Sunday, June 20, 2004

Watson Traverse

Mt Baker, Washington
10,781 Feet
Watson Traverse
(Coleman-Deming Ascent; Boulder-Park Descent)
June 20, 2004

After enduring a month of horrible weekend weather, the forecast for the weekend was finally looking relatively good. The problem was we only had one day to take advantage of it, so Kirsten, Becky, Pete and I decided to try and cram in a healthy-sized trip. Pete got the idea for the Baker traverse from a trip report Lowell Skoog posted on an internet bulletin board. The traverse goes up the Coleman-Deming route to the top of Mt. Baker, down the Park glacier and traverses all the way over to the Mt. Baker ski area. Sounded reasonable... after all, how far can the Mt. Baker ski area really be from its namesake? Sure the route crosses two USGS quads, but who would be coniving enough to put it really, really, ridiculously far away from the mountain that its name sort of implies it is located on? So with all the anticipation that four weeks of bad climbing weather can generate, we set out Saturday afternoon.
We dropped Kirsten's Jeep off at the Baker ski area, then drove back to the Heliotrope Ridge parking lot in Pete's Subaru and went to bed around 10:00. During the drive Becky pointed out how strange it was that the distance between the two points we were going to traverse on skis in one day was taking roughly an hour to drive. Hmm...
We woke at 3 and headed up the trail via headlamp at 3:45am. It was warm and after the first 15 minutes we had all changed into t-shirts. As we approached tree line, the sun began to rise, and soon we were in our skis skinning up the Coleman Glacier. The snow was frozen solid, and after a couple hours of trying to skin, and finding it inefficient and somewhat tenuous with a few crevasses hanging out below us, we took the skis off and roped up. The glacier was very closed up, and routefinding easy -- just follow the boot path made by the hundreds of climbers that had gone up in the last few days.
It was a busy day on the mountain, and as we approached the saddle below Pumice Ridge we could see dozens of people making their way up the Roman Wall. It was also a brilliant day. The sky was deep blue with just a few wispy clouds high in the sky. The wind picked up as we got to the saddle, and stuck around until we reached the top. We summitted around 11:30, just shy of 8 hours. Not a bad pace at all, but a good two hours off of Lowell's pace. From the top we scoped out the Park Glacier below to determine if it was in good shape for skiing. With the exception of one potentially tricky spot that we couldn't see well, it looked to be in fine shape.
At 12:30, we skied down nice snow to the Caldera on the Boulder Glacier side, then traversed below the crumbly orange cliffs underneath the summit over toward the Park Glacier, noting as we skied around chunks of recently fallen rocks that this was a good place to wear a helmet. Getting onto the Park was, as Pete expected, a bit of a puzzle. After scouting around for a bit, he made a comitting drop down a snow bridge betwen two large crevasses. It went, and just like that we were on the Park Glacier and home free. Or were we?
Suddenly, what was only slighty mushy snow turned into calf-deep, nasty shmoo. Calf-deep with skis on, mind you -- probably more like thigh deep on foot. Let me reiterate that it was nasty. It was terrible, scarey stuff. Picture cotton candy microwaved for a second or two. Skiing down the next 500 feet of glacier was nerve-wracking at its best and terrifying at its worst. Leading the way and cutting across slopes, Pete was sending loose point releases down and leaving a two foot trench in his wake. Trying to negotiate crevasses without the ability to turn, I resorted to snowplowing. This was easier in the sections that Pete had already "cleared," but at one point I got so desperate and nervous that I wanted to take off my skis and walk down a short, sketchy spot. But who knew what large, vengeful crevasses lurked beneath the snow. Better to stay (mostly) on top of it and suffer through the painfully slow process of wedging my way down. After enduring much frustration and anxiety, we finally got down to better snow and fewer crevasses. There are lots of good turns to be had on this glacier, in better conditions!
It was around 1:30 at the Rainbow-Park Glacier Saddle and we were now about 10 hours into the day. And still on the first map. Lowell had completed the traverse by now. But Lowell is a freak (read: he is in very good shape). For example most people probably can't do the Forbidden Tour in one day, not that most people would even try. Remember this next time you repeat a trip of his.
The rest of the way was just the very long traverse over to the ski area on good snow 99% of the way. It is really a very cool and scenic traverse, and we made it the whole way without putting skins on. The snow was grippy enough to give you a good kick and glide on the flats, and made for mostly easy traveling even through the gradual uphill sections. Although Becky and Kirsten did have a tougher time of it on some of the side traverses and uphills as their skis slipped more frequently. They concluded it was because Pete and I are so much heavier than them. They may have been politely trying to tell us we're fat, but I'm not going to dwell on it.
From the Park we traversed below a large, flat rock formation, then climbed steadily up onto the main ridge. From there we made our way along the ridge, traversing, over and around several interesting volcanic rock formations. We took in breathtaking views of Baker's lesser-climbed east side, and the surrounding terrain, which is quite different from the other sides. From the deep red canyon the glacier drops into, to the unvegetated volcanic formations jutting out of the earth. Absent a large, glaciated volcano located nearby, the scene looked like it belonged east of the Cascades, not here.
We made it to the area of the Portals around... 3:00? I don't really know what time it was. I don't even know what the Portals are except a geological formation on the map. Time at this point was merely guidance as to how much longer the sun would be above the horizon. At some point we crossed onto the second map. At some point we passed the 12-hour mark. The sun was bloody hot and we were mostly out of water. The chilly wind blowing on top of the mountain was nowhere to be found down here. But we did manage to find a raging trickle of water running down some rocks. We capitalized and refilled our water bottles. The Coleman Pinnacle was starting to look much closer, but Table Mountain still seemed awfully far away.
As we continued our traverse we crossed the wayward Sholes Glacier and got some very nice turns on the moderately steep slope down to the glacier. Here is where I perfected my wedge-turning. In fact, I have turned it into an art form -- so much so that I'm thinking of skiing that way on a permanent basis. Some day wedge-turn-specific skis will be the next big fad. And snowboarders will complain that wedgers are out of control, ski too fast, and are inconsiderate.
We reached Coleman Pinnacle around 5:30, and here we got some more good turns down a short chute. But as we made our way from Coleman Pinnacle to Table Mtn, the mental and physical fatigue set in, exacerbated by dehydration. Skiing across the large, soft suncups felt like water skiing on a choppy lake. Every slip or misstep was a subtle blow to the body and mind as the two struggled to recover together. Eventually we got around Table Mtn, and entered the ski area. We picked our way through crusty, blocky old plowed snow along the roads, then were rewarded with some good turns down a steep slope, and finally found ourselves at Plum-sweet-Plum (Kirsten's Jeep) at 7:20pm, 15-and-a-half hours after we started. We gently lowered our weary bodies onto the pavement and although we hadn't seen another human in 8 hours, we managed to mostly ignore the curious looks of all the tourists there sight-seeing. Then one woman tried to be sneaky and video tape us sitting amongst all our gear, like she was trying not to disturb wild animals rarely seen in their natural habitat, but we ruined her footage by waving and saying "hi."
Well, the four of us shared one beer and ate some potato chips, then packed up our gear and piled into Plum and drove back to Pete's Subaru at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead and started home around 9:30. We lost track of each other on the way, but coincidentally we both arrived at a rest area just south of Bellingham independently. Apparently we were all experiencing a similar decline in alertness at a similar rate. So we slept in our cars for an hour, then finished the drive home. The next day, reflecting on the traverse, the pain and anxiety is harder to recall, but the beautiful images and sense of satisfaction from completing roughly 8,000 vertical feet and 15 horizontal miles in one day feels pretty damn good. This is a gorgeous traverse, and with better snow conditions on the Park Glacier, I highly recommend it, especially to anyone looking for a test of their physical endurance.