Mount Baker Expedition – Part 2

Here is a wonderful report from John Wong, one of the expedition leaders.  Did you miss part one?  You can read it here!

For more photos of this trip, you can check out our Picture Gallery, or alternatively, you can also check out the slide show at Vince Poulin’s website.

The 2011 Mt. Baker Expedition

There we were, two years in the making, finally heading out on our Mt. Baker Expedition on Friday, July 22, 2011. After my cat and mouse game at the Canada-USA border, we had a hamburger lunch at Maple Falls, Washington. After that, it didn’t take long to register our two teams of Hong Kong and Vancouver PCC scouters at the Glacier Public Service Centre just inside the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. We all packed half dozen of blue poop bags to carry our human waste out as there are no toilets beyond Camp 1. Yuck! Beyond that, it was only about 8 miles drive to the trailhead at elevation 3670 ft.

We were excited as we hiked along the Heliotrope Ridge Trail 677 towards Camp 1 at Harrison Camp, elevation 5000 ft. After about 3 hours and traversing 4 great snow slopes, we stepped into a busy camp site with many climbers. Still we were able to find some good sites for our six tents and a kitchen area. Our little Cinderella Karen got a small blister from her repaired boot and my prepared molskin patch came to the rescue.

Day 2, Saturday, Vince took the group out for more crampon and ice axe basic training. I hiked back to the Kulshan Creek and waited for the non-summit team to arrive and to make sure they won’t get lost where the trail is covered in snow. While waiting, I built a log bridge across the fast moving waters. I also heard a helicopter buzzing over head. A Forest Ranger told me that they are dropping toilets at Camps 2 and 3. YES! How do you spell relief? After a long wait, I was glad to see them and vice versa. They finished their late lunch and set up their tents before Vince’s group came back to camp.

Day 3, Sunday, Vince did his ice training for the summiting team near the bottom of Coleman Glacier and I took the non-summit team to the Glacier View slopes for some basic crampon and ice axe training. We were separated by almost 1000 ft. elevation as we looked down on the crevasse-riddled Coleman Glacier below where they were.

After lunch, it was time to break camp; the non-summit team heading back to Vancouver and the summit team moving up to the Hogsback Camp 2 at elevation 6000 ft. at the middle of the Coleman Glacier. I abandoned the contingency camp idea as the HK scouts were very strong. Neil and Richard were waiting for us at Camp 2 as pre-arranged. I took Eddie, David and Eric another one kilometre further west to get some requisite separation between our two teams. The Rangers were watching and counting (maximum = 12 per team). We were higher up so we were able to see Puget Sound and a great sunset.

Day 4, Monday, we were finally roped into three teams and headed up to Advanced Base Camp 3 higher up just below the Heliotrope Ridge at elevation 7200 ft. I was leading my team towards the meeting point with Neil. I headed towards the crevasse and was planning to cross below it on the slope. However, as I was approaching it, my probing hiking pole went through the snow bridge and I could see a black void below me. I immediately turned 90 degrees and went down the slope for about 500 feet on solid ground before crossing over again. David behind me freaked out when I told him later. That was the closest we came to a real crevasse rescue! Once I met up with Neil, he took over leading on an established route and we passed around a few hungry crevasses in doing so. Once arrived at Camp 3, Vince was quick to put the troop to work in building a Denali style wall around some tents and a nice kitchen with seating under the Megamid tent.

Day 5, Tuesday, was the final training day for slope traversing in the morning and rope management in the afternoon. Neil and I surprised our separate practice teams by deliberately falling on a deep slope and not self arresting. The members responded well and gave us confidence. We had an early dinner and early bedtime in anticipation for an early rise to challenge the summit.

Day 6, Wednesday, we got up at 2 am for breakfast and started heading out into the darkness at 3:15 am with three rope teams again with Vince, Ping, and Richard leading. I was the back-up to Richard with Eric and David in the middle. Unfortunately, Neil had to return to Vancouver for some crucial business meeting. It was eerie walking into the fog and darkness. Only the headlamps were visible. We had to use FSR phones for communications and wands for trail marking.

About an hour later, we went above the fog but still in darkness and saw a crescent moon to the left of the Baker summit and a solitary star to the right. It was peaceful and quiet with an occasional radio message and some “hold” and “moving” voices.

About 2 hours later, we could shut-off our headlamps as the faint daylight was filtering through the distant fog. Further up near the Coleman Glacier near the Colfax Peak, we saw huge chunks of icefalls exposing the layered vertical walls of ice blocks like Neapolitan ice cream which are 100 ft. high or more. At the 8600 ft. elevation, we had to cross a larger snow bridge with crevasses on both sides. Due to the unusual amount of snow this year, the snow bridge was quite solid and chance of crevasse opening was not large. In other years, these areas could be filled with dangerous snow bridges and crevasses, making it a lot trickier to traverse.

We ran out of time to make the 9000 ft. acclimatization the day before; however, the team did work hard at the 7000 ft. level building the Denali style camp and training. After about 4 hours, we reached the Pumice Ridge and heading up the Deming Glacier towards the Roman Wall. By now, it was evident that endurance training was inadequate for some members. The thinner oxygen level did not help. The group began to slow down and often stop to rest. In winter ascent, there is an optimum speed between moving too slow and getting cold and moving too fast, sweating, and then the sweat freezing during a rest. It was a vicious circle if one is not fit enough: having to rest to recover and getting colder and colder as the blood is not circulating.

Looking back, the Colfax Peak at 9443 ft. was like a pinnacle. When we turned up the Roman Wall, with the Sherman Crater to the right, a seemingly strange thing was happening. I was in the back of the third team and the sunlight broke through the right of the summit with a line between myself (in the sunlight) and David ahead of me (in the shadow). The wind was picking up and the chill factor was becoming unbearable for David. Good thing I had a spare fleece jacket in my pack and he said “it saved his life.” In order to keep warm, we had to move ahead of the second team just before the steepest part of the ascent. Karen on team two said her fingers were getting numb, so I asked her to keep opening and closing the fist to keep the blood circulating. Same goes to the toes. In cold environment, the body tends to shunt the blood to the extremities to protect the core of the body. The extra steepness and labouring kept us just a bit warmer.

Richard was doing a fine job leading as he had been there before with Vince. As we were nearing the crest of the steepest portion, sunlight enveloped our team completely. However, the wind was gusting at 40 miles per hour and it was as cold as ever. I took over the lead for the team and headed for the Grant Peak summit at 10,781 ft. elevation in the horizon.

Vince’s team had arrived at Grant Peak 20-30 minutes earlier and stayed to take pictures of all of the sponsor flags. They had 15-such flags to unpack, hold out and photograph and got quite cold doing that. As our team got there, we had some handshakes and congratulatory hugs with Vince’s team members as they blasted back down saying that it was way too cold to stay for a large group picture. We couldn’t agree more. The wind was penetrating. Just a few quick photo shots, we followed suit. These peaks are abodes for gods, not for mere mortals to linger. I remember Richard saying: “Not bad for 2 old guys.” We were the only two senior citizens on the mountain.

On return, I was leading and we met Ping’s team at the crest and we cheered them on towards the true summit. Vast clouds were all around us as if we were in heaven (definitely too cold for hell). I could only spot Mt. Shuksan sticking above the cloud. I could not spot Mt. Adam and Mt. Rainier south of us. However, the close by lower Sherman Peak and Black Buttes peaks: Colfax and Lincoln Peaks were staring at us in the face.

Coming down the Roman Wall was a challenge for most scouters. It is too steep to hike down facing out for novices, so the only safe way is to come down facing the mountain and going down backwards, looking down between the legs to see the footholds. It is evident that this practice on steeper slope was inadequate. On top of that, David could only put one contact lens on, so he had to feel the slope the bulk of the time. It was slow going until the slope flattens out a bit and walking face out was allowed.

By the time we were coming down the Pumice Ridge, the snow had softened quite a lot and we were sinking into the snow with many steps, making it much more tiring and easier to trip as we had to lift our feet higher off the sink hole. At one point, all three, Richard, Eric, and David fell at the same time and I could not contained my laughter. I think the laughter got rid of some nervous energy as well for David. After that last steeper portion, he was fine, albeit very tired.

Vince and I raced through the dangerous icefall zone dragging everyone along until we passed it and had a big break to recover. After that, I took over the lead from Vince as Richard, Eric, and David wanted to go down to camp 3, pack up and return to Vancouver the same day! I can only imagine how tiring that would be. Camp 3 to Baker peak and return was already 11.5 hours for our team and they had another 3.5 hours hike out to the parking lot trailhead and another 1.5 hours of driving to Vancouver for a total of approx. 17 hours. THAT was an endurance day, one that was beyond preparation because of the poor training weather and the busyness of the PCC scouts. Our practice hikes had not been longer than 4 hours. I heard that the HK scouts were in the same boat. An exhausting day for sure for everyone. Only their mental toughness pulled them through.

Vince and I were pleasantly pleased that all the leaders and novice climbers made the summit and back safely and without any complaints. It is a testament to Ping’s and Vince’s superb training and the single focus tenacity of the climbers.

Day 7, Thursday, we broke camp 3 and I led the team down to camp 2 where we took the rope and harnesses off. From there, we went straight to the parking trailhead without any incident or fanfare. Driving down, I stopped at the Glacier Public Service Building and bought the Climber’s Medallion I was eyeing on the way in 7 days ago. I was so amazed/inspired by the HK Venturers/Rover who had not seen snow before, had not gone higher than 2800 feet before, carrying 50 pounds up to camp 3, yet standing on top of Mt Baker in the 40 mph wind that a gold/silver medal was in order. They did not know of their huge challenges in advance nor did they realize of their monumental accomplishment afterwards. With 2.5 million people in MetroVancouver, I would guess less than 1/10 of 1% of the people have stood on top of Mt Baker, so visible all around the lower mainland. Flying from over 10,000 km away and 15 hours ahead of Vancouver time, even overcoming jet lag was a challenge.

I also would like to praise the Vancouver PCC scouters. Theoretically, they had 6 months of training in fitness and snow conditioning. They had a steep learning curve but for a large portion of the time, it was raining and we just relegated the training to just doing a fitness hike up the BCMC Trail with no skills training. Therefore, they faced the same formidable challenges that the HK scouts faced. David told me it was the single most intense activity he had ever done in his life. Eric said it was harder than his military boot camp. They gave it all they got. They now know what an endurance hike/climb feels like.

On the way home, we had no time to waste as Hazel was preparing a BBQ party for all summiteers and non-summiteers alike. It was a glorious celebration of success we had, the camaraderie we shared, and the experience we shall never forget. Eddie presented us the gifts of customized scarves/bags/badges for the summiteers and assistants and I in turn presented Eddie the prized Climber’s Medallion belonging to the entire team of HK scouters. It was another long day into the night and we still have two more days of fun stuff to do around Whistler and Vancouver.

Stay tuned to the next report.

John Wong
180th Pacific Coast Scout Group

July 31, 2011
Revised August 4, 2011


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