Mount Baker can be seen from Seattle on a clear day and is one of five Washington volcanoes. Baker won me over five years ago on my first hike viewing Baker from a distance. I breathed in fresh mountain air and learned what alpine means. Small, fragile wildflowers lined the rocky trail as the volcano was in sight, covered with snow and glaciers. It seemed close but yet so far away.
Basecamp, June 2016.
Why Mount Baker?
Two years ago, I attempted Baker’s summit with the Washington Alpine Basic Climbing Class. I made it to the caldera just shy of the 10,781-foot summit. I let my nerves and inexperience get the best of me and decided not to attempt the “steep” Roman Wall–some say it’s the hardest section of the Easton Glacier route.
Since my first attempt, I’ve ice climbed on the Coleman seracs and continued to admire the mountain from the local ski area. A stronger climber and skier, I had a lingering question: Should I climb it or ski it?
Try, Try Again
I didn’t know after my first trip where I’d be today–trying to climb all five of Washington’s volcanoes: Mount Rainier (14,411 ft), Mount Adams (12,277 ft), Mount Baker (10,781 ft), Glacier Peak (10,541 ft), and Mount St. Helens (8,363 ft).
With two years dreaming and scheming, I finally had the weather window and two friends, Matt and Rachael, join in on my second attempt. They had just completed the same climbing course a few months before. However, unlike my class, weather foiled both their weekend plans to climb Baker.
We couldn’t find a fourth climber to join us, so I carried my tent, divided shared gear, and we all headed up for a short weekend climb. At lunch on Friday, I learned a coworker was also climbing the Easton Glacier route. We made the casual “I’ll see you on the mountain” remarks and then went on our merry way. Little did I know I’d be seeing him on the hike up to basecamp and sharing patches of snow together at camp.
Even though we took a slightly different approach than most, we made it up to what the route call Railroad Grade, where the moraine meets the glacier. There are options to camp lower off the snow, but we decided to carry our heavy packs to have an efficient alpine start. An alpine start is when climbers start a mountain approach in the early hours of the morning or even before midnight. It’s most common when snow is involved because firm snow is better to climb on than soft, sloppy snow.
Basecamp, July 2016.
My coworker and his climbing partners joined us at camp. We took turns melting snow and shared climbing stories. After a few hours of setting up camp and trying to hide from the hot sun, we soon added puffy down jackets and layers as we ate freeze-dried dinners to the sun lowering to meet the horizon. Since we’d be waking up at midnight, bedtime was at 7 pm. I set my alarm for a bathroom break during sunset to take pictures of the alpenglow.
Easton Glacier: Summit Day
Awoken by blaring cell phone alarms at half past midnight, it was time to convince the body to eat breakfast at a time it’s used to being in a REM cycle. The rope was already flaked and tied, so we attached the carabiners and prusiks to our harness’ belay loops, did quick harness checks, and were on our way into the darkness.
We must have been an eager bunch as we led the other flashing headlamps up the route. Matt guided the way and cautioned Rachael and myself of snow bridges and crevasses. Continuing to climb with few breaks, the sun finally coming up as we reached the caldera.
Unlike last time, I was calmer than the 15 to 20 mph wind gusts and ready for the Roman Wall. After a quick break to add a layer and munch on some snacks for a proper-timed breakfast, we followed the bootpack up the Roman Wall with ease. We then walked the giant football-sized field to the true summit while being pelted by brisk morning winds.
On the summit!!! Right to left: Rachael, Matt, and Angela. July 2016.
We stopped briefly to add our large puffy jackets from our packs, take one selfie, and start the descent to find protection from the relentless winds. Just as we were leaving the summit, some other friends from the WAC joined us on the summit. We snapped a group photo of them and were on our way.
Standing on the summit. Can you see our shadows? July 2016.
Being some of the first ones up the route, we did have to step off the main bootpack on the way down to let ascending climbers continue to the summit. We didn’t mind though since we were in good spirits and starting to warm from the sun rays.
The caldera, July 2016.
We took another long break at the caldera on the way down and continued to break on the descent as the temperatures were warmer and layers needed to be removed. We arrived at camp tired but elated around 10:30 am. Deciding to nap for an hour before packing up the camping gear and hauling the heavy packs down the last five miles. I felt confident being the first ones up the Easton route and the first ones down. I’m usually a slow and steady-type girl.
Descending, July 2016.
All the training paid off and was in high spirits for attempting Mt. Rainier later in the summer, but more on that later.
When to Climb the Easton Glacier Route
Depending on your risk tolerance and glacier travel knowledge, Baker can be climbed May through August. More experienced climbers and skiers can increase the climbing season according to weather and conditions. Snow at higher elevations can last through the early summer. It’s best to read recent trip reports or to call the ranger station to inquire if climbers are having successful summit bids.
Easton Glacier Route Details
Basecamp, July 2014.
Trail to Basecamp
Park at the Railroad Grade trailhead (map) and follow the Park Butte Trail for a little over 2 miles. Hike through the thin trees up switchbacks and across a newly built foot bridge. (It was washed out for a couple of years and can be hard to ford.) We got off route as the trail description we were following said to turn right. We ended up climbing up the steep moraine, which is not recommended. In other words, don’t follow my tracks on the first day. If timed right, the meadows and trails are lined with wildflowers and scampering marmots and pikas.
At 3 miles, you’ll reach the end of the moraine. If the snow levels are low, dirt and rocky campsites are available. We opted to camp on snow for ease of water access (or melting snow).
Easton Glacier Climb
If you’re climbing later in the season, look for a bootpack to follow. However, never completely trust the bootpack as routes can change as the snow melts and the crevasses open.
No bootpack? The general route is to climb up to the caldera and then to the Roman Wall. The route changes year-to-year depending on the snowfall over the winter. Read recent trip reports on MountainProject or SummitPost to help research the best route for the season and year you plan on climbing.
The Roman Wall is the steepest part of the climb. Here, switchbacks make it less steep than going straight-up. Get an early start to be one of the first ones up, and you won’t have to worry about climbers descending (parties going up have the right-of-way). Weigh your options though because a bottleneck can leave you waiting to ascend or descend the Roman Wall. Best to add an extra layer before entering if there’s traffic.
- The Basics:
- Down Jacket
- Waterproof Jacket
- Base Layers (top & bottom)
- Food & Water
- The Ten Essentials
- Climbing Gear:
- Mountaineering Boots
- Climbing Harness
- Trekking Poles
- Ice Axe
- Glacier Rescue Gear
- Camping Gear:
- 3-season tent
- Snow anchors
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
From the Railroad Grade, teams usually start roped-up from camp during an alpine start. Knowing how to tie-in and travel on a glacier rope is important and makes you a better teammate. Navigation with a headlamp and being able to identify snow bridges and crevasses will increase your chances of a safe return back down the mountain.
Be familiar with use of how to self-arrest with an ice axe and how to properly ascend and descend on snow with an ice axe is important. Don’t forget to brush up on the z-pulley technique for hauling someone out of the crevasse.
**If you don’t have the necessary skills or experience, there are plenty of mountain guides that teach classes, have the gear, and can guide you up the mountain.
Trip Dates: July 30-31, 2016
Read more of my mountaineering trip reports and the Washington Alpine Class here.