A 24 Hour Effort to Summit Mount Baker
Drawn south from Canada, three friends make for the roof of the North Cascades
Ever since I moved to Vancouver, Mount Baker has been a fixture in my daily life. When skies are clear, I see it from my home balcony. I see it from the Lion’s Gate Bridge riding my bike or on the 240 to and from work. It was there, always, and yet I still hadn’t climbed it. I’d have to figure this out before winter.
Hitting the old dusty trail
Mountaineering season was nearing its end and I was starting to lose hope. Then, the Sunday before the total solar eclipse, kind of out of nowhere, I found myself crossing the border south at Sumas, declaring I was there to summit the roof of the North Cascades. At the trailhead, we threw everything on the ground like dirty climbers and sorted our gear and maps. We picked the best we had and split the loads while getting beta from climbers just returning.
After an uneventful hike to low camp, we caught our first glimpses of the objective. It was a welcome change from the dusty forested trail we had hiked for hours with very few views as reward. Continuing on, we’d get nothing but primo mountain scenery.
We trudged on to high camp to get some of the ascent out of the way, and a better vantage point of the route we planned to start on in the dead of night. As dinner warmed up we studied the way. The sunset that evening was enough to remind us of why we consciously chose to escape the comfort of a bed to camp a few hours on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a glacier in mid-August.
It’s all about alpine starts
Beep. Beep. Beep. The alarm sounds. It’s 2:30 am. I get out of the tent to a dark, but starlit sky, Baker barely visible in the distance. No time is wasted getting ready. We fix headlights to our helmets, don crampons, rope up, and off we go.
We’re separated by 40 feet of rope, so we don’t talk, other than an occasional comment on route navigation. The soundtrack to this peaceful night: crampons and ice axes gripping ice and rope rubbing on suncupped glacier. In front of me: the light of three headlamps moving forward, navigating dark crevasses beneath the mountain. Behind me: the lights of a sleeping Lower Mainland. This scene, this moment, is what I’ll remember the weekend by, and I know it. Setting foot on the summit is weirdly starting to matter less and less.
We avoid all hazards until we get a little off track, coming to a wide crevasse we have to cross on a very narrow snow bridge that’s crevassed in the middle. It’s rather unsettling, especially at 4am, but it wakes us up and we all manage easily. There will be a few other crevasses to jump over and skirt. We’ll handle each in similar fashion.
At around 5:30am, we find ourselves in the safety of the saddle between Baker and Colfax Peak, where we finally have breakfast and coffee. The caffeine addict I’ve become over the years should have been dreaming of this moment, but the sheer beauty of the night held my mind’s full attention.
Great fun missing the eclipse
Ascending the scree- and dirt-covered Roman Wall earns us our first full view of the rocky summit. It lies at the end of a long plateau. We’ll be the first to the top this day—the two other teams ascending are moving slowly, far below.
We summit a half hour before the total solar eclipse. We have high hopes, but see nothing. On our descent, we express our disappointment to another party. “It’s been happening all morning, you need proper glasses to see it.” Son of a…
There’ll be another one in 40 years, right? It’s a bummer we missed the eclipse, but that 24 hours on Baker was the only show we really needed.
Back in Vancouver, I go to Seymour for a short hike. The sky is clear and Baker is there in the distance, sitting comfortably in its usual spot. It feels good to see it again with a different perspective, now that we’re properly acquainted.