ride, but it got me looking at the glaciated peaks of Wyoming, Montana and the Pacific Northwest. I spent time trying to understand the technical aspects, talked to friends who had been out there and tried to figure out what mountains would constitute a “beginner friendly” glacial climb.
I was lucky that I also had other friends that had the same draw as me, they had a hankering for the big mountains, and wanted to step it up a notch. I found a younger UCMCer, my friend Emily, that wanted to learn some glacial skills too. We found a course up in Bellingham, Washington on Mt. Baker that offered a few days of snow skills, glacier rescue and ice climbing. Sounded like the perfect thing for us, knowing a little already and wanting to grow our skills. We originally planned to do the course in May, but unfortunately had to delay due to COVID. Luckily, we were able to reschedule for July, so we booked plane tickets and were off.
We left Cincinnati on the 4th of July, great day to fly, especially during a global pandemic, and arrived in Seattle in the early afternoon. Getting the rental car was a small adventure in and of itself, but after some waiting and almost settling for driving a Ford Fusion, we got our SUV and were heading North. The drive up to Bellingham was refreshing, it was nice to be out of a plane, it felt great to be moving and the day was beautiful. Eventually we found our way up to Larrabee State Park and enjoyed a little walk up to a lookout over the coast. The view was wonderful, and it felt great to be out again. After so many trips had been canceled or postponed because of COVID, finally being on another big one was a great feeling.
After enjoying the coast, we found our way into Bellingham, got setup at our hotel and found the last local restaurant in town open on the 4th of July for dinner. Some delicious perogies and a beer later we were packing bags back at the hotel getting ready to meet our instructor at the American Alpine Institute (AAI) in the morning. We got there, bright and early at 7AM to meet up with Lani, our 26-year-old, mountain climbing guru. With a quick hour of pack shakedown and grabbing some final supplies we were driving up towards Mt. Baker to begin our fun.
The hike from the parking lot up to the base of Hogsback near the Coleman Glacier was a steep one. We went up 2,000’ in a little over 2 miles before finding camp on the snowfield near 5,500’. As we unpacked, we talked about our plans for the next few days and decided that we’d trying to go for a summit the next day since the weather looked best and Lani felt that Emily had enough experience to do it that soon coupled with a low risk of crevasse issues. I started trying to get all my gear together and realized I left my shell jacket in the car, my stomach sank…
This was definitely my worst “Oh Shit” moment of this trip, but I figured it wouldn’t kill us, I just needed to go for a long walk down and back. After letting everyone know about my mistake, Lani said she’d go get it since letting me wander off down the trail on my own was off limits on a skills course like this. A little bummed, but very appreciative, she went down and returned about two hours later during which Emily and I practiced wearing crampons again (after a few month break) and tying some different knots for rescue. We spent the evening practicing self-arresting on some low slopes and got to bed early, we planned a 2AM alpine start to avoid soft snow when coming down the mountain.
I woke up a few times throughout the night as other teams passed by us. The first around midnight and the last around 1:30AM. Eventually it was my turn to get out of the tent, so I booted up in the cold morning and watched the 1:30AM team’s head lamps disappear into the night going over Hogsback 1,000’ above us.
We quickly got roped up and, on the move, ascending to the upper glacier at 7,000’. The ground was still well frozen, and you could see small crevasses dotting the ground as you walked. The air was still, and the moon made it look as if a giant flood light was shining down from Colfax Peak. Our view of the summit 3,000’ above us was beautiful, clear with light fog dancing around in the breeze, we were confident it would clear by the time we made it up to 10,700’ at the top. After about 2 hours of walking we reached 9,200’ at the base of Pumice Ridge, the steep climb up to the even steeper Roman Wall, the last obstacle before the summit plateau.
We passed the group of 5 I had watched disappear over Hogsback several hours before and continued towards the top. Our pace began to slow as we became tired and Emily became less sure about her footing. We were obviously being cautious, but our proximity to the top had me excited and moving fast, which was probably a pain in the ass with all the slack I was giving Emily. After about an hour and a half switch backing our way up the steep rib, we reached the summit and could see the small 50’ or so summit “knob”. The group we had played leapfrog with gladly took our picture in exchange for theirs. It felt great to be up there, the wind was strong, but not brutal and after spending so much time in the shadow of the mountain, the light gave me new life. It was probably a brisk 20 degrees with wind chill, but Emily and I didn’t mind. We were enjoying being at the top of the world again. I could tell on the other hand that Lani was ready to go down. She obviously was thinking about the rest of our walk down unlike us.
As the three of us began walking down the ridge, our pace slowed. Emily was getting tired and unsure of her footing, on top of that, during her last climb she had been in an avalanche, so the steep terrain was playing tricks on her head. After some encouragement we descended 1,000’ down the Roman Wall and found a sheltered spot in the sun on Pumice Ridge for a break and a snack. We watched as other climbers streamed by us heading for the summit and were happy to be on the way down. Our group quickly made it down past the bergschrund, snagging a quick photo of the massive hole waiting to open up before reaching the flat plain above Hogsback. The clouds began to envelop us as we continued to descend. We glissaded down and arrived back to camp a little before noon. I was tired, so I spent a little time moving around my things and before I knew it, I was asleep on the rocks next to the tent. It was a much-needed nap, I woke up to the other teams coming down Hogsback, appearing out of the fog. Eventually the other tents around us began to get packed up and as night set in, we were the only ones left. Alone on the snow.
climbing, lowering into and climbing out of crevasses and practiced building ice anchors. I learned a lot in those few days, and they got me excited for climbing again. I came out of the course wanting to climb bigger mountains and continue to grow and push my skills.
On our fifth and final day we woke up to rain yet again, we quickly packed up and began our way back down to the car. It was kind of sad to say goodbye to Lani, Emily and I had both enjoyed her company and knowledge during our days out in the backcountry, but we knew we still had more trip left and still wanted to get in another climb.
Some of our friends were down south near Mt. Rainier and we had talked about making a summit attempt with them before we flew out from Cincinnati, but we had both heard that the upper mountain was a mess this year. There weren’t many parties finding the way to the top and with fewer climbers the route wasn’t as visible. On top of that there had already been two groups that needed rescuing since the mountain had reopened in mid-June. We also couldn’t get permits to stay at Camp Muir which meant we’d have to do the whole thing in a day, it was an unobtainable goal for us. Nonetheless, Emily and I headed south and grouped up with our friends, spending a night trading stories about our climb of Baker and their time on Hood.
The next day they wanted to day hike to Camp Muir and we wanted to head out onto the Olympic Peninsula, so we gained our friend Lizzie in our group and the others went off on their journey. We arrived at the trailhead we wanted around noon, a little late to start the climb up Mt. Stone, but we still figured we’d go for it.
The trail began up from the parking area, snaking its way along the ledges above the valley floor, slowly gaining elevation to 2,300’ before rising sharply from the boarder of the National Park up 3,000’ over just two miles. It was a butt blaster of a hike, but we were all enjoying the challenge. The higher we rose the better the views of the surrounding area we go. Eventually our route left the well-established trail and we were working our way up a steep ravine next to a waterfall. Around 5,500’ we came out of the trees and were greeted with magnificent views of Mt. Skokomish and Mt. Pershing, Mt. Stone still towered 1,000’ above us and it was getting late in the day. We set a turnaround time of 4:30 and continued up the loose scree slope. As we neared what we were going to call our “summit” (the actual summit was unobtainable at that point due to our late start), the steepness and the terrain got the best of us, so we decided to turn back at around 6,150’. It was a good call; we were all getting tired and we knew we’d be pushing it to get down before it got dark or we ran out of snacks and water.
The way down was as challenging as the way up, everything you stepped on wanted to slide. Several times one of us would knock a rock down and it would tumble down 100’ below us. We took our time and worked our way down to more stable ground. Before we knew it, we were back on the well-marked trail heading back to the bottom. The trail was a knee breaker and we all felt tired on the way down. After about two and a half hours of running down the side of the mountain and running out of water we finally arrived back at the trailhead. Luckily the spot we wanted to setup camp wasn’t far, so we walked a little way, got our cozy spot in the trees and got a fire going. It was relaxing to hangout by a campfire for the first time on this trip and not have anything to worry about doing the next day. Lizzie fell asleep as Emily and I worked on drying out gear and talked about the trip so far. It was a relaxing last night in the woods.
When we work up in the morning, we caught a ferry to Seattle and spent the next two days exploring the city. Another relaxing end to a very busy trip. We spent a lot of time talking about our next climbing pursuits or our next trips and we also spent a good bit of time just enjoying each other’s company during a much-needed break from all of our busy lives. A day later we were all boarding flights home and before we knew it, we were back to the rat race.
Even though I’m back, the mountains are still calling my name…. Until next time.