Flying from Denver to Seattle, I had a row all to myself and traded my aisle seat for the window. As the plane descended, Mount Rainier rose above the clouds. Seattle Airport was easy to navigate and my large black duffel was one of the first to arrive at baggage claim.
I took a 20 minute taxi ride to the Marqueen Hotel and chatted with my Ethiopian driver. We both expressed interest in meeting people from other countries. He told me about his first visit to the United States and arriving in the middle of a Chicago winter. “I never imagined such cold,” he smiled and kindly reflected about a woman who’d helped him find winter clothing.
At the hotel, I exploded my bags and began a gear layout. Once everything was organized, I walked to a grocery store and filled my bear bag with peanut butter, bite size Snickers, pitas, cheese, pepperoni, dried pineapple, nuts, raisins, tuna fish, Clif Bars, yogurt covered pretzels and chocolate covered almonds. While waiting to pay for my groceries, a man from England struck up a conversation and offered to buy me dinner. I passed. I returned to my hotel and enjoyed a hodgepodge of peanut butter and trail mix while chatting with my husband about how amusing men can be.
I left the Marqueen at 6:20 a.m. and walked down the street to Alpine Ascent’s office. Inside, the walls were covered with scenic mountain landscapes and in a conference style room there were wooden benches with our names written on eliminated cards. As we filtered in, Peter and Travis introduced themselves as our instructors and we began the process of packing. In total we were eight clients; six men and two women. Chanda sat next to me. She worked in Washington D.C., had completed time in the Peace Corps, and also taught yoga classes. We would be tent mates for the next six days.
Peter drove us and our gear from the office to the Baker parking area. We made one stop along the two hour ride for a bathroom and last minute food supply. I grabbed a banana and a few more chocolate bars.
Located in the North Cascades of Washington State, Mount Baker is a 10,781 foot active glaciated volcano. The first recorded ascent was in 1868 and the last eruption was 1880. Baker receives a large amount of snow each season and has multiple glaciers, an ideal training ground for mountaineers.
Our full packs came in between 63 and 74 pounds, mine landing at 67. We started around 3,700 feet and munched on blueberries as we hiked through an old growth forest. We broke treeline, traveled through alpine meadows and made camp around 5,000 feet.
In the morning, we packed up and moved camp to the base of the glacier. While Travis scouted for a camp, Peter taught us knots; figure eight, figure eight on a bite, prussiks, clove hitch, and double fisherman’s. We put on our boots and learned the basics of snow travel. Over the course of mountaineering history certain walking techniques have been developed. We covered the French, German and American technique. It may seem over redundant, practicing to walk in boots and crampons, however each footstep on a mountain is important and is your first line of protection.
Today we practiced self arresting and built snow anchors. Why I never hurled myself down a twenty degree slope with an ice ax before, I don’t know. It’s stupidly fun and better than sledding. Travis pushed us hard, burning the proper technique into our muscle memories. Like basketball, it’s one thing to make the shot in practice and a whole other skill to make it during the pressure of a game.
By far, my favorite day.
Until crevasse rescue.
How often do you get to sit on the lip of an eighty foot crevasse and be excited to fall into it? It’s the reason I signed up for this course. There are a lot of mountaineering skills I can practice during an Adirondack winter, but maneuvering crevasses is not one of them. I’m incredibly thankful for the skills we learned today and how we were able to rotate through all parts of a rescue scenario. First I went into the crevasse and waited for rescue. While I waited I practiced my waist and foot Prusik ascending technique. It was fun and I ascended the rope to the lip of the crevasse and then lowered myself because my teammates had to practice hauling. During the second scenario I was roped in and “caught” the falling climber. I lay my ice ax across my body, plunged to the ground in a plank-like position and kicked my crampons into the snow. The weight was tremendous and my harness dug into my hip bones. On the final run, I got to set up the pulley system and then haul the person out of the crevasse while another team member set up the pulley system before hauling the person out. I think I went into the hauling stage a little overconfident because a few of my team members had made it seem pretty easy. When I locked into the system and pulled, the rope hardly bulged. Thus began a process of heaving and kicking. By the end, I was out of breath and sky high with one of the greatest adrenaline rushes I’d had in a long time.
Camp began to stir around 3:30 a.m. I stayed in my sleeping bag until 4. Then I grabbed my pack and started to prepare for the summit bid. By 5:30 we were tied in with our rope teams and made our way to the base of the glacier. The sun broke the horizon line around 6. Travis and Peter led us through an amazing maze of crevasses and we all stood on the summit around noon. The sky was clear and the air slightly smelled of sulfur. The trip down was slushy and hot. Most of us arrived to camp in our base layers. It was a great day!
On our last morning, I woke at 5:30 and walked to another campsite area where I’d gotten in the routine of starting my day. I took my journal, book, water bottle, bathroom supplies, ground pad and nestled among the rocks to watch the sun rise. Clouds blanketed the world beneath 5,000 feet, leaving only the tallest peaks in view. That morning, the sun seemed to split across the horizon and reminded me of an egg yolk cracking in a pan.
From 7:30 to 9:30, Travis did an ice climbing session for those interested. It was fun and thrilling to climb ice in August.
Then we packed up and retraced our steps to the van. We stopped for food on our way back to Seattle. There was a lot of laughter, guacamole and margaritas in no particular order. Big cheers to Alpine Ascents for an amazing course from beginning to end. Peter and Travis were excellent instructors and my teammates were bomber. Overall, a grand time in the Cascades.