Monday, October 1, 2007

Route Profile: Mt. Baker's North Ridge

Mount Baker’s North Ridge
Location: North Cascades of Washington
Season: Nearly year round. May through September bring the best snow and ice conditions on the route. The approach gets significantly more involved as the season wears on.
Time required: 1-3 days.
Route Description: A 5+ mile approach to the edge of the Coleman glacier leads across the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers to the base of a 50 degree slope leading to the lower North Ridge. Climb the slop for 800 feet and until on the crest. Follow the crest to the base of a prominent ice cliff. From here climb 2-4 pitches of technical ice ranging from 60-85 degrees depending on line choice and conditions. Above the technical ice wind along the broad crest weaving through glacier features as needed until you reach the summit plateau.
Notes: This routes is among the classic ice routes in the North Cascades. It long season, exposed position, and quality ice pitches put in a very select class of alpine routes.

AAI Program Coordinator and Guide Coley Gentzel tells his North Ridge story:I have been alpine climbing for a little over 10 years. Over that span, I been fortunate with weather and conditions more often than not and can recall having failed on alpine climbs only a handful of times. In nearly every case, there has been something unique about these failures. More often than not, when I have failed once on a route, it has taken me at least a couple more efforts to finally succeed on it. In many cases these routes have become my nemeses.

Mount Baker’s North Ridge was one such route. I made three attempts with various partners over a two-year period before finally succeeding on the route on my 4th attempt. On my first attempt, we chose an approach route that led us into a maze of bottomless crevasses in the middle of the night. After probing particularly close to the lip of one gaping monster and causing a small ice avalanche, we decided to forgo the effort and climb the standard route.

My 2nd try was in the face of a less than favorable forecast. Being the youthful and eternally optimistic alpinists that we were, we pushed up to a high camp on the Coleman glacier anyhow. The 13 hours I spend fully clothed, boots and all, in my leaky bivy sack that night were among the most miserable of my life. At one point I actually took to counting the drips on my face while lying in my puddle sack. Not nearly as comforting as sheep, but it almost worked as I came close to drifting off to sleep at one point. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if we weren’t absolutely terrified of the lighting that was shredding the sky all around us. At least all of our metal was in a pile a few feet from camp.

My third try came later than summer. Another AAI employee and I took a mid-week day off from work to give the route a go in classic Cascades car-to-car style. After a brisk hike from the trailhead that we started at about midnight, we were approaching the edge of the glacier in good time. My partner got a case of the hot heels and we headed down only hours into the mission. I was at work on time in Bellingham, with a case of sour attitude to go along with the disappointment.

The next spring, Andy Bourne (AAI International Programs Coordinator and Guide) and I decided to finish this thing off for once and all. We climbed the route in 12 hours car-to-car, and the climb couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Well that is not entirely true. I forgot my sunglasses and had to poke holes in the back of my balaclava that I used for a face mask. During a brief stop on the decent, Andy fell asleep with half of a Cliff bar still in his mouth and nearly had to be revived. Quite a pair.

It was nearly five years until I returned to the North Ridge. I went back with a friend this winter and despite the perfect forecast, we ran into 70mph winds and single digits temps on the glacier. We huddled in a snow cave for a few hours hoping that the thousand foot plume of snow and ice ripping off the summit would subside. Uncontrollable shivering forced us out of the cave and back to our car. North Ridge = 4; Coley = 1.

Though they have been hard to swallow and rough on my pride, I have learned as much if not more from these failures than I have from many flawless outings on other peaks and routes. Remember that failing is part of trying and if you are doing one, you probably aren’t doing the other!


Contact Coley if you are interested in setting up a climb of Mt. Baker's North Ridge at or 800-424-2249. You may also be interested in our 6-Day Alpine Ice Course, during which we make an attempt on the North Ridge or another technical ice route on Mt. Baker.

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