Blue Bird, Bees, And Turns On Mount Baker Ski Descent
At 7 am on April 24, 2013 Chris and I emerged from a steep ravine and I finally got a full view of our destination – the summit of Mount Baker. Chris pointed out the wisps of vapour that was coming from the crater of the active volcano that lies about 1000 feet below the summit. We had been skiing for about two and half hours, and Chris and I were starting to feel alive again after our 2:30 am departure from Sedro-Woolley on Hwy 20.
I was feeling really good about my decision to contact Mountain Madness and ask them about setting me up with someone to guide me to the summit of Baker on backcountry skis, especially on a blue bird day. I made my inquiry on Monday morning because a rare high pressure system was forecasted to remain in place until Thursday. Jaime at Mountain Madness scrambled to organize my trip and 24 hours later I left my home in Vancouver to partake in this crazy adventure.
Taking a break on the Easton Glacier. Jim Vercammen photo
I say crazy because my guide, Chris, and I were attempting to ski to the summit and back in one long day. Much of the access road was not plowed so we were facing eight miles of skiing on logging road in addition to the 8400 feet of climbing that was required to reach the summit. I have a reasonable level of backcountry ski experience and I am quite fit, but skiing up large glaciers with some very steep pitches and obvious gaping crevasses was something new for me. I had read extensively about crevasse rescue so I was familiar with the concepts of prussik knots, self-arrest, etc, but of course reading is no substitute for the real thing! When it was time to rope up at about 10 am Chris and I had a long discussion about safety procedures and I practiced self-arrests with my ice axe. Fortunately, the snow was just starting to soften so the risk of slipping when traversing a steep pitch had become reasonably small.
The neat thing about skiing to the summit of Mount Baker over the Easton glacier is that the views are stunning for much of the way. I was exhausted by the time we reached the crater at 3 pm but I certainly wasn’t complaining because everywhere I looked there were distant peaks set against a brilliant blue sky. The wind was really howling now so I was constantly switching from being severely overheated due to the steep climbing to shivering in the cold wind. Our final 1000 feet of climbing up the so-called “Roman Wall” was the most difficult because the slope was close to 40 degrees and my gas tank was nearing “empty”. At this point Chris and I were switching back every 100 yards or so and the wind was blowing even harder. You can only imagine my immense feeling of relief and happiness when we finally reached the summit at 4:45 pm. A special treat for me was looking north to Canada and seeing Vancouver and many of the mountains that I am familiar with.
Heading up the Roman Headwall. Jim Vercammen photo
In contrast to the 12 hours that it took Chris and I to ski to the summit, it took us less than hour to descend to the logging road. Chris has amazing navigation skills – I still don’t understand how, without looking at a map or GPS, he threaded us through a series of deep and complex ravines and got us to exactly where we needed to be. By 7:30 pm we were back at Chris’ van and three hours after that I was home in Vancouver. The whole trip from when I left my house and arrived back home was about 27 hours!
I highly recommend this trip if you are a reasonably experienced backcountry skier and have a high level of fitness (to put “fitness” in context keep in mind that I am 53 years old). If you like avoiding crowds this is a great outing for you. Chris and I saw no indication that other skiers had skied to Mount Baker via the Easton glacier during this current ski season. When booking with Mountain Madness I highly recommend Chris as a guide. Despite getting stung at 4:30 am on his big toe by a bee that was sleeping in his ski boot, Chris maintained a great sense of enthusiasm, humour and professionalism throughout our entire 15 hour trip. The cost of hiring Chris via Mountain Madness for a day and a half was very reasonable – certainly less than the cost of spending a couple of days skiing at Whistler where one must share the mountain with tens of thousands of other skiers!
Summit! Jim Vercammen photo
Story by Jim Vercammen, Vancouver