Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 5: Summiting Mount Baker!

It was just getting light out and I was trudging up the steep snowy slope in my crampons when the rotten egg smell hit me. My first thought was, Is every single person on the rope team in front of us farting? Every one ate those freeze-dried Mountain House meals for dinner last night, that must be it! Then my perplexed brain remembered that I was on an active volcano, and it was the smell of sulfur from the caldera that we were approaching.

It was the wee hours of Sunday morning and I was on the side of Mount Baker on the Easton Glacier, doing the final climb in my Basic Climbing and Mountaineering class. We had started on Saturday from Schreiber's Meadow, and hiked in about four miles and 3,000 feet to get to base camp. We shouldered very heavy packs, crossed streams, and saw lots of ptarmigans and marmots.
It was a beautiful campsite at just over 6,000 feet, and a lovely afternoon. We got there before 2pm, which I thought was really early, but the rest of the day went fast as there was plenty to do. First of all, we had to set up tents, which takes longer in snow considering digging snow platforms and making snow anchors. Then we had to make water, and melting snow takes a long time.
Another large group camped below us
We also met with our rope team and decide who would be in what position. We flaked, divided, and stacked the rope, and also attached our personal prusiks so that in the morning, all we'd have to do was tie in.
Ropes, ice axes, and prusiks ready to go
People started eating dinner around 3:30 or 4:00. "This is weird," I said. "I can't eat dinner this early!" An instructor advised me to not think of it as dinner. "Think of it as a pre-climb conditioning meal," she said. So with that, I ate my Mountain House, drank more water, and made sure my backpack was all ready to go.
Westward view of the San Juan Islands from camp
The plan was to go to bed at 6pm because we had to wake up at midnight. I scoffed at this, knowing there was no way that I, or any one else, would be asleep before 9 or 10. I even brought a book! And my iPod! But it was completely quiet at 6:00 with every one in their tents. I pulled my hat over my eyes and my sleeping bag over my head, and shockingly, slept a good chunk of the evening.
Camp is still and quiet at 6pm
A shout from our instructors of, "LET'S GO CLIMBING!" was our official wake up call at midnight. I awoke feeling surprisingly rested. It was a beautiful clear night, with a bright gibbous moon. I didn't know if I'd be hungry then, but amazingly I was- I think the early dinner helped. I ate some crackers, hard boiled eggs, and a cup of coffee before leaving camp.

It was a really mild night. I started hiking in only a long-sleeve base layer. It was so surreal, watching this evenly spaced line of headlamps going up the side of the mountain. Part of our class was doing the Squak Glacier route, and they later reported that they could see the northern lights! 

Of course, the higher we got, the colder it got, and I slowly added more and more layers. Clouds rolled in, cutting visibility, and it got chilly. It was a pretty slow climb as we had a large group in a train of rope teams, and ended up waiting for any group in front of us that was pausing. When we were moving, I felt good. But standing on snow, and not knowing how long we'd be stopped, was torturous. My fingers and toes got cold. But you are roped together, and and at the mercy of every one else in front of you moving first.
The wind picked up and I think it was the first time I experienced my eyeballs getting cold. I was so happy I had clear goggles. Even though they were for Burning Man and rimmed with fur, they worked perfectly.
We put on crampons started up toward the caldera. And... that brings us back to the stinky part. That is when I started to feel more awe for where we were- it was light out, jagged outcroppings rose up behind us, and steam was rising up from the caldera below. It was other-worldly.
Leaving the caldera
A few fun facts about Mount Baker, courtesy of Wikipedia:

-Mount Baker is 10,781 feet, making it the 3rd highest mountain in Washington state
-After Mount Rainier, Mount Baker is the most heavily glaciated of the Cascade Range volcanoes
-The volume of snow and ice on Mt Baker is greater than that of all the other Cascade volcanoes (except Rainier) combined
-It is one of the snowiest places in the world- In 1999, the Mt Baker ski area set the world record for recorded snowfall in a single season.

Good to know, right? Okay, back to the climb! We left the caldera and started the final steep section, called the Roman Wall. I don't know why it's called that, but it is definitely the part where you have to pay pretty close attention to your footing. Luckily, it wasn't too icy and my feet felt really secure.
Going up the Roman Wall
We did, however, have to cross a pretty serious crevasse. If the snow bridge over it was any more melted out, I don't think it would have been possible. It was so melted, that there was basically a snow step hovering in the middle of the gaping hole. A friend later asked me if I had a picture of the crevasse. Hah! The last thing you want to do on a sketchy snow bridge is stop and take a picture. Though I sort of wish I had one.

With that, we reached the almost-top. There is a big flat section before the last little bump up to the summit. We unroped, hydrated, sunscreened, and ate homemade cookies (thanks Jen!) before the grand finale.
We were floating in a sea of clouds, with Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens the only things visible. It was magical.
Our rope team and friends on the summit! (Alice's photo)
Summit selfie epic fail
Looking down to the flat
Some dude once said that getting to the top of a mountain is only half way. Some other guy said that getting up a mountain is optional; getting down in mandatory. Besides the Roman Wall and the freaky gaping crevasse, the descent was not that technical, and I was feeling good about getting down. 

We took off crampons near where we had put them on, and started post-holing in the deep, soft snow. That was slow-going, but not bad. Then the white-out rolled in. I was leading our rope team, and we could no longer see the team in front of us, so I lead us carefully from wand to wand. I had to walk a little ways from one wand before the next fleck of hot pink tape became visible.

We finally made it back to camp sometime after noon. Luckily, there were more home-baked goods, and here are my awesome team mates resting up and eating brownies.
Some of the faster groups had time to take naps, but by the time I coiled the rope, melted snow, and ate a bagel, it was time to start packing up camp. The clouds lifted, and a bright afternoon sun came out. We hiked out, which to be honest, was probably the hardest part of the day for me. My pack was really heavy, the sun was hot and relentless, and I was tired of walking on snow. But we did get to do some glissading on the way out, which sure beats walking.
We all made it back to the trailhead in one piece, with requisite clean clothes, snacks, and beers waiting in the cars. I don't have much to compare this trip to, but I would say it was a great climb.

That night back in Seattle, I hung my wet stuff to dry, texted my mom that I was okay, slathered on the aloe, and drank a bunch of water. Then around 10:30 I finally crawled into bed after being up for 22.5 hours, and on my feet almost the whole time.

I don't think I have to tell you how well I slept.


ElizaBeth said...

Girl... you know how impressed I am by you so I won't say it again. I'm sure your classmates are thrilled that you did such a great job documenting the entire journey!

AmberAnda said...

Aww, thanks Eli! I'm so happy I did the class, and had such awesome teammates/classmates!