Mt. Baker, North Ridge Descent

The North Ridge Route on Mt. Baker
On July 16, 2000 The North Ridge route of Mt. Baker was skied by Rene Crawshaw and Carl Skoog. The route involved skiing slopes that reached 50 degrees at times, but more significantly necessitated a 150 foot rappel over the ice wall that is roughly 1/3 of the way down from the summit.
© Carl Skoog
Fueled in part by frustration at not being able to take a few days off of work to join us on our '97 descent of the Mowich Face on Rainier, Rene Crawshaw had set his sights on a somewhat intimidating ski objective, the North Ridge Route of Mt. Baker. For climbers, this route has some local renown as a test piece, since the route is punctuated by perhaps one to two pitches of 60-70 degree ice climbing. The mountain continued to taunt Rene on every clear day since he could see the route during drives to and from work to his home in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

His 7 previous attempts had not succeeded for a variety of reasons. The snow conditions were probably the most common enemy and were frequently forbiddingly icy, although once it was treacherously unconsolidated. High winds canceled another. Other obstacles included a climbing partner that underestimated the route and didn't have the hardware (as in a second ice ax for the steeper pitch) nor was he prepared to deal with the exposure of the ice wall. Having to turn around before surmounting the ice wall led to ski descents of the lower reaches of the route from there down to the Coleman Glacier. Other climbers having seen these tracks from those earlier forays might have believed that a successful complete descent had been done much earlier than 2000. More than likely, every one of those earlier track sightings were of Rene's attempts.

I had climbed the route a couple of years ago with Rene, where we carried skis up the route including the ice wall (photo, Powder Magazine, March 2000, p.61). The climb of the wall was made additionally aggravating by such details as the top of your climbing helmet hitting the skis you had lashed A-frame style on your pack when you looked overhead. The upper slopes were deemed way too icy to consider skiing on that day and not likely to soften. We climbed the rest of the route and as our consolation prize, skied down the Roman Wall (standard Coleman Glacier Route) back down to camp.

Rene's obsession accelerated during 2000. One trip was turned around by lightning in the early morning hours. Another was sidetracked by the impromptu rescue attempt of two fallen climbers on the route. After falling from near the start of the ice wall pitch, one person died nearly instantly by the sudden stop in the crevasse 1000 vertical feet below. His partner was still conscious after sailing over the crevasse that held his partner and being stopped by the rope that connected the two of them. Rene happened to be trying to solo the route with the intent to ski it on this morning, and since he happened to be the only North Ridge climber carrying a cell phone, he ended up making the 911 call. The rest of the North Ridge climbers that weekend included an EMT, who rendered what aid he could while all the climbers aided in rigging the ropes to maneuver the victim to a better location to wait for the helicopter rescue. Though he was evacuated, the victim died of his multiple injuries in the hospital 3 days later.

Finally, my schedule coincided with Rene's desire to do another attempt, 2 weeks later, in the middle of July.

The trip got off to a negative start right away in the parking lot by being accosted by a ranger-ette for a trail pass. I told her that we didn't have a pass. She was aghast and asked how we could do such a thing. I told her we were here to protest against the fee and that we didn't believe in paying the government twice when the Forest Service has such a well-established track record of fiscal mismanagement. She, feeling the position of power that she must have taken her job for threatened, said she could give us a ticket. I told her that no, all she could do was put a little yellow envelope on the window, and that all cases of this nature were being thrown out of court all across the country anyway. Being further agitated, she now threatened to call a sheriff. Somewhere in the conversation the ranger-ette suggested that if we only parked down the road 1/4 mile she wouldn't have to ticket us. Since we were in the car of a Canadian resident that wasn't looking forward to some sort of hassle with the border authorities, we pretended that we would unload and then move the car there. The ranger-ette then left, presumably to look for another less confrontational victim to her bill collecting scheme. (Note: upon our return, there wasn't a yellow fee-collection envelope on the windshield, even though the car had not been moved).

On the approach hike, Rene kept commenting on how much snow had melted in the two weeks since he had been here and how thin the snowbridges now were where the trail crossed over streams. The commanding view from our campsite showed that there were quite a few people in the area most of which were likely planning on climbing the mountain.

Our casual start of the climb at daybreak put us behind some of the other climbers headed toward the North Ridge. After climbing up the western face of the lower ridge to a rest stop atop some rocks, we could see a bottle neck had formed on the standard route over the left (eastern) edge of the ice wall. A party of what appeared to be 10 climbers had fixed a rope on the traverse, thereby establishing a queue that put all of their party first, and everybody else after them. The identity of this route hogging group was not determined, but it seems likely to have been a guided party. Remember, this was a Sunday, the day when most of the general public would be planning on summiting. While we watched we could hear someone on the fixed rope yell, "falling!", and saw that climber stop with his head downhill but then proceed to right himself and continue on. We were thankful to not have to suffer through such a circus. We would later encounter the last group to get past this obstacle on our way back down the route, and they said they had been forced to wait 3 hours before they got their turn.

Next came our turn to surmount the wall. Clearly taking a number and waiting behind the traffic jam was out of the question. It also didn't fit with our logistical plans. We had come to the conclusion from our earlier climb of the route that we needed to find a place where we could accomplish a rappel by using only one rappel station. The route that the others were using made it likely that you would have to do some sort of nasty hanging intermediate rappel setup for the final rappel that would get you off the wall. Instead, we went to a rock outcrop straight up from our rest stop, above which there was a short, but steeper bit, which then backed off to maybe 60 degrees, to an area we hoped could be attained on skis from above. Getting over the steeper bit, which was only about 10 feet or so and 80 degrees, took a few tries to find surface conditions that seemed solid enough for pick placements and ice screws. Had this sudden steepness been a longer pitch, it could have consumed considerable energy with the weight of the skis on the back. As it was, it was long enough to give us both a good case of cotton mouth, due to the gasping that it took to scratch our way up it.

At the end of the rope length, we studied our situation and where we would have to place an anchor and still be able to reach the bottom of the wall. Continuing our climb to the summit, we kept looking over our shoulder to remember where we needed to approach the wall to arrive at that anchor location, and thinking that wands could have come in handy for such a purpose, had we had any. We were encouraged by the fact that the crevasses were much less precarious than they had been on the climb that we had done a few years ago. Perhaps that record breaking snowfall two seasons ago had smoothed the upper mountain out.

The weight of the packs was wearing us down, but we dragged ourselves up to plop down on an entirely snow-covered summit. Often the pumice crest is bare, from the sun and wind taking the snow away from this exposed crest, but it hadn't melted away yet this year. Once we refueled and got chilled enough to want to get off of this windblown spot, we lashed our crampons onto our packs and removed the skis. Rene had opted for the no-holds-barred equipment choice of some Salomon AK Rockets and full-on alpine ski boots, while I chose randonée gear. Although I had come prepared to minimize the risk of sliding with Whippets on my poles, Rene ended up strapping his ice axes to his pole grips. He was wishing that roll of duct tape had not been forgotten in base camp now.

Upon starting our descent, we noticed that there was even a little new snow on some of the upper reaches of the route. Most of it was pretty decent corn snow, with enough loose granules to provide a good edge, and not so much that you felt like your edges would ride on this loose layer and provide a feeling of less control. We wove through the upper crevasses, and then made a traverse left to get above our intended route. Turning cautiously, we eased our way down while following the footsteps to guide us back to our intended rappel station. The closer we got, the more the slope steepened, which we knew ultimately ended in a drop that you would never recover from.

Now was the moment of truth. We had to get a solid anchor in the snow without pitching over the edge trying to get there. Right as we entered the target zone, Rene crossed a patch of ice that I hadn't noticed was in the way on the way up. Perhaps it had been hidden under some corn, but now it was exposed and looked menacing since it was located right above the ice cliff. Rene had brought a long picket for the anchor, but seeing how soft the snow was at the location he was able to stand on made me question how much we could rely on it. As an alternative, he suggested putting some ice screws in the wall in front of him. That looked promising, but the confined location looked very awkward to be able to install those screws while still wearing skis like he was. Though it took longer to do so, I decided I felt safer removing my skis and putting my crampons back on to allow me to securely cross the now-exposed icy patch and get in tight enough to the corner to get those screws in. After setting the rappel up, I went down and touched down on the snow at the base of the ice wall. Since Rene's bindings were set on DIN 17, he opted to not risk the loss of a ski by attempting to take it off on his 50-or-more degree perch, and did the rappel with his skis on.

At the base of the ice wall, we were flooded by sounds of water dripping off of the icicles. Remaining standing below the wall didn't seem like a great idea, since the possibility existed of something loosening up and falling down on us. This excessive warmth had its benefits also, however, since the 46 degree slopes below the wall were softened enough to enable the skis to plow through the heavily textured surface. Weaving around the crevasses, and linking turns on this forgiving corn, the sensations combined with the mental relief at having passed by the crux, and I could now have fun. We stopped for a few photos, and kicked off some sluffs that swept the slope down to the bergshrund below. The remaining turns felt liberating, with no pressure from the objective hazards and sloppy, but not hazardous snow. After crossing the bergshrund on a snowbridge, we sneaked through the maze of crevasses and arrived at our lofty campsite to some much needed running water. Getting out of those boots and dropping the packs never felt so good.

When we had started this trip, I wasn't sure how much I really wanted to ski this. After all, with the looming exposure awaiting any mistake above the ice wall, you were totally committed to treating it as a must-not-fall situation. By being willing to change the goal if it didn't feel right, we were able to get into position to see if it was possible. On this day, it was. Though we had taken all the steps to prepare for what we were likely to encounter, I was sort of suprised that we actually succeeded.

Success had won another unexpected benefit: we had opened up Rene's dance card, so to speak. No longer would he have to keep coming back to try to complete his unfinished business. I pointed out to him that now he was free to choose something else to do on his weekends. He thought for a moment, then grinning, said, "What's next?"