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Baker summit

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