Mountaineering is hard. This was one of the thoughts going through my head as I tried to keep pace with Matt as he transitioned from one direction to the other up a steep section of the Easton glacier of Mount Baker. I needed to follow his track and then make the direction switch as well, stepping my crampons over the rope length between him and myself and not stepping on the rope length leading from me down to Christina. I also needed to switch my ice axe to my uphill hand, and my trekking pole to my downhill one. Exactly where we were on the 10,781 foot tall mountain, I was not certain, but it was almost inconsequential. I knew the important things at the moment, which all seemed to revolve around facts. Matt, Christina, and I were Team Green Rope. We were being followed by Team Orange Rope (Harry, Kim, Lily, and Dan), and all seven of us were taking advantage of the nice weather window that had opened up for us in Washington to go for a summit attempt. We had thousands of feet in elevation gain to go and I was already winded trying to keep up with Matt’s pace. The last, and most immediate fact I knew was that I needed to do my transition.
I carefully stepped over the rope with my left foot, watching my crampon spikes, and then did the same with my right. I switched my ice axe to my left hand, putting my trekking pole in the other. The slope we were going up was steep and if I slipped I’d need to self arrest with my axe. I had no time to enjoy the fact that I had done my transition without causing rope drag, because it was back to making sure I kept up with Matt. I moved on. Step, stab, step, chunk. A few moments later, Christina called out “Hold!” and we paused as a team. Someone on Team Orange needed to adjust something. I was grateful for the brief rest and took a moment to look around. We had been climbing in the dark but now the sky was starting to lighten. The snow around us was visible in a larger-than-headlamp radius. The landscape was white, slashed with a few dark brown rock outcroppings and numerous small, and not-so-small-crevasses in shades of grey or icy blue. We were all on the Easton Glacier route only because a large crevasse had opened up a few days ago on the Coleman-Deming route, causing us to switch to Easton instead. Even before we learned that, our whole Baker climb was called into question due to weather reports which forecasted straight days of snow or rain, and strong gusts of wind. Looking around me though, I could see that the growing light showed no particularly dark clouds in the sky, instead, a lovely alpine glow was turning misty clouds pink and the snow took on a rosy glow. Mountaineering, I thought, was hard, but magical.
“Ok, go on!” Christina called, and so we did. After awhile of trying to high step my way following Matt’s steps, I realized it was easier to break out and make my own. I used the French step Matt had just told me about the day before, when we had all practiced mountaineering skills after a beautiful hike up to our base camp at 6,000 feet. The French step, as he demonstrated, was basically a cross over step in your desired direction, it saved some knee strength if you were already trending a path right or left. I liked it a lot, it reminded me of the fun I’d had doing a cross over turn when ice skating or rollerblading. Now I French stepped my way on to icy snow and left little slash marks behind me as my crampon blades cut out on my own.
I contemplated the fact that sometimes it’s easier to make your own path to achieve the same goal. Perhaps I should accept this in life as well. I’ve often been surprised at turns my life has taken and been aware that I have not been following the established trails many others have forged. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though, if I get safely to where I want to be. Step, stab, step, chunk. Step, stab, step, chunk. We continued for a long way, up and over another steep section. When I crested that I found that Matt was in a somewhat less vertical section. We decided to let Team Orange catch up to us before moving on. Matt coiled me in, and then I did the same for Christina, letting us all gather in one place. “That was a good stretch there,” he said.
“I was doing the French step!” I said excitedly. Matt added, “Mountaineering is not like hiking, where you can go at your own pace. You have to move as a team. You have to constantly be moving at the fastest pace you safely can.” I could only nod. I understood what he was talking about. I was also aware that I was the weakest link on our team. Christina, a long time friend of mine, had been working out 4 days a week and her husband Matt had been training as well. They were also experienced mountaineers. I, however, had sporadically trained, then gotten lazy when I had a wisdom tooth pulled and full recovery from that (and additional dental work) took longer than I thought. I felt like I was doing this climb nearly “off the couch”. I had also never climbed a glaciated peak before. Maybe all of that is why, for the first time, I was experiencing altitude sickness. This surprised me. I’ve climbed in Yosemite’s high country many times and I summitted Mt. Whitney twice, once as an all day hike, and another time via the East Face technical climbing route. Whitney’s summit, at 14,505 feet, is the tallest in the contiguous United States and significantly taller than Mt. Baker. Of course, as Christina reminded me later, the speed at which you gain the elevation is a big factor in getting sick, as well as dehydration and over-exertion levels. I certainly wasn’t used to the exertion of kick stepping and the different sort of rope management / pace keeping needed for glacial travel. Whatever the reason, I was not feeling my best, and had an upset stomach, but I was still moving, and that was key.
Moving itself though is not enough to guarantee success. While rock climbing multi-pitch routes in the Sierra, I’ve often thought of the saying, “Speed is safety” because we wanted to be off the rock before afternoon thunderstorms began. As the day went on and the sun warmed the snow, it became more strenuous to ascend. This was another reason why moving safely but quickly is a good idea. I found myself postholing in prints left before me, not just from Matt but from other parties also heading to the summit, and my axe would sometimes plunge deeply enough into the snow that my rhythm was thrown off. “Step, stab, step, chunk”, would sometimes become, “Step/slide, poke, step, crush”. We were ascending though, and we were on Roman Wall, the steepest part of our journey. When I’d seen it from below, it had looked very intimidating. Now, I just concentrated on following the steps, even at the cost of taking larger strides than I normally would. I did not want to slide down. I was very tired, my breath coming noisily as I mouth-breathed. But, we were getting closer and closer to the summit and that mentally energized me. Finally, I saw the horizon above me turn white and blue, instead of being an all white wall, and I knew that I would soon be at the top of this steep section and on the plateau. One more step did it. I saw Matt and could walk normally now, my ice axe uselessly dangling too far above the snow to be used as an aid. Now we had one last uphill to the true summit. I was so tired, I did not look around the plateau but doggedly continued on.
At the base of the last uphill section to the summit Team Green Rope left packs, ice axes, and our namesake. It was time for the last push. I was very tired and dehydrated but I started up the gentle slope. I was still breathing heavily, and my nose had been running for awhile. Still, each step I took was instilled with the confidence that I was going to make it. I took the last steps, and saw a blanket of clouds spreading out before me. I cracked a smile. Matt gave me a high five. Christina joined us. We had made it! I smiled more broadly. I had reached my goal. It had taken a combination of following the footsteps of others, and choosing my own tracks, but I liked where I was. I liked it quite a bit. Matt had told me to save some energy for the way down. The thought of going down some of the steep sections we had come up made me a little nervous, but I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew I’d get there and meanwhile, in spite of being tired and sick, I was still enjoying the journey.
Post Script: My Nitty Gritty Trip Report
Friday, July 5: From Baker trailhead, hiked to base camp along the Railroad Ridge trail. Spoke to other climbers on their way out and asked them about conditions. Their responses were sometimes along the lines of “Well, we summitted.” One said, “We had some views but we had 30 mph wind gusts”. They did not seem terribly enthused. The weather continues to hold. No rain. Set up camp, practiced self arrest, glissading, and roped team traveling. Had food. Tried to sleep early. We were squeezing 3 in a tent, and in spite of that I got a little cold and didn’t sleep well. Stomach wasn’t feeling good.
Saturday, July 6: Our alarm went off at 12:30 AM. Our target time to leave was 1:00 AM. By the time both teams actually started climbing it was around 2:45 AM.
Reached the Roman Wall after the sun had already come out. Snow was getting quite a bit softer, and thus it took more work to travel upwards on it. Team Green Rope summits at 11:11 AM, after leaving packs and ice axes at the bottom of the very last bit. We go back down to eat snacks while waiting for the Orange Team. Orange Team shows and everyone goes to the summit again, this time with ice axes, for group photos and to enjoy the views again. Everyone goes down to the packs and a group snack break happens. We start heading down as a whole group, Orange team in the lead this time, Dan in front. Green Team also changes rope order, Christina on lead, myself in the middle, and Matt last. Snow is very soft but we get down the steepest challenging part alright. The way down takes a long time. We are walking down into fog. Soon it’s hard to see. We carefully find the route. At one point we are off the glacier though still on snow and think we can do some glissading. Kim goes down as a guinea pig but suggests that we not do it. “If we go down here, we’ll die”. We all put our crampons back on and hike down. We get to the snow field right below our tents and stop to remove our crampons. Matt and Christina want to hike out all the way to the car and ask me my opinion. I say, “I won’t make it”. They leave me alone to finish removing my crampons and when I get to our tent they hand me a bowl of miso soup, which I drink gratefully. Before I finish the soup, I’ve agreed to hike all the way out and we hurriedly pack in the light rain which started as I was having the soup. The rest of the group decides to stay so we give Dan a bunch of our food. Matt, Christina, and I hike out. Matt soon goes on ahead, as I had warned that I was already tired and would need to take breaks. At one point Christina and I get confused by Matt’s turn direction and end up adding another half mile to our hike out. I am beyond using my last reserves now. However, we do get to the missed fork turn before daylight ends. We manage to hike out, me at the tail end. Hiking not in snow is much easier, but the hike still feels very grueling and each section with uneven rocks hurts my feet and challenges my mental skills. I finally make it to the parking area. We drive back to my friend’s place in Seattle and arrive Sunday, July 7, around 2:30 AM after stopping for drive through fast food and coffee. We had been awake for 26 hours. I was mentally exhausted but still thinking about what I had learned. I started writing the start of this blog post on the flight home.