A couple of weeks ago we set out to climb Mount Baker. I’d just been through a serious relapse of the illness that laid me low earlier this summer, and J wasn’t sure how the night out on the Hogsback Ridge before summit day would go, but we were both determined to enjoy ourselves and get as far as we could.
The Heliotrope Ridge trail was beautiful. We made our way steadily uphill through dense forests and past tumbling waterfalls, stopping here and there so our guide could point out a feature from our ski descent of the Coleman Glacier last winter. The forest was unrecognizable in summer green, the gully where we’d skied a perfect natural halfpipe now a chattering creek with narrow logs for us to cross cautiously under the weight of our packs.
After a while the trail emerged onto a steep, narrow ridgeline with glimpses of snow ahead and meadows of wildflowers sweeping down the mountainside to our left and right. The peak of Baker loomed like a towering stormcloud over the eastern horizon, and we crested a small rise to find a view to end all views ahead of us: the duelling seracs of the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers, with the blue blocks of the icefall behind them.
Hogsback Ridge, our campsite for the night, wasn’t much further up the trail. Warm winds shook the wildflowers as we climbed a small snow patch and over loose shards of crumbling volcanic rock. The ridge itself was a strange spot, desolate and barren for the most part but dotted here and there with splashes of colour where the grass and lupins had ventured a little further up. We pitched our tents and headed up to the Coleman Glacier for some practice with ice axes and crampons.
Just to the left of our practice area was the route I skied down back in the winter, now with exposed rock at the top of the face and a couple of enormous crevasses bridging it lower down. I hadn’t realised just how high we’d been that day, or how steep some of the lines were; the view was different with skis on my feet.
Practice over, we returned to the campsite for a revolting dinner of rehydrated food before most of the crew turned in for the night. J and I stayed up to watch the sun sink into the valleys to the west, painting the skyline with fire as it dipped below the horizon.
We left our tent flap open during the night, which led to many of the small mice that live on the ridge tap-dancing on me as I slept but also to a view of the most amazing night sky I’ve ever seen. The stars were so bright they bathed the glacier above us and the peak of Mount Baker in silver; the Milky Way was a bright splash of ribbon twisting from one side of the sky to the other. I wish I’d had a camera that could have captured it.
A strong wind whipped down off the glacier during the night, turning the tent into a giant drum. Between that and the mice, neither of us slept much. Joseph woke us at 4am, shortly before a blue dawn began to seep over the eastern horizon. Watching the sun rise over Baker peak was another experience I’ll never forget.
J was experiencing some migraine symptoms after the sleepless night, so we decided we’d be better off heading down rather than pressing on for the summit with dizziness a risk. Once it was fully light we struck the tent, loaded up our packs, and headed back down the trail. Descending the steep ridgeline so heavily loaded and in plastic mountaineering boots was an interesting challenge that gave my quads the best workout they’ve had in a long time.
Even though we didn’t make the summit, it was one of the most memorable hiking experiences of my life. The beautiful hike through the forest, the deep blue views from the ridge fading into sunset, and sleeping under the stars below the peak of Baker itself. Next time, we’ll make it to the top.