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PorterM

[TR] Mt Baker - Coleman Glacier Headwall 03/18/2020

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Trip: Mt Baker - Coleman Glacier Headwall

Trip Date: 03/18/2020

Trip Report:

         I’ve come to expect three things when climbing with Peter. First, we won’t wake up too early. Second, our packs will be light. And third, we will move fast and take almost no breaks. With those thoughts in mind, I was looking forward to getting up on Baker with him. We started climbing together years ago with next to no experience and have grown a lot climbing together. We had a wide variety of ideas of things to do and while heading up and seeing the Coleman Glacier Headwall, we decided that’s what we would do. We left Bellingham bright and early at 7:30. As we drove the road, we never saw that classic sign that says to stop driving there so we just drove all the way to the parking lot on compacted snow. We left the car around 9:30 and we were soon skinning up grouse creek. We didn’t stop until the saddle into the heliotrope area, both feeling a little sluggish. We followed a skin track across the traverse and dropped down onto the Football field. We skated across this flat and dropped another hundred feet onto the Coleman Glacier. Here, we put skins back on and scoped our route. We found our way through the broken glacier without much trouble and soon we were standing at the base of the Coleman Glacier Headwall. From this angle, it looked small and easy, but we both knew it was a pretty big undertaking. Last spring we bailed off it after a lot of rock fell and in the process of skiing down, I fell and cut my thumb pretty bad. This time, we were hoping for things to go better. 

IMG_0125.thumb.jpg.32664d0ffbdb25b06f2b16c5041a5e8c.jpgIMG_0130.thumb.jpg.f222040cf26003c78eb1203fdbef407e.jpg
        We switched out skis for crampons and poles for axes below the face. There was a sizable debris pile we wanted to stay clear of so we transitioned further back. We started up the headwall around 12:30 and quickly ran into trouble. It looked like crossing the bergschrund was going to be tricky but when we got to it, it looked almost impossible. Significantly more involved than last year. We ended up doing a pitch where I traversed out left, over a snow bridge, up a vertical snow bulge, and onto vertical glacier ice. From here, I got a screw and traversed right off the glacial ice and onto water ice. One more snow bridge took me to more serac where I belayed Peter. Fro here, he stayed on belay and tested one more snow bridge that stood between us and the main funnel of the route. It held him so he untied, coiled the rope and took off to catch up. We tried to move quickly through this main debris funnel, as it was here was saw big rocks come down last year that scared us off. Today, I had seen a fist-sized rock or two come down. We got through that constriction on a little bit of AI2 and traversed left, out of the majority of overhead hazard. After this we had about an hour of steep snow, kind of crusty, that brought us to another sketchy crack. After a short belay across that, we continued up and left. As we approached the last steep pitch we ran into a lot of smaller cracks with thin snow bridges between us and that last steep roll to the top. Peter put me on belay as I started poking my nose around the cracks, looking for a way through. I punched an arm or a leg through into air a few times. Eventually, I found a snow finger than I literally crawled across and a big step took me on to the upper face as the finger shifted under my feet. Now I was on the upper but still needed to find a belay for Peter. We had taken to one person testing crossings on belay and then coiling the rope. But this one was bad enough to warrant a belay. I found an exposed rock and cut a bollard around it in the rime. It seemed like an ok anchor but I wasn’t about to hang on it so I sat on my front points and told Peter to not fall in. Peter got over the crack and up to me. We were in an awkward spot so I untied and Peter continued, tagging the rope. Another relentless 55-degree slope took us on to the summit plateau. It was almost 4 and we had no interest in crossing the flat to climb another 15ft so we took a quick break, finished our food and water, slapped the skis on the feet and dropped down onto the Roman Headwall. 

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       We got about 10 very high quality turns on wind buff before hitting the rime. It’s been windy and the rime on the headwall is fist-sized and doesn’t ski great (it doesn’t really ski at all). We didn’t take our skis off, instead, we rattled our teeth and tried to stay upright. Once we got down to where w dropped right toward the glacier, the snow improved a lot. It was great wind-affected cold snow. We skied fast toward the col to enter grouse creek. From that col the snow became very good and just got better and better. We had a blast until the trees where the snow got soft. We got back to the car around 5:30. 
         A few thoughts on the route:
This is a pretty full-on route, despite that, it wasn’t terribly fun to climb. Peter and I agreed that none of the climbing on the route was particularly fun and there was a sense of unease the entire time as well. I’m glad to have climbed it, the day overall was very fun, especially since there was no wind and no clouds. We brought a 30m double and three screws and a 30m thin dyneema line. This rack worked well for how we did the route. 

fullsizeoutput_f0b.thumb.jpeg.d184f22d92b2e6753cce9ac0e282e166.jpegHere is the line we took (have you checked out FATMAPS??)

IMG_0197.thumb.jpg.c216551e2bb12786afc7bf6e51c68f97.jpgPolish looking pretty fat.IMG_0201.thumb.jpg.bf55730f2bbeb347c378c29e5c795a2a.jpgCH looking very difficult right now

Gear Notes:
3 screws, some skinny 30m ropes

Approach Notes:
Grouse creek is great right now.

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Well done, thanks for the report!

It's curious that it was so hard to get onto the base of the route this year; was your attempt to last year in the same season?

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On 3/19/2020 at 11:14 AM, PorterM said:

As we drove the road, we never saw that classic sign that says to stop driving there so we just drove all the way to the parking lot on compacted snow

Not a great idea.  If this keeps up, the USFS has said that they will block the road below the snowline and ruin it for everyone. 

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On 3/19/2020 at 11:14 AM, PorterM said:

there was a sense of unease the entire time as well.

My feelings on the climb as well, and that was before I had kids!  Good job not getting the chop, there is plenty of opportunity on that one.

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Beautiful. Thanks for posting.

Heads up: messaging in the climbing community and more broadly has strongly suggested not climbing and dialling back risk taking so as not to occupy the health care system, SAR people and equipment, and the rest of the SAR chain in the event of an accident/injury. 

If you do get out, act as if you're on Baffin Island, with no possibility of a rescue, and understand that there will be a lot of armchair second guessing of your decisions.

The mountains will still be there.

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@Rad Yup, it has been dialed back now. This climb was back when it was more borderline. Rest assured that I have dialed it back now/won't be in the mountains for a bit now, like everyone else. 

@Geosean Last year was actually June 2nd. Interesting, not sure how to explain that. Things are always moving, of course, but it sure feels like a leaner snowpack as in more things are open up there as compared to last year. Strange. 

 

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On 3/25/2020 at 9:47 PM, PorterM said:

@Rad Yup, it has been dialed back now. This climb was back when it was more borderline. Rest assured that I have dialed it back now/won't be in the mountains for a bit now, like everyone else. 

@Geosean Last year was actually June 2nd. Interesting, not sure how to explain that. Things are always moving, of course, but it sure feels like a leaner snowpack as in more things are open up there as compared to last year. Strange. 

 

My friend an I did this in 2015 (I think March?) which was a super low snow year, and we did not encounter serious cracks like you did. My suspicion is this is a symptom of extra warming melting out glaciers far faster than snow each year can count for. Each summer melts away the last winter's snow and then some more. Hence more cracks, even on an "average" snow year. It's really depressing to think about (for me). 

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5 hours ago, aikidjoe said:

Each summer melts away the last winter's snow and then some more. Hence more cracks, even on an "average" snow year.

The Coleman headwall is in the accumulation zone of that particular glacier, so I think the cracks are more a function of how much snow/movement is going on high on Baker.  We've had some really snowy winters in the past 20 years and I suspect that this is causing the upper Coleman to move and break up a bit.

This is more what you'd see in the situation you describe @aikidjoe....

2019Tenpeakkololo65357-X3.jpg

Lots of cracks, but generally easily passable on a stagnant glacial ice remnant.  But hey, this is just an educated guess from someone who isn't a glaciologist!

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I climbed

On 3/19/2020 at 11:14 AM, PorterM said:


This is a pretty full-on route, despite that, it wasn’t terribly fun to climb. Peter and I agreed that none of the climbing on the route was particularly fun and there was a sense of unease the entire time as well.

When my partner and I climbed it in June 2000 I definitely had the same thoughts. We felt the best choice was to move fast as there was some exposure to seracs. We roped up for the glacier and pitched out one 50 meter, vertical pitch at about 1/3 height. The rest we climbed un-roped.

High on the route I heard a huge 'boom'. I thought the serac had let loose and all I could do was dig in my tools and put my head down. I peeked up to see if anything was going to kill me and saw a jet buzz Mt. Baker, close enough to clearly see its markings identifying it as a Canadian Air Force jet. The noise was its sonic boom. It took a few minutes to get my heart rate and breathing back under control. 

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😐
1
On 4/10/2020 at 9:05 PM, JasonG said:

The Coleman headwall is in the accumulation zone of that particular glacier, so I think the cracks are more a function of how much snow/movement is going on high on Baker.  We've had some really snowy winters in the past 20 years and I suspect that this is causing the upper Coleman to move and break up a bit.

This is more what you'd see in the situation you describe @aikidjoe....

Thinking about it now, given the north aspect and elevation, it is definitely an accumulation zone by definition (more snow falls than melts on average). My best guess is either enough snow sluffs/slides off that it doesn't build up. Or, more likely, the steep angle combined with the mass of the glacier equals a very fast rate of movement, meaning the change in character of the route will be quick. My mind goes to the Nisqually icefall which I've heard moves fast due to its steep angle. As it is (regardless of the pandemic) the HW doesnt seem skiable.

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Posted (edited)

Cool to see a report from this zone.

I know the Coleman headwall has been skied a few times in the past handful of years. I think it was 2 years ago that Erin Smart and two French friends of hers skied it. Conditions looked terrible from the media I saw, however. I'm not sure the last time it's been "good" to ski, but I think it does get skied by the mystical doesn't-post-on-the-Internet crowd semi-regularly.

Also, my guess is March is early in the season for good ski conditions. You want the warm spring storms to come through and plaster those upper elevations then wait for warm weather and hope for corn.

It's one of the lines I'd like to ski some time if/when the conditions of the glaciers come back into shape. I don't want to have to air crevasses on a 50 degree slope.

It seems like the bergschrund on the bottom of the Park headwall has gotten worse in recent years, too.

Edited by Kameron

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On 4/11/2020 at 11:00 PM, PorterM said:

Thinking about it now, given the north aspect and elevation, it is definitely an accumulation zone by definition (more snow falls than melts on average). My best guess is either enough snow sluffs/slides off that it doesn't build up. Or, more likely, the steep angle combined with the mass of the glacier equals a very fast rate of movement, meaning the change in character of the route will be quick. My mind goes to the Nisqually icefall which I've heard moves fast due to its steep angle. As it is (regardless of the pandemic) the HW doesnt seem skiable.

All good points @JasonG and @PorterM. Nisqually Ice fall also appears (to me) to be more broken up than 10+ years ago. Could that be that the upper glacier is moving faster with more liquid at its base, causing more rapid flow? I'd always assumed it was just really rapidly its top layers, exposing its more broken base. 

More likely: I'm bored of being at home and am shamelessly speculating on a topic I'm woefully uneducated in...  

  • That's funny! 1

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On 4/12/2020 at 11:53 AM, Kameron said:

I think it does get skied by the mystical doesn't-post-on-the-Internet crowd semi-regularly.

Indeed. Last year two friends who don't spray skied it. They said it was terrifying and would never do it again (because of cracks I believe). I skied the lower quarter last year a week or two after they did it and we traversed WAY skiers left and schrund is more manageable there. Curious if it will ever come into condition for it to be an enjoyable ski again...?

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On 4/13/2020 at 6:46 PM, aikidjoe said:

I'd always assumed it was just really rapidly its top layers, exposing its more broken base. 

I do know that glaciers deep down move more like a thick liquid and are not broken (i.e., below ~30-50 meters). The ice at the surface is brittle and that is why the cracks form as it flows over the irregular bed surface.  This also partially explains why crevasses pinch down and don't go all the way to bedrock, especially above the firn line.

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