Home > Trip Reports > June 15-16, 2003, Mt. Baker high orbit

June 15-16, 2003, Mt. Baker high orbit

WA Cascades West Slopes North (Mt Baker)
Posted by ski_photomatt on 6/17/03 12:54am
I first became interested in a high route around Mt. Baker last summer when brainstorming trip ideas for a weekend.  I had two days free and friends only had one.  I would start at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead, ski through the Coleman/Deming saddle and down the Easton Glacier where I could meet my friends and car camp.  The next day, everyone would reverse the route.  That trip never materialized, but the idea of using the saddle between the Coleman and Deming Glaciers to bypass the Black Buttes did stick.  It was then a small leap to consider a complete high level loop across all of Mt. Baker's glaciers.

Yesterday, Ned_Flanders (Josh), Jim Cronan and I completed the trip from a camp on Heliotrope Ridge.  I am unsure of the history of this route, but will include a link to one reference on alpenglow.org of an attempted orbit in 1932(!) by Ben Thompson, Don Henry and Darroch Crookes (see link  It is worth the few minutes to read this account - these were true hardmen!)

We had planned on a two day trip with a camp somewhere in the middle, but the weather was clearing out Sunday and we decided to leave during the afternoon and gain some of the elevation.  We left the Heliotrope Ridge/Glacier Creek trailhead at 4:45pm and arrived atop Heliotrope Ridge before sunset.  Due to a mixup, the stove fuel had been accidentally left behind.  A significant amount of our food was now useless, and primarily, we were very concerned about finding running water for our second planned camp near the Portals (we had planned on melting snow).  We decided then to leave behind the overnight gear and do the trip in a day from our camp.

We left at 6:45am yesterday morning.  Josh skied up the frozen Coleman with ski crampons while Jim and I walked with boot crampons.  Arriving at the saddle below the Roman wall, we found still hard snow and a less than obvious path across the Deming.  We all roped up with boot crampons and navigated our way across the Deming to the Easton and continued around the mountain to somewhere between the Easton and Squak where we had moved far enough east to find softening snow.  The rope came off, skis went on and we quickly descended/traversed the Squak and Talum glaciers on nice corn.  After two tricky moves on volcanic choss, we were skinning past some crevasses on the Boulder when the Boulder/Park Cleaver came into view; we took off the skins and made 500ft of turns to round the bottom the cleaver.  We initially began skiing across the Park unroped, but when the crevasses became more and more numerous, prudence suggested we pull the rope out.  We skied across the Park roped, to close to the Rainbow Glacier where the route became relatively crevasse free again.  Off came the rope and skins and a fine descent across and down the Mazama Glacier to approximately 6000ft.  From the bottom, the ridge separating the Mazama and Roosevelt Glaciers looked (and was) far away.  Heads down we climbed, finally to a glorous view of the beautiful chaotic upper Roosevelt and fantastic North Ridge.  Skiing across the Roosevelt and Coleman involved some interesting routefinding around crevasses.  We arrived back at camp at 7:30pm, just about 13 hours round trip.  Quickly we packed, took in the view one last time and skied 2000ft of perfect corn down to treeline.  The commitment, uneasyness and worries of our day were turned away and released during these final turns.  The snow was aglow, orange and yellow in the light of a long summer evening.  The texture was highlighted by the sun, the warm sunlit side contrasting beautifully with the cool, blue shadows.  In the background, the magnificent north side of Baker took it all in.  Guardian, overseer of the North Cascades, he slowly drifted to sleep.
Wow.  I am truly inspired.  Thanks for the great TR.

Nice report, Matt. It's great to hear of people doing imaginative trips.

You mentioned the 1932 partial orbit led by Ben Thompson. It's hard to overstate the importance of that trip. It was, as far as I can tell, the first real alpine ski traverse done in the Northwest. It was years ahead of its time, I think. I've found no other written references to ski mountaineers carrying multi-day packs and camping out on snow above timberline for days in a row in the Cascades until the 1940s, and even then it was a rare thing.  Fred Beckey documented this trip as simply an E-W traverse of Mt Baker in his guidebook. It wasn't until I dug up Thompson's article that I found out how ambitious their attempt was.

I would not be surprised if Thompson's intended route (orbiting from Baker Lodge around the west side of the Black Buttes and back) has never been completed. There's a point where they dropped way down to 3000 feet to cross the Deming Glacier that he called "rather disagreeable." Sometime I may try to do this route, or perhaps a more aesthetic orbit, passing through the Colfax saddle as you did. Would you be interested in doing a trip like that?

I don't know any history of high orbits around Mt Baker. I've heard people talk about them but never talked to anybody who's done one.

Nice TR Matt.  It was an amazing trip, one that I was glad to be a part of, even though the one day push seemed to go on forever and ever and there were many nerve racking moments.  This trip did teach me much about ski-mountaineering and I also now have a new found respect for Mount Baker from traversing/skiing the magnificant Mazama and Park glaciers.  

One more thing, I highly recommend ski crampons for those that have compatible bindings.  


I thought a bit about Ben Thompson while looking across the Thunder Glacer from camp.  The following morning, looking down the Deming I thought of him again.  That's a mighty steep gorge!  Their perseverance must have been remarkable to wait out the storm in Kulshan Cabin and then continue on to cross this.  I wonder why he chose this route - the Colfax saddle is clearly the easiest way.  If they had chosen this route, they perhaps would have completed the traverse.  This attempted trip in many ways gave me the confidence to know we could complete it.  If they thought they could do it in 1932, then we surely can do it today with our modern equipment, maps, guide books and sophisticated weather weather forecasts.

(We were quite surprised to learn from the ranger in Glacier that a party had just circled the mountain.  We looked at their climbing registration - they ascended Bastille Ridge above Chromatic Moraine and circled clockwise, taking three days to complete the trip.  We saw their old footprints and very new rappel sling between the Boulder and Talum Glaciers.  What appeared to be much more recent ski tracks descended down the Mazama Glacier from the Roosevelt but ended mysteriously on the Park.  We think these were two separate parties, judging by the age of the tracks and the lack of ski tracks past the Park, but where the ski party went remains a mystery.  Did they climb up and over the summit?  Exit out Boulder Creek?)

Some tours stick around to be repeated while others fade away.  I would repeat this one.  It is a splendid route with character.  The descents are well spaced and enjoyable.  Approaching from Mt. Baker Lodge would add considerable distance, but would be a fine trip.  (Lowell, I would be interested in skiing this route - through Colfax saddle, not Thompson's original route - but not this year.  Perhaps we can get together for a different one?) The view of Table Mountain from the Park Glacier gives me another idea - link the summits of Baker and Shuksan.  Working out the route from the summit of Shuksan to Mt. Baker Lodge would be interesting.  White Salmon Glacier?  A direct descent from the Sulphide towards Lake Ann?

Reply to this TR

2003-06-17 07:54:20