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lukeh

[TR] Mt. Baker: North Ridge (Video/Pics) - North Ridge - Ice Cliff 5/20/2012

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Trip: Mt. Baker: North Ridge (Video/Pics) - North Ridge - Ice CliffDate: 5/20/2012Trip Report:Video:

for an edited collection of clips from my GoPro helmet cam, and a few time lapses using my DSLR.3C0C0764.jpgBase camp on Heliotrope Ridge. Saturday, May 19th around 2am.The North Ridge of Mt. Baker was supposed to be our warm up climb for a 4-day Liberty Ridge climb we had planned June 2-5. A couple of us had attempted this same climb last year, but one of our party members had a crampon malfunction lower on the mountain so we opted to crevasse/icefall exploration instead. This time I meant business. All crampons were checked, re-checked, then checked again. Just when the party thought the checking was over, I'd jump out of the bushes and do a surprise 4th check. Needless to say, our crampons were in fully functional condition. Did I mentioned that our crampons worked?We got in late Friday night, May 18th. Piotr and I would go on foot. Kerwin and Isac would cheat on skis (Note to self: Get one of these insanely light AT ski setups right away, postholing and walking sucks). The ice climbing experience in the group wasn't fully articulated, but I knew Alin had done some guided ice climbing, and I had done a 4-day course in Ouray 2 years ago on WI3-5 water ice. We had both practiced in crevasses on and off. I wasn't going to lead anything long, vertical and exposed, so we were either going to "go left" at the ice wall like everyone had recommended, or someone was going to get brave on a more mild section.I had been out on the Heliotrope Ridge two weeks prior for recon, conditioning, and a snowboard descent. We had to walk and extra 2.5 miles to the trailhead due to snow, this time it was only 1.5 miles. I was doning full camera gear which meant a pack weight closer to 65-70 pounds. Due to this weight I left my splitboard on top of the car.Right away I could tell our group was going to be super strong. Everyone kept a great pace, and we were at ridge in no time. We setup camp around 5800ft under the stars, cooked some dinner, then went to bed. I had brought my new 3 season Copper Spur UL3 tent, and was enjoying the palatial dimensions with just 2 people. I took a few pics, realized our location sucked for a time-lapse, so went to bed hoping for better opportunities the next day. In hindsight I should've pushed for a different camp location closer to the mountain where I could justify bringing the 15 extra pounds in dolly/batteries. I'm still trying to gather a few more top-shelf shots for my Untitled Time-lapse Project.We got up late in the morning and set out to practice ice climbing, v-threading, and crevasse rescue. The sun was baking the mountain, and as Piotr made his way toward an icefall, he began postholing to an alarmingly deep level as we approached some crevasses. We decided to back off the icefall given the mushy snow, We backtracked to some large moats we had just passed where we practiced our v-thread anchors and ice screw-placements (thanks to Kerwin who had recently been doing quite a bit of research on various techniques). We also did some very short pitches of snow wall climbing. The only ice walls we could find were overhanging. Looking back we should've practiced on those as later we'd need it. We were all feeling pretty good about our refreshed skills. I looked up at the ice wall just below the summit, it looked easy.Three o'clock came and we returned to camp for some pre-climb shut eye (slang for "sleep"). We wanted to make the base of the ice wall by daybreak. Based on a recent TR, Isac had calculated an appropriate start time of around 9, which we pushed quickly to 930-10. Alin was supposed to join in the afternoon, but by the time we were asleep he was nowhere to be seen. We woke up at 8pm to Alin arriving. He made it into the tent where their was surprisingly a healthy amount of room. I was worried that he would not be strong enough to climb on 1.5 hours sleep, but I said nothing. He would prove me wrong.After getting up and starting out I soon realized that it was much warmer than the previous night. Unfortunately that meant postholing. A lot of it. Isac and Kerwin easily got 20 minutes ahead on skis. I was worried my energy was getting sapped and the bridges across the treacherous lower Coleman would be weak. We almost turned around in a moment of doubt, but kept going hoping for cooler temps as we gained altitude. That was exactly what we got, so I'm glad we didn't get discouraged.There were more crevasses than I was expecting given recent reports. The slog up to the steep ramps under the ridge was long, and littered with crevasses. There was an old boot track frozen into the snow that we more or less followed much of the way. Due to my weight, however, I would posthole significantly for the next 1,000 vertical feet. I cursed the lighter weight Alin and Piotr who did not seem to sink as far as me. I vowed to stop eating so much cheese.We finally reached a ramp to the North Ridge and it looked steep. It had started snowing lightly earlier, but visibility was OK (well it was still pitch black, but no thick clouds/fog). There was avalanche debris everywhere on this ramp. We started climbing over it almost right away. The steepness did not relent as we climbed higher. I realized how steep and exposed I was, and it scared me a bit. I had never climbed on something this steep that was sustained for this long. I wasted a lot of energy hugging the wall and driving my axe in deep with every step out of nervousness. The steepness did not want to end. The snow was very firm by now, but thankfully we were trailing someone who had kicked steps on an earlier climb. The slope seemed to go on forever. Finally we reached the ridge and things flattened out a bit. I needed to take a break. Someone brought up the possibility of worse-case down-climbing what we had just come up. I basically said "fuck that", thinking that it would be impossible for me. Little did I know I would be back at this spot some 7 hours later faced with that very prospect.We continued up as day broke. The sun lit the northeastern sky on fire as we approached a new crevasse system. Clouds were coming in and we could make out the massive ice wall in the hazy distance. We were forced to zig-zag through the crevasses, looking for a break left. Alin spotted what appeared to be a shorter section of the ice wall far above a steep rock and ice approach. It did appear more moderate, maybe 70 degrees with some steps. I wanted to go left to look for the easier path  that avoids the vertical cliff. Unless someone would firmly agree to lead the pitch or two up the ice wall, I was definitely going left. Alin volunteered immediately, so I said "screw it" and we started climbing straight up toward the cliff.

The climbing quickly became unexpectedly steep. Very steep. Before I realized it I was climbing what felt like a 65+ degree slope where self arrest was no longer a valid way to stop in a fall situation. Piotr had gone ahead solo up the steep mixed sections and had set a belay using a picket as an anchor. I climbed up past him, switching to two tools once above him. I was worried we were climbing ourselves into a trap, and we hadn't taken much time to discuss belay and exit strategies. That said, everyone else on the team looked very comfortable climbing this steep terrain. I did not feel so comfortable. We hadn't gone over running belays, or belays using vertically placed pickets as a team, so I was nervous that things weren't being done properly. I kept climbing and made sure to examine how anchors, etc. were being built as I passed.We eventually reached the base of the ice wall, then took far too long to select a climber, a strategy, and execute it. By the time Alin started leading the weather was really coming in and we were doubtful about getting 5 people up over the wall even if Alin was able to complete the pitch. We didn't know what lay above the wall either. 2 pitches would take forever at our pace.As Alin started up the wall, reality started to set in. The view from below had been deceptive. The wall was vertical, or mostly vertical, not 70 degrees. It was also rock hard ice and he was having trouble with placements. Given the time, weather, and uncertainty, the call was made to descend.2 things went through my mind: My death getting down from the ice wall on the 400 vertical ft 50-70 degree slope we had just climbed, and my death down-climbing the steep ramp to the ridge we had ascended in the dark. I also thought about those vests Balki used to wear in the 80s TV show Perfect Strangers. I'm not sure why. Alin had seemed at home climbing on this steep terrain so I asked if he would protect a picket while the team rappelled, then he could down climb. He agreed without hesitation. We tied Kerwin's 2 60m half ropes together and were off. Alin down climbed after us, and then belayed me again 60m to the base of the steep section. Everyone else elected to down climb, something I wasn't comfortable doing.Piotr floated the idea of going left around the ice wall now that we were down, but given that visibility was non-existent, a storm starting to hit, and going left carried a lot uncertainty, we opted to go back the way we came. I was dreading down-climbing the ramp, but I put it out of my mind for now. I had just dropped my 48oz nalgene with the rest of my water and watched it move quickly down the slope into the mist, gone forever. My dry tongue tried to cry in vein as it saw watched its last chance at hydration disappear.I had the only working GPS and we needed it. I started to lead us back through the crevassed section. We noticed that our tracks were not there due to fresh snowfall. I could not see 10 feet, but had to try and wear sunglasses as I did not want to become snow-blind. The glasses reduced my visibility to almost 5 feet due to precip. I would've killed for rain-x at this point as drops formed on both sides of my lenses. I kept cautiously make our way down the ridge, despite visibility issues. I knew my heavy frame was going to break right through one of these bridges and I'd be dangling above a bottomless hole.I was surprised at how much snow had fallen. Our crampons would pick up big chunks of fresh snow and send us slipping unless we knocked it off using our axes every few steps. Piotr took a minor fall because of this snow balling phenomenon. I made everyone stop as a took out a legal pad and penned an angry hand-written letter to Black Diamond regarding their "anti-balling" system's limitations. It took me 45 minutes, but everyone waited patiently as I kept started over, trying to get the tone just right. They were all very gracious about picking up the crumpled up, discarded versions from the ground. Finally I finished, packed away my bi-focals, and we were off.We reached the steep ramp and I felt sick to my stomach in anticipation. Not only was it too steep for me to comfortably down-climb, it was now freshly snow-loaded and was an obvious avalanche slope (as you recall we had seen the large debris area on the way up). Kerwin and Isac started down first, asking to give them space. We started 5 minutes later after Piotr had graciously given me some gatorade, something I need badly due to dehydration. I climbed down first, and noticed it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting. It actually felt almost mild in comparison to the slope below the ice wall. Plus the fresh snow made it easier to kick steps and lessened the chances of a quick fall. Still it was an avy slope and we needed to get off of it quickly.I noticed Kerwin and Isac were off route. Here is where I realized that w/o our GPS, we really would've been completely lost and things would've gotten serious. The snow had wiped away all signs of our tracks. It had also filled in crevasses. It was also weak, and we easily postholed up to our upper shins. The snow had turned to rain as we reduced our elevation, and the wind gusts would push us off-balance. The rain completely drenched us in a way that no waterproof shells could handle. Due to crevasse danger, I let Alin lead as he was the lightest. Crevasses were everywhere, especially places where you couldn't see them. I do not even want to know how many bridges we probably crossed that were just stable enough to suspend us 200 feet above a chasm. Underneath the bridge I thought of how our steps must have echoed into the blackness below as the drips of water dropped into these bottomless glacial cracks.Body temperatures were dropping due to the rain permeating our clothes. A crevasse fall now would be very dangerous. If I stopped moving for 30 seconds I would get too cold and need to rock back and forth to stay warm. The lower Coleman Glacier seemed to never end. Someone commented that this was the worst experience of his life, I definitely understood that sentiment.Every time Alin stopped to check the GPS I became pissed off, wanting to just run ahead due how cold I was becoming in the wet, windy environment. But I appreciated accurate navigation was crucial to making it out of this alive.Anyway we finally made it back to camp after what felt like a lifetime of crevassed mazes, only to find out half of our worst fears had come true. Kerwin and Isac's tent was gone. We had felt the gusts since the descent started, and we weren't expecting them given the forecast and our planned return time. Thankfully my tent was still there. I had a couple thousand dollars worth of camera equip in that tent, so it would've been a huge loss. Alin, Kerwin, and Isac took off toward the car right away. They serendipitously found their tent down the main gulley in a tree, and Isac's keys could be recovered.I changed into what dry clothes I had and then Piotr and I packed up and left in wet clothes, in a rainstorm, with wind gusts collapsing the tent. I was hoping the storm would subside before we left, but that was not going to happen. I stumbled back to the car and we somehow made it home without dying. Piotr drove most of the way. I was too tired to drive and kept hallucinating due to exhaustion.I dreamt of the milder left route around the ice cliff. How much that decision would've changed things I do not know.3C0C0766.jpgWe setup a base camp at around 5800ft on the Heliotrope Ridge. It's past 1pm and we're anxious to get some sleep. Baker's upper mountain looks in on us from behind the ridge.3C0C0777.jpgThe first night (Friday) was clear, and cold enough to avoid much postholing. Saturday night was much warmer, causing the non-skiers to posthole significantly for almost all of the lower Coleman glacier, sapping energy early.3C0C0794.jpg Some ice climbing practice during the day in nearby crevasses/moats.3C0C0805.jpg Back to base camp to rest before setting out to climb around 10pm. Piotr packs away the rope. 1.jpg Resting after the first steep pitch to take the North Ridge. This was the steepest sustained climbing I had yet done. Near the base it felt like 50-60 degrees. Photo by Alin Flaidar.3.jpgKerwin and Isac approach a crevasse system before the steep flanks of the massive ice wall at dawn. Photo by Alin Flaidar.4.jpgThe sun rises behind the north ridge as Kerwin carries his skis toward the ice cliff. We had planned to be at the ice cliff by day break. Photo by Alin Flaidar.3C0C0835.jpgPiotr waits at the start of a new crevasse system. The ice cliff looms in the background. The thing is pretty intimidating once you get close enough to appreciate its scale.5.jpgAfter rappelling/down-climbing the 400 foot section of 60+ degree slopes beneath the ice cliff, a storm approaches in and reduces visibility drastically. The precip was unrelenting for the rest of the trip, turning to rain as we approached the longest section of route on the lower Coleman. Photo by Alin Flaidar.3C0C0780-Edit.jpgIsac and Kerwin on skis at about 5800ft, our route above.BakerMap1.jpgFull route starting from around 2900ft., 1.5 miles from the Heliotrope trail head (snow blocked the road). We reached the base of a higher portion of the ice cliff around 9800 feet (per GPS). Baker's summit crater is around 10,700 feet.BakerMap2.jpgBase camp is just to the right at around 5800ft. The heavily crevassed section of the lower Coleman seemed to take forever to navigate in the pouring rain upon descent. A lot of snow had fallen and our tracks had been completely erased, not to mention some crevasses had been deceptively covered.BakerMap3.jpgAnother view of the North Ridge. We climbed on all snow. Some tracks could be seen from base camp on the steep snowy section to the right of where we ascended.BakerMap4.jpgWe took the blue path towards an upper, shorter section of the ice wall. It looked more mild from about 600 vertical feet away. It proved to be more or less vertical. The red path is probably the path of least resistance as it seems to avoid vertical ice climbing.Download our GPX tracks here.Gear Notes:Picket each, 9-10 screws. Snow shoes/skis would've been nice until 7k+.Approach Notes:1.5 mile walk to trailhead. Luke

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Deadman the tent corners to stuff sacks, tent pegs, plastic bags, anything. Losing a tent can be a big deal, and not because of the monetary value of the gear inside.

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JasonG - absolutely - a staple gun was a stupid idea for anchoring a tent, especially in snow.

 

JK - hey I was randomly checking out some of your TRs, - the pics from the Reid Headwall climb are really cool.

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Thanks Luke! I was admiring your night shots, you hauled some nice gear up that high.

 

And yes, the left variation is much, much easier- though climbing up through the storm and descending would have been character building as well. The UW 4km forecast is often pretty accurate, and helps in avoiding such unpleasantness: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/mm5rt/rt/gfsinit.d2.html

 

The 1 hr precip and column integrated water loops are the most helpful to me.

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We knew we had weather coming in at ~11am. We were hoping to be at the summit by then and then would descend the familiar Coleman Deming route. The ice wall attempt just took longer than expected.

 

I think I will need a manual in order to make sense of the data in that link. What's the Cliff Notes way to find precip/wind data on a specific location/at specific times?

 

I typically just check NOAA by clicking on a location on the map. Probably not as accurate.

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Ah never mind I think I have the hang of it with the precip loops for WA. Thanks for the pointer!

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Awesome trip report.

 

Some of my most memorable experiences were like this. Nothing went as planned, I was frightened, I suffered, and I learned a lot from the experience.

 

Great pictures too.

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Thanks for sharing. Candid account, but sounds like a really good group. Your low light photos are spectacular.

 

I've had enough time similar to your end of trip experience that I don't mind being labeled a wuss because I'd rather grab plastic indoors, watch sports, and hang out around the house when the weather forecast is crappy/minimal for climbing.. I know being out is good but my gumption for 35-40 degrees and raining/mist/whiteout/wind is about nil, if I can help it. :tired:

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I'm glad you lugged the extra gear, your photography is great, way to get at it! I'm usually incredibly lazy when it comes time to setup the tent/go to sleep and the camera stays in the back. Thanks for the inspiration!

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Great trip report! I was one of the two climbers that was heading for the summit when you and your friends arrived at camp. I love the photo of you guys setting up in the dark, because I can actually see my headlamp on the slope behind camp - nice!

 

We were wondering how your climb went ... sounds like quite the adventure, and we're glad to hear you are all safe and sound!

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Thanks all for the comments. Xerinae I followed that link in your post - great stuff.

 

sourstraw - I hope you had a more comfortable climb than us!

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