Coleman-Demming Route In A Day
July 19-20, 2003
Elev: 10,778 feet
text: Todd Lee and Nate Riensche
Maria, Kirsten, Nate and Todd left Seattle on Saturday, July 19th, to try to climb the Coleman Headwall on Mt. Baker. The plan was to camp at ~7,100 feet that night, then leave for the summit at 2:00 AM the next day. When we got to the ranger station at Glacier 11:00 AM, the weather was (still) very warm and the route reports were unpromising. Warm ice is bad, warm seracs are bad, plus the reports of sluff avalanches led to the usual endless talking and debating about what to do. The options ranged from carrying all of our gear (second tools, ice screws, second rope, etc) up to camp and seeing how it looks, to just climbing the Coleman-Demming route, to going rock climbing, to climbing alternative mountains, to just getting some beers. We all had a bit too much coffee that morning combined with too little sleep (Maria had to get up early to pack, Q and Nate stayed up all night watching movies, and Todd got up early to pit fruit -- ya, we know, who cares) to actually have a rational thought process.
The clock was ticking, so we came up with a plan. The Plan: climb Baker in a day. The question was how to do it. We debated leaving at 9pm, at 1pm, at 5pm, at 4am, at 2am -- you name it, we discussed it. Of course, we discussed it without the benefit of the usual clarity that one hopes to formulate one's plans with. But for reasons that are unclear to this day, we decided on the following. Looking back, I can only assume we were bored and didn't feel like waiting around for several hours in the heat with the bugs and bees.
Phase 1: Dump as much gear as we could mentally handle from our packs. This was basically executed by assembling summit packs plus some survival gear as each individual deemed necessary. Nate and Q decided to bring one sleeping bag between them. Maria brought a bivy bag. Todd brought a thin foam pad and an emergency foil bag. We also brought two canister stoves to melt snow and cook potato soup. Kirsten noted the irony that we were essentially planning for an emergency bivy.
Phase 2: Leave the TH (elev. 3,700 feet) at 1:00 PM utilizing our midweight and moderate-pace technique, and climb to the summit before the sun goes down.
Phase 3: Descend from the summit and choose from one of the following a. Go all the way back to the TH and drive home at around 2:00 AM. b. Go all the way back to the TH and sleep in the car then drive home. c. Descend as far as we can, then try to sleep a while before continuing to the TH. d. Improvise as necessary. Deep in our hearts, we all knew this was the likely scenario.
A lot of folks climb Baker in a day. The usual plan is to leave the TH at 4:00 AM. There's an inescapable logic to this; you can do most of the climb in the day light. We can now confirm this inescapable logic. We left the TH with fairly light packs and very much enjoyed the hike up to the 7,100 foot camp below the Black Buttes. The trail and stream crossing were in good shape. After navigating many crevasses in the surprisingly open glacier, we arrived there at about 4:30 PM. We melted snow and ate snacks. At this point we were all wondering how our night would play out, yet our curiousity as to our fate seemed more intriguing if we forged ahead without too much thought. We were, after all, just doing the Coleman-Demming, and any added drama would just take up more of the slack created by not doing the Coleman Headwall. Brilliant, really.
There were a lot of other climbers at the camp and we got more than one strange look as we left. There was a nice trail leading around the crevasses to the saddle. The weather had been great all day and there was little wind. At the saddle though, the wind really picked up and the sun was falling toward the horizon. It was about 7:30 and we really had just one goal at this point: make it to the summit and back to the saddle before it was dark. The climb up the pumice ridge was mostly on dirt trail until we were below the Roman Wall. We were very fortunate to have soft snow so we could kick steps straight up the wall to the summit without crampons. Despite our exhaustion and the effects of altitude after having gained over 6,000 feet of elevation by foot in the last 7 hours by the time we reached the base of the Roman Wall, we still made great time because of the steps Todd was kicking. We gained the last 1,100 feet before the summit flat in 45 minutes. Going up the Wall we had great visibility and wonderful views of the setting sun as it cast a golden glow on Rainier, Glacier, and Puget Sound. As we neared the top, Q and Todd both experienced a bizarre phenomenon. It wasn't until much later during the car ride home (sorry if that gives away the ending) that they hesitantly admitted they had seen hundreds of small, dead bees scattered on the ice surface. Did these bees become lost and confused, or was it a suicidal ritual?
We reached the summit flat at about 8:40, dropped our packs and staggered over to the true summit (elev. 10,778 feet) at 9:00. It was quite beautiful in all directions. Unfortunately, couldn't spend much time on top. Nate tried to eat a Clif bar, but took two bites and nearly lost it. He put it in his pocket and saved it for later. After plunge-stepping down the Roman Wall, we descended the pumice ridge and glissaded down to the saddle at 10:00 just as the last glimpses of light faded away. We then descended to the 7,100 foot camp and arrived there by headlamp at 11:00 PM.
We didn't need to review our Phase 3 list of options when we arrived at the camp. The only thing we needed more than food was sleep. Maria dropped her pack and cruised over to the top of the ridge to look for bivy sites, but watching her headlamp bob up and down as she made her way over there made the rest of us feel all the more tired. Before she got back Todd had rolled out his foam pad and crawled into his foil emergency bag. Q and Nate could only sit on their packs and stare blankly at their plastic boots and wonder silently. When Maria returned she found all three of her partners unwilling or unable to move, so she crawled into her bivy bag and laid on top of her pack. Q and Nate laid on top of their packs, the rope and their sit pads, and fought over the sleeping bag. There's not much to say here, but that it was cold, and very painful to look at all of the tents and imagine the thick, warm, sleeping bags inside. We all slept in varying degrees from midnight until 3:00 AM, fighting difficulties like Clif bars in pockets that jab you in the ribs. Occassionally other parties would walk past headed for the summit. We all fantasized about them nudging us and whispering, "Hey, why don't you guys crash in our tent while we're climbing." Instead all that was heard were comments such as, "Ooo, that's a rough night."
At about 3:00, Maria asked Todd if he would get up with her to do jumping jacks. That led to firing the stoves up and cooking dinner. A long hour later we were all eating a 3-liter pot full of potato soup with 2 spoons and one sort-of duck taped spoon from McDonalds. Potato soup at 4 in the morning does strange and wonderful things to a person's bowels. Clouds had moved in during the night and socked in the upper mountain, and we watched as several parties turned around. Thus we congratulated ourselves on our "wise" decision to summit the night before.
At about 5:30, with a great sense of levity at having survived the worst of the climb, we packed up camp (ha ha), roped up, and headed down. We arrived at the car around 8:30, ate a greasy breakfast at Frosty's in Glacier, then with a tremendous sense of satisfaction we drove home.