Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Route Profile: Mt. Baker, Easton Glacier, II

Mt. Baker is a great introduction to the world of climbing glaciated peaks.  It is easily accessible from both the north and south sides, and has beginner routes on both sides as well.  The Easton Glacier route on the south side is climbed in our Alpinism 1 Course and our Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership Part 1 Course.  A short 90 minute drive from our office in Bellingham gets you to the trailhead at 3,360'.

The first half of the approach to the Easton Glacier follows the Park Butte Trail.  An alternate option is the Scott Paul Trail, but it is significantly longer.

As climbers move along the lower trail, there are a series of creeks that must be crossed.  Depending on the time of year and the recent weather, these creeks can be meters wide or small trickles.

A climber gives the "double thumbs-up" during a quick break
after a successful creek crossing.
After crossing the creeks, climbers continue along the Park Butte Trail until it intersects the Railroad Grade Trail at 4,660'.  From there, climbers hike along the Railroad Grade Trail until approximately 6,000'.  The Railroad Grade Trail earns its name from it's consistent slope angle as it carries you a little over 1,000 vertical feet in the next mile.  This portion of the trail follows the upper edge of the glacial moraine that was left by the receding glacier.

The Railroad Grade Trail on the left, with the toe of the
Easton Glacier and the glacial moraine on the right.

Climbers take a quick break along the Railroad Grade Trail
to grab some water, snap some pictures and take in the beauty of the area.

Marmots wrestling in the boulder field along the trail.
Just before you reach 6,000', the Railroad Grade Trail tapers off as you enter an area known as Sandy Camp.  Sandy Camp is not exactly one campsite, but a series of small established tent sites overseen by the US Forest Service.  There are numerous sites throughout the area established in the rock outcroppings on the edge of the glacier.

Climbers moving through the Sandy Camp area, looking
for a place to call home for the night.

Camp sites often have a series of pre-established rock rings
to help shield your tent from heavy winds on the mountain.

If no established campsites are available, you can always
camp on the snow at the edge of the glacier.  

Climbers melting snow for their dinners the
night before the summit attempt.

The climb of the Glacier itself is usually straightforward.  You start at the southwest edge of the glacier field and trend up and to the northeast, weaving through the crevasses as the mountain dictates.  Climbers will leave camp in the early hours of the morning (between midnight and 2:00 am).  This early hour helps to ensure that the temperatures will be colder and the snow of the glacier will be more firm, which will allow for faster and safer travel.  On clear nights, climbers will set their initial sights on the rim of Mt. Baker's volcanic crater (the low point on the right edge of the skyline in the photo below).  Climbing parties often reach the rim in 4 to 6 hours, depending on the condition of the glacier and the condition of the climbers themselves.

A view of Mt. Baker's Easton Glacier, with the crater rim to the right.

Climbers peering into the crater of Mt. Baker.
 After climbing through the darkness, climbers start to notice the distinct "rotten egg" smell of the sulphurous gasses that are emitted from a vent in the crater.  Climbing parties often stop at the crater rim to refuel and rehydrate before the final push up the Roman Wall to the summit plateau of Mt. Baker.

The first rays of light starting to creep over the
horizon to the east of Mt. Baker.
 Once climbers are ready to go, they head north and slightly west, and quickly encounter the crux of the climb, the steep Roman Wall.  Portions of the Roman Wall can be near 40 to 45 degrees and are sometimes very icy, and there can often be an additional hazard of rockfall from a nearby exposed outcropping above.  To cap it off, this portion comes after an early morning with usually little sleep from the night before.  But therein lies the challenge of glacier climbing.  This is where beginning climbers need to dig deep within themselves and find the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Climbers starting up the Roman Wall on Mt. Baker. 

Mt. Baker casting its shadow over the Twin Sisters and
across the Puget Sound in the early hours of the morning.

A short time later, near the top of the Roman Wall, with the
sun higher and Mt. Baker's shadow much closer.

Once climbers have surmounted the Roman Wall, the remainder of the climb is a walk in the park.  The summit of Mt. Baker is actually a very broad and relatively flat plateau with a small, isolated bump on the eastern edge that is only about 80' higher than the rest of the plateau.

Large crevasses near the edge of the summit plateau.

A climber on top of Grant Peak, the official name
of the small mound at the summit of Mt. Baker.

A glimpse down into the crater of Mt. Baker, over 1000' below the summit.

A happy crew of climbers on the summit!
Once it is time to head down, all the party has to do is retrace their steps back to camp.  For most groups, the climb takes 6 to 8 hours, with the descent taking about half that much time to get back to camp.

Climbers starting back down the Roman Wall.
We would love to have you join us on Mt. Baker this summer.  As I mentioned above, this climb is often done as part of our Alpinism 1 or AMTL 1 courses, but it can also be done as a private climb with just you or with a group of your friends.  Give us a call if you have any questions or would like to sign up for the climb!

- James Pierson (all photos by author)

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