I’m not sure if winter’s really over; I think it’s just higher up.
It started at a roadside cafe where we basked in shirtsleeves in the early morning sunshine and sipped strong coffee as we discussed plans for the next two days. With conditions and weather perfectly aligned the goal we set was as ambitious as it could be: the summit of Mount Baker. At the trailhead we layered on sunscreen and strapped our skis to our packs for a long slog up a dry trail. It didn’t seem remotely possible that by the end of the day, we’d be skiing.
After a draining 5km shouldering all our gear on our overnight packs, we reached snow consistent enough that we were finally able to switch to skis and skin the final stretch up to Heliotrope ridge. I’d been near this place before, but at the tag end of winter beneath a layer of snow it looked quite different. We scouted a few patches of bare rock, but they all led to sharp rollovers within a few metres. With no better options, we set camp on the glacier.
I was very conscious that I’d be skiing at least part of the descent with a much heavier pack than I’d ever carried before, and so I chose not to bring a tent. After digging a snowpit and laying my sleeping bag in a bivvy sack that resembled nothing so much as a giant burrito wrapper, I started to question the wisdom of this decision. At this point, though, it was much too late to do anything about it.
We did an hour or so of crevasse rescue training, including self-arrest and setting up a ratchet system, and then with a couple of hours to kill before sunset we headed up to the Black Buttes for some glacier skiing before bed. Cloud closed in around us on the ascent, then blew away as we skied back to camp. It was a glorious place to be at the end of the day.
By dinnertime the temperature was dropping and the warmth of the rehydrated food was almost worth the horrible taste. With a forecast temperature of -5 overnight, I filled my Camelbak with hot water from the jetboil before wriggling into my burrito wrapper. I also put on every piece of clothing I had with me: puffy, shell, heavy gloves, toque, two pairs of socks, even my ski boot liners as extra foot insulation.
It was a strange night. Cold and uncomfortable and lonely, but intensely beautiful. In one direction, the burning sun was sinking over the ocean behind the dark ridges of the North Cascades. In the other, Colfax and Baker dominated the horizon, glowing gold in the fading light. As the night wore on and I drifted in and out of strange metadreams where I was at home and rushing to get back to the mountain for the summit attempt, every time I opened my eyes I saw the tangled ribbon of the Milky Way sprawling across the sky and Baker peak stained silver by stars brighter than any I’d ever seen. It was stunning and surreal.
Finally I woke to see a deep blue dawn seeping into the edges of the sky. In its indigo shadows we rose quickly, ate a swift breakfast, strapped our skis to our backs and began cramponing up the icy face of the Coleman. An hour or so later, the sun finally broke over the horizon. High on the glacier, with nothing but rock and ice all around us and the distant shadows of green valleys falling into darkness far below, it felt like the morning of the first day on earth. As though I’d never seen the world before, at least not like this.
Then, the climbing. I’ve worked hard this season. I’ve done back-to-back days of 2,500m vert on a few occasions. I’ve pushed myself to new zones, taken my fitness to places it hasn’t been before. This turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done by some distance.
Up and up we climbed. Slopes that looked like one straightforward stretch actually turned out to be hiding two, three more steep sections. Seeing the tiny dots of other groups ahead of us, and the immense amount of ground still ahead of them, made me realise that I’d completely failed to understand the scope of what I’d set out to do. It was bigger, higher, longer, and on an exponentially larger scale than anything I’d ever contemplated before. Yet it was also the most dramatic and inspiring place I’d ever been. The towering ice cliffs of Colfax; the giant, jumbled seracs of the icefall; the gaping blue maws of incomprehensibly deep crevasses.
Right up until the ridge below the Roman Wall, I was doing great. I was feeling strong, skinning hard, happy to set the trail. We took a break below the ridge, ingesting as much food as we could and melting water to top up our supplies. Then we switched to crampons and ice axes and began the final climb that would take us onto the Deming and eventually, up the unbelievably steep Roman Wall to the summit.
I haven’t used crampons much, and not at all on consequential slopes, so I slowed down at this point as I figured out how best to place my feet and maximize upward momentum. Even so, I was still feeling reasonably good. But as we transitioned onto the Roman Wall and the grade steepened again, the altitude hit. Kicking steps into a 40 degree slope with skis on my back after seven hours of climbing would have been hard at the best of times; at 10,000 feet, it was exponentially harder. I kept going as steadily as I could, very conscious of the growing sprawl of the Deming and its open crevasses beneath me. I knew by this point that I was going to make the summit, but also that it was going to be the toughest thing I’d ever done.
One step, two steps. Kick and stamp. Take your time, set your foothold; otherwise your crampon’s going to slide in the softening snow and your effort will be wasted. You’re almost there. One step, two steps. Breathe deep. Keep going. One more step, another step, another step. The top of the world is so very close. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Just keep kicking, one step after another after another.
Then somehow, in all the sweat and slog and gasping breath of it, there wasn’t any more up. Just a flat plateau, drifting in and out of view in the huge clouds of sulphur that were swirling across from the fumaroles. We jumped back into our skis and raced across the snowfield to Grant Peak, adrenaline giving us the burst of energy we needed.
And there it was: a little bump on this immense plateau in the sky. Just a few more metres of climbing to take us to our final destination, the highest I’ve ever been. Everything was below us; the entire world. The peak of Shuksan, which normally dominates the landscape, was more than a thousand feet down. Every direction I looked, there was so much beauty: peaks upon peaks, and yet this gaping chasm of vertical distance between them and the mountaintop where I was standing. It was staggering.
I’d wondered for a long time about how this moment would feel, if I ever achieved it. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of for years, since the very first time I saw Mount Baker floating on the horizon and began to appreciate its immensity compared to the mountain ranges around it. In the end, there were no deep thoughts. I was too exhausted for reflection. It was just about being there and drinking in the sight of it all: these views so hard-won, so unique, so much more than I’d imagined.
Here’s what I didn’t imagine, though. That if and when this ever happened, I’d leave the summit on skis.
The initial descent was nerve-wracking. For the steep roll off the Roman Wall from the summit, I executed an ungainly sideslip. Then I coaxed my burning quads into a first turn, let it run out, and then came back for another. And suddenly realised it was okay, and let it fly. The run that followed was unbelievable, the mother of all ski descents. Ten hours of climbing disappeared in 45 minutes of beautiful spring corn. My legs were beyond tired and I had to pause periodically to let them recharge, but seeing the glacier disappear so fast beneath us and the green valleys drawing closer was pure magic.
The last stretch was tough. We stopped briefly at camp to pack up our gear, and then skied another couple of kilometres in deep, heavy spring snow before we had to put our skis back on our packs for the hike out. By this point my quads were a quivering, burning mess, and the final 5km on the hiking trail felt like it took a century.
It was a week before my legs felt like they belonged to me again. My face was badly burned in spite of multiple coats of SPF 50, and I learned the hard way that it’s very important to put sunscreen up your nose when you’re on a glacier. The night in the snowpit was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever had. But somewhere in there were moments of magic, moments of awe, scenes I never thought I’d see. Somewhere in there I stood on the roof of the world, not just touching the sky but actually inside it. The rewards were beyond measure.
And that’s the end, at least for this year. Ski season’s over now. There’s still so much to reflect on, such a crazy amount of learning that went far beyond the things I did on skis, but the world where these things happened is going away for a while. It’s never easy to say goodbye, but that was a fine way to go out.