Mt. Baker: Which is Harder, Climbing Mt. Baker in a Day, or Crossing the Border?

For a while I had been waiting for a midweek window of good weather to climb Mt. Baker. Finally the forecast was showing some sun, but finding partners was a scramble. I asked everyone I knew and posted online in several places. Luckily, Charlie Beard was in town, after his two-month volunteering trip to the Arctic was delayed by a week due to large amounts of snow. The only catch? We’d have to be back relatively early, since Charlie was catching a flight north the next day, early in the morning.

Mt. Baker as viewed from Heliotrope Ridge

We decided to drive to the trailhead the evening before, and get a good night’s sleep there, and then start skiing early. We arrived to the trailhead and Charlie promptly fell asleep. You see, the night before he had only gotten a few hours of sleep, after getting up at 2am to ski to the top of Mt. Seymour to see the solstice sunrise. We decided to start a bit earlier than we had planned, to increase odds of success, and were on the trail by 5:15am. About 50m down the trail, we came to the creek crossing we were looking for, which was completely covered with snow. In fact, it looked like a giant white ramp leading into the mountains. Perfect! It turns out that a huge avalanche had come down Grouse Creek earlier this year, and was partially responsible for the excellent snow coverage.

Charlie skiing up Heliotrope Ridge

We skied directly up Grouse Creek to Heliotrope Ridge. We were happy to have our ski crampons, since the snow was firm and we would have probably been sliding around a bit without them. Once we reached the ridge we came out into the sun, and stopped to apply sunscreen and treat some hot spots on our feet. It had been a while since we had last skied and our protective calluses, which we had nurtured the whole ski season, had begun to disappear.

Neat rocks and pointy peak (unnamed?)

We crossed the Coleman Glacier, which was very well covered by snow with almost no crevasses showing. On the way up we saw some neat volcanic formations and pinnacles with some pointy snowy peaks behind. We also saw a few groups of roped up hikers that were heading down from the summit – they must have gotten a very early start. From the Colfax Col we started heading up the final steeper ridge heading towards the summit. Here it got very windy. We stopped for a moment to put on another layer, and Charlie dropped his camera, which rolled down the slope and disappeared after falling onto the Deming Glacier far below us. After less than 10 minutes of looking, I was surprised to see Charlie coming back up with the camera, which seemed to be in good working condition. On the ridge, the wind came in gusts, and for a moment I thought it might actually blow me off the ridge.

Charlie on his way back from retrieving his fallen camera

After that we ascended the Roman Wall, which is the crux of the Coleman-Deming route. It wasn’t as steep as I thought it would be, but we still put on our boot crampons, just to be on the safe side. We were both starting to feel the altitude a bit, needing to stop every now and then to take a few breaths. This slope was a bit of a slog, possibly because it is longer than it appears from below. We reached the end of the slope, and could see that the summit was about 500m away, just a small bump on the relatively flat mountain top. On the way there, the strong smell of sulfur hit our nostrils, a reminder that Mt. Baker is a volcano. From the summit, we could see the steaming summit crater below us. We could also see Glacier Peak, but there was a band of clouds blocking out Mt. Rainier and many other peaks.

The Roman Wall

We lingered on the summit, before realizing that we could move 10m down and have some protection from the wind. After a good second lunch we prepared for payback time. This is the great thing about climbing mountains on skis – the descent is fun, instead of a knee pounding slog. Skiing down the Roman Wall was borderline survival skiing, although we managed to get a few nice turns in. Below that the skiing was excellent and fast, and before we knew it we were back at the car, ready to drive home. This proved to be more challenging than I thought it would be, at least for Charlie.

Skiing down the Roman Wall, icy at first, then excellent, then too soft

At the border, after a quick look at our passports, we were waved through. But Charlie’s study permit was about to expire in 10 days, but he was going to the Arctic for two months, so he had to get some type of new permit. He was told on the phone that he could just enter on a regular tourist visa. He asked the guard about this, at which point they led us inside. We spent about two hours there, and then they decided not to let Charlie into Canada. As far as I understood, they had concluded that his volunteering in the Arctic qualified as a job, and as such he required a work permit for it. He had lots of documentation with him, but they wanted a letter saying how many hours he would be working and why a Canadian couldn’t do the same job, which he didn’t have. I had to return to Vancouver, so Charlie crossed back into the US alone. This was around 7:30pm, and he had a flight to catch the next day at 8am. I gave him my calling card and managed to get some friends’ numbers for him to call, but I honestly didn’t think he would make it.

The next I heard from him was when the phone rang at 5:30am: it was Charlie, asking whether he could get his down jacket and a few other things that he left in the car… After hurriedly picking up his stuff, he headed straight for the bus to the airport. Apparently he is now on Victoria Island, being flown around by helicopter to look at rocks. Nice.

more photos
Charlie’s photos

This entry was posted in Backcountry Skiing, British Columbia (and nearby), Trip Reports, Western USA. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *