All photos by Tyler Lappetito.
Here is a link to Tyler’s post on Cascade Climbers.
It starts with a 7-mile bike ride. Brandon and I carry heavy backpacks. Two ice tools, bivy sacks, sleeping bags, warm clothes, mountaineering boots weigh us down. Tyler has panniers on his bike, so he loads them with the heaviest items: fuel, crampons, food, and a 70-meter single rope. Glacier Creek Road is washed out more than 2000-feet lower in elevation than the trailhead. The ride is almost completely uphill.
Tyler discovers too late that his rear tire is nearly flat. There is neither time nor desire to turn around and drive back to Brandon’s house in Glacier to get the pump. We continue on. Tyler scrapes rim to gravel, pothole, pavement bump. We can’t ride the whole way, but we try. The steepest sections burn our quads to cinder.
There is a turnout with a view of the mountain. The steep apron of snow, the giant ice lobe with the shadowed tongue that creeps down the glacier, the abyssal crevasse beneath the summit crest and the narrow ramp that crosses it are the features that characterize our route: the North Ridge. In the clear afternoon glow, Mt. Baker appears enormous yet at the same time very close. The sections of vertical ice, the steep dome above, seem doable from this perspective. Even though I have never ice climbed before, I am confidant that I can pull this off. After all, I am climbing with two of the best mountaineers I know, Tyler and my old friends from Bellingham, Brandon Helmstetter.
I met Brandon almost four years ago working at REI part-time while I was finishing my degree. It soon became obvious that our sarcastic personalities meshed and that our mutual passion for mountains gave us a lot in common. Over the next few years we took numerous trips together, including a summit of Rainier via the Emmons glacier, and our friendship was cemented indefinitely.
Since graduating college our schedules had diverged significantly, but our bond remained solid. So, when I called him and proposed the North Ridge, I was ecstatic to hear his affirmative reply. I was not only excited to climb with Brandon again, but I also knew that with him along we might actually be able to pull it off.
This is Brandon’s second summer working as a climbing ranger on Mt. Baker. Last year, he had the opportunity to climb the North Ridge, sharing the lead with his co-worker Nick. There isn’t anyone I would rather be climbing with. This is a strong team. For once, I am the novice, but I am confident in my strength and comfortable with my contributions to the team. By the time we pedal up to the trailhead, we are all equally exhausted.
However, the 4-mile hike to Murkwood passes quickly. We arrive at the campsite with plenty of time to make hot drinks, dinner, and to watch the pink sunset glaze the creamy mountain. The route looks simple from this distance and we entertain the idea of climbing tonight. It will be better, though, if we spend the day tomorrow practicing ice skills on the seracs and resting in preparation for what will be an extremely long summit day. To that end, we crawl deep inside our down cocoons and all I can think about is ice.
Keep your feet wide, your stance balanced. Plant your axe into concave definitions. You can hear the solidity when steel hits the right type of ice. The sound is like a fastball connecting with a catcher’s mitt. When the placement is bad, the sound is hollow, empty clamshells on a rocky beach.
Ice is different from rock in that it is constantly changing and evolving. Besides a few broken and polished holds, rock remains the same for decades. With ice, the route changes as you climb it.
Blue flakes carom down the wall beneath me. I remove my axe, throw it back into the wall, and find the soft-leather sound. Move your feet. Move your feet and then move your axes again until you have moved everything—your body and harness and rope—all the way up the wall. It works.
I climb three pitches that afternoon. I practice placing ice screws, removing them, blowing the snow from the tube, racking them on my harness while hanging from one axe and two crampons. The motions are familiar. They are akin to rock climbing. The fractured ice, the sounds, winding screws is new. Scars waiting to be absorbed by healing time. I must get accustomed, and quick.
Afternoon is resting time, eating time, worrying time. We make our camp at Hogsback, at the foot of the Coleman glacier. Water comes directly from the melt. We don’t boil it or treat it. Brandon says it is good, knows it is good. I trust him with my life so I might as well trust him on this one.
It’s difficult to sleep in direct sunlight. There hasn’t been a cloud for days. Brandon is anxious, restless. He cannot sleep. Instead he snaps hundreds of photos of the mountain. Our route is like a mirror reflecting the deepening red tint of the setting sun. The crux, the tongue of this massive ice lobe, is constantly shadowed, which betrays the sheer verticality that must be present there.
As sunshine turns to moonshine and the stars begin to gleam, we finally shut our eyes for a few hours of sleep.
Tyler rolls over in his bivy sack. “Leif?” He knows I’m awake.
“Yeah?” I say, but I already know what’s coming.
Cold breezes make it hard to get out of warm bags. Eventually I get my clothes on, emerge, and start heating water for oatmeal.
Brandon needs persuasion. When yelling his name doesn’t work I crouch next to him and start shaking him on the shoulder. He mumbles something unintelligible, phonemes diluted by a psyche still grasping at dreams. I know Brandon, know that half of what is keeping him asleep is anticipation. He resists rising because it means he must begin an all day epic during which he will be risking his life and exhausting his body. My relentless jabs and yells continue disturbing his slumber. His down-lined form sits up and the climb begins.
It is 2am when we start traversing the Coleman glacier, a maze of half-open mouths, Venus flytraps waiting to suck us in. The air, the snow, the stars are amazingly calm. Even our kick-step rhythm, the rope dragging almost silently along, seems like effortless motion. We are just a part of this setting. Cloaked in early morning tints, we avoid shadows, make tracks over bridges, spend three hours like its been a minute before arriving at the foot of the apron.
Now, things get steep, and they don’t get any less steep until we reach the summit. Plant two axes—grasped on the bent shaft—pick-first into the hardened snow. The technique is natural, the slope not unfamiliarly steep, although, a fall here would be hard to arrest. We move quickly through the next thousand feet, climbing higher onto the mountain just as the sun breaks the horizon and follows us up.
Arriving at a spot where the slope steepens, Brandon builds an anchor from two pickets, bashes a platform into the snow with the sole of his boot. Tyler and I clip into the equalized runners while Brandon prepares to lead the next pitches of ice.
Screws jangle against carabiners. I am on belay. The first pitch is a good hundred feet long. It leads to the base of a vertical cliff, a wall of solid blue ice. Brandon threads screws into the slope beneath the wall. While he is putting us on belay an awkward thing happens. I have the sudden need to shit.
“Better here than on a hanging belay,” I say.
“True. I guess,” replies Tyler, standing next to me on the small ledge.
“I mean from the looks of that crux I’ll probably shit my pants from the effort.”
“Whatever you gotta do.”
I dig a hole into the slope that Brandon has just put ice screws into. There is nowhere for me to go without detaching from the anchors so I squat directly on the route. Sitting on a makeshift toilet on a 60-degree slope at 8500-feet, I have my first leisurely view downhill. And my pipes are immediately clear.
“C’mon,” I hear Brandon yell from above.
“Relax man!” I prepare to climb again. “That was without a doubt the most epic shit I’ve ever taken in my life,” I say to Tyler.
“Nice. Now don’t step on it as you climb.”
Four crampon points, two axes are my claws. I’m four legged for the next few thousand feet.
Brandon leads the crux. The guy is a beast. Bulging ice pushes him backwards, a frozen wave whose crest must be surmounted. Brandon places two screws a few feet apart, just below the most difficult section then moves rapidly upward. Soon, he is out of sight and Tyler and I are left contemplating the daunting moves, anxious for our turn.
That turn comes quickly. Before I even realize it, I am climbing the hardest route that I have ever done in my life. I started ice climbing yesterday! The learning curve is steep, just like the ice.
Sunbursts backlight blue shards cascading from my axe. One of the hardest parts is getting the axe head out. I get more pumped jiggling and yanking on it than I do removing ice screws. When I reach the crux I am so jacked up I feel like I’ve been in a fight. My fingers are locked around handles, steel toes jabbed into the wall.
Move without looking down, without noticing the bottomless payout, the Roosevelt glacier hundreds of feet below. I’m breathing hard, groaning from the effort when suddenly I am over the bulge and onto easier terrain. Fractured ridge of softening snow.
Brandon is smiling from the anchors above. Tyler is pulling over the crux beneath me. When I reach the equalized ice screws that Brandon is hanging from, I clip into the master point. For a moment, the tension in my chest dissipates and I can enjoy the spectacular views.
“Nice fucking lead man!” I say, and I am truly impressed.
“Thanks bud. Not so bad yourself.”
That is all we have time to say before returning our focus to climbing.
Although we are past the crux, we are still 1800-feet from the summit. Brandon leads two more pitches along the popsicle ridgeline. Hanging from anchors with my crampons planted wide, I belay.
The sun feels magnified. Icy slabs, beard-like cornices, crevasses drip. The echoing concussion of far away rock fall is a reminder of our lack of control. Objective hazards are impossible to avoid. The slope is so steep that we cannot see the route above us, just the next few hundred feet of ice and snow.
As I’m ascending a 65-degree lobe, I hear an ominous whoosh like the sound of a river. Instead of weakening, the sound grows more intense, closer. With a terrified look on my face, I glance at Brandon. He is smiling, chuckles.
“Don’t worry about it. Keep climbing.”
I follow orders and the sound soon peters out. When I reach Brandon I can see why he wasn’t worried. The last 500-feet of the climb are visible. A giant crevasse guards the summit but there is a ramp crossing it, which looks solid. We are in no avalanche danger. The noise must have been coming from the nearby Roosevelt glacier, which looks like a moth eaten t-shirt, wrinkled and torn, sweating humidity into the air. We continue climbing.
The ramp is hardly solid. One of Brandon’s bootprints is empty-toed. I look through it into deep blue space, the heart and lungs of the glacier. Better move quick. I clip through the picket, continue towards the crest. When Tyler is past the obstacle we can finally breathe.
The slope gradually flattens while my emotions simultaneously soar, so that by the time we are standing on the summit plateau, I am effervescent. Relief, pride, respect, disbelief boil over.
“We just climbed the North Ridge,” says Tyler, almost to himself.
The accomplishment still seems unreal. It is 2pm. We have been ascending for 12 hours. Group hugs, hand shakes, strong eye contact are forms of celebration. We spend some time enjoying the view, pointing out peaks in the distance. High cirrus clouds are tinted rainbow from sunbeams.
Since it is late in the day, we don’t spend too long on the summit. There is time to eat tuna, snap photos, apply sunscreen. We descend the Coleman-Deming route, one that Brandon and I have climbed multiple times each. We are back at Hogsback in less than two hours. Two more and we are at the trailhead.
Coasting downhill with huge packs is the best feeling in the world. For some reason, I am barely tired. Maybe the adrenaline and the euphoric chemicals are masking the fatigue.
I stop at a turnout on the road. There is a perfect view of the mountain from here. The massif is glowing in rose light. The route is perfectly visible, the bulging crux perpetually shadowed, the steep lobe a polished hubcap, the summit a wrinkled forehead. Reflection will bring perspective and time will fester into renewed ambition, but right now, I am feeling like I could quit climbing altogether.
The climb, the route, the friendship, strength, teamwork, and challenge were idyllic. It is in that same vein that we coast to the car, shadowed Dalmatian by alder leaves, hair flapping in summer apparent, bulky figures haloed purple and silhouetted black as we ride into the core of the final sunset.