Mt.Baker Ski Mountaineering Trip - Heliotrope Ridge and Coleman Glacier - June 2011

Mt.Baker Ski Mountaineering Trip - Heliotrope Ridge and Coleman Glacier - June 2011

Dave and I loaded his truck, caught the first ferry from Vancouver Island, and drove down to Washington State. There was a one day weather window tomorrow morning, and we planned to spend it on the top of Mt. Baker.

We drove through the small mountain town of Glacier, stopping in at the Park Ranger Station there to post a trip plan, and hear what the Park Rangers had to say about local conditions on the mountain. All seemed pretty good. The road was clear to within a mile of the Heliotrope Ridge trail head. It had been a bumper snow year this winter, so the crevasses were still pretty well filled in. There had been a huge avalanche run pretty much the full length of Grouse Creek, taking out the new footbridge at the trail head, but this provided for plenty of spring snow for us to climb up the valley. This made for minimal bush-wacking.

Skinning up Grouse Creek to the start of the ridge was quite the slog. Between the mist and the rain, saturated snow, and heavy packs, we were both very happy to gain the ridge. There were a few tents set up on the north side of the start of the ridge, and a mixed group of skiers, snow-shoers and climbers practicing ice-axe arrests and crevasse rescue techniques in the gully north of the camp.

From this camp we followed Heliotrope Ridge, with more traversing than climbing, to get to Ridge Camp. We set up our tent and dug a snow kitchen. There are spectacular views from here looking south through a key hole slot in the rocky ridge across the Thunder Glacier to Lincoln Peak and the Black Buttes. We cooked up some dinner as the sun went down below us, and hit the hay early.

Up at 2am! Cooked up a quick brew and breakfast, geared and roped up, and started up the ridge. The drop down to Alt Camp was a little interesting. Skiing on bullet proof ice while roped up will never feel particularly natural to me. It was still a little dark, and we couldn't see exactly what was below us, so we skirted the slopes to a key hole in the ridge above Alt Camp, before traversing around to the slopes just east of the camp. There was quite the little tent village in the Alt Camp hollow, and head lamps were just starting to emerge.

From Alt Camp, it's a series of steep ramps leading to benches, one after the other. We stayed a fair way climber's-left of Heliotrope Ridge. There had been a number of small wet avalanches the day before coming off the ridge, and there were still plenty of slumped over cornices above us. They were probably OK for now, but who knows what would happen when the sun hit the ridge.

Reaching the the top of Heliotrope Ridge and looking down over the Easton Glacier was a great place for a break. We could see teams of climbers navigating the well crevassed glacier on their way up. It's amazing how much more open the slots were on that side. I guess Heliotrope Ridge protects the Coleman Glacier from the worst of the sun, whereas the Easton Glacier is sun kissed almost from sun up until sun down.

The Roman Headwall is always a lot steeper than you'd think it would be, especially on tired legs. I cramponned up as fast as I could. There were a few climbers skinning up, but this looked like the hard way to do it, and I soon left them behind. There were a surprising number of people without skis or crampons, which seemed a little foolhardy. They didn't look like they were having much fun of it on the way up, and I hate to think how they went on the way back down - not to be recommended!

A quick crossing of the summit plateau got me to the Mt Baker summit. It's always a little disappointing how small the summit cone is. It would be a lot more spectacular if it were immediately above the Roman Wall, instead of on the far side of such a large flat area.

The ski back down to camp was fantastic. There was about three inches of soft "hero snow" on top of a firm base, and the skiing was effortless. We passed numerous avalanches that had slid while we had been still climbing in the morning. There had also been an impressive serac fall from Baker's north ridge during the morning, and we didn't need much persuasion to keep the speed up. We quickly broke camp, had a quick coffee and some food, and headed back down Grouse Creek through increasingly wetter snow. Legs tired, but happy to have made it back, we heading back down the mountain roads, back to Vancouver, and caught the last ferry back to the island.

Photos and maps for the trip can be found here.

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