I Climbed Mount Baker Without A Guide

July 29, 2022

I Climbed Mount Baker Without A Guide

On Sunday, July 7th, 2022 I climbed Mount Baker. I led my rope team of 3 across the Easton Glacier, navigated a few small crevasses, and then eventually took us up the famed, VERY steep, Roman Wall. I’m stoked to pivot from my typical business content this week and share a personal experience with y’all. 

Some Background

In 2019 I began my mountaineering career with a summit of Mount Rainier. Side note, 0/10 do not recommend fully sending it and going for the biggest mountain first haha. But that summit got me hooked and I’ve been climbing ever since.

I’ve summited Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, Mt Adams, and came close to summiting Glacier Peak and Mt Rainier via the Emmons. I’ve also had the privilege and opportunity to take an avalanche safety course, a mountaineering skills seminar, and a crevasse rescue class.

I’ve been building the skills, confidence, and endurance to pursue climbing a glaciated mountain without a guide for years. Last weekend it all paid off.

I Didn’t Think This Climb Was In The Cards

I’ve had a long-term goal of summiting all 5 of Washington State’s volcanoes; Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, Mt St Helens, Mt Baker, and Glacier Peak. Before this trip, I had Mt Baker and Glacier Peak left.

But with the pandemic, scheduling conflicts, weather issues (hello heat dome), and my climbing partner, Jessica, being pregnant; it seemed like those last 2 mountains would have to wait for life to settle down.

I had all but given up on summit attempts for the next couple of years when Jessica told me she NEEDED some mountain time and wanted to try to summit Mt Baker. Queue the excitement and planning!

Planning Stages

Planning a climb like this is no small feat. There is A LOT to consider. 

– You have to make sure you have competent and trustworthy climbing partners.

– You need knowledge of glacier travel and the route.

– You need to make sure you have the correct gear, most importantly your climbing rope, crevasse rescue gear, and a satellite safety beacon.

– You need to research the weather and interpret it correctly.

– You have to plan out your meals and snacks for the entire trip. Making sure you have enough calories is vital.

– You’ll need to know if you have to carry all of the water you’ll need, or if there will be water sources and/or snow available to melt.

Taking all of this into consideration, Jessica and I reached out to a few of our other climbing friends to see if anyone was available and interested. Our pal Brittany immediately jumped at the opportunity, as she had an unsuccessful Mount Baker attempt a few weeks earlier due to avalanche danger.

We found a weekend that worked for us all and we put it on the calendar.

The Week Leading Up To Climbing Mt Baker

Jessica, Brittany, and I kept in touch the week of our climb. We checked in about the weather forecast, travel plans, and gear. It’s safe to say we were all feeling a little anxious about tackling this objective. Previously, we’d only been on glaciers under the supervision of professional guides.

Imposter syndrome is so real y’all. Especially when there is an inherent danger. But I knew that we had the knowledge and experience necessary so I pushed through the apprehension.

The Day Before

Planning is one of my top skills. But packing a bag for that plan is not my forte. I’m the person that’s packing 3 hours before a flight. ADHD, time blindness, procrastination; whatever you want to blame it on, I’ve accepted that this is who I am haha. And this is also the reason my camera bag ALWAYS stays packed and ready to go.

So the day before the climb I was scrambling to pack my gear and food and get into the car and on the road. It didn’t help that I’m in the process of moving and half of my gear was at my other house, facepalm moment.

But the bright side of me running behind was that I got to say goodbye to my husband after he got off work and I was able to carpool with Jessica, making the long drive much more enjoyable.

We finally arrived in Sedro-Woolley around 10 pm. We met up with Brittany, checked into our hotel, did one last gear check, and got to sleep for an early 6 am wake-up call.

Getting To The Trailhead

After a carb-packed breakfast and coffee stop, we took off from Sedro-Woolley at 730am. We arrived at the Park Butte Trailhead around 9 am. We were expecting it to be VERY busy because it was the weekend and the weather forecast was top-notch. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too bad and we found a parking spot right away. There were a lot of climbers getting ready to depart from the trailhead. The excitement and chatter were palpable and fun to be around.

After one more gear check, divvying up some shared gear, and a bathroom break; we hit the trail at 10 am.

The Approach To Camp Sandy

Our approach was 4 miles and 2600ft of gain. This is considered an easy approach. We took it nice and slow for a few reasons.

– We had HEAVY packs. This was my first time having to carry the rope and it added an extra 7 pounds to my pack. Going slow saved our legs and energy.

– Jessica was 20 weeks pregnant and we wanted to assess how she felt.

– There was no rush to get to camp. Our timeline was chill and flexible.

– We choose to spend time outside to take in the views, so why rush through them all?

We made it to Camp Sandy in 4 hours with several snack breaks, a water filter/refill stop, and pausing to take tons of photos and videos.

The highlight of the approach was a part of the trail named Railroad Grade. It’s an EPIC ridge that was carved out by the Easton glacier. The views are unmatched and truly incredible.

Arriving At Camp Sandy

Arriving at Camp Sandy was a little stressful. We needed to find a campsite for 2 tents and most of the sites seemed to be taken. We finally ran into a guide named Elliott who said he was taking off soon and that we could have his site when he left. We gladly accepted as it was perfect for 2 tents.

While we waited on Elliott to pack up and depart, Jessica started boiling water for our freeze-dried dinners. This is where things started to go a little downhill.

The thing about mountaineering is that it forces you to communicate at a high level. You have to be aware of and empathetic towards your climbing partner’s feelings and fears.

Jessica was feeling super anxious about the route and the summit attempt. Keep in mind she was 20 weeks pregnant at the time. This was a huge factor in all of our decision-making and planning. Jessica and her baby’s health took top priority.

I’ve climbed with Jessica a ton. She’s been anxious right around this same time on past trips. I chatted with her about what we knew from trail reports, reminded her that we have adequate experience and knowledge, and told her that we could turn around at ANY point.

Unfortunately, she was still feeling overwhelmed.

Elliott Saves The Day

As Elliott was packing up his camp, I asked him, “Do you have any words of wisdom for us?” I explained that this was our first unguided trip and anxiety was high. 

Also, adding in that Jessica had previously climbed Mt Baker with a guide in late season 2020. At that time the glacier was super opened up, covered in massive crevasses, and sketchy snow bridges. She holds some trauma from that experience and it was affecting her decision-making for this climb, rightfully so.

Elliott explained to us that the Easton Glacier was in the best condition he’d ever seen. He told us there were only a few small crevasse crossings. He communicated that the route was incredibly easy to follow because there was a solid boot pack. He told us that the Roman Wall had deep switchbacks carved into it by hundreds of climbers and was easy to ascend.

It’s safe to say that Elliott single-handedly saved our trip with his kindness and willingness to share beta. Jessica was feeling much better after this conversation and was ready to make an attempt that night.

Sleeping On Mount Baker

We ate dinner, filtered some more water, and got the rope ready for our alpine start. We crawled into our tents around 530 pm for a 1 am alarm. And a hopeful 2 am departure from camp.

Sleep was hard to come by. Our tent was on a slight incline and Jessica rolled into me most of the night. At a certain point, I just accepted that we’d be snuggling and finally got some sleep haha.

1 am came quickly. I did not want to get out of my warm sleeping bag but I eventually dragged myself out of the tent to get ready. I force-fed myself a pro bar and some applesauce packs, got dressed, got my crampons on, and packed my bag. Remind me why I chose this sport again? Haha!

We departed camp around 230am. A little behind schedule but nothing to cause concern.

Sun Shirt Mishap

About 10 minutes after leaving camp we decided to make a layer adjustment as we were getting too warm. Jessica took her coat off and realized she never put her sun shirt on and only had a base-layer short-sleeve shirt on. After some debating and discussion, she decided to run back to camp and grab it. Brittany and I took our packs off and sat on them while we waited for Jessica.

Queue another, this is where things started to go downhill. Now Brittany was feeling super anxious about the timeline. She was feeling worried we would be the last group headed up and she wasn’t stoked about that. In an attempt to calm her anxiety I asked her what would make her feel better and she said better time management and sticking to the schedule.

I assured her the new adjusted timeline was safe and then I kept my mouth shut and let her process her anxiety. Jessica eventually made her way back to us and we continued on our way.

Getting Onto The Easton Glacier

At about 330am we arrived at the beginning of the Easton Glacier. This is where it was time to rope up and get serious about the route, our safety, and our pace. I took the rope out of my bag, made a couple of adjustments, and we all clipped in.

Now queue my anxiety! I quietly asked Jessica if she felt comfortable leading and she quickly said no. The plan was always for me to lead but my anxiety was trying to get me out of it.

If I wanted to make an attempt at summiting this mountain, I was going to have to lead, so as they say in the outdoor world, I sent it haha. Off we went up the Easton Glacier.

Heading Up The Easton Glacier Route

I don’t want to be nonchalant or casual about this mountain or glacier travel but this route was truly easy to navigate. The boot pack led us all the way to the top. Early on we crossed two small snow bridges. And then later we skirted past a large crevasse. The glacier was in exceptional condition.

We carried radios on our shoulder straps and communicated as we crossed the bridges. I let Brittany and Jessica know when there was a crevasse and then they let me know when they were safely across it. For reference, we were spaced roughly 20ft away from each other on the rope. So the radios came in extremely handy and also really brought the camaraderie and morale up.

The Weather On Our Mount Baker Climb

We started our climb in a marine layer cloud. It wasn’t quite a white-out but it was certainly close. For several hours we had no views at all. We joked with a few other passing rope teams that the views were just immaculate. We all got a good laugh out of Jessica gesturing to the east and west saying “to our right ‘clouds’ and then to our left ‘even more clouds’ haha!

We kept climbing, up and up. Eventually, even as we were engulfed by the cloud, we could tell the sun was rising. It became light enough out for us to turn our headlamps off and hike by the dawn light.

Not long after that, we broke above the marine layer and it was perhaps the best moment of the entire climb! We all stopped and stared at the mountain in front of us. We could see the entire route to the summit. Jessica exclaimed over the radio that there was very little chance she would be turning around at this point and Brittany and I agreed we felt the same.

Making Our Way To The Summit Of Mt Baker

We estimated we had 2 more hours to go to the summit. Having it in our sights was exhilarating and motivating. We took 2 more short breaks. One of these breaks was at my favorite feature on Mount Baker; Sherman Crater. The rocks here are otherworldly and I couldn’t stop staring at them.

We cruised up the Roman Wall thanks to the awesome boot pack and well-established switchbacks. This section is considered the crux of the climb but we found it pretty easy due to the ideal conditions.

2.5 hours after we had popped above the clouds we were walking across the top of Mount Baker to the true summit.

On The Summit Of Mount Baker

To keep it real and be honest with y’all, I’ve definitely had more emotional and happier summits than Mount Baker. On my Mount Rainier summit, I ugly sobbed as I walked into the crater. And on Mt Adams, I couldn’t contain myself and found tears of joy and relief running down my face.

I think this summit didn’t hit me quite as hard because I was EXHAUSTED and my brain was focused on my team’s safety and well-being on the descent that we still needed to complete. It was an entirely different experience climbing unguided. I didn’t feel that joy and satisfaction until we were safely back to the car. And one week later I’m starting to feel more joy and pride about this climb.

We’ve Got A Long Way Down

Turns out the summit is only halfway folks haha. We had a longgg way to go to get back to camp, pack up our tents and gear, and make our way to the car. Plus the drive home. Fair to say I was feeling overwhelmed by this objective. But one step at a time. We made our way down the Roman Wall, safely navigated across the Easton Glacier, unroped at the top of Sandy Camp, and walked a little ways further to our camp.

As a side note, mountaineering boots are literally the worst boots known to mankind. I had constant toe bang on the descent back to camp and ended up with four very sad and bruised toenails. Putting on trail runners when we got to camp was pure ecstasy haha!

At camp, I told Brittany and Jessica that I needed some time to chill out and meditate. I laid down in our tent and set a 10-minute timer. It’s surprising how restorative 10 purposeful minutes can be. When my alarm went off I slowly, and very sorely, got up and got to work packing up camp.

The Last Leg Of Our Mount Baker Climb

4 miles and 2600ft of descent to go. This section was brutal and a blur. Our feet were destroyed, I had heartburn from too many sugary snack foods, Jessica’s collarbones were getting rubbed raw from her pack, and Brittany was on a mission to get down the trail as fast as humanly possible haha.

After what felt like an eternity we made it to the car. We threw our packs down, found our comfy clothes and wilderness wipes, cleaned off and changed, snacked a bit, and hit the road.

Taco Bell and Redbull Italian Sodas were purchased in Sedro-Woolley and gave us energy for the last bit of our drive home.

I finally made it home at 1030pm. At that point, I had been awake for 21 hours and 30 minutes. I crawled into bed and zonked out immediately.

Final Thoughts On Climbing Mount Baker Unguided

What a trip folks. I learned a lot about myself on this climb. Here are some final thoughts.

1. I’m capable of more than I thought. I still have a lot to learn but I’m leaps and bounds ahead of where I started. In 2019 I didn’t even know what a crampon was and in 2022 I successfully and safely led a rope team of 3 across a glacier. I’m proud of my progress.

2. I was not in the best shape for this climb. Life’s been chaotic and stressful lately so training got put on the back burner. I’ll never climb a mountain this unconditioned again. While I’m proud and impressed by my mental resilience to push through and make a summit happen, I absolutely wrecked my body. And I didn’t have as enjoyable of an experience as past climbs.

3. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, and some more sunscreen. And maybe some higher quality sunscreen. And then even more sunscreen. I’ve NEVER been so sunburned in my life than after this climb. My face is still peeling a week later. And I applied sunscreen 6 times. Take care of your skin better than I did friends.

4. As badly as I want to summit Glacier Peak and complete my goal of summiting Washington’s 5 volcanoes; I think I’m done mountaineering for a while. I’ve been too stubborn to put this goal on hold and I’ve caused burnout and apathetic feelings towards the outdoors that I love so much. I’m leaning into my intuition and what feels right for my body. I’ve decided to shift priorities and postpone this goal for now.

Thanks For Reading

If you made it this far I’m thoroughly impressed and I appreciate you taking the time to read this longgg blog. As always, feel free to reach out if you have questions or thoughts, or just want to chat.

Take care folks!

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