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.