Mount Baker: Ice Climbing

 “Did you see the BCMC call out for a trip to the Mt Baker seracs to do some ice climbing? Do you want to sign up?”

This was the question I received in a text from Leigh one morning in October. I texted back within seconds saying “Anniversary at Baker!” It just so happened that the Thursday before the trip we would see our 8th year wedding anniversary come and go.  This seemed like the perfect way to see in another year of adventure together.  We signed up for the trip and started dreaming about climbing ice again.

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The only type of ice that Leigh and I have climbed before has been waterfall ice, some in the Rockies and some in the Coastal Range, so climbing glacier ice was going to be a new experience for us and it was going to take some time to knock the rust off of our recently acquired ice climbing skills. We set up top-ropes at the first wall of ice we could walk up to on the glacier. These first climbs  proved to be more difficult than anticipated, and everyone, albeit 1 or 2, had to shout “take” more than once on their way up. There were several bulges and overhangs to contend with and the density of this ice was proving to be very hard and made for some very ginger tool placements, as no crampon or ice pick was really sinking in. All part of the learning process and also part of the beauty of ice climbing, no two walls of ice are ever the same.

Once we had our fill of these climbs we decided to make our way over to an area where 2 from our group set up a few more ropes. We had to weave around gaping crevasses, jump over cracks in the ice and down-climb some sections just to get to the climbing area.  It was unnerving but so much fun at the same time. It was really starting to feel like we were on another planet with such an other-worldly almost eery feeling. The only sounds apart from the odd shout of “on belay” or “climb on” was the groaning and cracking of the glacier. I walked the final narrow ice bridge towards the crevasse where the top-ropes were set up to see that you had to rappel into the hole if you wanted to climb.  I felt a reluctance at first, as my first instinct is to always avoid being inside a crevasse, but I had to find a way to push through it and I joined Leigh and our friend Scott down below.  Did someone say crevasse-party?

We spent that evening around the campfire talking about how much warmer the air felt than earlier that morning, in the car park,when we were all shivering and commenting on how we were afraid we didn’t bring enough warm clothes. Needless to say we were all happy with this change of temperature and had a cozy night in our tents. I woke up the next morning, however, to a roaring sound. Still not fully awake, and never experiencing sound like this before, I recognized that the sound could only be from katabatic wind coming down the glacier we were camped next to, but couldn’t believe the intensity of what I was hearing.  We have all experienced the roar of a jet engine and this would be the best comparison I could make. It was almost like we were camped next to the runway tarmac with a continual flow of jet planes coming and going.  Thankfully we were sheltered in our treed campsite so didn’t experience the full fury of the winds that morning, but we were in no rush to get swept away and decided to have a fairly leisurely breakfast and wait for the mountain to calm down.

Once we felt the weather was calming and could see patches of blue sky through the trees we made a go for it. This time we decided to head farther up the glacier to see what kind of ice we could find to play on. After about 30 minutes we were putting our crampons on and weaving our way across the ice trying to spot some potential climbs. A few in our party climbed up to a small plateau with 4 crevasses on either side. This looked as good a spot as any, as going further afield didn’t look very promising and possibly a little sketchy. Anchors were quickly set up and everyone was rapping in to start climbing. Some of the crevasses were so deep that in order to do a climb, you had to be lowered only to a certain point down the wall of ice and start your climb from that point. Even though I was feeling more comfortable after the previous day’s climbing, there is still a certain feeling of uneasiness trusting an anchor built in ice as opposed to rock. I had to tell myself,from previous experience, that I would easily rappel off of a single v-thread, so climbing top rope off of a 3 point anchor system,  was as bomber as you could get. For me it is all about learning to trust the systems and trust the gear.

The last crevasse we lowered ourselves into had 2 super fun climbs; this crevasse we could actually lower ourselves down onto small belay ledges. We tried the first climb and it was nice and steep but well within our ability with a few tricky bulges. The most interesting part of the climb was at the start as  it required a tricky traverse from the belay ledge across a large gap over to the wall of ice.  There were two ways we found in which you could do the traverse: either a swift ninja type swing from the belay ledge to the wall or the more standard way of inching your way over,toe pick by toe pick. The climb right next to this, had the same type of  start.  There was a 3ft-4ft gap between the belay ledge and the ice wall. Again requiring some ninja like stealth it  required you to balance one foot on a ledge of ice,with  just a few picks of your crampon stuck in, and then gently but purposefully kick your other foot across the gap into the ice on the wall. With this one good foot hold and 2 solid axe placements you released your remaining leg off the belay ledge and pulled yourself over to the wall. Even being on top-rope it felt sketchy, clinging to the ice wall, looking down to see broken up ice below, pools of ice-cold glacial water and holes that you couldn’t see to the bottom of.

This was our last climb of the day and of the trip. Being the last one to climb out of the crevasse that day it felt very surreal to be surrounded by steep walls of blue ice.  I couldn’t help but think how cool it was that I was able to experience this. But there was one last experience the glacier had yet to give me on our way back to camp.There was a small section of ice that we had to down-climb single file, and as I waited my turn, the roaring wind from earlier that morning returned and one large gust pushed me so that I stumbled from my stance. Being that I was on ice I didn’t want to slip and potentially keep sliding my way down the glacier, so I instantly squatted down, crampons firmly fixed and ice axe dug into the slope, to get out of the fury of the wind. It never ceases to amaze me how raw and very real every experience in the mountains is.

Now it’s on to planning our next ice climbing adventure!

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Author: Spring McClurg

I moved to B.C. with my husband in 2010 after spending 6 years living abroad in Ireland. Originally from a small town in Alberta that was minutes away from the Rockies, I always knew I would return to the mountains one day. I love spending as much time as I can in the mountains, whether it be mountaineering, rock climbing or simply running on the backcountry trails. I love to challenge myself and seek out new experiences.

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