Summer Job as a Climbing Ranger in Mount Baker National Forest

Story and photos by Leif Whittaker
At the beginning of June I began my second season of work as a Climbing Ranger for the United States Forest Service on Mount Baker. My climbing partner, Brandon Helmstetter, and I performed a variety of duties in order to keep the mountain clean, safe, and fun. We spent four days a week camped near the most commonly used routes and we climbed to the summit at least twice a month. We evaluated guide services, wrote conditions reports, removed litter, inventoried campsites, and occasionally rescued fallen climbers. We climbed up and down over and over again, which might have grown boring were it not for the fact that I got to observe each subtle change the mountain experienced. I got to know the landscape like it was a close friend.
The season began on skis. A dense snowpack covered the trails and glaciers until at least the beginning of July. On the south side of the mountain, the skin track followed Rocky Creek over steep rolls and around outcrops of umber rock to Sandy Camp. On the north side of the mountain, the quickest early-season approach was to contour along Grouse Creek, eventually gaining the ridge where campsites could be found on a jagged precipice called the Eagle’s Nest. On both sides, the skiing was phenomenal and hundreds of people visited the glaciers hoping to cut S-shaped marks in the soft corn. However, some visitors forgot they were skiing over crevasses and beneath seracs.
Fresh turns on the “Lightning Rod.”
Brandon traversing a snowfield below Eagle’s Nest.
Brandon skinning with Chowder Ridge in the background.
On our first weekend of work Brandon and I rescued a skier who had fallen into a crevasse in whiteout conditions. We reached the summit (10,781 feet) at about noon in broken cloud cover, but as we skied towards Sherman Crater the visibility deteriorated until we were forced to stop between every turn in order to look for crevasses ahead. Partway down the Easton Glacier, we encountered a group of three men from Vancouver, BC who were attempting to extract their fallen teammate from an icy hole. Unable to see, the young man had launched over a 60-foot-deep crevasse and, miraculously, landed on a narrow plug of snow about 15 feet below the surface. Brandon and I quickly deployed our climbing rope and hauled the man out of the crevasse. He was able to ski down the rest of the way without assistance. After he and his teammates departed, Brandon and I wondered out loud if he knew just how lucky he was.
Moonrise over North Cascades.
Campsite on the edge of the Easton Glacier.
Sunset silhouette
By the middle of July we had shelved our skis and added crampons to our packs. The trailheads were melted out and wildflowers were beginning to bloom. Heliotrope, Indian paintbrush, lupine, pink heather, and flox decorated Schriebers Meadow, Railroad Grade, and Hogsback. Marmots, mountain goats, chipmunks, and ravens patrolled camps, searching for scraps of food. The mountain was vastly different than it was a few months earlier. It was coming alive, moving in recognizable patterns like the hot sun.
And each weekend was unique in some small way. One night there was a full moon rising over a purple sky. Another evening we discovered that Brandon had forgotten our stove and we were forced to eat energy bars for dinner. Maybe we heard a towering serac cleave off the Deming Glacier one morning. Perhaps the sulfur smell coming from the fumarole was particularly strong one afternoon. The sky may have been hazy with smoke from forest fires, and the thunderheads may have swept over Grant Peak, striking the summit with lightning. I began to comprehend the mountain’s complexities more deeply than I ever could have after a single climb. I touched on a type of understanding that took many years and adventures to gain.
Brandon climbs a short rock step below Boulder Ridge.
Climbers on top of Sherman Peak.
Sunset with wildflowers at Hogsback Camps.
The Deming Glacier.

Some nights, as the rich sunset painted nearby peaks and distant tarns, I wondered about adventure. Mount Baker was not new or unfamiliar to me, but I still felt a sense of adventure every time I visited its slopes. Is it adventurous to form a personal and intimate relationship with a single place? I am still not sure, but every time I climb to a high pass or summit—whether I have already been there or not—it reminds me of how lucky I am to be on this planet.

Clouds over Lincoln Peak.
Mount Baker from Hogsback Camps.
A dark red sunset.

 

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