Mt. Baker, N. Ridge: Anatomy of an Attempt

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“At one point or another we’ve all cited percentages or experience levels and shrugged away risk. Given reasons for why it can’t happen to us, why it won’t happen…”

I lay awake, semi in and out of my sleeping bag. It’s hot. I’m trying to sleep as I know I need to be awake and alert again in a few short hours. I want so bad for the temperature to drop, so that I can sleep, so that the snow underneath my tent and for miles around me will firm up. But there’s no wind, no sound, just dry, dead air and the dying light of the day.

I’m listening to a podcast called “The Dirtbag Diaries” on my mp3 player. This episode is called “Anatomy of an Accident”. In it the author details a near fatal accident he had high in the mountains in a steep icy gully, he examines the simple mistakes he made during that trip early on that had a domino effect eventually leading to his accident.

“Geez, this is the last thing I need to be listening to right now!” I say to myself.

I hear a serac calve off Colfax in the distance, the impact shatters the silence across the entire mountain. It’s not the first serac we’ve seen or heard fall this day.

“Maybe this is exactly what I should be listening to right now…”

I let this episode finish and then try to get some sleep. It’s fitful, it never seems to get dark outside, the temperature is always uncomfortably hot and before I know it, it’s 2am and time to get up and ready.

I give Dean and Adrien a wake up call. Spring is already up. Everyone moves in silence, boiling water, eating whatever calories we can paw at in the dull light, getting our harnesses on, prusiks dressed and checked, clipping all our gak where ever it will fit. We split into two rope teams of two and head out into the eerie glow of the near full moon to cross the Coleman Glacier.

Only minutes have passed and we’re already jumping the first of a plethora of unavoidable crevasses, ice axes at the ready to arrest any sudden snow bridge collapses. I think to myself “I didn’t even need that coffee this morning, this is enough of a wake up”. At times it feels like tiptoeing past sleeping giants. Huge pillars of broken ice the size of houses, yawning crevasses the depths of which my 100 lumen headlamp can’t even attempt to see to the bottom of.

As I inch across one of a few 3 foot wide snow bridges and make the mistake to try and see the bottom below me it’s like I hear echoing up from the depths “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.”

After what had felt like an age we finally exited the labyrinth unscathed and approached the North Ridge. We’d received beta from some climbers the day before to not take the shortcut route to gain the ridge as the snow condition was terrible. It was indeed still terrible that morning having not firmed up at all. The wind was blowing but it was warm. Really warm. Usually I look forward to the rising of the sun but on this day I wanted cold and I knew the Sun had no intention of obliging.

We dropped down to the base of the ridge and began our ascent. A few more broken sections of glacier needed to be navigated and then we made it to a rock crest on the ridge. From here we headed straight for the ice cliff looming above us. “that was just the approach, this is the meat of this route now”. We traversed left upwards towards the ice cliff. From descriptions in guide books, under good conditions, you can traverse around the left side and follow a 45 to 60 degree ice slope up above the cliff band.

Our route towards the Ice cliff meant crossing more crevasses, but it kept us mostly out of the firing line of ice blocks possibly calving off the cliff. We came up on the cliff and weighed out options.

We had to dig down through about a foot of slush to reach ice to put some screws in for self-belays. We decided to head out around to climbers left of the ice cliff onto the 60 degree or so slope. Dean would lead and place pro.

Immediately as Dean started up we could see the ice was just junky. There was a smearing of slush all over it. Dean disappeared behind an arete as he climbed and called for Adrien to follow soon afterwards. He’d built a belay station. We’d need to do this in at least 2 pitches.

Adrien started to follow. I’ve seen Adrien almost run up WI4 while on belay but with this stuff he was having a hard time, his crampons would bite but then the ice would just shatter when he weighted them. He kept needing to clear the slush off the ice before being able to get his ice tools in.

Adrien disappeared behind the arete.

By this point two other parties had joined up with us and thanked us for the route through the maze of crevasses and our broken trail. We informed them about the condition of the ice.

Adrien called out that he was with Dean at the belay station. I would now need to lead up and clip into Deans protection. What had seemed like a straightforward idea earlier now seemed absolutely crazy. I’ve ice climbed but never led on ice before. I know I wouldn’t need to place pro, but still, I’d be on the sharp end of the rope between ice screws. This ice wasn’t helping either. I’d seen how it had held under Adrian’s weight, and I’m a good bit heavier than him with much less aggressive crampons.

I remembered that podcast. In it the climber blamed bravado for his accident. Just before I felt like shouting to the guys that I wasn’t feeling it I heard Adrien shout out that he was coming down.

“Coming down? What?“

The other groups with us looked puzzled also. As Adrien got back down to us he told us that the ice above was even worse and near vertical. It was past noon now and seriously hot for this elevation. I checked my GPS, we were above 2900m’s.

As Adrien started to belay Dean down the moment of relief that we were not going to climb this cliff turned bittersweet. I realized that we’d now need to reverse our route. Back across that glacier. At a time of the day when all those snowbridges would now be at their weakest.

One of the groups with us was carrying skis. They seemed really committed to not having to carry their skis down this mountain. They started up the ice cliff but stayed directly on top of the arete, choosing a different line to us.

We regeared again for glacier travel then started to head down. The third party hung out, weighing their options. But, shortly after we started to descend, they followed behind us.

We met up with them at the rock crest that we had gained earlier in the day as we were having a break. They said that they could see the skiers on the second pitch and that, due to not being able to place a screw, they were trying to hammer a picket into the ice to protect themselves. They’d called it when they realized just how poor the condition of the ice was.

By now it felt like being in a desert rather than on a glacier. The heat and humidity was insane. We quickly retraced our steps across the glacier, gingerly weighting the snow bridges.

One silver lining to bailing on our attempt was that we got to cross this glacier in broad daylight in all it’s glory. These crevasses that I’d thought were large in the darkness now seemed humongous beyond belief. Ice Pillars 5 stories high. Massive chasms that even now daylight couldn’t penetrate fully. We were all in awe as we solemnly passed above and beside them.

Seracs on Baker

We finally reached our tents, which had looked like a mirage on the horizon for the longest time, and collectively let out a sigh of relief. It was behind us.

We stripped down and got into our tents to try and get out of the oppressive sun for just a while. The tents where like ovens. As I lay there I thought: “baking on baker, heh, apropos”.

After that we packed, egressed and drove back to Canada.

I actually really appreciated this trip. The North Ridge of Baker is rated as AD. I’ve done AD routes but under perfect conditions where you’re on neve or firn. Under those conditions it felt substantially more difficult. It reminded me of an Yvon Chouinard quote: “Any mountain, at certain times, is safe and at other times it’s super dangerous. We just happened to be there at the wrong time.” Not only that, but I know I’m not ready to lead ice over multiple pitches, even something as low as WI2. I’m already looking into some possible lead ice climbing course in the Rockies for this coming winter.

Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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1 Comment

  1. ” Never let judgment be overruled by desire when choosing the route or deciding whether to turn back “. ~ Climbing Code ~ Mountaineering Freedom of the Hills, pg. 17.

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