Whether you climb up the mountain or go down the hill to the valley, whether you journey to the end of the world or merely walk around your house, none but yourself shall you meet.
– Maurice Maeterlinck, La sagesse et las destinée (Wisdom and Destiny) 1898
Early this year I got a call from a long-time climbing buddy: how would I like to go up Mount Baker?
That was an easy one—of course I would! Never mind that I have never climbed the mountain, I am in my sixties, and now live on the East Coast. The mountain seemed to occupy the sweet spot: not too high, not too hard, and new to me. Another attractive point was we were going to do it old style! Recently I had fallen in with a sketchy crowd that eschews hard, sweaty manual labor, preferring instead to ski down volcanoes like Hood and Adams. That’s fun, exhilarating even, but the idea of stumping up and down a mountain on crampons seems baked into me, going back to the 1960s. For decades, in addition to rock ascents, we had alpine-climbed everywhere in the Northwest we considered a challenge: Shuksan, Ptarmigan Traverse, Glacier, El Dorado, Sunset Amphitheatre, Liberty Ridge, and so on.
So how had Baker escaped this orgy of ice-capades? Maybe it was a sense we had harbored that it could hardly hint at threatening our lives, and without that element of challenge perhaps an essential something would be missing. And along that line, the idea lingered that it might be a bit of a plod. Mount Baker and all its ancillary gods, please forgive me for all that silly, irrelevant nonsense!
I pulled out a sled-like bin from under the eaves in my attic and began pawing through the equipment. A mouse had overwintered in one of my sleeping bags: not good! To add insult to injury, it had brazenly eaten two bags of freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff. I cleaned up the mess as I put things in order for the trip. Fortunately there were no rodent teeth marks on my “ashwood-handled hot-forged Grivel Mont Blanc” ice axe, the first piece of equipment ever sold by REI. I understand that they have recently issued a collector’s version. My feelings for this axe are as warm as Stephen Dedalus’s for his ashplant in James Joyce’s Ulysses (Dedalus dispatches his mother’s ghost and a chandelier with his ashplant walking stick). Both serve as excellent walking sticks, and their owners toy with the idea that they have magical powers capable of warding off incipient dangers. Ghosts, glaciers and chandeliers, beware!
As the plane departed Boston I thought of the dig a Seattle friend gave me during a visit. “Tim, why doesn’t the pilot say, ‘And if you look out the left side of the plane, you will see Mount Washington.’ Why doesn’t he say that, Tim?” “Oh,” I replied, scrambling for a pithy answer, “The weather is so severe up there, it’s rare that you would ever see its crags from a plane.” However, there was no more need for such evasions, for I was going where the peaks stand out in all their glory, with no assists from their admirers.
It was early on a fine Sunday morning when the three of us drove up Sulphur Creek onto the flanks of Mount Baker. I was excited to see dappling green/yellow in the sunny undergrowth— magnificent specimens of the primordial Oplopanax horridum. Once the bane of my life, it now looked like just a prickly old friend you might bump into at a Boston dive like The Dugout or Wally’s. I wondered, though, what terrible punishment would be dished out to anyone who dared introduce Devil’s Club to the East Coast mountain ranges; maybe they would be caned with it? The Northwest Tlingit and Haida tribes use the plant for medicine, even hanging it on door frames to ward off bad spirits, which seems apt if “like versus like” is a good strategy. As we turned a corner, local Native Americans appeared in the road bed and surrounding forest carrying “chitticum bark” of the cascara tree. Cascara has been the most abundant North American natural product to be found in drug preparations, despite the medical authorities’ skepticism about its overall benefits.
After a few stops to convince ourselves we were still on the right road, we eventually parked and started up the Park Butte Trail through waist-high fields of huckleberry and heather. Water flooded down the trail as we approached the Sulphur Creek crossing. The ice thaw was not at peak, though. We didn’t need to wade the raging creek as my climbing partner Rick Lindberg had to do during a previous hike. Ditching our unused river shoes under a stunted fir, we ascended the switchbacks through the forest of Douglas Fir and cedar and onto the snow still covering Morovitz Meadow.
Rick is the type of guy who has the highest regard for the spirit of the wildness of the Cascades. He regaled us with stories of the times Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philipp Whalen spent in the area. (There’s a wonderful book by John Suiter, entitled Poets on The Peaks (2002) that documents their experiences.) Rick and I have had all sorts of Cascade adventures. He is game for anything, and enjoys all the twists and turns that may be encountered (except for slide alder; about which no one could possibly find anything positive to say.) The third member of our party, Peter, is a former Seattle science teacher and outdoor adventure organizer.
Since the weekend was winding down, a lot of other groups were passing as they made their way home. “Love your ice axe,” was heard several times from the tattooed, younger set. Even natives living in remote reaches like East Greenland, pointing to my puffy red REI down jacket from the 1970s, have asked, “Excuse me, how old is that?” What had I become, I wondered, a walking museum for the whole world?!!
Mount Baker’s summit is frequently visible along this route. The meadows lead up to the Railroad Grade, a beautiful knife-edge moraine with a gentle heather slope to the west and a steep crumbly scree face eroding eastward into Sulphur Creek. At some points it behooved us to hold onto branches as we skirted past precipitous drop-offs along a trail capable of suddenly giving way and tumbling us several hundred feet into the creek. The terrain reminded me of the Northeast’s famous Mount Katahdin ridgeline trail where a disoriented Henry David Thoreau once lost his way, except Railroad Grade is just a Mount Baker appetizer rather than the Maine entrée.
Marmots were gobbling the budding plants as we approached, ducking into their burrows only when we were nearly on top of them. The upper reaches of the moraine afforded bivouac spots for climbers on a few rock outcrops in the snow field leading onto the glacier. As we set up camp, one marmot ran across the expanse and into a den, triggering a tremendous tumult with creatures repeatedly flying into the air as they screeched and bit each other. It was either a spirited defense against an early evening raid or a returning spouse being upbraided for its wandering ways, not clear which.
After sunset, the full moon rose up to cast the mountains and valleys in an altogether different light. Lying on the ground in my bivy sac as I often had so many years ago, I thought of who I had been then and who I am now. I had undergone many changes; all the cells in my body had been replaced many times over, but I was till the same I, and yet here I was in my former world, which made for an uncanny experience.
The moment is now. Where then? If Socrates leave his house today, if Judas go forth tonight. Why? That lies in space which I in time must come to, ineluctably.
– James Joyce, Ulysses
In the morning I laced up the gaiters my mother had sewn for me a half century ago, and we set off onto Easton Glacier. And what a glacier it is! Approximately two square miles in area, it seemed even larger with its apron of seasonal snow fields and adjoining Deming and Squak Glaciers.
The view is always fascinating with the Black Buttes towering westward and the anvil-like summit ever in view, from which plumes of sulfurous mist rise, giving the snow around the summit crater a golden-yellowish hue. More and more of the glacier revealed itself as we ascended it, crossing deep blue crevasses via snow bridges along the way. It made for an absolutely superb hike throughout the morning.
By the time we reached the slopes of Sherman Peak, the Black Buttes had dropped below us. We kept an eye on falling rock as we scampered under the cliffs, eventually climbing up to the edge of the summit crater nestled about a thousand feet below Sherman and the main, Grant Peak. What a thrill to look down into an enormous, apparently bottomless vent in the glacier from which steam belched and roared! It was a fitting place for James Joyce’s character, Shem, who in Finnegans Wake is asked, “Are you not danzzling on the age of a volcano?” It is a dazzling place to cavort about in wonder at the eons of volcanism unfolding at this spot. I have since read that Mount Baker is the number one contributor of sulfur emissions in Washington State, and that the other side of the crater occasionally lets go torrents of melted snow and ice, mudflows and massive rocks onto the aptly named Boulder Glacier. On quieter days the thrill-seeker must content himself with the sight of huge pieces of ice calving off the Park Glacier further east over a spectacular wall “like the waters of Niagara,” as Charles Easton described it in the early 1900s.
The last pitch to the summit sparkled yellow-gold before us, an odd, step-like topography due to sun-sculpting of the snow. We moved more slowly now, owing to the pitch, the altitude and the hours already spent climbing. As the slope lessened, the horizon became one vast arc of white against a cobalt sky. From behind me I heard Rick announce in a very measured way: “I – am – enjoying – every – step – of – this – climb.” And it was true! We still had the legs and the lungs for it, the weather was perfect, all was right with the world.
At the top we made for a small depression in the snow and set out provisions for lunch. As we ate our “tiffin”, two very unusual characters appeared, dressed in the Canadian Mountie colors of red, black and gold. They slowly veered passed us northward and were lost from view. Curiouser and curiouser; as good a sign as any to begin to pack up and head down.
It’s Government land over two miles high
Not enough air (which gives you notions, “This is real, this is true”)
– Philip Whalen, I Think of Mountains (1958)
As we roped up and began the descent, the weather started to come in. Fortunately Peter had brought a global positioning device that had been marking our route up. With its help we negotiated what we dubbed “The Garmin District”, pausing now and then to wonder which snow bridge was still sturdy after a day of sun. “Hey, does this one look OK?” asked Rick. “Yeah, if you jump over it,” replied Peter who was leading. “Right, sure…don’t think so, let’s go around,” and we continued to zig-zag through the glacier’s stretch marks. It’s never good to be on a slack rope when crossing snow bridges, and at one point Peter stumbled due to his crampons caking just as I was traversing one. “Keep moving!” I called out as the group momentarily came to a halt.
The rest of the descent proceeded without further incident. But what a long distance it seemed! One expanse after another of gently sloping glacier fields. After dropping our packs at base camp I felt the business the mountain had done to my legs, and sleeping that night was tranquility itself. We were older (wiser?) men doing what is now the provenance of millennials. Nevertheless, we had left our cozy houses to go up the mountain today, shed our years with each passing hour, and on our return found ourselves seated on our doorsteps.
“If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage at his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”
– James Joyce, Ulysses
Tim Ahern is a recently unretired mountain climber, avid hiker, backcountry skier and kayaker, with a main focus on the Pacific Northwest and East Greenland. His college degrees are in biochemistry, oceanography and Russian literature, and in addition to writing travel articles for various publications, he has published three books on James Joyce. He currently lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.