Timing is Everything: Summiting Mt. Baker at Seventy
Timing is Everything: Summiting Mt. Baker at Seventy Seeing the northern lights during the early hours of the morning seemed like a good omen to both me and my PGS guide, Evan Miller, that our ascent of Mt. Baker would be a success. The day before we had met in Glacier, WA, and then hiked up to the Hogsback base camp to prepare for our climb the next day. Summiting Mt. Baker had been on my “to do” list for several years, and I always figured I should do it before I turned seventy. Two weeks before that birthday date, a promising weather forecast tipped the balance for me, and I committed to the climb. And so I found myself at three-thirty in the morning fumbling around in the light of my headlamp, packing up the last of my gear for the ascent. Evan was an excellent teacher. The afternoon of our arrival at Hogsback we had climbed a few hundred feet up the glacier in order for me to get used to wearing crampons, something I’d done only a few times before. He gave me several good tips on their use and also some basic instruction on the use of my ice ax to arrest myself should I fall. At the start of our morning ascent he checked my gear to be sure I was roped in appropriately, and then we set off up in the dark. The climb was more spectacular than I had imagined it could be. Once the sun rose it illuminated some fantastic seracs towering above sections of the route. Because we were climbing late in the season, we were forced by crevasses to take a meandering route on the approach, snaking between various yawning (to me) chasms. The tracks of those who had preceded us led to a very sketchy snow bridge across one of the last of these, but fortunately we were able to walk a bit further along the crevasse to a more solid looking bridge. The only truly intimidating part of the climb for me as a non-rock climber, was a section from the glacier up a short gully to the “pumice ridge.” Most of the snow in the gully had melted out, and we had to cross a dubious looking snow bridge before scrambling up an equally dubious looking steep stretch of mud and rocky debris. Evan went first and set up a belay. I skittered over the bridge, then worked my way up to him, thankful he was so professional and competent at keeping me safe. The final 500 feet of the climb to the summit is up the “Roman Wall,” a sick joke of a roughly forty-degree slope. As we neared the top of it, I cried out to Evan (in jest) that I couldn’t possibly go any further. His response was to give me a sharp jerk on the rope and a stern look. Shortly after this the incline gradually lessened, and we strolled across the top of the mountain that had enticed me ever since moving to the Pacific Northwest thirty-seven years before. After a quick snack, we ascended the final thirty feet to the top of Grant Peak, where we could look from the mountains of Vancouver Island to Mt. Rainier, with the North and Central Cascades filling in the foreground seemingly at our feet. After high fives and a hug, we took the obligatory summit photos then turned to head back to Hogsback camp. Our descent was a quick one. By then the Roman Wall had softened up, and we were able to walk straight down it. Evan belayed me again descending the fearsome gully. I led most of the rest of the way down; he stayed behind me to arrest me should I fall. We were back in camp by mid-afternoon. Evan packed up and hiked down to his car while I enjoyed a delayed lunch followed by tea and a doze in the sun. Going to bed at sunset, I slept ten hours and awakened to threatening rain squalls advancing up the mountain. I packed up quickly and departed just as the rain started, stopping in the first substantial grove of mountain hemlocks for a sheltered breakfast. After the snow and exposed rock of the climb the day before, the muted greens, browns and occasional reds of the old growth forest and its creek sides glowed with life. The trip had been fantastic, far exceeding my expectations. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll try Glacier Peak next year, even though by then I’ll truly be seventy.