Mount Baker Climb with Kids
“Daaaad, I’m tired; Daaaad, how much longer; Daaaad, what happens if I fall…” I knew tying my 12-year-old daughter Grace second in line on the rope I led would make me vulnerable to such fretting, versus putting her at the end of the rope where she would likely just put her head down and stoically make each step of many on the way to the summit of Mount Baker. But, it seemed an experience too priceless for her to be 200 feet away from me at the end of the rope- in spite of guaranteed discussions of how hard it was for her.
(All photos by Mark Gunlogson unless otherwise noted.)
Joining us was my childhood climbing buddy Howard and his friend Rick, and long-time climbing buddy Bob and his 17-year-old daughter McKenna, who was also on her first big climb.
On the Roman Wall
It all started at the 2:00 a.m. “alpine-start” wake-up call, a time that I begrudgingly set, knowing that it had to be that way. But, Grace took it all in stride after a few extra proddings, and we were roped up and ready to go by 3:45 a.m., guided by the beams of our headlamps in the moonless night. It seems our talk about why we had to leave so early made an impression; the climber’s dictum of the early ascent meant avoiding soft snow bridges, getting down before thunderstorms…… and so on.
Sunrise on the Easton Glacier.
As we continued up the route on the lower, relatively featureless part of the Easton Glacier, we came across the first few crevasses, a series of narrow slots less than a foot wide that even a small step would easily span. I noticed some ice worms wriggling about as I scanned the crevasse field for potential snow bridges that would be possibly hiding more serious dangers. “Grace, check it out, ice worms by the hundreds!” I yelled back. “Gross, I just ate some snow,” she quickly pointed out. “Will I get sick, will they stay in my stomach?” she asked with concern. “Well, no, they live in the ice and would probably not like the living arrangements of your stomach,” I offered.
Early morning on the glacier. Howard Lee photo
At first I thought this was a learning experience lost, but in the end, it was an impression doubt made, like seeing the watermelon snow created by red algae bloom in the snow; or listening, or even better, seeing ice blocks calve on the lower reaches of the Easton Glacier; seeing the shimmering blue ice deep in the crevasses we peered into; or watching a planet rise on the eastern skyline as the night gave way to day. At the time though, it was ice worms-be-damned, as we continued on in the darkness.
As the night sky lightened, the depths of the crevasses were now fully revealed as we crossed several snow bridges spanning slots at least 50-feet deep. “Daaaad, I’m scared, what if I fall in?” While the question was perhaps loaded with a bit of drama, it was also a reasonable question, to which a quick review of why we use ropes, ice axes, and crampons dispelled her fear and kept her on her way towards the lower rim of the crater.
Low down on the Roman Wall.
“Daaad, gross, is that you!?” Grace groaned as she got strong whiff of the sulfur blowing out from the steam vents in the summit crater. I was concerned that the possibility here of an altitude induced headache and the noxious odor could be a show-stopper as it has for more than a few climbers at this point. Fortunately, the promise of a Nutella break overpowered the smell and we took a much needed break at the rim before the next obstacle- the Roman Wall.
Snack break at the lower part of summit crater.
Refreshed, we reached the top of the wall without incident where saw the North Cascades rise above Baker Lake like a sea of endless deep valleys and high peaks. This, a sight I’d seen many times guiding in the past, now took on a new perspective as I tried to imagine the experience through the eyes of Grace, who, while impressed, was still more interested in having the uphill part of the climb over. In a sort of rite of passage, Grace endured the twenty more minutes to the summit promised to be only “five more minutes to the top.”
After more than 35 years of climbing on Seven continents, on 4,000+-foot walls in the Himalayas, and countless, untold adventures and mis-adventures in the North Cascades, a new milestone had been reached as I reeled in the rope as Grace made the last steps to the summit of Baker.
Last steps to the summit. Nick Lyle photo
As with so many climbing adventures, it’s more about the comraderie of the rope, as it is with the natural beauty and challenge of the climb itself. To share this with my daughter, new heights were reached for me, well beyond the 10,778-foot summit!
The team on the summit.
On the way down, with the unknowns of the ascent behind her, Grace’s excitement of reaching the summit turned into chattering jubilation as she talked about new adventures, laughed at slogging through the then-slushy snow and an occasional slip that led to the creation of snow angels while she untangled herself from the rope, and taking in the beauty of the surroundings as she pointed out the features of the mountain and glacial ice. Above all, she took in the congratulations with modesty, knowing that it was a shared experience with all — even “Daaaad.”
Grace taking in the icefall on the lower Easton.
Well done Grace and McKenna!
~ Mark Gunlogson