Baker in a Day: Single Push Ski Mountaineering on the most Glaciated Peak in the North Cascades

Skiing the easton and squak glaciers after summitting mount Baker

Skiing onto the Easton Glacier from the summit of Mount Baker with Colfax Peak in the background.  Photo: Zeb Blais.


Mount Baker is huge.  Despite being significantly lower elevation than its bigger volcanic siblings, 14,411’ Mount Rainier and 14,179’ Mount Shasta, Baker is still a massive stratovolcano. 

After Rainier, Mount Baker is the most glaciated peak in the Cascade Range.  And, despite being less than 11,000’ tall, the summit looms over 7,000’ above the Heliotrope Trailhead and 7,500’ above the Park Butte Trailhead. Distances from trailhead to summit range from 6 to 7 miles on the “normal routes”, the Coleman Deming, the Easton Glacier and the Squak Glacier.  All of the routes on Mount Baker require significant glacier travel and some routes offer serious exposure requiring technical movement and fall protection systems.

 passing a team of mountaineers on the Squak Glacier on Mount Baker on the way to summit and ski the mountain

 We passed climbers working their way up the Squak Glacier in difficult, post-holing conditions.  The true summit of Mount Baker is hidden behind Sherman Peak.  Photo: Zeb Blais.

Our mission was to summit and ski from the top in a day.  Originally, we had been planning to spend few days on the mountain, skiing various routes, but with stormy weather incoming for the next couple days we knew we had to make it work in a day.  It was going to be a solid push, but we were excited to get a big day of skiing in before the weather shut us out.

Blessed with a snowy spring, we parked at 7,100’ where the road was stuffed with snow and we car-camped for the night.  We started well after dawn and after only half a mile of carrying our skis, we were able to start skinning (roughly .5 miles before the trailhead).  The trailhead was still buried under about 6 feet of dense snow.

 The Squak Glacier Route on Mount Baker is a great ski mountaineering route

The Squaw Glacier Route with Sherman Peak in the foreground. The true summit of Mount Baker is hidden behind Sherman Peak. 

We opted for the Squak Glacier route.  It is the most direct route and, due to the massive amount of snow this year, we were able to skin all the way up to 9,600' where the slope steepens on the Roman Wall.  The skinning was straightforward, with soft snow on the surface of the snowpack even in the morning.

We had perfect visibility to start the day, so route finding was easy, and we made it to the Roman Wall without issue.  Climbing groups who were booting up without snowshoes were having a difficult time on the glacier.  They had been post-holing in ankle deep snow across the entire glacier in unsupportable snow.  Lower elevations near tree line were the worst, with boot penetration deeper than boot-top.  Further up, the surface became a breakable crust, then improved a bit as the snow got firmer and supportable.  We had no trouble staying on top with our skins.

Clouds forming on the Easton Glacier as we ascended from the Squak Glacier on Mount Baker

Clouds forming on the Easton Glacier as we ascended from the Squak Glacier on Mount Baker. Photo: Zeb Blais

As we moved up the Squak Glacier, we noticed a cloud cap forming on the summit.  Clouds were stacking up slowly, but consistently.  As we neared the Roman Wall, it was clear we would be headed into a whiteout on the summit plateau.  Having a good understanding of the terrain on the summit, tracks left by skiers who had descended from the summit and a GPS, we continued into the cloud.

The climber’s right side of the Roman Wall was firm and we opted to transition to boot crampons and take advantage of a bootpack that had already been established there.  The snow outside of the bootpack was colder than the lower glacier and the crust hadn’t gotten thick enough to support body weight, so for climbers looking to climb other routes, beware- conditions are tough for booting right now!  

After a few hundred feet of climbing, we were on the summit plateau and we transitioned back to skinning all the way to Grant Peak, the summit of Mount Baker at 10,781’.  We were greeted with ten foot visibility with brief windows of clarity revealing fleeting views of Mount Shuksan and the North Cascades.  We soaked in the sights before getting socked back in.

Celebrating on the summit of Mount Baker after climbing the Squak Glacier before our single push ski descent of Mount Baker

Celebrating on the summit of Mount Baker after climbing the Squak Glacier during our single push summit and ski descent.  Photo: A nice Canadian guy on top of Mount Baker (yes, I know, saying nice Canadian is redundant)

We skinned back across the summit plateau in near zero visibility , following the track we had come in on, transitioned to ski mode and crept downhill as we waited for the clouds to clear.  After pausing for a bit, a brief window of light broke in and we were able to ski lower onto the Roman Wall.  We burst below the floor of the cloud cap, and were able to open up our skiing and have some fun!  The snow was firm, but edge -able and soon gave way to softer, creamy snow before turning to corn at around 9,400’. 

The Squak was skiing fast and fun!  The surface was excellent with consistent texture and glide until about 7,800’ where it became a little sticky in places.  Typical, overcooked-corn skiing (sticky, stop and go type snow) ensued below 6,800’ and the upper 35cm of snow became completely unconsolidated below 6,400’.  

 

Clouds forming on the Easton Glacier as we ascended from the Squak Glacier on Mount Baker

We skied below the clouds onto Mt Baker's Easton Glacier before returning to our ascent route, the Squak Glacier.  Photo: Zeb Blais 

 

Around Crag View, we set off loose wet avalanches on every slope steeper than 30 degrees, creating powerful and long running sloughs.  The surface was very unconsolidated and ski penetration was around 30-40cm.

As we closed in on tree line, our skis became increasingly sticky.  It felt like we had something stuck to our bases, but it was clearly not snow.  We struggled to glide and poled our way down. Finally, we were so fed up with the lack of glide that we decided to put skins on to descend…something I have never done before.  Upon removing our skis, we noticed they were covered in a sticky, organic tar-like substance.  We had no idea what it was, but it was clear that we couldn’t put our skins on it without ruining the glue, so we continued our brutal push downward with what felt like velcro on our bases until we hit snowmobile tracks that allowed us to glide a bit.

 Pollen stuck to the bases of my skis on Mount Baker

It's not skin glue...it just feels like it!  This painfully sticky substance began adhering to our skis near treeline on Mount Baker.  We were unable to remove it in the field, but, when we got out, a metal scraper removed the majority and soap, water and an abrasive sponge removed the rest.  After asking around, we believe it is pollen, but have honestly never experienced anything this sticky.

10.5 hours after starting, we were back at the cars.  With 7,700’ of descent, a roundtrip of 15 miles under our belts and a layer of mystery tar stuck to our bases, we had earned a beer!  Baker in a push is a great way to summit and ski one of the most magnificent peaks of the Cascade range!

 

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