24 July 2017–The waning gibbous moon provides ample early morning light as our crampons crunch on less than hard snow. Despite the ample ambient lighting, all around me headlamps bob and weave, slowly moving upward. I set the pace, headlamp off, slowly leading Roger and seven participants up the snow slopes of Mount Baker’s Railroad Grade.
We left camp by 0345, just a little late, after a 0230 wake up. The night prior had given little hope of good climbing conditions; clouds, fog and falling precipitation indicated a continuing low pressure. Our 0230 weather checked however revealed clear, starry skies. Boiled water was mixed with coffee, tea and muesli in our various bowls and bottles. Since we had packed our bags the night before the morning’s task were simple and quick. The clear skies granted us a small freeze, so we walked out of camp with our crampons crunching on barely appropriate snow. Despite the early hour, spirits on this six day NOLS Alumni course were high; this was our second early wake-up weather check and our first summit attempt.
NOLS Alumni courses are a different breed of NOLS course. The two I have worked, this one and the Alumni Climbing Trip back in March, were both shorter courses, not more than a week in length. Presumably the participants are well versed in expedition behavior and are excited to learn and practice new skill sets, refine existing ones and have another great NOLS
experience. Some courses are cush, such as sea kayaking in Croatia or bed and breakfast backpacking in Ireland, while others are a bit more expeditionary: Denali or the Gannett Peak climb, for example. Motivated students, short time frames and a lack of paperwork are only a few of the reasons the two I have worked have been fun.
We reach “The Portal”, the name given to the Easton Glacier’s access point at the top of the glacier’s lateral moraine (the Railroad Grade) just in time to watch three rope teams depart up the glacier. Zero-four forty-five’s predawn light provides plenty of light for our rope up. Due to the previous two day’s practice, this goes smoothly. Ropes are flaked. Prussics are tied and carabiners are locked. We depart the moraine in short oder, an army of nine, three rope teams snaking slowly up the snow covered glacier.
We play leap frog with a group of Boy Scouts, eventually though, leaving them only our tracks. Zero-eight hundred finds us at the crater just below the Roman Wall. This steep headwall at the top of the Easton Glacier can often provide the crux of the route: crevasses, loose falling rock, and steep icy terrain are typical mid-summer fare. Fate has smiled on us though. Today we are greeted by a well defined “track,” soft (but not too soft) snow and little crevasse hazard. We fall in line behind a Mountain Madness group and trudge slowly and steadily upward, with the occasional yield to the downward bound, successful summiteers. We crest the wall and fix our eyes on the pimple that is Grant Peak, the 10,781 foot summit of Mount Baker. Six and a quarter hours after our early morning departure we are unroping, sipping water and eating food. We leave our packs and scramble to the snowy summit. We are not alone though. This bluebird Sunday has drawn out the masses and we are sharing the summit with at least 30 other folks; a constant stream of coming and going fluctuates those numbers only slightly.
One can’t stand on the summit forever though, so after the pictures, self-care and congratulations, we rope back up and begin our careful descent down the steep, softening snow. We wobble, weave and plunge step down the glacier as visions of bourbon, glacial ice and Coca-Cola dance in this author’s head.
Featured Image: View from the Roman Wall on Mt Baker’s Easton Glacier, May 2010.