Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Route Profile: North Ridge of Mt. Baker, III+

Washington climbers have a huge array of glaciated peaks to climb throughout the Cascades.  But when they are ready to push themselves further and decide to start climbing steeper alpine ice and snow, one of the best places to do that is the North Ridge of Mt. Baker. (Click the link for a more up-to-date version of this page.) With its relatively short approach, moderate climbing and picturesque views, it is a great first foray into the world of alpine ice climbing.

Mt. Baker in the summer with Roman Mustache (right, red),
Coleman Headwall (center, blue) & North Ridge (left, purple).  Andrew Yasso

The North Ridge is usually climbed between the start of May and the end of August, but it can be done almost year-round.  In early season, you have to contend with deep, soft snow from the previous winter, and in late season you have to carefully navigate through the maze of crevasses on the Coleman Glacier.

From Helioptrope Ridge Trailhead, hike the trail until approximately 5400'.  From here, you can either branch off and head east towards Harrison Camp (aka Mirkwood), although most climbers continue up the trail to higher camps either on the bare rock at the edge of the Coleman Glacier, or up on flat areas of the Glacier at approximately 6800' - 7000'.  To start the climb you drop down and traverse through the Coleman, weaving through the crevasses along a ramp at about 6600'.  Once you've made it across the glacier, climbers have two options:  throughout the majority of the season, you can climb through the hourglass (shown in the photo above), or in later season when the hourglass is melted out, you may have to circle around further to the left before starting up the ridge proper.  The later option adds more time to the climb, but avoids serious rock-fall potential.

AAI guide, Tad McCrea, starting up the ice bulge on the
first pitch of ice on the North Ridge. 
Climb the lower half of the Ridge until 8800', where you will transition from glacier travel mode into roped climbing mode.  Climbers will head out and around to the left (East) of the starting ice bulge for 1-1/2 to 2 pitches, then topping out at a broader, more northerly facing and lower-angled slope.  This broad slope can vary in difficulty, ranging from deep snow wallowing in early season to firm neve-kicking later on.  Progress up these shallower slopes for 2-3 pitches as you are funneled towards the lobe of the upper ice cap.  At 9600', there is another step of 60 - 70 degree ice for 2 pitches.  After topping out on the shoulder of the ice cap, trend to the left (east), winding through crevasses, to reach the summit proper.  

A climber near the top of the last steep pitches
of the North Ridge. Alasdair Turner

For the descent, head west across the broad summit plateau and descend the Roman Wall to the saddle between the Demming and Coleman Glaciers at 9000'.  From the saddle, descend to the north and traverse below the Black Buttes and return to camp at Heliotrope Ridge.

AAI climbs this route regularly as part of our Alpine Ice Course.  This 6-day course reviews basic glacier travel and crevasse rescue skills before diving into more complex crampon and ice axe techniques. We will teach you the skills necessary for difficult alpine ice climbs, including ice screw placement, anchor building, hazard evaluation, glacier travel and navigation, and more. We have these courses scheduled every week from May through August.  Please email us or call for more information on climbing this amazing route!

- James Pierson

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