A ski circumnavigation of Mt. Baker was the final piece in another project (such as the Glacier Project and Washington Traverse) I’d been plugging away at since I first skied around Mt. Adams in 2008. Called the Circumnavigation Project, its goal was originally to ski around the five major volcanoes in Washington State. Being a masochist or fool, perhaps both, I later added Mt. Olympus, a sixth peak. My reasoning was simple. Where each volcano can be viewed as representing a portion of Washington State’s mountainous regions, there’s a hole in that logic. Only by adding this titan of the Olympic Mountains, I felt, is it filled.
- Mt. Adams Circumnavigation, June 13-15, 2008
- Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, June 22-28, 2017
- Mt. St. Helens Circumnavigation, March 12, 2018
- Mt. Rainier Circumnavigation, April 23-25, 2018
- Mt. Olympus (Tour of the Gods) Circumnavigation, May 25-June 1, 2018
- Mt. Baker Circumnavigation (current story), July 16-18, 2022
In the process of writing my history book on the glaciers of Washington, I’ve been asking questions. Among them I pondered “Who is the first person to climb Washington State’s primary volcanoes [St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker]”? After much deliberation among a few fellow historians, we landed on Charles E. Forsyth as the earliest to complete the summits between 1902 and 1910, quite a feat in the day. Of note though, is Claude E. Rusk, a pioneering climber on Mt. Adams and in Alaska (see Tales of a Western Mountaineer). He very likely completed this feat four years earlier, in 1906, but an ascent of Mt. St. Helens, which was near his childhood home, isn’t recorded.
The Mountain and it's north ridge
My research into the 5 major volcanoes eventually led me into the Mountaineers Club history. As it turns out, they had project they called the Big 6. This included the five volcanoes and, like my list, Mt. Olympus. In 1921, they show 17 graduates, eight of which were women.
1921 Graduating Class. In 1922 Cora Smith would be added to the list (as well as the first person to climb both Mt. Olympus in Greece and Washington State, among other feats for a woman at the time link).
Another Mountaineer, Ben (Benton) Thompson, an early pioneer of ski mountaineering in Washington State, laid the groundwork for a ski circumnavigation of Mt. Baker. In 1932 Thompson, Don Henry and Darroch Crookes would nearly succeed in an extended circuit of the mountain. As told in the 1941 Mountaineers Annual they went ” . . . from Mount Baker lodge, they travelled past Camp Kizer the first day and camped that night at the junction of the Mazama and Rainbow glaciers. Next day it was snowing a little and the weather looked bad, but in spite of this they made the summit of the peak and camped that night in the crater, making good use of one of the fumaroles for cooking dinner . . . from the cabin (Kulshan) they camped on Thunder Glacier, having had some wonderful spring skiing snow, and the second night was spent near Easton Glacier. Next day they anticipated making the rest of the trip to Mount Baker Lodge, a long distance involving the crossing of the Easton, Boulder, Park and Rainbow glaciers. A sudden violent thunder and lightning storm defeated this project and drove them down to timber on the south side of the mountain, from whence they reached civilization again by way of the Nooksack River.”
It wouldn’t be until 2003 that the first known and complete ski circuit of the Mountain would take place (link).
July 16, 2022: Scott Paul Trail to Squak Glacier
Present means now and gift. It’s easy to forget that. Easy to lose track of the now, and to let it pass. But now is a gift ready to be unwrapped over and again, countless times in a life. This is why after spending most of a month laid up with Covid for the first time, I was ready to get outside with just the moment, the mountain and me.
Clouds above and below, and me in the heaven between these two worlds
Earlier this year I attempted to complete a circumnavigation of Mt. Baker with Colton Jacobs, but weather and wind, coupled with terrible snow failed to inspire, so we turned around, but not without rewards. Together, an unforgettable sunset and glacier exploring left us satisfied.
Colton Jacobs on an earlier attempt to ski around Mt. Baker
It seemed that I was in for a similar treatment as my first attempt when I arrived at the Easton Glacier Trailhead. Sitting in my RV, I watched the rain slap my windshield. Eyes burrowed through the grey wall, but no mountain greeted me. On my phone was the updated forecast, which spurred a laugh, as it was so appropriate when you consider this season, this weather rollercoaster we’ve been on. Never has a good forecast actually turned out to be as good as it said. But I’d be damned if I was going to give in. A planned two day trip became three. A light rain coat was exchanged for a heavy one, a grimace for a smile and indecision for decision.
My route around Mt. Baker
With my gear onboard the Jason Hummel Express, we glided up the Scott Paul Trail. I was kept entertained by the surreal green of the surrounding foliage until it was folded under white snow (~4500′). By then the weather had exchanged a few clouds for blue sky, an investment I was all for.
Having made a late start waiting out the worst of the rain, I decided to make camp in a field of volcanic rocks. There was a clear, dry spot and like fresh water, the skier should never bypass without partaking.
The remaining hour or two before dark was spent watching light dance on the Squak Glacier. Since glaciers are my muse, so to speak, I was in good company. The Squak and Talum Glaciers were named for the natives that guided Edmund T. Coleman and party in their 1868 ascent of Mt. Baker. Coleman wrote, “The day passed by, and we were anxiously concerned in regard to Squock and Talum; but they returned late in the evening, and reported that they had reached a spot above the snow line by a path that was comparatively easy to find. They brought in a couple of marmots, which they demolished at supper.” Both glaciers, as far as I can ascertain, were named in the early 1970s by Austin Post, a glaciologist and aerial photographer.
The clouds eventually churned up from the valley and washed over me. My Universe shrank to the immediate and I fell asleep to the pitter patter of rain.
July 16, 2022: Squak Glacier to the Col between the Roosevelt and Rainbow Glaciers
The rain never ceased, so I lazed about until it paused, and left camp around 10:30 AM. Soon I reached Cragview and descended the Talum Glacier to a spine of rocks, which I crossed at 6000′. Beyond was the Boulder Glacier, whose sight never fails to impress me. Like the Avalanche Glacier on Mt. Adams, the Boulder Glacier has irregular, but historically frequent avalanches of a catastrophic nature that scour the mountain every 2-10 years. This is caused by the fumaroles in the Sherman Crater destabilizing the snowpack.
Google Earth: 2021
At the Boulder Park Cleaver, I stopped and pondered its first ascent in 1891, a climb made by Sue Nevin and party. They made a spectacular climb of the mountain, taking two weeks in the effort. I’ve included a portion of Nevin’s words from a September 2, 1891 News Tribune article below, as well as a photograph of Nevin and party by J. O. Boen, which I pondered while standing above that very spot.
Photograph by J. O. Boen from the 1891 ascent of the Boulder Glacier, and the first ascent by a woman (3rd known ascent). You can see Sue right of center, and camp to the left. Three others can be seen in the background. This is the second time a photographer was on Mt. Baker (the first a few months earlier on the Coleman Glacier).
Clouds surrounded me as I crossed the Park Glacier. Several times I came to a crevasse and had to chase it up or down one end or another. Feeling like a rat in a maze, I laughed when I found myself in the same predicament again and again, but soon the clouds lifted on the Mazama Glacier, and I could see the icefall above me and a fumarole ahead. Besides yellow rock and the terrible smell of sulfur, the view wasn’t compelling enough to keep me long. Hang fire has a way of pushing your legs faster than you think you can go.
With copious amounts of side stepping, and a short boot pack, I skied to the col between the Roosevelt and Mazama Glaciers. There, low and behold, I climbed over a rock field and found a dry camp, and none too soon. Between squalls of rain, the mountain presented itself for exactly two minutes. Like a wild man I ran around the boulders and snow. One moment I was looking down the Rainbow Glacier, the next down the Roosevelt.
That night it rained, thundered and hailed, perhaps even snowed, but by then I was fast asleep, dreaming of blue skies and sun.
July 17, 2022: Rainbow/Roosevelt Col to trailhead
Come morning, I opened the tent and awoke to my earlier dream made reality: blue skies and sun! A maritime layer spread across the valleys, a river of stark white clouds flowed over the summit of Mt. Baker, and popcorn clouds hung between. With my camera in hand, I was lost for several hours, loving the fact that I had so much time to do nothing. What is the philosophy? When there’s nothing to do, there’s everything to gain?
A sky river and its mountainous shore
The sinuous curve of the North Ridge surrounded by brush strokes of fog
The Roosevelt Glacier and (right) the North Ridge
When my time was up and going overwhelmed my urge to stay, I rounded up my things and turned my skis downslope. Within moments, I glided to the Coleman Glacier. From there, I had a final climb to Pumice Ridge and Colfax Saddle at ~9000′.
Colfax and its icefall held my attention, its layers of ice so distinct. The lack of people on the Coleman Deming Route held an opposite effect. I felt alone with 95 percent of the mountain to myself.
Icy borne strata of years past shown in the ice walls on Colfax Peak
At Colfax Col it was all downhill from there. My skis ran across the Easton Glacier and flew over cracks, and my mind ran over the previous trips I’d taken as part of the Circumnavigation Project. So much adventure, so much now, so many gifts that keep on giving even all these years later.
With a beer in hand at my RV, after skiing out the moraine and to the other end of the Scott Paul trail, I sat on my steps immensely satisfied. Sure, the difference between skiing and walking may be semantics, but with this project done, I find that skiing has allowed me a form of expression, as it has in photography, that I couldn’t live without. You could look at it this way, if all the lines I’ve traveled were seen on a map, it’d appear as if a kid had scribbled across the paper, but if you stared close enough you’d find that they weren’t scribbles at all, but words and stories too small to make out from afar. The closer I get to these mountains, the more I become tied to them and the more their stories are connected to me. As Aristotle said, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
Thanks for reading!