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Baker North Ridge Ski Descent

6/19/24
WA Cascades West Slopes North (Mt Baker)
588
1
Posted by samchaneles on 6/20/24 9:56am

Original Trip Report: https://engineeredforadventure.com/baker-north-ridge-ski/

Background

The north ridge of Mt. Baker draws attention from alpine climbers, mostly. But there's a weird, odd bunch of skiers that also see it in a different light. That see it as a continuous, fall-line, more remote option down the north side.

Rene Crawshaw and Carl Skoog first skied it in 2000; Sky Sjue skied a different variation in 2007; Dan Helmstadter has skied it twice, once in 2008 and once in 2010; and Tim Black skied it in 2023. Not intending to make this a history lesson, but drawing attention to the fact that this climbing line does get skied.

This season I've been circling around the idea of climbing the north ridge, skiing the Park Headwall, and skiing the Coleman Headwall in a day. It's been written on my white board of ski ideas for many months. It just feels like the ultimate way to experience the north side of Mt. Baker in a day: a steep snow/ice climb, two steep ski descents. Conditions for it to come together came and passed by once in the season, on a day I chose to not be in the mountains. I wasn't that bummed, c'est la vie sometimes, ja feel? But I kept thinking about it.

This spring has been incredibly cold and wet. La Nina returning in full force. The upper elevations have been getting pasted with spring snow. I was up on the Emmons a few weeks ago and couldn't help but notice that glaciers are FAT! I was pretty ready to close the door on ski season and move on to trail running ambitions. But the season didn't feel done, yet.

Lane and I wanted to get into the hills Wednesday and waffled over what to do. We were both inspired by the linkup idea but didn't know if the conditions felt right. A strong, winter-like storm had rolled through over the weekend and telemetry had reported up to 1.8" of precip over a 3 day period. That seemed super unpredictable. What elevations did that snow fall at? And where? I feel that often times the volcanoes are hard to predict with telemetry stations thousands of feet below, often in rain shadows. We agreed that we had to just 'go and find out'.

Trip Report

Lane and I drove out the night before and packed in the Heliotrope Parking lot at dark. We agreed to bring tools, screws, and a rope to climb ice if we encountered it. You can always encounter ice on the North Ridge if you want to, but if you're open to avoiding the vertical ice step at the base of the serac there is often snow/snice work-arounds that don't require such protection. Still, we'd be armed enough to make it work.

We started walking by 330AM. I thought I had forgotten my ski socks in the car and hastily ran back just 5 minutes into the hike. Great double take to start the day. We made easy time on the dry trail to the clearing, transitioned to boots, and used the booter to gain Heliotrope Ridge. Given that it's right around solstice time, first light was stoooopid early, like 430AM or so. Headlamps not needed for long.

Alpenglow over the northern Cascades and Canada.

Once we made it to continuous snow we were shocked: it was ROCK solid. Huh...we were expecting some schmoopy wet snow that hadn't consolidated yet. With 1.8" of precip especially?!? Instead we found the most perfect ski cramponing conditions and what we predicted would be absolutely ripper corn later in the day. Huh...head scratcher.

Alpenglow was nuts in the morning and gave the traverse over to the north ridge a different feel than the slog it can be. There were a surprising number of tracks, both boot and ski, over towards the north ridge. We didn't see but one person ahead of us, which was somewhat surprising given the good weather and time of year.

Lane skinning over towards the North Ridge.

We waffled on whether to climb the snow ramp that cuts off some of the north ridge or take the ridge up from the base. Since we'd both climbed the snow ramp in the past, we opted to climb from the base of the ridge. It's a simple snow climb on the climber's left hand side of the ridge all the way to the ice step to the serac. We cruised through this without issue. We picked up a booter where the snow ramp meets the ridge and happily accepted it.

Lane heading up the lower North Ridge.

From down low on the traverse we had noticed that there seemed to be an obvious weakness that looked skiable on climber's right of the ice step. It looked well filled in and we could even see a single, solo climber making their way up through it quickly. Hmmm... Sky had skied the north ridge on the other side without a rappel, although his report included some f****d up ski mountaineering. Could this be another option that was less f****d? Carl and Rene had skied this weakness originally with a rappel but glacial recession has been changing lines in the Cascades for the last 10 years or so.

Looking up at Baker's North Ridge. You can notice well pasted snow/snice around the rock near the ice step.

Once further up the ridge we had to make a call: do we spend time climbing the ice step to take the more proper climbing line? Or do we cruise through the work-around, forego the climbing and save us some time for later, and potentially scout it as a ski option? We chose the latter, partially to Lane's chagrin (hahaha, Lane is a more proper alpinist than I am).

We geared up before the traverse over to the gully, got two ice axes out (been a while since I did that) and up we went. I went ahead but Lane was prepared to lead ice if it came to that. But we never found any. Instead it was sticky snow/snice that was lovely to solo. Low-dagger, frontpoints, rage on! Calves burned about 2/3 of the way up but it was all smiles. I was happily surprised by how I handled the steep snow climbing. I'm normally a woos when it comes to steep, firm snow climbing but it felt super secure today. We laughed once things mellowed out again atop the steep part: "I'm kinda disappointed", said Lane. LOLZ.

Lane on the upper north ridge. Great position high above the Roosevelt.

We kept on trodding along to the summit. Once on the upper North Ridge we began to find 5-7 inches of chalky, cold powder. WOW! We had budgeted 7 hours to the top and made it in 6hrs12mins from the car. Gladly ahead of schedule, Park Headwall was on the menu! The chalky pow on the upper north ridge was a good sign of what Park might be like and we were early enough with the cold temps.

Lane dropped in first and remarked at how it was legit pow. Solstice pow! Lane made a few turns where sluff started to gain some steam, but for the most part the sluff was manageable and the skiing quite enjoyable. There was a pair of tracks in ahead of us already but they traversed far out skier's left to avoid the schrund at the bottom. The traverse seemed unnecessary to me and I suggested to Lane that we just ski direct fall line and see what the schrund was like. I'd done the Park a month prior and found the schrund passable with a small hop. It was quite remarkable to me how similar the conditions were to a month and a half prior, this time even deeper pow/chalk!

Looking down the park. Obligatory ski selfie.

We skied lovely steeps down the Park and found that this time the schrund was even more filled in than last time! Crazy...what a weird and wet spring. No jump required! Lane managed to find a jump just because he wanted one haha. We transitioned after the schrund crossing and made the hot climb back up to the Cockscomb Ridge. We were pleased with our timing; any later and we wouldn't have been so happy. Our decision to forego the ice step on the North Ridge was paying dividends in steep pow turns.

Turns on the Park.

As we climbed back up to the summit for the second time we had a decision to make. We were still fairly early in the day for any kind of warming/softening on the North Ridge or Coleman Headwall. We'd have to wait until at least 1 PM for that, if not later. We talked about putting in a lap down the crater and climbing out to the Easton Route, but as we gained the summit we noticed convective clouds and wind building. Hrmm....time to...go?

We didn't love the idea of skiing the Coleman Headwall in firm and it looked relatively dirty from the way up. We were honestly more psyched at the concept of a no rappels North Ridge descent; the one caveat being skiing the firm snice pitch we had climbed before it had time to soften. We figured the few hours since we had been there would help but we weren't quite sure how much...

We transitioned and began to ski down the upper north ridge. The upper snowfield of the North Ridge is by far the coolest position on Baker, in my opinion (over Coleman Headwall even). It's hanging, you can't see anything below you, but you very well know that you are perched on thousands of feet of exposure. It's wild. The snow in the snowfield was soft, textured chalk-pow. We linked turns down further, getting closer to the ice/snice step. Things firmed up significantly. I stopped at one point because my sluff was coming down onto Lane; Lane made some calculated, cautious turns on the very firm snice down to where we had climbed up. The edges held but there was plenty of GRHHAKJADKJKLJADJLADKJ sounds coming from the snow-ski interface. We didn't have axes in hand but wouldn't have been a bad idea. Lane radioed to me that he was out of the exposure and I followed suit. The turns were comfortable but committing, knowing the landing would be hard. You just had to let your edges catch, let them ride a bit, instead of just trying to hockey stop. The exposure was real; these turns counted.

Lane just above where the snice started.

Before long I was too out of the exposure and skied down to Lane below the ice step. WOOOO! We were out of da shit at this point. We still had plenty of skiing to do on the North Ridge but none of it felt cruxy any more. We skied lovely softer-firm snow down the lower angle pitches of the ridge. Once down off the ridge, we looked back up, tapped poles and exchanged a "fuck yea doood."

Looking back up at the ice step. We skied the looker's right gully above the rock.

Sadly, we traversed beautiful, ripper corn back towards the Heliotrope Ridge. Legit, BEAUTIFUL ripper corn. And we traversed it. Not much skiing fall-line here. But we got what we came for. We looked back up, soaked it in one last time, saw the clouds, and mutually agreed to get the fuck out of here.

Thanks for report - nice job.   Love the pic with the yellow Black Crows, give a nice sense of the the pitch.


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baker-north-ridge-ski-descent
samchaneles
2024-06-20 16:56:28