When I first learned I would be living in the PNW for the summer I knew I needed to find a way to climb a couple of the massive, majestic volcanoes that dot the landscape north of California. These peaks can be far more serious mountaineering objectives than the scrambling I am used to coming from the Rockies; the standard routes often involving heavily glaciated terrain . Many of the of the dog routes up these peaks are climbed with a roped team to mitigate the risks associated with traveling over broken up, cravassed glaciers and dealing with the intermittent weather so common here in the Cascades. Not knowing anyone with these skills, I had my sights set on some of the easier climbs such as Mt Adams, St Helens, or Mt Hood. Luckily for me though, I was also able to get up Mt. Baker after meeting some new friends.
Mt Adams served as a good warm up to the scene. Involving 7,000' of easy to moderate snow and no real glacier crossings; the South Spur route up Adams is simply a straight forward snow climb in good weather. The peak can be done in a day, but the Lunch Counter is a sweet spot to camp and is highly recommended. I was up and down the mountain by 11:00am the next day and missed the classics 2,000' glissade due to early morning icy conditions. I need to learn how to ski, because the run down looks incredible.
Mt Baker was a whole other beast. At only 10,778' Baker is the third highest of the Washington Cascade Volcanoes, but it's close proximity to the coast, northern location, and incredibly high amount of annual precipitation make it the iciest peak in the lower 48; over 38 square miles of ice cover the mountain. It is estimated that the ice covering the summit is around 1,500' thick. The mountain is visible from a number of vantage points and nearly all of the higher summits of the Olympic Peninsula. On a clear day Baker appears as a big ball of snow sticking out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I was lucky that this climb even happened. As mentioned above, I do not yet have the proper gear or know how to safely climb such a glaciated peak (or am not willing to assume the risks soloing). Back in late May while issuing a wilderness permit I met Brant, a former guide on Mt. Shasta, and he sent out an invite to climb either Rainier or Baker sometime in July. Our schedules just happened to align and we decided on the Easton Glacier route, one of the two standard routes on Baker. Even better, Michele had just jumped off the PCT for a week to hang out in Olympic with me. She was quite surprised to learn she would be coming with!
We hiked up the Railroad Grade trail in a light mist/heavy fog even though the forecast was calling for sun all weekend. The tongue of the Easton Glacier was suddenly to our right, big gaping cravasses cut deep into the field of ice; my imagination began to get the best of me trying to envision what the route above had in store for us. As we made camp the clouds parted briefly giving a glimpse of the snow-scape above, including the impressive subpeaks of the Black Buttes. After a quick snow school lesson from Brant (such as awesome dude to take the time to do this!) we were sleeping before sunset with a 2:00am start planned for the morning.
At some point in the night the clouds had lifted and unzipping the tent in the morning we were greeted to a milky way of stars. The temps were mild, and there was no wind to speak of; this would hold the entire day! The climbing was fantastic, good firm snow the entire way to the summit. Half way up you are treated to the intense smell of sulfur steaming up from the crater rim and incredible views down into the belly of the beast with Mt Sherman serving as the backdrop. The route is very moderate, mainly a walk up in the conditions we had it although the risks associated with glacier travel are always close by. Summit views included a majority of the North Cascades National Park (a favorite of mine), Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, the San Juan Islands, and even Mt Olympus (which was finally getting some sunshine); what a beautiful place to be!