Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mount Baker May 2010

This is it!!! We crossed the border, just a few km away from the trailhead to Mount Baker. A day that I have dreamt about so many times. A dream coming true! Almost too good to be true. But the beginning of this story has very deep roots. Like most Vancouverites, Baker is much more than just a volcano.

I moved to Canada in January 2006, one of the rainiest months Vancouver had ever seen. I had been told to be prepared; nobody can be prepared for that kind of weather. I started to live at 500 Dunsmuir Street, a hostel for travelers on a low budget, a few steps away from E-Hastings. Coming from the Alps, my first impression of the most liveable city in the world was not that great. The first 10 days had been extremely tough as I was not finding a job as quickly as I hoped. But one day, the bank I currently work for, gave me a call and asked me to come in for an interview. I remember it was on a Friday, and the weather was a cold sunny February sky, the first sunny day I had seen in Vancouver. The office was located at central city so I was going to take the Skytrain for the first time to Surrey. Of course I was focused on what I was going to say during the interview, and reading over and over my resume. When the train passed Edmonds station, and started curving towards 22ndstreet station, I had my first glimpse ever of the beautiful mountain. I could not believe my eyes. This reminded me immediately of Mt Fuji. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard about this mountain before. It seemed so majestic and so huge but at the same time in the backyard of this city that I considered quite big. It was like having Mont Blanc a stone throw away from Paris. I think it is on that day that I fell in love with Vancouver (my love got deeper and deeper as I discovered the North shores and the Sea to Sky Mountains). I got the job that day, and I am still part of that company which also allowed me to become permanent resident therefore climb this mountain last week-end.

Fast forward to 2010. I had monitored the weather forecast all week long, and on Thursday I sent to my expedition team the green light that this week-end was offering good perspectives of summiting on Saturday. The crew was composed of me, mighty Bonn-Tien, Todd (Garibaldi attempts, Rohr, Mt Burwell) and Ben (Rohr, Vantage). I was confident that this was going to be a great team for what I thought was a big challenge. Todd had excellent alpine skills, Bonn-Tien is a steam-engine and Ben (who was on a mountain the first time of his life last January) has balls of steel…

We all slept at my place on Thursday night, so we could get some kind of early start on Friday morning. I picked up my very small rental car at Enteprise who doesn’t over charge when you travel to the States. We left my place at 8:30 am, made the Sumas border crossing at 9:25, had of course go through the border office since the car was super packed and the passengers were 2 French, 2 Canadians and a Millet red backpack. But everything went fine, and the border agent was relatively nice with us.

And then we were on our way, the road towards Glacier was straight forward but I wanted to use my handheld GPS just to be sure. For some stupid reason it took over 20 min to get a signal, we laughed that it was maybe not compatible in the US (yes we are gear geeks…).
We made to Glacier around 10:30 and had two stops; one at the grocery store to eat some tasty bagels and another one at the visitor center to pick up poo bags (Leave no trace! Pick up your poo when alpine or glacier travelling)

We were almost there, took the small backcountry road and went almost all the way to the trailhead. We stopped at the last intersection before the trailhead, a good elevation. It took us some time to get ready, spoke to a guide and his client; they were getting prepared for Denali in a few weeks. The weather was gorgeous and the view on Baker was amazing. At about 12:30, we left the car and headed towards the forest. Fairly quickly we met some climbers and skiers coming down. As a BC climber (like many of you) it is hard to resist talking to someone on the trail, so I had to ask some questions about the conditions, and tips on climbing. People were really nice, but all those Americans seemed so equipped, wands, plastic boots, double ice axes, I was impressed.
Originally, I wanted to wake up at 4 am and summit early in the morning to avoid any spring Avi risk. But after talking to several climbers, we decided that midnight would be a good wake up time, with a summit around sunrise.

We got out of the forest, and the Mt Baker magic started. We started off with a gentle, but tiring,slushy slope where we caught up with a group. We quickly passed them and caught up to a second group, at the last slope before the glacier. Lots of traces of wet slap avalanches in the area which was a good reminder about the reality of this warm beautiful weather. Before we knew it, around 16:30, we were the first ones on the glacier so we could choose our prime spot for camping. We found the remains of a camp with good snow walls and relatively flat ground. We knew this area was free of crevasses so we set up our 4-season tents. We enjoyed the views and the sun, while melting our snow and preparing dinner. Suddenly we heard a loud crack, and a huge avalanche started on the north side of Baker, far from any of us. The noise was impressive but the vision was amazing. The avalanche was least a size 3 and lasted well 20 seconds. I tried to film it, but nothing turned out of it. Because of the location of where this had just happened, we did not feel too worried about it. Especially that we were now planning to climb at night.

We got to bed at 18:30 and tried to get some sleep. I managed to close my eyes for a couple of hours, but had to wake up to see the sunset on Vancouver. I took some amazing shots and I was very happy to see that it had completely cleared up since had been a bit cloudy earlier in the evening.

My Suunto beeped at 00:00, and it was now dark in the tent as it was a moonless night. I felt a bit drowsy but the cold got me quickly back on my feet. I rushed to cover up myself and got out my tent to set up all the gear. Bonn-Tien quickly followed behind, and Todd and Ben were ready to attack the summit. We had some coffee and banana bread which warmed us up. The other camps were also waking up as we could see little lights afar. However no one was yet on the route. After an hour of gear preparation, knotting, layering, un-layering, eating, snoozing, peeing, etc, we were all roped up and ready to go. We started up the glacier with our powerful headlamps, put on powerless mode so we didn’t t suck up all the juice. The beginning started rough with a 30 degree slope and the tracks seemed all messed up. I and Bonn-Tien had decided to take the snowshoes, which seemed to have been a good idea. We passed the last camp and wished them luck and safety. We were two ropes of 2, a safe solution since one team good help if the other had a member fall in a crevasse. It was really dark, but that was fine since we could see the lights from Vancouver. I was surprised to see the contrast of lights between the Canadian and the American side. After walking for 2 hours, we took a quick snack break at 2700 m. I think we were gaining about a 100m every 15 min, a fairly good speed. At about 4:30 am, there was enough light for us to turn off the headlamps. This is also the time we made it to the ridge. So far, it had been an easy walk, with ropes and snowshoes but nothing technical. The ridge was a bit steeper, but not enough to take off the snowshoes. We were all exhausted but so excited about the ascent. We finally made it right under the Roman wall. We had heard so much about the “crux” of the climb. Luckily the conditions were perfect and the steepness was not that great. Todd and Ben unroped but we just put on the crampons, as Bonn-Tien s safety is my priority. Although technically very easy, doing the Roman wall was physically challenging. Bonn-Tien and I took a long time to go up this wall that seemed to go on forever. However our reward was to see the pyramidal shadow going all the way up to Vancouver Island as the sun was rising. An amazing view. I was a little bit nerved out by the huge blocks of ice and rock above us, but not seeing any recent debris, and because of the shadowed cold temperatures, I felt reassured. As the sun hit the summit, we put our first step on this beautiful nipple of Earth. We knew we would have to walk another 500 m before the actual summit, but the clear views gave us wings for the final push. We almost ran to the small peak and celebrated our success by embracing each other.

Took many shots and a video and away we went ; now it was a long way down towards the base camp. We had been very lucky as we had the summit for ourselves, and the Baker crowd was only an hour behind us. On the way down, we met an amazing individual, Kurt, an American from Bellingham who hitchhiked all the way from Bellingham to Glacier, got dropped off 12 km from the trail head at 10 pm the night before, after work, and climbed straight to the summit till 8 am. And as we were speaking, he was on his way back with no intention of stopping, all of this solo!! I told him to contact me through CT as he wants to climb more in BC, so Kurt if you read this, please send me a private message, and let’s go climbing!
At about 12 pm, we made it to the tent, I crashed inside but the rest of the group tanned in the sun, it was beach mood on the Coleman glacier. After 2 hours of well deserved sleep, we headed back down in a slushy snow. A small village was forming on the glacier, it had been a wise idea to climb on a Saturday morning, we had avoided the mass.

We safely made it back to the car, had a stop in Glacier again and left the USA to go back home...
For some reason I have been feeling bittersweet these pass days. The climb had been perfect; I actually did not wreck or lose any of my gear, which is becoming rare... I think I had dreamt so much about this summit (which is amazing), maybe feared it a lot (less than a year ago I would have taken a guide for sure) and simply starred at it for so long. Knowing that I had done it without much of a battle (compared to my previous one with Matier), made me feel a bit nostalgic. I m climbing Mt Blanc this summer and I hope I will get a challenge. The conditions on Baker were great and perfect for a summit ascent. It was also a shock to see so many souls on a mountain, making me feel almost in an amusement park... Sorry for killing the myth, they are just the feelings of a BC hiker, who is use to bushwhacking, remoteness and summit uncertainties.

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