By Gretchen Merten
“So, what about Mt. Baker?” Pete, chief guide and owner of Pikes Peak Alpine School, asked my husband and I over beers at a local brewery. We had thought about a multi-day hut trip in the San Juans, but the logistics didn’t work out. “This would purely be a skiing objective with a little bit of roped snow climbing near the summit. We’d need to do some crevasse rescue training and learn to work as a rope team, but we could do this on Pikes.”
Wow! Mount Baker is an active volcano with glaciers! I had never even considered skiing the North Cascades before, much less imagined myself harnessed up, axe in hand, booting up a mountain I’d barely glimpsed as a kid on a family vacation to the Pacific Northwest. After some reassurance that this would be a great day of backcountry skiing with just a little bit of climbing, and another beer, we decided to go for it.
Before flying to Seattle, we met Pete at Red Rock Open Space to practice the skills needed to haul oneself out of a crevasse. Despite never having worn a harness before (not comfy!), I quickly found myself hanging from a tree learning to rig prussiks to ascend a rope while pushing off a sling looped through a locking biner. How cool that such simple pieces of kit could be used to go up a rope! Next, we headed up to Glen Cove to practice skiing on a rope, build snow anchors, and discuss pulley systems to extract a climber from a crevasse. Two overwhelming thoughts stuck with me through the day – I simply cannot tie knots at all and I sincerely hope we don’t need to ski tethered together. Switching a rope overhead seems simple but requires technique and patience. In fact, every little detail learned that day required attention to detail and precision. Pete was endlessly patient with me as he reviewed each step over and over until I could do it. No guidebook or day out with friends could have demystified the intricacies of rope work or anchor building the way he did. Slowly, very slowly, I began to think I could do this…
After a quick parking lot meeting to double-check gear and divvy up equipment and food, we drove to the trailhead. Because the PNW had a relatively light snow year, we racked our skis and hiked several miles until finally clicking into our bindings on the glacier and skiing (yes!) to our campsite. Tucked several hundred feet below Sandy Camp, we had a piece of open ground to ourselves, complete with flat tent sites and close proximity to water. Perfect! We did a short tour that afternoon on perfect corn snow to set the skin track for the next morning and to marvel at the rugged beauty of active glaciers and young mountains. Glorious views of Baker and a seeming infinitude of mountains extended in all directions. So much wilderness, and so different from Colorado!
Summit day began with the obligatory alpine start. Even though it was early, the sunrise brilliantly lit a cloudless sky and the temperature was warm enough for a light softshell. We began the long skin up, climbing close to 5700 vertical feet over the next few hours. We made careful switchbacks to wind our way up the frozen spring crust, ski crampons biting sharply with each stride. Even on the uphill, Pete refined our technique. Subtle rolling of the ankles instead of inward edging helped our skins find purchase and reduce fatigue – one of many tricks we learned to burn less matches on a long day out in the high alpine.
Upon reaching the Crater, sulfurous steam obscured the brilliantly colored rocks of the headwall. Time to climb! We stashed our skis on our packs, stepped into crampons, and finally roped up. Axe in hand, we started up as a unit. Pete led the way and I followed behind, doing my best to manage the rope – not too much slack, not too much tension. He watched me for a moment. “Have you ever climbed in crampons?” Pete asked.
“Nope!” I said, smiling. I love running mountains. Cramponing up felt close to natural and fun.
“Well, let’s work on setting your boots flatly on the snow instead of kicking with your front points. Take deliberate steps,” Pete said.
Once again, I learned that to move efficiently, you’ve got to move more deliberately, with more awareness. I could feel the energy expenditure of each step drop while increasing my grip on the rapidly warming snow. After a while, I even began shifting the axe to the correct hand without thought, just flowing along with the terrain, pacing myself by my climbing partner’s graceful movement on the snow.
Our little climbing party enjoyed the summit long enough for a few photos and a fistful of Double-Stuffed Oreos – the most sugar you can pack into a single cookie (this fact ascertained through careful label reading)! Mountains crested like waves in all directions. No longer were these sublime spires, ridges, aretes, and cols mere scenery. I thought of them as potential skiing and climbing objectives, the aesthetics of beautiful lines and routes compellingly, almost urgently, speaking of sharp challenges and endless discovery.
After struggling with the steepness of the ski descent down the headwall – I needed to temporarily revert to down climbing in crampons (again, Pete was so patient, taking the opportunity to teach how to transition safely on steep slopes) - the ski descent to camp was epic. Nothing but soft snow and blue skies. We skied untethered, regrouping occasionally to recon for crevasses, for literally miles. Best line I’ve ever skied – a true blessing.
We are now preparing to head to Mt. Shuksan with Pete, who is not only my guide but my employer. After having such an extraordinary experience as a client, I joined Pikes Peak Alpine School. I feel privileged to help others book classes, courses, and private trips, deeply aware of the value of partnering with a guide. It is truly a life-changing experience to get outside of your comfort zone, to learn confidence, to journey to places beyond the familiar. Do yourself a favor, no matter your sport. Partner with an expert. Embrace a permanent beginner’s mindset. You’ll be amazed what you can do and what you’ll soon dream of doing! And I have unfinished business with that headwall on Baker-I know I can ski it! I just have to go back and do it!