Monday, April 25, 2022

Route Profile: Mt. Baker - Coleman Headwall

The Coleman Headwall is arguably the most complex route regularly climbed on Mt. Baker. The line is not as steep as the North Ridge and it doesn't have the fame of that route, but it is a two tool alpine climb that -- depending on conditions -- may have up to 14 pitches of climbing.

And it is awesome!

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1) Right-hand line. The standard climber's route
2) Left-hand line. A more dangerous (exposed to icefall) line.

The Coleman Headwall is steep, but not that steep. A large portion of the route is 45-50-degrees, though there are a few steeper steps. Depending on crevasse and bergshrund problems, the route may have a few very short vertical steps and depending on how you go near the top, the terrain may kick back to 55-degrees or more.

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1) Early Season Less Exposed Line
2) Late Season Line with more Icefall Exposure

Many parties do elect to simul-climb much of the route. Some even elect to unrope and solo large portions of it. These decisions need to be made based on the conditions at a given time. The route changes a lot every year and what one experiences one year may not be the same as an experience the following year.

There are two commonly climbed lines on the mountain. Both lines are shown in the picture above. The better line is the right-hand line. This is primarily because there is significantly less objective hazard. The left-hand line may also be climbed, but the first half of the route is threatened by icefall.

The right-hand safer option has a number of crevasses and bergshrunds on the route. Due to melt-out this line is generally out-of-condition by mid-summer. It is not recommended beyond July 1st.

Climbing through one of the bergshrunds on the Coleman Headwall

The route starts at approximately 8,500-feet left of the Roman Nose and slices up into the sky, starting to kick back again to a lower angle at 10,200-feet. The summit of Mt. Baker is at 10, 781-feet.

It is important to get on the route early. As the sun comes up, the upper mountain begins to shed. Small pieces of ice begin to rain down on climbers. And though the headwall isn't terribly steep, it is steep enough that a wrong move could be fatal. A marble sized piece of falling ice could have the potential to knock someone off the mountain.

The American Alpine Institute guides the Coleman Headwall regularly. Indeed, it was one of the first routes regularly guided by the company. Today, there are two options for climbing the route with AAI. First, you might climb it on an Alpine Ice Course. And second, you might choose to climb it on a private program.

Climbing steep snow high on the Coleman Headwall

Skiing the Coleman Headwall

The Coleman Headwall has become a popular extreme ski objective. Extreme, however, means extreme. If you fall on this route, you will likely die.

I've been on Mountain Rescue since 2011, and in that time I've responded to two incidents on the Coleman Headwall that included skiers. In the first instance it was a fatality and in the second instance it was a serious injury. And in both instances, the skiers didn't climb the route first. This is a very complex alpine line and if you do think you have what it takes to ski it, it's imperative that you climb it prior to committing to such a descent.

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A foreshortened view of a line I climbed in 2017.

Climbing Gear Suggestions for a Spring Ascent:
  • 2 tools per person - be sure that they can be pounded into the snow to be used as anchors. Radically curved shafts for steep waterfall ice and drytooling won't work on this alpine route.
  • 2-3 pickets
  • 3-4 ice screws
  • several slings and carabiners
If you elect to make the climb later in the season, then you should consider more ice screws.

--Jason D. Martin

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