Climbing Mount Baker

I had been waiting three days for a delayed ferry out of Petersburg, Alaska. I had spent the past 10 days visiting extended family on my father’s side, after completing a month long sea kayaking trip through British Columbia’s coastal waters.

When the ferry (the Columbia) finally made its way south from Juneau and into the Wrangell Narrows, after what seemed to be an eternity of delays, I was chomping at the bit to head back down to the lower 48, as they call it in Alaska, and reunite with my home on wheels (more about that later).

As I walked aboard the ferry – the first in line – I passed about five faces before I saw one that struck me instantly. It was a strange face to see a week or so ago, a face I was familiar with, but knew very little of.  The face was that of Zach Keskinen –a fellow 2015 Colorado College graduate, and one of the many friends that you had in college that you never met.  Zach had been spending his time away from Colorado Springs as a mountain guide on the formidable Denali Mountain (Mt McKinley)– one of the World’s Seven Summits – leading two separate groups up to 20,237 feet in a span of 2-3 weeks.

Zach and I exchanged glances, than stopped each other and almost simultaneously said “Hey! You went to CC!” of which we nodded, shared a couple other words and then made vague commitments to see each other on the three day long ferry.

And so, three days later, when the ferry pulled into Bellingham, with each other’s numbers stored away in our pockets, we made the same vague commitments to run into each other again sometime in the next moon. 

About a week later, when I was lying alone in my van parked onside a forest road on the Olympic Peninsula, my phone pinged that high pitch that now controls my thoughts. Suddenly, I felt my mood shift, as I read a text message from my new-old friend Zach saying “You still in Washington? Wanna climb Baker on Monday?” Having little idea as to what that entailed, of course I was down.

Zach and I met up in Bellingham, and drove our matching beds-on-wheels (he whips a 2008 Honda Odyssey, I sail a 1985 GMC Vandura) to the Mt. Baker Trailhead. We took a jog up to the moraines at the toe of the Easton Glacier when heard from a few passerbys that the route doesn’t go due to high temperatures and collapsed snow bridges.

We finished our run and turned back to the vans to talk a little shop, assessing all the info we had received. Our plans would change little, we would still attempt to summit in one day from the trailhead (most groups split it into two or three days) and go until we the glacier said no – an easy line to draw when looking down crevasses hundreds of feet deep and tens of feet wide. We felt that by squeezing our travel into one day we would effectively save ourselves the energy of lugging the weight of camping gear to higher elevations.

Zach then gave me an hour crash course of crevasse rescue, of which the biggest thing I learned just don’t fuck up or else you will have to tie so many knots you had no idea existed 10 minutes ago. I felt ready for a beer.

After two or three or six beers, it was nine o’clock and way passed our bedtime. We both crashed hoping to get a few hours of rest before our 2 AM alarms.

I blink, and I am awake turning off the alarm on my calculator watch, as I see Zach has beaten me out of bed in mountain guide fashion. I throw on my puffy, grab some tortillas to hold our bacon and eggs (note: Zach is a hell of a Coleman stove cook; also, it is never to early for bacon and eggs), and sip on some coffee trying to replay the crevasse rescue skills I learned only eight hours earlier.

With our bags packed and our bellies full, we set off at 3AM ready to cover some eight miles and 7500 feet of vertical before the sun gets to high and the ice conditions worsen. We set off at a good pace, covering the trail familiar from our little recon jog the day before.

By 4:30, we are high atop the moraine, and we take a break to watch the sun begin to rise in the far distance, painting the horizon a magical spectrum of colors only known to those early risers of the west.

It is safe to say that my body is on autopilot at this point; just trusting the trail so that I can soak up everything my senses bring to me. I treasure these times when the pressing, impertinent anxieties that plague my day-to-day life drop off and I can just be where I physically am in the moment. My mind may be racing, my body may be sore, and my pack may feel heavy, but the sight of the sun rising over the distant Cascades, the names of mountains that I have yet to learn, allows this brief, and fleeting, state of mind to form.

It is 8:00 and we are at about 8300 feet. We have come to the crevasse the parties that passed us going down mountain yesterday had said was impassable. After 30 minutes of hopping around glacial islands, Zach showcases his savvy glacier route-finding skills, circumventing the hole in the ground, with little mileage or elevation added.

By 9:00, the sulfur smells that led us up the mountain intensify as we approach the fumerals of the Mount Baker volcano, a mind-bending paradox as the coldest and warmest substances coexist in such close space. The new sensations, sights and smells, mean that we are close, a realization that helps push us the final thousand feet as we crest the summit ridge and gain the summit at 10:30. A pleasant late morning surprise.

We enjoy a couple of apples and the last of our water as we turn our backs on the summit view for our descent.

Five hours later (a small detour and swollen knees slowed our descent) and we are back at our vans hiding our sunburned faces from the blistering sun.

It was a good day. A long day.

We high five over the absence of any serious accidents (I tripped over my crampons face first for a nice five foot slide, providing quite the laugh early in the descent) and begin to make our way to the town of Concrete to eat our rewards, personal pizzas (and a sundae for me).

The whole hike took 13 hours of which we did roughly 20 miles for a net change of 14,000 feet of elevation. We traveled through mountain forests of cedar, pine, and alder, we boulder hopped along the ridge of a glacial moraine, we danced around giant slits in our freshwater reserves, and we post-holed through late morning slush. All in all, I learned much from the trip, and from Zach, but perhaps the biggest thing I learned was the truth to the words I heard just weeks earlier in Alaska, spoken by whom I now consider my Uncle, George, “Always have an adventure in your future. It gives you something to focus your energy onto.”

This adventure seemed to be a long one in the making. While it was chance that brought that Zach and together on the Alaskan ferry, going forward it will be adventure (the guy doesn’t stop moving). Tomorrow we go rock climbing, the first time for me in more than ten years. 

And on Friday the adventure I have been most looking forward to: flying home to the East Coast to surprise my whole family!

Until next time.