The Longest Day of the Year on Mount Baker

IFMGA Guide Forest McBrian demonstrates modern ice axe techniques for glacier travel with Mt. Baker in the background.

“You’ll be roping up from here,” said our instructor, gesturing to the mound of glittering, melted snow that stretched onward for a quarter mile. “Beyond this, it’s actual glaciated terrain.”

I looked at my partner Jeff – a blueberry growing heli ski guide in training from California –  and he seemed pretty chill about the whole thing. We made a few kiwi coils in the 60 meter dry-treated rope, fingers focused on the new skill, both trying to remember exactly how it was done in the demonstration.

Not that it’s too difficult to rope together on a glacier. Just really damn important. The idea is that a team of two will tie a handful of overhand knots in a span of rope about 25 feet apart. If one person falls in a crack, the other drops to his knees and digs in to arrest the fall. The big knots are supposed to help. So are the ice axes we carried.

The ten primary glaciers on Washington’s 10,781′ Mt. Baker were the reason for our concern. These incredible rivers of ice contain deep crevasses that can potentially give way, injuring and trapping climbers or skiers.

I thought that perhaps humans were a greater threat to these glaciers than the other way around. That’s because Mt. Baker’s ancient ice has retreated thousands of feet in the past 50 years, certainly due to human-caused climate change. Scientists from the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project have measured the average melt on each of the 10 glaciers to be around 390 meters since 1985.

Snow-capped Mount Baker and a beautiful lenticular cloud as seen from our approach from Glacier, Washington.

The Coleman Glacier on Mt. Baker is one of the most accessible glaciers you can find in the lower 48. Note the many crevasses visible.

My journey to this endangered landscape started four years ago in northern Japan. I’d spent months hiking through immaculate birch forests and skiing powder snow up to my chest. The idea of helping others experience these powerful and fleeting moments seemed amazing.

A group of ski guides encouraged me to contact the American Mountain Guides Association and apply for membership. What’s called the Alpine Skills Course would be the first level of my training through the AMGA.

To prepare, I’d passed a professional avalanche training course in Canada, completed a wilderness first responder program, and spent two winters hiking and skiing the Teton range in Wyoming.

Fast forward to June’s summer solstice, and all that training was coming into play. Our eight-person team was to practice technical rope skills while camped out on a remote glacier in the wilderness. Instructors Forest McBrian and Emilie Drinkwater would supervise. They were IFMGA guides, certified to the highest standard in the world.

What would it be like to possess that level knowledge? How do experienced guides train potential guides? I was eager to piece it all together.

We grouped at the trailhead early on the solstice. The plan was to hike the north side of Mt. Baker and pitch our tents on islands of volcanic scree known as Hogsback Camp. Huge misty cedars gave way to steep rushing creeks as we traced the muddy trails upward.

Breaking through the treeline, we sighted the ice cap of Mt. Baker and the cascading blue tinged blocks of the Coleman Glacier. Hogsback Camp really was about as close to the ice as you could get without shaking hands.

After a quick camp setup, Forest and Emilie issued the orders. It was to be an all-day exercise comprised of alpine footwork, short roping on snow, and digging anchors into the slushy mountainside for lowering of climbers and rappeling.

My partner Jeff shared his salmon jerky with me when I ran out of food. He’s cool.

Fellow ASC students Laurie and Dave partner up to practice snow anchor skills on the solstice.

A view looking down the southwest flank of Mt. Baker shows the incredible jagged mountains that make up the North Cascades.

We worked like dogs. Sweating, cold, sunbaked and hungry, my day ended in a small victory when all the rope work and knots came together. I’d quickly dug a snow anchor, tied the pesky Munter hitch correctly, and lowered Jeff down the snowfield in what I hoped was a textbook move.

The next day we’d have to incorporate these skills into a crevasse rescue drill that simulated actually saving a victim. But that would have to wait.

As the sun set on the glacier, it cast a golden light on the dozen-or-so tents dotting the sparse rock outcroppings. Jeff and I gathered with our teammates James and Tim to share dinner duties and swap stories. I reflected on the journey as our stoves bubbled in the dusk.

It was literally the longest day of the year and we’d spent every minute learning in the mountains. Another small victory had been won.

Jeff and Tim cooking at our Hogsback Camp perch near the Coleman Glacier.

That solstice alpenglow was kicking into overdrive!

Our 2018 Alpine Skills Class poses for a group shot after training was completed.