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Mt Baker Snow, Rain Reshape The Climb

by Matt Zaffino

Bio | Email | Follow: @Zaffino

Posted on August 12, 2008 at 11:56 AM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:36 PM

It all started out so well.

Mt Baker on the approach, Friday August 8, 2008

As the Olympics got under way in Beijing we set out on our own rewarding endeavor, our long-awaited Mt Baker Climb To Fight Breast Cancer. Seven climbers and three great guides from Alpine Ascents International. Kristen, Brian, Colin and yours truly all part of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Climb To Fight Breast Cancer Program.
We were joined by Jeff from Seattle and Herb and John from Tampa, FL.

Here we ascend the "Railroad Grade", a section of trail on the south-side approach to Mt Baker that sits right on top of a lateral moraine of a receding glacier. It's a very cool section of trail!

This is Kristin, Brian and photographer Colin Sapp's 2nd attempt on Mt Baker. It's already going better than last year when they saw the volcano for all of about 15 minutes.

We were carrying 55 to 65 lbs packs (climbing gear is heavy and the weight of 3 days worth of food and cold weather clothing adds up), but the great weather and views ahead kept smiles all around.

We base-camped just shy of 7,000 feet and below the snout of the Easton Glacier. As you'll see in a bit, tent placement can be crucial.

Kristin, Brian and Colin share a 3-person tent high above the Skagit Valley.

Friday afternoon brought time to kick back, cool the dawgs, enjoy the warm alpine sun and terrific views of Mt Baker and the North Cascades.

From the left, Alpine Ascent guides Ian, A.J. and Ben. Ian's snacking on goldfish. A.J. and Ben survey the gathering clouds and hope the weatherman is wrong. Unfortunately, I won't be.

Sunset brings a turbulent sky as we eat tortellini for dinner and hope for the best. You get what you get in the mountains.

The storm began to roll in Saturday, but a break in the rain bought us time for snow school. Kristin practices self-arrest with her ice-axe just above camp. Nice technique, Kristin!

West of our route sits the formidable Deming Glacier, with a new slathering of wet summer snow.

Snow school ends, the cold rain begins again and we all head for the tents. When climbing or back-packing in the Cascades it's always a good idea to bring something to read. It's not uncommon to have to hunker down for a couple days in bad weather. Reading tent and sleeping bag labels gets old after 5 minutes. With a good book (Nuk Tessli, The Life Of A Wilderness Dweller, by Chris Czajkowski), I enjoy some prolonged tent time.

Outside, my tent-mate Jeff takes a stroll back from the void.

If forecasting rain is right, I want to be wrong. This time anyway. It rained hard all night. Near-by Maple Valley, west of Mt Baker, had 1.3" of rain Saturday night. I estimate we had two inches. As I listened at 2 am Sunday morning, the rain-pound on the tent was joined by a harmony of sleet-slamming.

As I mentioned earlier, tent location is critical. We made a poor choice (rookie move, we knew better!) and ended up sleeping above a new little lake. But the sleeping bags stayed dry, which is all that really mattered, so no biggie.

Are we having fun yet? My ice-axe stands stoically, yet pathetically, in the icy rain puddle that is partially covered by our tent.

The guides made the call not to attempt the summit when each time the early morning alarms went off, it was raining harder than the last time. Climbing would have been neither fun, nor safe.

At least is started snowing at breakfast.

Yummy oatmeal. Hot chocolate and coffee. After that, nothing left to do but pack up the soggy gear and head out.

Back down on Railroad Grade, fog rolls up from the gorge on the glacier-side of the moraine.

So we didn't get to summit, but that's life in the mountains. Sometimes they let you up, sometimes they don't. The important thing is great support and money we all raised in The Climb To Fight Breast Cancer. Our team raised $17,500 for the FHCRC and the 2008 Climbs combined raised over $775,000! Way to go climbers!

We hoped to unfurl the banner on the summit, but high camp will have to do. This time! Photo by A.J. The Guide with Colin's Nikon D200

Thanks to ALL of you for pitching in, donations large and donations small were all very much appreciated. Some people find fund-raising easy. I am not one of those people. But you all made this not only easy, but fun and rewarding. As for the climb, what started well ended even better, because we know we are helping cancer patients surmount much greater challenges than a little cold rain and snow.

Happy Trails,

Matt Zaffino
Chief Meteorologist