Author: Doug McDonnal
One thing I love about alpine touring and ski mountaineering in the late spring is the access it brings to the mountains during the longest days of the year. The long hours of daylight are just amazing. Until a few years ago, when I took up backcountry skiing, I used to lament the fact that the best of the Cascades were not open to backpacking until six weeks, maybe even a couple months, after the solstice. And even during an unfavorable weather pattern, like the one that has prevailed in the Pacific Northwest since early May, the weather will often give you enough of a window for a great trip. The Mt Baker ski ascent is a trip I'd wanted to do for a few years, and I'm so glad I was able to do it this year.
Amir, David, and I met our PGS guide Trevor Kostanich in Glacier on Saturday morning. After introductions, we made some decisions about the tents and stoves we would bring. Trevor went over our plans for the trip, discussed some of the PGS priorities regarding safety and efficiency, and then we made our way to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead.
We started the trip at an elevation of 3700 ft and walked the last stretch of road to the trailhead. A short way up the trail and immediately before entering the Mt Baker Wilderness Area, you have to cross Grouse Creek. The bridge is still out, necessitating a crossing on a rather wet, slick log. We wore boot crampons to make the crossing more safe. After roughly two miles of trail walking, we were able to put on our skis and skin up to Hogsback Camp at around 6000 ft. At this point, Trevor gave us a brief lesson on crevasse rescue and rope use.
Skies had been cloudy all day with intermittent light precipitation and somewhat limited visibility. We decided to make camp at Hogsback rather than climb another 1200 ft to Heliotrope Ridge Camp, which was well into the base of the cloud cover. In the evening, the cloud cover thinned enough for limited views of the lower Coleman Glacier to our northeast and Glacier Creek to our northwest.
Sunday was the day for our summit attempt, and we were hoping a break in the weather would make it a Go. We woke at 530 am to the sound of light precipitation, but the weather looked more favorable by the time we were outside the tents. A deep, cloudy marine layer over western Washington had us in a light fog, while a layer of higher clouds was well above the summit of Mt Baker. As we skinned up the Coleman Glacier past Heliotrope Ridge Camp at around 7200 ft, we emerged from the lower cloud into brilliant sunshine; by that time, the high cloud cover had mostly cleared as well. The tour up the upper Coleman Glacier to the col between the Coleman and Deming Glaciers (at just above 9000 ft) was outstanding, with nice views of Lincoln Peak, Colfax Peak, and Thunder Glacier.
At the col we took a break for water and food, in windy conditions and increasing cloud cover. We also transitioned to boot crampons for the steeper 1700 ft climb from the col to the summit on the upper Deming Glacier. Trevor gave us some brief instructions on crampon technique and use of the ice axe, and we were on our way. We were in the clouds and occasionally had poor visibility, but on the whole the climb to the summit plateau was straightforward. We made a quick trip to the true summit at 10,781 ft; since there was no view due to cloud cover, our stay was brief. The ski descent was great, and the snow on the Roman Headwall and other steep sections down to the col was much more skiable than I thought it might be.
The cloud cover broke up enough late in the day for nice views of our surroundings in the evening light. Another front was moving into the Pacific Northwest later that night, and we made the trip out Monday morning in light rain.
This was my fourth trip with PGS since 2009. Our guide Trevor, like the guides on previous trips, did an outstanding job. His expertise was obvious, and he reiterated the PGS philosophy of safety and efficiency of movement. His familiarity with the terrain and route finding in occasionally poor visibility was spot on, he promoted a relaxing and positive atmosphere, and he was an enjoyable guy to spend time in the mountains with. Another thing I've noticed about PGS trips is that you can count on meeting great people; you'll quickly feel like you're on a trip with friends instead of people you just met. And now I just have to figure out which trip (or trips) I'll do next season.
You can see a set of pictures from the trip at: