Mark and I made a spontaneous decision to climb the Coleman Headwall on Mt. Baker last weekend.
Having set aside Saturday for climbing, we landed on doing a volcano route for a few reasons. First, I’ve wanted to brush up on glacier and steep snow travel before heading to Chamonix. Second, the warming over the last two weeks, combined with wet precipitation, has melted away most of the snow under 5000′. This makes the approach for Baker much easier as the trail is snow free until about 300m short of Hogsback campsites. Third, the day was projected to be very warm (high of 42F @ 7000 ft in most of the Cascades). Between the warming over the last few weeks and the warm weather on Saturday, we predicted that any winter/spring ice routes (Cuthroat, Greybeard, etc would all be in poor condition).
The road to Hogsback is now open (as of this last week), and one can drive to within 100m of the campground. We awoke at 230am and leisurely got on the trail by 330am after coffee, Mark’s “glycogen bomb”, and some nuts and granola. After breaking the tree line we encountered snow, which provided good purchase for skins. Some of the steeper sections were icy and I burned some good energy trying to keep up with Mark. He’s an IFMGA guide and has countless hours in every condition imaginable, so he made quick work of the icy slopes.
We avoiding roping up until it seemed necessary, which was about halfway between the glacier and the climb from the Hogsback campsites.
Mark and I plotted a line up the ice at the toe of the headwall in order to avoid spending time under the rock bands on the face. During our approach, some ice calved on the left side of intended line, releasing a small avalanche. We managed one or two pitches to get through the steeper ice section, which contained some nice blue ice and also some rotten ice over rock or debris. Mark’s crampons didn’t work with his boots, so it seemed like they could pop off at any second. This made for an exciting belay.
After reaching the top of the technical bits, all that remained was 1500′ of simul-soloing to the top, with belays thrown in to switch leads and to deal with the occasional crevasse or shrund on the face. The conditions on this part of the climb varied between shin-deep wallowing and perfect neve for some fun daggering, the former being more common.
We topped out around 1230pm.
After we reached the top of the headwall, Mark and I considered getting rad by making a ski descent of what we had just come up. Fortunately or unfortunately, we decided against this, but not after dropping in 100m of the headwall for a closer look. We both felt it was a little too steep for comfort. Even just side hilling down put some hair on my chest. The largest impediment was the inability to see past a steep rollover, which made the line feel VERY committing in the snow conditions.
Instead of skiing the coleman headwall, we opted for a gentle descent of the Coleman.
Between the group we brought
- 5 ice screws: 2 x 13cm, 2 x 15 cm, 1 x 19cm
- 60m 9.0 Beal Joker
We didn’t bring any pickets, deciding that these would slow us down, were too annoying to deal with, and their requirement would probably be an indication that the climb wasn’t in the condition we wanted anyways.
My personal kit included:
- Two tools
- 1L of water w/ pre-dissolved Nuun
- ~1200 calories of food
- 1 probar, 2 larabars, 1
- bag of nuts and coconut flake granola
- a little bit of smoked salmon
- a hand full of dried mangos
- Glacier kit (prusics + ropeman and a few lockers and slings)
- OR Stormtracker gloves
- OR long sleeve upper base layer
- OR Ferosi jacket
- OR Enchainment jacket
- Synthetic outer layering piece
- Cirque pants
- Beanie and buff
Except for cold hands at a few moments, the above clothing was perfect for the climb. I was fairly surprised by the ability to wear the Stormtrackers the entire day without putting something warmer on. They are an amazing glove from versatility standpoint.
From a strategy standpoint, I feel that we pretty much nailed it. Ski crampons might have been useful on the way up, but this would only have been helpful in a few places. We were VERY happy with our rack selection, rope, layers, and food. Mark and I both agreed that even a single picket probably would have added unnecessary complexity or belays. We moved slowly and steadily on the up, and took a casual time getting down. I was floored by the opportunity to share the route with someone so knowledgeable, and I will definitely highlight some of the Mark’s tricks for glacier travel in the near future, particular the kiwi coil with a barrel knot tie off.
Among the list of things that will make this trip remarkable is the fact that we hadn’t decided to do this route until Thursday night. It is a relatively fickle climb (cannot be climbed too early because of avalanche danger, or later in the season due instability of the headwall and rock bands). We were really lucky with the conditions and weather. I am finding more and more in the Cascades that you’ve got to be open to, and comfortable with, taking on objectives that are not on your “list”. Many of us seem to have a list of objectives that require alignment of partners, weather, snow conditions and the lot. While the latter approach definitely guides your progress as a climber or skier, I am continuously surprised by how an open attitude helps you to build skills outside of your comfort zone, and foster relationships with new partners.