The North Ridge of Mount Baker is one of the more pleasing volcano climbs in Washington. It offers alpine ice without much objective hazard, steep snow above and below the ice cliff, and a tour of the impressive >4 mi2 area of ice comprised by the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers.
The first ascent was made by Fred Beckey and Ralph and Dick Widrig in the late forties. Carl Skoog and Rene Crawshaw first skied the route on July 16, 2000, reporting slopes to 50° and a 150 ft rappel for the ice cliff (Carl Skoog's North Ridge Descent account). Jeff Manor and I climbed the North Ridge in late August of 2003 (North Ridge climb). Since then, I had a hunch and hoped that a good snow year, impeccable timing, and a little luck may one day conspire for an uninterrupted ski descent.
Overzealously, I climbed the same route as Carl and Rene (See Carl's route photo.) in May of 2006 with minimal gear, leading a rather steep pitch with only two ice screws. Eric, Hannah and I opted to ski the Coleman-Deming Route that day, leaving the North Ridge for a better day.
The following was written Saturday afternoon, July 7, 2007. I guess we had our 2007.07.07 luck on 2007.07.06?
Dave Brown and I skied the North Ridge of Mt. Baker with neither ski removal nor rappel yesterday. I thought that it would be neat to ski the ice cliff since I first climbed it; this was my third time to climb it and the opportunity for a good dumb-monkey trick magically appeared.
Dave and I left the Heliotrope Ridge TH at 4 am. We hiked quickly to the Hogsback, where we changed into our ski boots and left our tennis shoes. We booted the first roll on the Coleman with a rising traverse to the north. There is a lot of snow on Mt. Baker; crossing the Coleman was easy. We left our skins after the first roll since the snow was well-frozen corn and we booted to the most direct slope toward the North Ridge's ice cliff.
From the easy slopes below the ice cliff at 9:30 am, we made a rising traverse to the far, left edge of the ice cliff. The ice cliff was easy to climb, but still worth protecting. I had only brought a 32 meter rope because I was hoping we could get away with only a tiny rappel or two. The ice cliff wasn't looking skiable, so I tied into the middle of the rope with a butterfly and led microscopic 16 m pitches, making V-threads for the descent along the way. Dave followed skilfully with only one ice tool. Five little pitches made the ice cliff eat a lot of our time. On our last pitch, I noticed snow loaded onto a little, sixty-degree ramp that made a chink in the ice cliff's armor on climber's left. It looked like it could be "skied," so I poked at the soft snow and thought we'd give it a go.
The exposed 700 ft above the ice cliff was very icy, but it had a corn-like surface that seemed edgeable. Dave and I booted across the summit cap, took a short break, and prepared to ski.
The top snow had softened just a bit. I made a concentrated sideslip down the first steep roll, then Dave followed with a tool in his upper hand for security. The snow improved a bit and we were able to make careful turns until we reached the ice cliff. The ramp looked awfully steep and scary.
I retrieved one of my ice tools, put it into my upper (right) hand, and kicked some very tentative sidesteps into the ramp to test the snow. On this northeast aspect, the snow surface had transformed from soft and forgiving to an icy crust. Midway down the steep ramp, glacier ice lurked just beneath the snow's surface and my ax protocol changed from shaft-plunging to pick-swinging for a couple steps. Off the ramp, the steep slope was still quite intimidating, being an icy crust, below seracs of the summit ice cliffs , above more ice cliffs over the Roosevelt Glacier.
For a moment it looked like I had been deceived and that we would be stuck above an ice cliff. I discovered otherwise after descending to skier's left by mostly sidestepping and sometimes sideslipping, then looking around the corner. It was just a roll.
A small, final traverse to skier's left took us below the bottom of the North Ridge ice cliff, onto softer west-facing slopes. Dave followed carefully, finishing with the comment, "That's the most sidestepping I've ever done." We cut a wet slide on the steep slope above the Coleman Glacier. Beatiful steep turns to the bergschrund, a traverse of the Coleman Glacier, and wonderful slush turns in the gullies below the Hogsback took us to timberline and finished the skiing.
This was my second ski trip with Dave Brown. Previously, we skied Mount Rainier's East Success Glacier Couloir. If the third time's a charm, I can't begin to comprehend what we'll do for an encore.
Dan Helmstadter skied the North Ridge solo, with a downclimb, in July 2008. See his trip report on turns-all-year.
Although I was quite satisfied to have descended the complete North Ridge on skis, I still suspect that someone who caught it "just right" could descend the whole thing on skis without even sidestepping: the ultimate vision of perfection. Please tell me about it if you are so fortunate! The northern aspects of Baker sing a siren song to me in Vancouver now and then, so maybe I'll take another run at it one of these days....