottom of the field) and a killer view to the south, with a good practice area above us. We set out to carve a platform for the tents out of the slope.
Dallas then instructed us in the nuances of tent pitching on snow. Finally, we had ourselves a Base Camp, as the sun started to wane in the west. Dinner that night was outstanding (one pot with lots of salt, carbs, fat, and the sweetest of sauces outdoor hunger!) And after dinner, we were treated to one of the prettiest sunsets you'd ever want to see.
The Rain Begins
That night, the mountain showed us for the first (and definitely not last) time that she is a fickle lady when it comes to weather, and she loves to precipitate. Mount Baker holds the record for largest seasonal snowfall in the world 1,140 inches in the winter of 1998-99. In the summer, she just turns all that stuff to rain. Our first night, we were awoken around midnight as lighting flashed, thunder boomed and reverberated down the hardscape snow and rock surfaces, and the rain kept us awake off and on through the night. Even earplugs didn't do much to help!
Luckily, it began clearing in the morning, and we were able to emerge from our sturdy tents (way to go, Eureka! company), stretch out the kinks, and begin our training day, learning the techniques we would need to attack the summit on Day 3.
Day 2 Mountain Training Day
One of the great aspects of our climb was the fact that IMG booked us for three days. This allowed us to both rest up for the summit assault, and to learn the glacier-travel techniques we would need for safe transit and climbing on the upper mountain. The result was a much richer learning experience for us tyros than a straight summit push. So, after a tasty breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, tea, and energy bars, we began to learn how to be mountaineers. The first thing we needed to practice was how to walk. Yes, walk.
Not like one would on dry ground, but an energy-conserving type of step-rest rhythm that allows one to obtain purchase in the snow, and be as efficient as possible to keep energy in reserve for climbing higher.
When we had mastered that, we returned to camp and strapped on our crampons, grabbed our ice axes, and headed for steeper slopes to practice both climbing and falling!
Yes, it was time to learn how to fall, and arrest our selves and our teammates from sliding dangerously down the mountain. This was the fun part!
After all of this excitement, we returned to camp and Mike and Dallas suggested we take a short nap in the tents to relax before working on roped-up travel. Well, you can imagine how well that went over with 17-year-olds.
After that "rest session," it was now time to rope up and head on up to take a look at what we were going to tackle the next day.
We retreated to Base Camp excited for the next day. Our plan was to have an early dinner, get in the tents and on our backs around 9 PM, sleep if possible, and then up at 3 AM to begin climbing around 4:30. Why so early, you ask? Several reasons the snow is harder at that time, so better traction for crampons. It allows for more daylight near the summit if something goes awry. Finally, it is also just plain fun to climb by the light of a headlamp, and watch the sun come up over the horizon from 8000 feet!
So, with this plan in mind, we climbed into our bags and hoped for good weather! Well, at least that was the plan...
Day 3 Will We Be Able to Go?
It didn't take long for the mountain to have her way again. "Plan A" melted way with about a foot of snow as the heavens opened up. While we didn't have much lightning, the rain deluging our tents made the previous night seem like a sprinkle. It was as if someone was hosing our tents with a garden nozzle (along with a really big wind fan!). We found out later that the same storm closed the North Cascades Highway for a week due to mudslides, trapping about 50 hikers in their cars at a trailhead. We were also sort of trapped safe and dry in our tents, but pinned down, unable to safely climb. The problem with heavy rain on a summit attempt is hypothermia. Even though we all had multiple synthetic layers, and breathable "hard shells," when one is climbing, due to sweat and just seepage, one just plain gets wet. If everything goes fine, and you keep moving, and especially if the sun is predicted to come out and dry you out, then it's not too much of a problem. However, on a high mountain like Baker, you can't count on everything going well. The winds are always high, you are traveling light with only layers, food, and water, and if something happens and you have to stop and stand, you start getting cold. Most hypothermia occurs not in ambient temps below zero, but around 40 degrees.
Axiom: Summiting is optional. Returning is not.
Meanwhile, the rain just kept on coming.
Well, at least we were getting more sleep.
By the way, in case you were wondering, there's no cell coverage on Baker. So, at about 5 AM, Dallas used the satellite phone to call his parents in Alabama (since they were definitely more awake than folks in Washington) to look online for the mountain forecast for Baker.
Dallas: "HI Mom. It's Dallas." Dallas' mom: "Oh, hi honey. You're on Baker Mountain? That's nice. How are the campers? Here's your father." (Dallas says his mom still thinks he's basically a glorified camp counselor. Which is basically true.) Dallas' dad got online and said it didn't look great, but that it might get better once some bands of moisture went by, but there were some others that might then threaten.
So, by 6:30, we had "The Chat." The one nobody likes to have. The one where you talk about turning around. Mike was great, but he basically noted that we could not go safely up in the rain, and we had a time point approaching beyond which we couldn't even start for a summit attempt. Why? Well, we would have to summit, return to base, break camp, and get down to the cars by nightfall. By then we were going to be out of food and fuel, and some of us had to get to work the next day :-).
Summiting Baker from our starting point usually would take about 5-6 hours, and half that to return. So, we would make 9 AM our drop-dead summit departure time. After that, we could wait until noon for a break in the rain and maybe take a walk up the glacier a ways, or we could just pull the plug and head down.
Needless to say, things seemed a tad bleak. All our months of training, all our families' tolerance of incessant hikes and prep climbs, all your outstanding support and sponsorship, (all Sam's toe suffering!), and all the team efforts to climb to this point would be for naught.
The next half hour was pretty quiet. Then it stopped raining.
The Summit Attempt
At 7:30, the mountain finally seemed to have had enough of torturing us. The wind died, the rain slowed and stopped, and we even began to get patches of blue sky. Go, Dallas's dad! We scrambled out of the tents, and geared up as quickly as we safely could. Snacks, 2 liters of water per person, clothing layers, sunscreen. Wow, those packs were now 15 lbs. max, and felt like nothing! By 8:30, we were ready to climb.
We began ascending the mountain, using the techniques Mike and Dallas had taught us the day before. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Ice axe in uphill hand (Adze to the front. "No adze-backward climbers, please."). Two points of contact on the ice at all times. Rope on downhill side. Not too tight, not too slack. Don't spear it with your crampons. Make the pace rhythmic, robotic, repeatable, sustainable. We took a break after an hour, having ascended about 1300 feet. Good speed.
Continuing on upward, we climbed above the sea of clouds that surrounded the volcano.
At this point , we began encountering real crevasses. Not little cracks in the snow, but mammoth, gaping gashes in ancient ice that were as beautiful as they were pulse-quickening. Basically, you can't see the bottom it twists away in layers of blue and white and shadow, 40, 50, 100 feet down. You really don't want to fall in. And we had to cross a pretty big one. On a narrow tongue of ice that bridged the chasm, about 2 feet wide at its tip. Well, as they say, you gotta go sometime.
Another 500 feet up, we came to another big crevasse/icefall region with large seracs towering overhead like big ice building blocks.
At about 9600 feet, we came to the edge of the summit crater, and stopped for food and water and a breather. Well, shallow breathing. That sulfur smell coming off the volcano is pretty powerful:
The Final Push
Now we were within 1000 feet of the summit. Piece of cake. Except... your breathing gets a little harder at 10,000 feet. And it's getting really windy. And the darn mountain is rounded off at the top just when you think you are there, you aren't. And, then, finally, we were.
It turns out the actual summit of Baker is a little stone hump on the edge of the crater called Grant Peak. So it was time to take off the packs, unclip from the ropes, fight the 30 mph wind, and scramble the last 50 feet up for celebration and picture time!
In keeping with tradition, Sam signed and dated the summit register "McCray, Stenberg, Peterson, CCFANW 8-11-13:" And then we beat it the heck out of there. Did we mention it was really windy? The climb to the top took us, breaks included, about 4:45. Pretty good for the old geezers on the lead rope going up. Going down, the teen rope led. We made it back to Base Camp in 2 hours flat. I guess somebody was hungry.
After we reached Base Camp, it was just a simple matter of packing up, hoisting our now-much-heavier-again-darn-it! packs onto our backs, and making our way back down the Railroad Grade to the trailhead. We were aslo back down in the clouds, and had a light rain on the way down, which was really pleasant for keeping cool, and beautiful scenery to boot. We even found that our friendly Forest Service crew had put in a temporary bridge across Rocky Creek! (Sam's toe rejoiced complete happiness is relative).
Finally, we were back at the cars, and it was time to head home (with a stop at Five Guys for many burgers, natch). All in all, a fantastic climb and weekend with friends on an absolutely glorious mountain!
We'd like to say a special thanks to our incredible guides, Mike Haft and Dallas Glass, for their great skill, leadership, and teaching. They made it safe, fun, and exciting in equal measure.
Finally, we'd again like to thank all of you for your encouragement, well-wishes, and sponsoring support! We couldn't have done it without you.
So... what's next?
Jake, Steve, Arthur, Dave, Sam, and Charlie