For many years, a tall majestic mountain visible from Vancouver, B.C on a clear day has been taunting me just like a mermaid would to a sailor. Located in the northern Cascade Range in Washington State, USA, Mount Baker is a 3,286m/10,780ft dormant volcano set among lush evergreen forests near the Pacific ocean.
In the summer of 2015, a friend and I signed up with Peregrine Expeditions to attempt to summit Mount Baker. The day had finally come to pack our mountaineering gear in the back of the car and drive south across into the US. Once we arrived at the small town of Glacier, Washington, we met with our mountain guide and another climber. After getting to know each other and completing a gear check, it was time to head back in the car for a 25 min drive to the end of a dirt road in the forest and the start of the Heliotrope Ridge Trail.
With 20kg/40lbs of gear on our backs we steadily made our way up the mountain going through the lush forest, crossing a raging river and eventually getting above the tree line and walking into the alpine. We were rewarded with amazing views of the Coleman Deming Glacier and a view of the top part of Mount Baker summit.
After several hours since starting at the bottom of the trail, we eventually reached the snow line and our base camp. We found a place to pitch our tent although a few other climbing groups arrived before us and claimed the most protected and flattest spots. After setting up our tent and learning essential mountaineering and glacier travel skills with our guide, we were ready for a break, dinner and an early night.
As the sun was setting, the weather was slightly overcast and not improving but it was the middle of summer and we felt confident (in hindsight naïve) that we were several hours away from the summit and would be standing on the top the next morning.
We got up at 4am, to put on our winter gear, crampons and packed other essential items. I remember at the time our guide reminding us to make sure our headlamps had enough battery reserve to get us up the mountain until day break. After 45 minutes, ice axe in hand and roped to each other, we were finally ready to set off into the unknown and traverse the Coleman Deming Glacier. Within about 20 min we came across a large crevasse which involved partially going back down the mountain in order to contour it from another angle. We made it past this first obstacle but very quickly, we were faced with another long crevasse which we followed horizontally and stepped over an ice bridge in the narrowest section of the crevasse.
It started to get windier, colder and the visibility decreased considerably. as we continued our slow progress up the Coleman Deming Glacier. To make things worst, the other climber in our group started to have problems with his headlamp. His battery had just died and I stupidly didn’t pack the spare set of batteries I had left at the base camp.
Things went ‘downhill’ from here as we were all still roped together and the other climber was partially unable to see where he was stepping with his crampons which made our progress painfully slow especially as we kept running into other large crevasses. Our guide then huddled us together and we had a group discussion about the current conditions, diminishing chances of summing and all agreed that it would be safer to make our way back down the mountain. This was a great decision in hindsight as the weather kept deteriorating and it quickly started to snow making it harder to see and resulting in us taking another 2 hours to get back to base camp. We arrived as the day was breaking feeling tired and noticed our tents were partially covered with wet snow. A climber from another group saw our progress coming down the mountain and informed us that we were the only team which tried to summit that day.
We had only managed to climb about 400m/1,300 feet in elevation and felt disappointed at not being able to make it to the summit. But, we were still grateful for the experience and learnt about the importance of working together as a team. Had I brought the spare set of batteries I would have at least helped us to get further up and made the experience more enjoyable for the other climber. We also learnt of the importance of failure and respecting the mountain and mother nature. Accidents happen quickly in these situations and I believe that the circumstances we faced were a sign that it wasn’t going to be our day to get to the top.
After several weeks of reflection, I started to focus on all the positive aspects of this failed summit attempt. The camaraderie among our group, the opportunity to go on an adventure and spend time on the mountain and truly disconnect from our normal lives. I learnt new mountaineering skills and knew that the next time I will go a similar adventure, I will be better prepared mentally and be more accepting to failure as this allows you to come back stronger and you can always keep trying until you eventually reach your goal.
The next summer, the stars aligned: the weather conditions were perfect, the glacier had less large crevasses and my other fellow climbers were all well prepared to reach the top of Mount Baker which was an amazing experience. It was finally time to be able to look down towards Vancouver in the horizon and be proud of being able to stand on top of this iconic dormant volcano. In the distance I was rewarded with another sight to see some of the other great volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest which would be next on the adventure list.