A Day on Mount Baker

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I stopped suddenly; I had never seen this before. Ever. He stood perfectly still, staring intently at me. And I at him. The other climbers were close behind on the Railroad Grade, and I turned and silently motioned each to move with great stealth. I turned back, resuming The Stare.

It was a hoary marmot – with a fist-sized rock in its mouth. I had never seen this before. Ever. Perhaps this overstuffed squirrel (marmots are the largest member of the Sciuridae family, to which squirrels belong) was performing a little house cleaning; or more likely, it was preparing to hurl the gnarled rock should an intruder (read: me) make one more step in his direction. I concluded it was best to surrender and render him The Starest, and be on my way; as I continued upward the spine of a trail, I glanced back, to see if a sneak attack had been launched. I looked. He stared. I walked. He glared.

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Our climbing group had one goal: To break our fundraising goal of $10,500 for the 14th annual Climb for Himalayan Children (CHC), to support the Mitrata-Nepal Foundation for Children – and secondarily – if the mountain gods relented – to climb 10,781 ft Mt Baker via the Easton Glacier route. Due to some wrangling and negotiating within the last week, our group increased from nine to 12 – exactly our wilderness permit limit. Two were recruited in casual conversation: my sister Tuney Kannapell and very good friend (and former supervisor) Victor Yagi; the third was Don Beavon, who had been on two of the previous fundraiser climbs of Mt Rainier, and was double-duty sherpa-ing for Mt Rainier Wednesday and Mt Baker today – and his decision to join was made at the trailhead (which accounts for the bicycle helmet he wore while climbing). Not something I will repeat due to liability, and made the concept of last-minute fundraising a bit too immediate. We left the 3400 ft trailhead, bound for the mountain – after an impromptu yoga session in which all participated, led by participant Anna Elz – at 10:10am sharp. 

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We arrived at Portal Camp at 3:15pm, the mountain urging us onward with its emerald alpine meadows and the Park Butte fire lookout not far in the distance. It was the first time I had been to Mt Baker in roughly 15 years, since a student graduation climb in June of that year. And I was flat-out amazed at how much the Easton Glacier had recessed in those 15 years; I’m hoping for a time-lapse photo that shows this recession to see if it is my memory that is faulty – or perhaps it is the assumption that climate change is not real.

Camp: 3 tents on the snow, one tent and one bivy sac on the rocks. Took some digging to flatten/level the spaces, and our Mountain Hardware single-wall tent appeared to be the most hydrophilic of the three tents; moisture was readily seeping through the floor, making things a bit damp but no worries – as long as no one moved more than 2 nanometers while shifting body position, all was well.

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Training: Since there were some neophytes, we spent time walking up and down slopes, with harnesses on and tied into a rope to get a feel for the actual climb. How to hold an ice axe in self-arrest position, and how to step and how to breathe, how to negotiate traverses, and making sure there was no slack in the linea. Ice axe arrest practice, knot tying – and almost forgot, putting crampons on/taking them off. Rather facile for the old timers, but a good review for all.

Dinner: 5pm was quitting time for the day, and we had put in a good shift for the day. Freeze-dried, not-so-freeze-dried, and questionable (my instant potatoes were pre-opened and a year old) emerged and were gorged upon. It had been slightly humid on the approach, the sun never fully emerging from the cloud layer; and with the waning of the day, it was getting slightly cool, enough that most of us donned light fleece coats or raincoats. It was entirely pleasant – unlike Mt Rainier, which almost always seemed beset by wind and cool temps (a common occurrence at base camp, even in July) with throngs of climbers huddled together for warmth, wondering when the next bathroom call would be heeded and how urgent, and pondering the security of the wind-whipped and freight train-flapping tents. But not here; virtually no wind as we watched the clouds hover in ornate thickness over the Twin Sisters, and particularly Mt Baker, the view occluded by the towering cumulous. It was an elegant sunset that fell slowly behind the Twin Sisters – and as all made their way to their respective tents, I noticed my Sea to Summit air mattress (that four had been sitting on) looked a bit flaccid. I checked the valve, and it was snug; I reinflated it, and as I put it inside the tent, I lay on top of the mattress – and was ever more convinced I had a leaky mattress to content with. Not optimal when one intends to sleep on snow. I half-heartedly searched for the tear, a bit weary from the lack of sleep the night before, but hardly pursued a reasonable solution. There were many options: Swallowing my pride, I asked Tuney if she would be willing to swap her Thermarest Z-lite Sol sleeping pad, as her tent was pitched on the dry, flat rock; and without a moment’s hesitation, she agreed to the swap, aware that she would be sleeping on a highly discomforting surface of my flat Sea to Summit air mattress. My Catholic guilt conscious fully deployed, I shuffled – with some chagrin – back to the hydrophilic tent, the non-inflatable in hand.

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No more than 10 minutes later, I heard a voice from on high: Dan (aka Timber) announcing he had fixed the leaky Sea to Summit mattress. His solution was marvelously simple: Inflate the mattress, submerge it in one of the lakelets of melted-snow water just outside of camp, and look for the air bubbles. Not to mention he had Tenacious Tape packed – the 12th Essential (the 11th is a Mitrata-Nepal Foundation for Children banner. Don’t leave home without it) – and he was able to seal said air leak w. said tape. I grinned at Timber as I handed the Z-Lite Sol to him, the Sea to Summit to me; clearly, within this simple example of assisting the weak and feeble-minded (read: me), I have so much to be thankful for I could weep. I shan’t right now, for there is the great possibility of annoying the reader (read: you) with overly-sentimental sentiments. Onward, I say, to sleep, perchance to dream…

The climb: Alarm at 1:30am, and the first team leaving camp at 2:45am by headlamp – and we could see plenty of folks enroute already, accompanied by their muffled voices and ice axes tapping crampons to free clumps of snow underfoot. What was troubling was how soft this snow was; I had hoped for a clear night and cool conditions to effectively freeze the snow and make travel safer and faster; on this morning, we scarcely needed crampons. But we donned them, and proceeded upward at a steady (but admittedly too often halting of a) pace; my eyes were focused on the headlamp illuminating my boots and the trail, which seemed facile at this low altitude. Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (1973) ran on a continuous track in my discontinuous mind as I ascended.

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Nichie – directly behind me on the rope – casually asked what time first light would be; I considered this and responded, “About 4:15am.” A somewhat ill-refined guess, but when we did see the first streaks of light, I glanced at my watch: 4:18am. Not bad. Around 8500 ft, Don and his rope team took the lead at Timber’s request (a very good idea), setting a much steadier pace than I had established. Then at 9000 ft, we had a brief discussion: Monica had not felt quite right post-dinner last night, and had a tough night of sleep; it was simply not in the cards for her to reach the summit on this day. A quick survey of the others showed Dinesh was not entirely sure he wanted to continue either; with those two out, Don offered to head down with them. After a wee bit of re-roping, the nine of us continued steadily toward the saddle (that leads to the nearby satellite mountain called Sherman Peak) and on to the Roman Wall, a relatively steep 30-35 degree, 700 ft slope that leads to the summit. All of which was highly uneventful, save the crevasse crossings which were not to be underestimated; some looked downright Middle-Earth deep.

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The summit had been shrouded by clouds most of the day; as we approached the top of the Roman Wall and I could see the angle beginning to ease, I hoped for a minor break in the lightly fogged atmosphere; the view was akin to putting cottonballs behind eyeglasses. But that hardly mattered; we were now on the summit slope, a gentle grade that made me feel we were walking on the moon. After all, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon was the following week, and I couldn’t see much beyond the corridor of a trail. But I knew we were close – quite close – to the summit. This was part of the reason to climb, and has always been: To experience the magnificence of a high peak in the wilderness, with all its moods and whims, its infinite beneficence combined with the occasional clamor of a petulant child.

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In the distance, I saw groups of climbers unroping; and to climber’s right, a short snow bump that quite likely led to the true summit. 

I grinned as I reeled the rope in, announcing to all that the bump was the summit; we all untied, and walked upslope – and there was nothing higher. 6 hours 15 minutes from camp to summit, a reasonable time. Hugs, high-fives, and PayDay candy bars (nature’s most perfect food at 450 calories per king-size bar) were of the order. It was shortly after 9am; the day had scarcely begun for most of Washington State, and we were beaming with the achievement, while the only thing that remained in the day was the descent. And well, packing up and getting back to the trailhead, which seemed interminable; yet when Sedro Woolley Cascade Pizza and Space Dust IPA call, the hard of hearing heed it most hurriedly.

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In the distance, I saw groups of climbers unroping; and to climber’s right, a short snow bump that quite likely led to the true summit. I grinned as I reeled the rope in, announcing to all that the bump was the summit; we all untied, and walked upslope – and there was nothing higher. 6 hours 15 minutes from camp to summit, a reasonable time. Hugs, high-fives, and PayDay candy bars (nature’s most perfect food at 450 calories per king-size bar) were of the order. It was shortly after 9am; the day had scarcely begun for most of Washington State, and we were beaming with the achievement, while the only thing that remained in the day was the descent. And well, packing up and getting back to the trailhead, which seemed interminable; yet when Sedro Woolley Cascade Pizza and Space Dust IPA call, the hard of hearing heed it most hurriedly.

— Len Kannapell, Mitrata Board Member and Baker Climb Leader

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Morgan LeBaige