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North Ridge of Mt. Baker

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The forecast had indicated that the showers - which were supposed to have a 30% chance of occurring to begin with - would taper by 11 am.  And yet here it was – 1 pm – and it was raining steadily through the fog.

We responded swiftly:  hot drinks, followed by a nap, then more hot drinks.

It was our approach day for the North Ridge, so it didn’t really matter that it was raining.  It only mattered if it didn’t STOP raining.  And it wasn’t showing any signs of letting up.  We had hiked to the 6000 ft camp on the north side of Baker in a gentle fog, and right as we set up our tent, the fog had shifted to a proper rain.  

As the afternoon wore on through a series of hot drinks and food, we alternated between telling stories (“this one time, …”) and napping.  All the while trying to ignore the sound of rain on the tent.  Last year we got shut down on a week of climbing in Boston Basin by lousy wet weather, right in the middle of August.  As we chatted we kept coming back to the thought that this had better not become a pattern…

Our concern was this:  if the weather system was behind schedule, it would be less likely that we would get a good freeze before the morning.  The North Ridge of Baker has a great variety of challenges, from bergrschrund and crevasse navigation to ice climbing, with steep exposed snow over ice cliffs right up to the summit plateau.  And soft snow conditions are not ideal for any of them.  The forecast was calling for a decent freeze once the clouds cleared; if the freeze were to happen, snow bridges would become less sketchy, footing would become more reliable, and pickets might even become worth pounding in.  

At around 7 pm we emerged to stretch our legs and check the horizon, which was presenting a mix of clouds and some promising shafts of evening light.  But as we drifted off it began again to sprinkle.

When you wake up in early in the (dark) hours of the morning, it is hard to tell from your tent what the conditions outside may bring.  That information can only be fully gathered when you stumble outside to pee.

And sure enough, as I stepped from rock to snow, I saw stars above me and felt a solid, frozen surface beneath my boots.  Ah.  Good.  

We made the long traverse over to the base of the north ridge in the early light, weaving a bit through crevasses at the 6600 foot level, glad all the while for the solid conditions.  And the freeze held up as the pitch steepened below the direct start of the route.  And across several exciting bergschrunds.  The freeze was solid above the gaping ‘schrunds, up the steep snow to gain the ridge proper.  

That rain we had worried so much about?  It put the route in near-perfect condition.  

In the shade of early morning, everything that had been soaked yesterday had now frozen solid in place.  And in those hazardous spots on the route, where rockfall can be a serious concern…that rain helped us out again.  

In order to gain the toe of the ridge we traversed low below the headwall until we were able to gaze straight up at the ice ridge.  Another bergshrund crossing, and we were on the ice pitches.  And as we started up, the sun just was just beginning to reach around the mountain.  So as we climbed up the ice fin, the blue jumbled icefall to our left was lit and shining, whereas the steep ice cliff to our right was cool and shady still.  We were perched on the line between sun and shade, moving up one of the most aesthetic ice pitches in the state.  The only sounds were the solid thunk of our axes, left hand then right, and the contact of crampons kicking ice.  There was just the slightest breeze, the temperature was perfect, the ice a satisfying consistency.

Rain?  What rain?

After the ice pitches the angle eases off, but the exposure holds steady, until just below the summit plateau there are some really, really large crevasses.  By now the sun had warmed our freeze to a comfortable walking consistency, and we traversed above, around, and between the massive crevasses in solid footing.

The weather rules supreme over us all in the mountains, and the more technical the route, the more important it is that conditions line up well – for safety, for quality, and for enjoyment.  The more time you spend in the mountains, the more you come to appreciate how often this ISN’T the case…and how much fun climbing is when it is.

We were smiling all the way back to the car.  



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