This is the tale of three days on the mountain. Not only was it my first attempt to reach the summit but my graduation from Washington Alpine Club’s basic climbing class. After three months of non-stop weekly lectures and weekend outings we had learned all it took to climb a glaciated mountain such as Mount Baker.
Day 1: Hike to high camp
This climb can be easily done in two days, but I decided to take a day off from work and join the crew that spent an extra day on the mountain. I am so happy I did. Spring allergies that turned into temporary asthma meant that I may have needed a little more time to acclimatize to the strenuous activity. Also, given my open addiction to mountain sunrises and sunsets, I got plenty of opportunities to enjoy and photograph the warm sky colors.
The snow level made us park about a quarter mile before the Schreiber Meadow trailhead. We hit the trail at 10:32 am. My pack seemed to be as big as me; I had never carried so much weight before, so needless to say the uphill hike was hell to my legs. We crossed a real bridge and a scary snow bridge along the way, and on some areas we got our legs knee-deep in the snow. Everything was generally fine before reaching the Railroad Grade, but once we were on that rocky stretch my quads were continuously begging to stop. Fortunately my lungs could not have been better. It took us about an hour to traverse the Railroad Grade, which was in good condition. We said hello to a family of marmots that were basking in the sun on the western side of the grade, and did not encounter any other climbers until we reached a flat area where an Alpine Ascents group had camped.
And so after exactly four hours we made it to our high camp spot, which is located by a big rock that served as our luxurious balcony.
Down below we could see the small rolling hills that we had climbed and flat areas in between where other groups were camping.
The rest of the day was a peaceful sequence: have a snack, dig tent platforms, setup tents, melt snow, have dinner and…
Day 2: Welcome the rest of the group
We slept at least 10 hours, with a break to watch the sun rise from behind the eastern side of the mountain.
While we were having breakfast we had a chance to analyze the summit route other climbers were taking that day, which was very helpful. Past the caldera, everyone seemed to take a direct approach up the right side of the roman wall, crossing over a crevasse, instead of making the usual spring switchbacks. We later learned that there were already good kicked-in steps to follow, with no need for the French technique.
Breakfast recipe: hot chocolate-coffee with a cinnamon oatmeal packet and a custom mix of dried ginger, dried pineapple, raisins, brown sugar and powdered oats.
During the rest of the morning we dug extra tent platforms and laid on the rock like lizards, waiting for the other 17 students and 8 instructors to arrive. We enjoyed the parade as they approached from the rolling hills below at 1:30 pm.
Suddenly the peace and quiet were gone. Shovels were shoveling, stoves were melting snow, food was being prepared and ropes were being setup. Within six hours everyone was ready for bed; but I was not sleepy, so I turned on the kindle and in my peripheral view saw daylight slowly fading away until darkness fell over.
Day 3: Summit day
12am: “Let’s go climbing!” That sound woke us up. We had exactly one hour to start the summit bid. I remember I barely had time to finish my coffee, boil extra water for the climb and do the mandatory hamstring/calf stretching. If there was one piece of advice we got out of the class, it was the focus on efficiency to minimize breaks. We had snacks readily available on pockets and sunglasses/sunscreen at the very top of the pack.
It had been a couple of warm weeks, so there was no need to wear crampons from the start. We hiked in teams of 3 and 4, taking advantage of the many steps marking the route. Three hours later the snow started to be very solid and we stopped to put crampons on. The first rays of sun were visible and we kept going on switchbacks. We took a last break at the caldera, where the sulfur smell made us company while we were shielded from the wind for a few minutes.
Past the caldera you start climbing The Roman Wall, which is a steep snowfield covering an old rockfall. The way up was very straightforward, with only a small crevasse crossing. Soon we were going over the wide slope that leads to the football fields.
We took the packs and rope off and headed towards the small summit bump. Time to celebrate.
Many say the way out is actually more dangerous because of fatigue, but we managed to make it all the way back to the trailhead injury-free and ready for burgers and fries.