Rising to a height of 10,781′, Mount Baker clocks in as Washington’s third highest peak behind Rainier and Adams (4th if you count Little Tahoma). While the fairly modest elevation makes it easy to discount Baker, there is nothing tame, small, or otherwise modest about this mountain. With ten large glaciers concentrated around the upper slopes and the record for the most snowfall in a single season, Baker is an incredible sight to behold and an amazing mountain to climb. Seriously, the views on the way up are like something out of one of those IMAX documentaries.
That said, reaching Baker’s summit on even the easiest route is a technical undertaking with considerable risks year round. Of the many ways up, the Easton Route (on the east) is considered the easiest for its moderate slopes though the Coleman-Deming on the Northern side is the standard approach and the most popular. Along the way, the Coleman-Deming offers up a little bit of everything from waterfalls and stream crossings on the approach to ice fall, glacier views to crevasses, seracs and one hell of an adventure start to finish.
What to expect for your climb
Along its 11 miles (that’s round trip), the Coleman-Deming has a little bit of everything starting with casual dirt hiking before entering glacial travel and advancing to moderate 30-35 degree snow slopes for the final push.
Most climbers approach the route with at least 2 days on the mountain, hiking about half way in to setup camp before making an alpine style ascent the following morning. For the bold, it is possible to condense things down into a single day push though with the crux sitting at the end of the climb, the 7,000′ of gain becomes a considerable effort. More so, the route and views are simply too good to want to rush by, even camping on the lower slopes of the glacier would be an impressive outing on its own.
The route is as a good introduction to glacial travel before taking on more technical climbs or bigger mountains but just because it’s fairly straight forward does not mean its easy or safe. Expect numerous crevasses to deal with that only get more technical as the season progresses (also ice / rock fall and avalanche hazards.)
Warning: Alpine mountain climbing is inherently dangerous, especially on glacial routes. From avalanches to falls, unexpected storms to hypothermia, do not underestimate the mountain and it’s ability to change on you (hint: it’s not always going to be a nice day!) Be sure to bring appropriate climbing gear, food, water, and plenty of backups. Know the conditions, the route, and the hazards. Have fun but be prepared!
FAQ: What climbing gear do I need?
As a class II, multi-day glacial route, the hardest part of the climb for me was not the upper mountain but in slogging all the required gear up. Assuming you plan to make a typical 2 day approach, you’ll need a full alpine setup with axe, crampons, rope, harnesses, personal pro, and crevasse rescue equipment.
Of course you’ll also want to bring along overnight gear for a 4 season environment, plenty of fuel for snowmelt and / or filters for streams if you camp lower down, along lots of food to keep you going. Rising from 3,700′ to almost 11k, conditions can shift drastically over the course of a climb so you may start in shorts but end up in a heavy puffy necessitating plenty of layers as well.
FAQ: What if I’m not experienced in glacial travel?
Stepping onto a glacier is nothing like climbing your typical snowslope on say Helens or Ellinor. Even with a great winter and a fairly early summer climb, our trip involved crossing more than a dozen snowbridges of various sizes and stability, most of which could not be easily routed around. As such, familiarity with route finding, glacial rope travel, and crevasse rescue is essential for all climbers with strong leads and anchors.
If you don’t have those skills, consider joining a climbing club like The Mountaineers to develop them or signing up for a guided climb. Professional run programs are offered by several great oufitters including Mountain Madness, Alpine Ascents, RMI and will run you $800 – $1,100 while providing a great platform from learn from (also consider a course if you want to build more skills but can’t commit to a club’s program.)
FAQ: What sort of permit is required?
Unlike many other peaks in the Northwest, climbing Mount Baker does not currently require a permit of any sort nor is there any fee beyond the standard trailhead parking cost (NW Forest Pass / NPS Park Pass.) However, the Forest Service strongly encourages climbers to register so they know who is climbing the mountain at any given time. Stopping in at the ranger station in Glacier to register, grab a few blue-bags for the trip, and get the latest conditions / climbing report is a smart idea.
FAQ: Where can I camp on the mountain?
There are many places along the climbing route to setup camp depending on how remote you want to be (the mountain gets rather busy on a nice weekend day), how low you’re willing to start your summit push from, and how high you want to slog in your heavy pack (also how much of the glacier you’re willing to walk on day one.) The Forest Service lists the first sites as being nearly old Kulshan Cabin site (5,000′ or about 1,300′ into the climb) while most camps I’ve seen were setup between 6 and 7 thousand feet with a final spot around 7,200′ under the Black Buttes. Just keep in mind that you’ll be crossing the glacier for the last chunk of the route if you do opt for a higher camp.
Camping higher has the obvious advantage of reducing the work on summit day but at the expense of more work to get there and with a heavy pack. On the other hand, camping lower on a summer climb likely means access to running water (treat or boil it!) and possibly being in a sheltered, rock spot rather than on snow. With just 7,000′ of climbing overall, starting from the lower sites is perfectly reasonable though personally I’ll always elect to push a little more and ease up the summit day.
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, lodging, trail facilities
To reach the climb, you’ll be heading pretty far north and just about entirely out of civilization. The last major city on the way up is Bellingham where you’ll find several grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and a few climbing shops including an REI location. Departing from there, the towns quickly get far smaller and options more limited. By the time you reach the last stop in Glacier a few miles from the trailhead, you’ll be limited to one fairly small (but very friendly) general store and an adjacent restaurant. Cell signal is limited here but some of the businesses do have open wifi if you need it. The last gas is 8 miles before Glacier so fill up on your way out!
The Glacier ranger station is located on the east side of the town and provides an ideal meeting place as well as a final restroom / water stop before you head up to the trailhead. After departing there, drive less than a mile turning right on NF-39 / Glacier Creek Road which will take you to the trailhead. The road up is a narrow, dirt drive and while it’s in fairly good shape from a pothole perspective, it does gain several thousand feet in elevation over about 8 miles so expect a steep and often curvy drive with limited visibility for oncoming cars.
The trailhead is a busy spot but has a large amount of parking both up front and on the road above. You’ll find a few vault toilets at the trailhead, an info sign and that’s about it.
The hike through the forest
The route starts out as a hike through the forest as you depart from civilization via Heliotrope Ridge Trail #677. Winding up through the trees on a dirt path (assuming you’re climbing in the summer season), there may be several miles of dirt before you hit the snowline so approach shoes are well worth considering. Of course with a heavy overnight pack and technical gear, that’s a lot more weight to throw on your back so perhaps split the difference and opt for a light shoe to wear at camp instead?
Either way, it’s a pleasant hike to make up in the morning with the trees providing plenty of shade. As the day wears on, the lower slopes can get quite warm so I’d strongly suggest an early start and more time at camp rather than trying to drive up that morning and wear yourself out before the summit push.
While the views in the forest are limited, there are a couple really nice waterfalls along the early parts of the trail as well as several streams. Crossings can be tricky depending on the flow conditions and one even has a few logs to walk across (hint: if you have high boots on, consider just walking through the water, especially on the way out.)
From the treeline to the Coleman Glacier & camp
Be sure to pay careful attention to the route as you progress further up. A sign post marking the fork between the Glacier Viewpoint (basically straight ahead) and the Climbing Route (to the right) is easily missed and will cost you some extra effort should you go the wrong way. After that junction, you’ll find yourself nearing the end of the trees and soon climbing a ridge towards the upper mountain above.
With no cover, the ridge ascent to the toe of the Coleman is rocky, dusty and hot but a pretty obvious trail. Depending on the conditions, you’ll likely encounter running water early on so keep your filter handy if you want to save some pack weight. Similarly, you’ll want to have your camera ready for the incredible view of the mountain above and the Coleman Ice Fall to your left.
Simply proceed up this trail towards your intended camp site. If your plans are to stick it out to the rocky sections around 6,000′, you’ll likely never touch much snow (in summer that is) while those going all the way to the high camps at 7,200′ will find themselves on the glacier for the last push. If you are planning to camp higher, be mindful of this reality and evaluate the terrain carefully before proceeding — plenty of groups are roped up from the start of the snowfield as there are fractures and crevasses to be found even on the lower slopes.
Climbing the Coleman Glacier to the Upper Deming
Once you’ve reached the toe of the Coleman Glacier on your summit day, it’s time to rope on up and start the fun stuff. The route to the upper mountain is not range or professionally set though with busy crowds in the peak season, it’s likely that you’ll find a nice boot path leading you in the general direction. Of course, bootpaths are not always going to make the smartest decision and don’t adjust for changing conditions so scout as you go, especially as you enter the crevassed parts of the mountain in a bit.
Heading up the Coleman, you’ll likely find yourself between the moderate slopes of the snowfield to your left and the steeper terrain near the rocks to your right. The goal is to reach the Saddle between Colfax Peak (the bulge to your right) and the upper mountain (to your left) which, in the early season, may involve a pretty direct line or may turn into a windy pattern of crevasse avoidance depending on the snow. There are seracs along the way and large debris zones below them so be on the lookout for out of place snow or rock and move with purpose through those areas.
Once you hit the saddle (Colfax Peak will be behind you now), it should be pretty obvious how to proceed: go up (to the left) following the ridge above towards the Roman Wall.
Conditions vary for this part but on a July climb, we found it impossible to avoid rock for several hundred feet along this stretch and probably should have taken off the crampons to avoid the extra wear.
Topping out from the ridge, you’ll be on the upper Deming Glacier. At this point, you’ll see the Roman Wall just off to your right, large cliffs to your left and a moderate slope right between the two which is your way up of course. Proceed ahead, hopefully with the help of some nice steps kicked in from groups before, for about a thousand feet until you top out on the crater plateau. If the snow has a chance to soften up, you should find the way back down this stretch is quick work plunge stepping, otherwise it can feel a little exposed as you navigate back towards the ridge.
Success! The walk to Baker’s true summit
The top of Baker is described as the football field with at least that much room in all directions and nearly flat. Assuming it’s a nice day and you actually want the view, proceed across the crater to reach the true summit which lies above 30′ above (50′ with the the small drop you’ll walk down to get there.) From the true summit there’s an incredible view of Shuksan, the Pickets and many other mountains around the North Cascades.
Crevasses, Glissading and the Return
As its said, the summit is only half way and on a glaciated route that’s especially true. Warming conditions have a negative impact to snowbridges and crevasses so it’s essential to be on top of your rope work and continue to check the route as you return. Similarly, while there are a few really nice looking slopes to slide on down, the gaping holes under them should dissuade you from doing any such thing until you’re off the glacier.
With several miles and many thousands of feet likely on dirt on the way out, it’s not a fun walk back to the car but do try and look behind you from time to time to remember the exciting times you just had.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Coleman-Deming
- Official Rating: Class II, Glacial Travel on Moderate Slopes
- Start point: Heliotrope Trailhead
- Distance: ~11 miles round trip
- Duration: 1-2 days
- Climb: 7,000 vertical-feet
- Facilities: Vault restrooms at the trailhead
- Water: Streams below the glacier (treat all water)
- Crowds: Light in off season, moderate to heavy on summer weekends
- Cost: NW Forest Pass or NPS Park Pass at the TH
- Permits: None but registration is encouraged