Mount Baker, the northernmost Cascade volcano, is a sort of mini-Rainier, with the standard Coleman-Deming route a straightforward glacier walk. Rather than do that in running shoes, I decided to go in fully armed and do something a bit more sporting. My initial plan was to do the north ridge, a route with some steep snow and perhaps an ice step, but changed my mind and soloed the Coleman Headwall, a continuously steep 2,500-foot snow/neve/ice climb from the Coleman Glacier directly to the summit ice plateau. While occasionally intimidating, it turned out to be a challenging and rewarding way to climb a potentially easy peak.
I woke up to see light outside my car, annoyed to find I had slept through my alarm. I almost ditched some gear and scampered the standard route, but decided to start out at 5:30 with two ice tools, crampons, and boots. I quickly walked the approach trail through the woods, then proceeded up the climbers’ path up Heliotrope Ridge, through a carpet of what I presumed were purple heliotropes. At the top of the ridge, only a few miles from the trailhead, I passed through the minor tent city — a couple of independent parties and two large guided groups — then put on crampons just above.
The standard route ascends one side of the huge Coleman Glacier (whose ice extends into the trees) to the west of the summit, then climbs the rubble-ridge between it and the Deming Glacier before climbing its northern edge to the summit ice-dome. The north ridge route follows the standard route a short way above camp, then traverses the flatter part of the Coleman to the ridge separating it from the Roosevelt Glacier.
Leaving the standard route, I entered a maze of open, parallel crevasses. This was probably my hardest crevasse maze yet; I had to backtrack a couple of times, and make a “claws out” leap over one crevasse, while crossing the glacial undulations below the peak’s north face. Approaching the north ridge, I saw that the steep snow-slope providing direct access had an obnoxious bergschrund and seemed disturbingly dirty with fresh rockfall. My attention was repeatedly drawn to the neighboring Coleman Headwall, and I eventually gave in to temptation.
Nearing the base of the route, I drew both tools, looked uneasily at the choss-wall to the left, and plotted my course up the left branch of the icefall. Passing the cracks in this initial section without climbing overhanging ice required climbing unhealthily close to the left wall, so I tried to move as quickly as prudent. The glacier had melted to its core here, exposing hard, dirty ice on some steep leftward traverses. Not having climbed serious ice in awhile, I was a bit nervous, over-gripping my tools and hacking ineffectually at the ice at first.
Once past this first section, I gratefully moved right, away from the rockfall hazard, on mixed ice and firn ramps, alternately swinging my tools and daggering them to crawl up the easier terrain. At the junction with the right-hand branch, I stemmed and scrambled up some steeper ice, then continued on the big upper ramp, mostly fast-climbing firn with a bit of ice mixed in. Nearing the top, I stayed right up the smoothly rounded dome, carefully swinging tools into a mixture of decent ice and aerated surface junk.
Topping out on the dome and into the sun for the first time since below the headwall, I saw the actual summit choss-pile to the east, with a group of 20 or so sitting in its lee. I stuck a tool behind each shoulder and tromped across the flat snow, then dropped my gear a short distance from the milling crowd to tag the summit, about 5 hours from the car. A field of impressive lower peaks extended east: Shuksan, the Pickets, Spickard and Redoubt.
Talking with some of the other climbers, I learned that they were on the mountain for a week-long glacier mountaineering course. As they began to rope up for the walk down, I stowed my crampons in my pack, finding them unnecessary in the softening snow. After crossing the dome, I boot-skied the moderate slope to the Coleman-Deming ridge, followed a decent trail on the ridge toward the scenic choss-pinnacles, then stepped over onto the Coleman. I passed a few groups headed in either direction on the boot-path to camp. After sliding into camp, I switched to shorts and stomped jarringly down the trail, then continued up the Mount Baker Highway to my next trailhead.