Tuesday, March 19, 2013

One Day Ski Of Mt. Baker

When your alarm goes off at 2:30 AM on a Saturday morning there can be a slight bit of confusion as to what is going on. My eyes barely open to see the clock, and my mind races to figure out where I am. I'm in my bed not a tent, so I can't be working. I worked all week so why did I have my alarm set must have been a mistake. Turn that noise maker off and get some sleep!

As I roll back over to drift back into dream world skiing Mt Baker crosses my just-wakening brain. Ah that would be fun definitely need to do that. WAIT!!  My eyes open wide a burst of energy surges through my body, all of a sudden I am awake. I grab my phone and immediately text Casey: We still on for today!  Minutes later my phone chirps as I get the coffee going  see ya in 15-20.

We depart Bellingham at the rich hour of 3:15 AM and start the drive up to Mt. Baker.  The road is closed about 4.5 miles and 2000 feet below the Heliotrope Ridge trail head. The morning is clear and crisp as we don our headlamps and set out at 5 am to bite off the first chunk of mountain.

The first part of the ski is a very easy, enjoyable, and gentle skin up a road to the trail head. Just before we reach the trail head, we get an amazing view of our objective as the sun begins to lighten the sky. Conditions appear to be good and avalanche danger seems very manageable. I take a moment to scan the skyline for any recent avalanche activity up high, although it is hard to get a real feel of this as the sun is rising due to flat light. I see nothing glaring to suggest the avalanche danger has changed since I checked the Northwest Avalanche Center Avalanche bulletin at 2:45 AM. I remind myself to not get caught in the classic heuristic trap of blue bird day, big objective,  great skiing, and complacency.

Skinning just past Grouse Creek
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

After a quick food and tea break at the trail head, we start moving up the mountain. We follow Grouse Creek to the base of Heliotrope ridge and start to skin up the gully. We do our best to keep a low-angle efficient skin track to conserve as much energy as possible for the the 8000+ feet of skinning we will be doing that day. About and hour later we stop to drink and refuel our bodies. More low-angle track setting and a couple of hasty pits lead us to another break on top of Heliotrope ridge. The sun is getting higher in the sky, the snow conditions are shaping up to be perfect. I begin to think this could be a summit day. Again, I take a moment to remind myself about complacency.

Blue Bird on Heliotrope Ridge
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

From Heliotrope Ridge we traverse slightly downhill and cross the upper stretches of the football field and take another food and tea break on the pumice ridge. On the ridge the snow conditions change a bit. I throw out the idea of not going to the summit and instead turning multiple laps high on the mountain in great snow. Both Casey and myself decide that since neither of us have summitted Baker yet and the conditions on the Roman Wall are variable but still good conditions for volcanic dome skiing, that this would be a great day to put that tic on the list "skied from summit of Baker".

Perfect blue bird day
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

We put the skis on our backs and start to boot up the last 800 or so feet to the summit. Booting went much easier then anticipated  and I take note of variability in the snow.  The last 200 feet I find myself breaking trail through a pocket of deeper snow and think just maybe we will get some powder turns up high.

 Looking down towards Pumice Ridge
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

We summit right around 1 PM and don't waste much time rejoicing on our success, immediately beginning to switch from skinning mode to skiing mode.

Summit plateau with true summit in background
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

Top of Roman Wall 
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

My legs never feel super fresh after 8000 feet of uphill travel but there always seems to be a bit of ease once I get my heals locked back to my skis. I always think, I will be able to rest a bit on the descent. Unfortunately, the first part of the descent is the most technical portion of the ski. A 300 foot sustained 40 degree slope to a mid 30 degree variable snow condition ski back to the pumice ridge.  My legs are on fire as I try to make every turn look effortless to the folks who are booting up the Roman Wall. One turn is boot deep wind buff, the next turn is chunky ice, then back to variable powder, then to sastrugi snow. Legs are on fire, head is in the game, the slope ends in crevasses. Yup, I am skiing a volcano!

Once we got off the pumice ridge and started our descent to the football field we were blessed with perfect low angle powder turns. We stop mid way and eat our remaining food, drink more water, take in our accomplishment and the amazing views. Some traversing to Heliotrope Ridge leads to steeper terrain. After a quick discussion of snow conditions we determine that skiing the steeper slope would be very rewarding. We weren't wrong.  A confusing traverse through the trees led us back to the trailhead and then a very easy and yes relaxing ski down the road brought us back our cars!

--Mark Cionek, Alaska Program Coordinator and Guide

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