What was supposed to be a December trip to Ecuador with several more months of physical training, 2020 turned into a September trip to the Pacific Northwest and to the Cascade mountain range. Our first mountaineering experience ever was set for Mt Baker, a 10,781 foot active glacier-covered andesitic stratovolcano.
We had planned Ecuador with Climbing the Seven Summits, a wonderful company that when we pivoted to domestic travel this year introduced us to Northwest Alpine Guides (NAG). Since we were novice novices we opted for a private climb with the 2 of us and a guide. This turned out to be a really important detail since we were a few months short on training and neither of us had ever even camped in a tent before our two nights at Baker high camp. But I am getting ahead of myself.
We flew into SeaTac airport and drove the 1.5 hours north to the Burlington/Sedro-Woolley area where we stayed the night, with gear check set for 8am the following morning. NAG is a great company to work with as they have an office in the area rather than meeting at a park for gear check and also they have some equipment rentals available if you aren't ready to
plunge into a full price purchase. Since we plan to do a lot of mountaineering in the future, we had purchased most of our personal equipment. However, due to COVID, one of the clothing manufacturers we ordered from were taking 3 weeks to ship, so those items did not come in time.
We had to rent some of our hardshells (waterproof outer coat and pants), gaiters (the cool pant coverings that cover the top of the boot up to the knee) and gloves. We had already planned to rent our double insulated mountaineering boots and crampons (the metal spikes on the outside of the boots) which allowed us to get a good fit prior investing such a large amount of money in them.
We found out at that time that the really warm sleeping bags which we brought with us were much bigger than we needed for this trip, the closed cell sleeping pads we brought were larger than the more comfortable inflatable pads that we should have brought along, but had left at home. Lastly, food. Apparently, we thought we were bringing enough food to share on the mountain with everyone. We can laugh at it now since we are home and recovered, but our packs were bigger and heavier than they needed to be for the 4 mile hike up to high camp (and the hike back out after the 3 day trip).
This was a 1 mile ridge (the last mile of the 4 on the way in) that lead to a structure meant more for mountain goats than humans in my opinion. Also, this picture doesn't do the drop off on our right justice. Pic credit: Terray Sylvester (our guide/photographer)
Once we got to high camp at the base of the mountain, we set up camp and rested our tired legs. Four miles wouldn't have normally been exhaustive, but we discounted the stress the packs would put on us at incline. In addition, the tape meant to keep blisters away did not work as advertised, but I will spare you any blister pictures.
After a camp dinner (bagged lentils and rice for him and freeze-dried chicken and rice for her) we retreated to our tent with a scheduled 6 am wake up call to prepare for snow school. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention nocturnal nature calls in case you are reading this as a primer four your first expedition style camping experience. Ladies... bring a pee bottle
unless you want to stumble around in the rocks at night looking for a great squatting location -- and trying not to get yourself. You can easily pour it out the next morning while at the same time staying warm in your tent overnight).
Dawn brought with it a much cooler day than the previous day so we both enjoyed hot tea and a warm breakfast of oatmeal; then we prepared for our first snow school!
Snow school is, as our guide Terray put it, one of the only times past the age of 2 that someone teaches you how to walk. We donned our harnesses, mountaineer boots, crampons and ice axes for the 1st time this day. We learned how to kick into the frozen snow with our toes so to not slide down and also how to kick our heels into the snow on the way down (again with the idea of not sliding so easily). We found out that crampons makes this process much easier but they are not always feasible to have on depending on the surrounding terrain. After learning to walk we learned to fall, practicing self arrest -- a necessary skill in case you start falling down the incline.
You slide down (on purpose) then roll over turning your face away from the head of the ice axe as you get it into the snow and once stopped, you start kicking your feet into the ground -- all while calling out "falling".
Following snow school we hiked back to high camp, passing our water source for the 3 days -- a crisp stream straight from the glacier above. I washed my face in the stream and we filled our water bottles in a small waterfall. After returning to camp we had lunch, rested and then an early dinner before turning into the tent at 7pm for a 3 am wake up call.
This is where the rubber hit the road. At this point we were both exhausted, our leg muscles were screaming at us and obviously broken down; we weren't sleeping well on our hard closed cell sleeping pads so our hips and quads weren't healing at all during the night. The loss of the additional 3 months of training that we had originally planned was blatantly showing. Don't tell anyone, but we secretly contemplated calling it good. At midnight we had a mostly awake conversation that maybe we will just come back another time in better physical condition. Mountaineering is hard.
Thankfully, by 3am -- late by alpine start standards -- our cooler heads took over; and when Terray came to wake us up (honestly we were awake most of the night) we got up for our hot tea and oatmeal, donned all of our gear and in the dark around 4:15am headed back up past the stream, past the snow field we had had snow school in and up to the glacier.
Interestingly, we knew we weren't going to summit on this 1st attempt before we left for the morning; and we were both okay with that, but wanted to go as high as we could. We knew we had to preserve enough energy to get back down from however high we made it, pack up camp and make the 4 mile weighted hike back out all in the same day. After getting to the glacier, passing beautiful crevasse fields and getting to our first planned break for the morning, we decided that for September 13, 2020, that was where we were going to stop.
We had done what we set out to do -- showing racial unity while ascending the challenge of mountaineering. He was there to help lift her pack up to her back, cheer her on when her blisters were excruciating; she was there to find the spoon for his oatmeal and had the blister kit and tent organized etc. We truly complemented each other -- we were better together.
The mountain does not care what shade of brown/cream you are -- it's rugged to each equally. If it doesn't care in all its majestic nature, why should anyone else?
We are continuing our mountaineering journey as a metaphor of ascending mountains while working to help ascend racial divide. Want to get involved? Check out our community events or send us an email for more ways to partner at email@example.com.
Top 3 pictures and headlamp pic above by: Terray Sylvester, others taken by us.