My buddy Roger is 50 or 60 or something around there. He and I have climbed a lot of mountains in Washington State over the years. We were talking about his accomplishments recently, when he reminded me that he had not made it up Mount Baker. I had been skunked on Baker both times I tried to climb it too, so the mission became clear. We simply HAD to do it.
If you are not familiar with Mount Baker, here is some beta. Mount Baker is the third highest volcanic peak in the Cascade Mountain Range. It goes from near sea level to over 10,000 feet in a very short distance. It is an active volcano and will erupt again someday. Currently, it is home to millions of tons of ice and snow in the form of enormous glaciers, along with a crater that spews out sulfur gas and steam 24/7. Due to its size and proximity to the ocean, it tends to create its own weather, which is why it held the record for the highest amount of annual snowfall in the USA for a while. One of the times I tried to climb Baker, we were buried in our tent by snow and had to dig out to keep from suffocating– not from snowfall, but from snow being blown onto us. It can be a nasty place.
So, Roger and I signed up his daughter and son-in-law (who always join us on our adventures) to climb Mount Baker this August 3rd.
We arrived at the trailhead, packed up, pontificated, prepared ourselves and plodded up to basecamp. There we met a group who intended to climb the next morning, just as we had planned.
Typical of Baker, at 3am, we found ourselves in heavy overcast, but decided to go for it anyway. Despite the decreasing visibility, we found a safe route, which merged with a fresh set of crampon tracks. After dodging crevasses and slugging up in the fog for hours, we found ourselves taking a food break in a drizzling rain.
During our break, disembodied voices drifted in from higher on the glacier, and within a few minutes, the group we met the day before was retracing their path back to basecamp. Sodden and defeated, they passed us and wished us luck. At the time, I wanted to quit. I wanted to get out of my wet clothes. I wanted to take a nap in my warm down sleeping bag and forget that I ever talked myself into doing this stupid thing, but when I opened my mouth, it was to rally the troops and push for the summit.
Everyone stuffed their Cliff Bar wrappers, shouldered their packs, and waited their turn to start grinding up the glacier with a rope that was not too tight and not too loose.
By 10am, the summit rose into view through the fog. We had made the right decisions. We were on the safest path. We were less than 1,000 feet from the summit of the mountain that had plagued Roger and me for years.
At noon, we stood on the vast expanse of snow, which was essentially the summit of Baker. Gradually, the clouds cleared and we had a 360 degree view of the world. No one was there. No one else had made it that day. The summit, the experience, the reward was ours alone.
On the way back down, the expanse of the Pacific Northwest lay before us. We walked in awe down to the crater. At the crater, we experienced the living Earth. Sulfur and steam vents dotted the crater, melting ancient ice and recent snow. The sight, smells, and sounds were eerie and powerful, creating a sense of insignificance and connection at the same time.
Back on rope, we trudged, slid and sloughed through the warming snow, over snow bridges and down immense glaciers back into the fog. At base camp, the sleeping bags awaited our arrival, but the experience of the day proved to override our weariness. We turned in early after watching the gibbous moon rise over the Cascade Mountains.
Before the trip started I had hoped to hike out after conquering the mountain, with a feeling of accomplishment and success. But the next morning after our summit, as we strolled down the trail with heavy packs, I sensed that we had not conquered anything. I felt like I was walking away from an old friend, whom I’d just spent some quality time with. A friend that pushed me out of my comfort zone, and still had much to offer.
As we approached the car, Roger turned to me and casually offered that when we were sitting on the glacier in the rain and the group passed us going back to base camp, he wanted to quit. He wanted me to say that we were turning around too. He didn’t want to continue, but he got up simply because I didn’t offer an option. I smiled and told him that I had felt the same way. I didn’t want to keep going up either, but an old friend put the words in my mouth. And I’m very glad.