At the beginning of 2016 I was starting to get very restless. Winter was in full swing and it was my first winter back in Washington in three years. Seattle’s dark, gloomy winter is quite the opposite of Bozeman’s blue-sky, fiercely cold, but dry and fun winter. Nothing exciting was happening and I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing. And then I went ice climbing in January and it reminded me that I’m a climber. I was restless because climbing wasn’t a part of my life anymore. It was just work, eat, sleep. And commute. Always the commute. So I decided to change something. I opened up the Notes app on my iPhone and went to work. “GOAL TRACKING,” I wrote in all capital letters at the top of a new note. And under that was a series of things I wanted to accomplish in the following months. One of those things was to climb two volcanoes by August 31st. I wrote out a list of potential candidates: Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Shasta, Mount Whitney, Mount Hood, and Mount Rainier.
Back in January, two volcanoes by the end of August seemed like a monumental task. I wasn’t in the best shape after months of not exercising much. I didn’t know any other climbers in the area. I knew nothing of glacier travel and had pretty much zero training in the basics of backcountry travel like first aid and navigation. I felt safe in the mountains, but most of the time I had spent there was with other people that I could rely on and we always stuck relatively close to the car or obvious trails. I had some work to do.
In the following months I worked my tail off training and learning. I got out hiking as much as I could with the idea that something is better than nothing, even if it’s a short hike. I tracked mileage and made sure I increased mileage every month. I registered for a scrambling course with the Seattle Mountaineers and learned the basics of snow travel and ice axe use. I completed the Mountaineers navigation course and a Wilderness First Aid course. Each time I completed a course or training hike I felt like I was adding a tool to my toolbox and the bigger mountains started to seem less ominous. I climbed Mount Saint Helens at the end of May and, realizing that the list of local non-technical volcanoes would dwindle very quickly, promptly signed up for the 6-day Alpinism 1 course through the American Alpine Institute. I had planned on climbing Adams before the course for training and for a shot to complete my two volcanoes goal but the window I had in my schedule quickly came and went and it didn’t end up happening. I wasn’t too bummed because the Alpinism 1 course was scheduled to culminate in a climb of Mt. Baker and even if we couldn’t find a good weather window for it (I really didn’t expect to summit given the volatile nature of North Cascades weather), I still had a good two months or more before the summer alpine season was over.
So time passed as it does and July 11th rolled around; this was the first day of the course. We spent the day sorting through gear and making sure everyone had what they needed. In the afternoon we hopped in the van and popped over to Mt. Erie for an introduction to rock climbing. We spent a few hours at the crag top roping a few routes and having a good time. We car camped that night at a state park. Day 2 was spent packing everything up, driving to Mount Baker, and hiking up to Sandy Camp with a pack that had to have been filled with rocks. Or lead. Whatever it was, it was heavy. We set up camp in the rain and spent most of the rest of the day in our tents trying to stay dry and warm.
Day 3 was when the real fun began. We practiced walking on snow, self-arrests, and roped glacier travel. After day 3, we all had the essential skills we needed to climb the mountain. The following day was forecasted to be a pretty good weather window so it was decided that we would make a push to the summit. Clouds move around pretty quick that high on the mountain and we would occasionally catch a glimpse of the summit from camp. It looked so close. Like it should just be a short hike to the top. Hmm.
Bed time came early that day as we had a 3:30am departure time the following morning. I set an alarm for 2am and passed out.
And then summit day was upon us. Day 4 of the course. I packed up as many snacks as I thought I could afford to take, a couple liters of water, some additional coats, and headed towards the staging area. Stoke was in the air. We set up two rope teams and the one I was on headed out first. Up and up we went. I was happy to have the guide; she set a perfect pace for us and we were able to sustain our climbing for a while between breaks.
As the sun rose we could see Glacier Peak sticking out on the horizon. A dull outline of Rainier appeared at some point. The Black Buttes to our left loomed in front of us until we got high enough to be above them and they seemed unthreatening. Hours and hours passed. We made it to the crater between Grant and Sherman Peaks. The last stretch before the summit lay before us. It is known as the Roman Wall and it is the steepest part of the route. I had a blast ascending through that section. It got a little warm with the sun coming up over the mountain but the snow stayed firm and we made it to the summit with no problems. It was a sunny, low-wind day on Baker and I had completed my two volcano climbs goal. I can now say, after standing on the top, that it is definitely not a short hike from Sandy Camp to the summit.
We were far above any clouds that hung over our camp below. From the top we could see Shuksan, Glacier Peak, Rainier, and I’m sure others that I was unable to identify. The guides said it was the clearest day they’ve seen since early last year. It was absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
The descent was hot, slushy, and long. I think everyone on the rope team was thrilled to be back when we made it to camp.
The following day we learned about snow anchors, practiced crevasse rescue, and did some glacier ice climbing. If you every get the opportunity to safely jump into a crevasse, I highly recommend it. On Saturday, we packed up and headed out of camp towards the van and Bellingham. The trip was through.
I have a few places I drive every once in a while where Baker is visible on the horizon. For a few weeks after the trip it was in the clouds every time I had a chance to see it. Drats! I wanted to see what I climbed! It wasn’t until a few days ago that I saw the mountain in all of its glory. It looks big. I’m pretty happy.