Thursday, August 30, 2012

'A temple not made by hands'

The last official weekend of August saw fine weather and ideal snow conditions for a long-awaited attempt to climb the northernmost of the great volcanoes that punctuate the United States' West Coast.

The omnipresent cone of Mount Baker's Grant Peak has a tendency to creep into the landscape at the most unlikely of moments, casting a long shadow over the aspirations of island-bound mountaineers across the Salish Sea. Looming high above the Fraser Valley's coastal plain, the mountain's glaciated summit often appears detached from the very earth through which it shot skyward about 15,000 years ago. How that vision is changed when cresting through the treeline at the end of the well-groomed Heliotrope Trail.

Aside from the walk-up approach, well-developed infrastructure and need for parking permits, little has changed since Edmund T. Coleman led the first-known ascent of the mountain back in 1868. Back then he recalled being "solemnly impressed" by "the tender beauty of the wild flowers blooming around" and "the grandeur of the rocky peaks shooting up into the deep blue vault." It's as though, he wrote, "we were in a temple not made by hands."

August wildflowers below Hogsback Camp
Mt. Baker's snow-covered dome rises towards the "deep blue vault"
Coleman and company may have been moved to "involuntary exclamations of praise" when he first caught sight of the peak but our group of three modern-day adventurers was happy enough to pitch camp and brew up some tea before nightfall at the first available site we could find at the Hogsback Camp (1,675m/5,500ft.).

The following day we awoke to the sounds of some intrepid climbers passing our tents making their way up to the summit along the boot-packed Coleman-Deming Route from the parking lot below. By 7 a.m. we were roped up and prepared for the quick 90-minute glacier walk to the impressive Gargoyle Camp (2,210m/7,250ft), appropriately named on account of the stunning panorama that beholds those fortunate enough one of the few spots of the melted out ridge.

Hanging out at Gargoyle Camp
A day of exploration on the glacier up to an elevation of 8,000 ft, a bit of reading and an afternoon nap led to some culinary experimentation that yielded an impressive concoction of couscous, bacon and tomato sauce. Appetites satiated, we hastened an early return to our tents for a fitful sleep as we incessant winds that battered our perch.

I was already awake and pretty psyched for the journey before us when my watch began to chime at 2:30 a.m.  One energy bar and a cup of tea later and the group were ready to join the distant parties who'd already set out from below to climb under a the starry and silent late-August sky.

Hot late-season weather had exposed most of the glacier's hazards
By this point in the journey, our party had amassed a small collection of USFS-issue blue compostable waste-collection bags. The bags are intended to replace a set of outhouses that used to be flown in and out of the area each climbing season. Whether a move towards better stewardship of a busy mountain playground or a budgetary cost-saving measure, it remains to be seen if the alpine innovation will be mentioned in the run-up to the November 2012 presidential election.

By day break, we'd succeeded in plodding our way around the series of exposed crevasses to reach the saddle, where two other groups had elected to spend what must have been a frigid and much more windier night than we'd endured. Up the pumice ridge, through the odour of sulpherous emissions, across the Roman Wall's booted track and along the great walk past the playing field-sized summit dome brought us to the summit pimple (3,285 m /10,778 ft) in fine form and without incident.

Monkeying around before sunset on day 2


Mountaineering on the Pacific, by Edmund T. Coleman, Harper's New Monthly, November 1869

All photos courtesy Alan Bibby.