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Guided glacier  climbing tour on Mount Baker Easton Glacier climbing route ascent

First Timer On Mount Baker, The Making Of A Mountaineer

by Jack­son Holtz, Moun­tain Mad­ness Climber

I’m tied in at the end of a climb­ing rope, fac­ing the dread­ed Roman Head­wall at 10,000 feet on the south face of Mount Bak­er, the 10,778-foot peak near the Cana­di­an bor­der in West­ern Wash­ing­ton. I’ve been climb­ing all morn­ing and this is the final push for the summit.

Mark, my guide and the lead climber, has decid­ed to take a route straight up the brown-col­ored ice of the 35-degree slope. The rest of the team is above me, kick­ing down loose pieces of pumice. I lean into the wall of ice and let my hel­met do its job. Then I call out for the team to halt.

How the hell am I sup­posed to climb this?” I shout up to Mark, who is three climbers ahead of me and almost over the crest of the headwall.

The same way we learned yes­ter­day,” Mark shouts back. Kick your front points into the ice and climb.”

I’m not reas­sured. What I want to do is turn around and go home. I want to give up, but I can’t. I’m roped in, in more ways than one, to a climb­ing team. I’ve paid a lot of mon­ey, and I’ve trained all sum­mer. I keep going.

I’m not a moun­taineer. I’m a desk job guy, in my mid-30’s with an ever-increas­ing waist size that comes from a seden­tary lifestyle. I decid­ed to make a change, but I need­ed a goal. Ear­ly in the spring, I decid­ed to climb Mount Bak­er. I did research and found Moun­tain Mad­ness, a guid­ing com­pa­ny that offered a group trip over the three-day Labor Day week­end. The tim­ing gave me all sum­mer to train. This pudgy, mid-career pro­fes­sion­al signed up for an adventure.

I start­ed train­ing imme­di­ate­ly to get into shape to make it up and down Bak­er. The mate­ri­als I received explained that no pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence was nec­es­sary, but the bet­ter con­di­tion my legs, lungs and heart were in, the more fun I’d have on the moun­tain. My reg­i­men includ­ed work­ing out with a train­er: doing squats and lunges and work­ing with uneven sur­faces to improve my bal­ance. I did dips and pull ups to be able to haul my ass out of a crevasse,” as my train­er said. I rose ear­ly to climb stairs, jog and ride my bike. And most impor­tant, I went on long train­ing hikes with increas­ing elevation.

After count­less trips to REI and oth­er out­door gear shops, the week­end final­ly came. I checked and dou­ble checked my gear list and final­ly went to sleep for my last night in civ­i­liza­tion. The time had come.

I met up with the two guides, Mark and Michael, and the rest of the group of six guys, five of them begin­ning climbers, too. The weath­er fore­cast for the North Cas­cades was clear and warm with light winds — per­fect for climb­ing. I was scared to death.

The six-hour hike to base camp car­ry­ing a 60-pound pack was excru­ci­at­ing. The first mile or so of the hike wan­dered through a most­ly flat mead­ow with a cou­ple of riv­er cross­ings. These were made hairy by nar­row logs that were dif­fi­cult to man­age with all the weight on my back. One climber asked the guide if this is what the trail was like all the way up. No,” he answered, this is flat.”

After climb­ing 3,500 feet to about 6,500 feet of ele­va­tion, we set up high camp on a ledge at the foot of the Eas­t­on glac­i­er. The views over the North Cas­cades, the San Juan Islands, Van­cou­ver Island and the Olympic Penin­su­la only got bet­ter dur­ing the lengthy sun­sets offered by the high altitude.

We spent that evening and the entire next day prepar­ing for our sum­mit climb. Dur­ing the day we learned self-arrest tech­niques, how to walk in cram­pons and walk­ing as a rope team. The rest of our time was spent prepar­ing our gear for the sum­mit climb and eat­ing as much moun­tain grub as pos­si­ble. Despite my usu­al­ly insa­tiable appetite, I could bare­ly eat — a com­bi­na­tion of nerves and altitude.

Hey guys, it’s 2:30 am,” my tent mate, Den­nis, woke me up say­ing. Aren’t we sup­posed to be up?”

We got up and quick­ly col­lect­ed our gear and downed some break­fast. All I could stom­ach was some hot tea and an oat bar. We were ready to climb. We roped up in the dark, and with head lamps ablaze, start­ed to climb. Soon we were high up on the glacier.

Every hour or so we stopped for a quick break. Since I was work­ing hard, my body and clothes were drenched with sweat, and I felt cold in the chilly morn­ing air. I also lacked car­bo­hy­drates and was shiv­er­ing. I ate a pack­age of Goo, the thick syrupy gel that pro­vides fuel for ath­letes. It tast­ed good.

We kept going. In the ear­ly morn­ing dusk, I watched Mount Rainier become awash in the bril­liant hues of the sun­rise. I also began to see in fuller light the route we were cov­er­ing, includ­ing the nar­row snow bridges over seem­ing­ly bot­tom­less crevass­es. Some­how, no one men­tioned eight-inch wide, melt­ing snow bridges in the mar­ket­ing materials.

Steep­er and steep­er. I ate hard can­dies to pass the time and keep my sug­ar lev­el up. I added a lay­er as a cold breeze picked up as we gained ele­va­tion. Final­ly, we set out on our final push and came to the Roman Headwall.

I kicked into the ice, and start­ed climb­ing, like a lad­der, one foot on top of the oth­er. My cram­pons held, and after about 20 feet of climb­ing, I was off the ice and onto the loose pumice for the final 20 feet of the headwall.

Once I’d topped the Roman Head­wall, the domed top felt easy, but pre­car­i­ous. On one side was a sev­er­al-thou­sand-foot drop into the crater of the vol­cano where sul­fur fumes seeped from gap­ing vents. On the oth­er side was a huge crevasse, sev­er­al-hun­dred feet wide with a glac­i­er the size of a city sky­scraper slow­ly break­ing away.

Sud­den­ly I real­ized I made it. I was stand­ing on top of Mount Bak­er with tears stream­ing down my face. I had set out to climb a moun­tain, and I’d done it. I was fit, strong and stand­ing on my own two feet.

Back down in the van on the way back to civ­i­liza­tion, after 16 hours of hik­ing, three days of hard work and stand­ing on the tallest moun­tain in the North Cas­cades, I had moun­tain climber’s high — a mix­ture of exhaus­tion, dehy­dra­tion, hypox­ia and spent ambi­tion com­bined with the glow of meet­ing my goal. Despite, and per­haps because of, being scared to death and pushed to new lim­its, I knew then that I would do this again. After all, now I’m a mountaineer.