Friday, June 6, 2014

Mt. Baker Summit Ski

Earlier this year Kun Chen and Bing Gao had the opportunity to work with AAI Guide Ben Gardner on a custom two day Backcountry Skiing program.  This was Bing and Kun’s introduction to snow outside the ski area.  After two days, they were hooked and wanted more, much more. So much they decided to set their sites on the iconic Mt. Baker as a future ski objective.  This past weekend Bin and Kun came back to turn that dream into a reality.  They ventured to AAI to try their hands at skiing Mt. Baker.

The trip began on Friday morning at the American Alpine Institute world headquarters in Bellingham, WA.  A ski mountaineering trip involves a little more gear than a typical mountaineering trip.  In addition to all the general mountaineering gear required for a three day overnight on Mt. Baker, some additional special equipment is needed. 

·      Ski touring equipment that allow for both uphill and downhill travel
o   In this case, Kun was on alpine touring equipment with Dynafit style tech bindings with comfortable touring boots
o   Bing rented a Voile splitboard from the AAI gear shop.  This board breaks into two “skis” for uphill tour ability and then snap together for downhill snowboarding.  It’s a pretty awesome system that allows snowboarders easier access into the backcountry.

After the gear check and prep was done we headed to the south side of Mt. Baker and the Easton Glacier.  Right out of the gate, skiing in to camp is significantly more efficient than walking.   By utilizing a kick and glide technique, we are almost skiing up hill to camp!  It took approximately four hours to reach our Sandy Camp at the base of the Easton Glacier.  Choosing a lower camp does lengthen our summit day.  However, it shortens the distance that we have to tour uphill with a full pack, and lengthens the distance of the down hill ski.  Both big plusses in our book!

Day two was spent working on both basic snow school as well as getting some laps of skiing in.  The warm temps made for wonderful spring skiing conditions.  Bing and Kun were ready to call it quits with just one lap, but the awesome snow convinced them two laps would be more appropriate.  After the second lap and roughly 3000 feet of skiing we headed back to camp for an afternoon nap and relaxation.  We did not want to burn out our legs the afternoon before our summit attempt.

Day three began early.  Part of the challenge of spring skiing is timing.  We need to time the ascent in order to have the best possible conditions for the descent.  If we leave camp to early, and then summit to early the upper slopes of the Roman Wall will still be very icy and hard to ski.  The Roman wall is around 40 degrees in steepness and icy conditions above crevasses are not what we want to deal with.  If we leave to late, the upper slopes will be soft (or too soft) and it will be like skiing through heavy/ sticky mashed potatoes.  One of my jobs as a guide (in addition to risk management) is figuring out that time window when the snow will be just right. 

We woke early at 03:05 AM and were out of camp by 04:50 AM.  We took our time on the way, taking 4 or 5breaks on the way to the summit, including one break in the crater which was pretty awesome.  The smell of sulfur and lure of the top encouraged us to make this break a short one.  One more stretch and we were on top.  Conditions up top were standard for the Northwest.  Kind of cloudy, windy, and not great.

After a few hero pictures we began to get ready for the descent.   We ripped our hides (ski talk for removing the skins we utilize on the bottoms of our skis for uphill travel) and locked in for the descent.  Once we began the ski, conditions cleared up.

We had timed it perfectly!

After roughly 1000 ft of steep (read – controlled) skiing on the Roman wall, we were able to open it up a little bit for the ski back to camp.  Conditions were SPECTACULAR!  All in all, summit to camp we had a fabulous 4,831 feet (give or take a few feet) of awesome spring skiing.  Once at camp we spent an hour packing up and getting ready for the remaining 2,850 ft of skiing to the van. 

Even with the spring melt out and some PNW creek shenanigans, skiing, is still more efficient than walking.  Kun and Bing rocked it.  Close to 8,000 feet below the summit we hit the van and much needed flip flops.   It took us five hours flat from the summit to camp to car to the AAI office!  We clicked in and left the summit at 12:01 PM and were back in Bellingham by 5:00 PM.  An awesome trip!  Now the only question is what will they ski next…  

At AAI learning is paramount.  On this trip AAI Guide Kai came along as a shadow guide to learn more about ski guiding.

Day two consisted of getting some laps of skiing in on the lower glacier.  It was very very serious.

But also incredibly fun!

Bing in the orange and Kun in the red at one of our breaks on the way to the summit.  

Kun in the black and Bing in the orange on top of Mt. Baker.  

Bing SO pyched after skiing the Roman Wall on the upper slopes of Mt. Baker.  The Roman Wall is a classic ski descent that provides steep skiing.  This is a great introduction to ski mountaineering route.

Kun is psyched!  Because it was AWESOME!

If pictures say a thousand words, than what do videos say?  They say it was AWESOME!

-Josh Kling -  AAI Guest Guide

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