Exploring Mt. Baker

December 28-31, 2007.

Many celebrate the new year by drinking profusely, going to parties, heading downtown, and joining in crowded festivities. Brad and I decided to ring in the new year with a backpacking trip in the snowy North Cascades.

An unplanned late arrival in the Mt. Baker area Friday night forced us to camp on the side of the road as snowmobilers and honking drivers whizzed past. We’d unfortunately chosen an area quite popular with these folks, which made for a less-than pristine backcountry experience. The following morning, we drove up the road as far as snow chains allowed before hoofing it towards the Mt. Baker trailhead, our base camp. While Brad parked the car, I watched over our stuff and made a snowman.

Spending several nights camping in the winter time requires a great deal of gear. Both of us carried 40-50 pounds of it, plus Brad was pulling a bright orange sled piled high with climbing equipment, tent, sleeping bags, food, fuel, etc. We had about 6 miles ahead of us and it was already noon. For the first time, I experienced the joy of carrying skis on my back. Although they loaded on to my pack nicely, the weight quickly became uncomfortable. Not to mention, I was very top heavy and unstable, and I had to watch for dangling tree branches. Brad worked out the kinks of towing a hastily thrown together gear sled. Needless to say, progress was very slow.

At least the scenery was very pretty. As we slogged along the road, the snow became deeper and fluffier. Tree limbs bowed deeply under their heavy burdens. As soon as the road conditions improved for skiing, I took that dead weight off my back and strapped on my skis. Life became a bit easier for me. We continued along, taking many sanity breaks but no real food breaks. We took turns gulping down Gu, Clif Shots, Luna Moons, bars, and other quick energy products. Daylight came and went and it seemed as if we hadn’t gotten any nearer our objective.

And then it started snowing.

With less than a mile to go, we were both really tuckered out and getting ornery so we decided to camp at the next reasonable spot. At a road junction, we found a suitable spot and I stamped out a platform while Brad unloaded the sled. We were trying to make camp on at least 2-3 feet of powder, which was somewhat challenging. Snow stakes were useless, so we used pickets and ice axes to secure our tent. Gourmet freeze-dried meals were eaten out of bags that evening; that was the best beef and potato slop I’d eaten in my life. We conquered our meals in silence as our calorie-starved bodies soaked up every bit of nutrition we could pack in. Dessert consisted of a glorious chocolate mousse. I don’t remember much after that, as I snuggled up in my sleeping bag and slept soundly.


The next morning we awoke to at least 2 feet of new snow. The tent arched inward under the snowy mass piled atop it. Much of our gear was buried, save my skis and ski poles. Brad volunteered to shovel out the camp as I dried out the inside of the tent as best I could with a roll of paper towels. The snow kept falling as we slowly dug out our things and made breakfast.Most of the day was spent doing the usual winter camping chores: boiling water, managing snow piles and moisture, adding and subtracting layers, organizing daypacks, and consolidating gear. We dug a trench around the tent so that the snow piling up while we were away could be shaken into the trench.

Finally we left camp and continued along the road towards the trailhead. In our hunger and exhaustion yesterday, we’d stopped 0.2 mies short of our goal. Before long, a hiker sign and bathroom were in sight. The snowmobile tracks ended here, so our real push through the powder began. Brad packed down the white stuff on snowshoes as I followed on skis. As a brand new backcountry skiier, the opportunity to use my new toys is always welcome. I’m still fascinated by how effective climbing skins are, and how it’s really not all that strenuous to ski uphill. I get better flotation on skis, and I get a more fun return trip. Once I can get the technique down pat, I think skiing will be a very rewarding endeavor.

We played in the snow as long as daylight allowed and went back to camp. In order to reduce the amount of time spent breathing moisture into the tent, we bundled up like Ralphie’s little brother in A Christmas Story and ate dinner outside. Tonight we slurped up enchiladas from a bag and followed it up with raspberry crumble. What genius created freeze-dried backpacking food? Some mega-nerd from NASA no doubt.

Night two in the tent. We discovered the formation of a crevasse in the center of the tent upon waking up earlier that day. Impossible to flatten out now, we had to sleep on an uncomfortable angle that our bodies did not appreciate. The long, dark, cold nights of winter make camping somewhat un-fun. There’s a lot of sleep time built into the day.

The next morning I was feeling pretty terrible. The weight of the pack, the sleeping arrangements, and some invading virus all combined to wreak havoc on my body. It was all I could do to get myself dressed and shod and ready to help pack up the camp. Rigging up frozen tele boots to my angry feet was no treat either. In my misery, I slowly managed to contribute some effort to the tasks ahead.

After cleaning up, we put our packs back on and slowly went back down the road towards the car. My hips were very angry at me; I was reminded of this fact with every step. At least it was beautiful up here. Brad took turns pulling the sled and riding the sled, enjoying his descent much more than me. The good news was that my skis saved me some hassle for most of the way. As we neared the car, the snow level dropped to almost nothing as we moved at a snail’s pace to our awaiting ride.

We were greeted by a cheerful note left by some mentally deranged local who obviously lacked effective communication skills. I felt like I was being bullied! I wasn’t sure whether to get angry or laugh so I decided to just laugh. The “P.S. You Suck!” part was the funniest of all…really, who comes up with this stuff?

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