Never did I think growing up in the heated humid tropics I would be scaling glacier ice walls in the North Cascades. As a kid I constantly monkeyed my way up the cabinets and shelves at home and even broke off the doors once hanging from them (my parents nicknamed me “The Destroyer”). So when I saw the opportunity to take a day long beginner ice climbing course at Mt. Baker in Washington, I couldn’t pass it up.
About a 1.5hr drive from Vancouver to Bellingham and another hour up to Mt. Baker, we started towards Coleman Glacier hiking up the Heliotrope Ridge Trail. The 5km trail would have been moderate in terms of difficulty, but it was my first time wearing plastic mountaineering boots that were super stiff and awkward to walk in. Crampons were later added to the equation which resulted in several near faceplants tripping over hidden rocks covered by new snow. The trail is generally easy to follow and not steep, more of a steady incline. My only concern is the lack of a bridge to cross one of the bigger creeks close to the parking lot, instead crossing over via fallen tree log. I heard that it’s not recommended to hike this trail early in the summer – rapidly melting snow makes for a hazardous creek crossing.
After about 2.5hrs of hiking the trail opened up to reveal an amazing view of Lower Coleman Glacier. With a La Niña winter forecast there was already plenty of snow and it was only the beginning of November! Our guide set up the anchors and said we would be rappelling down a crevasse and climbing back up. How far down we went was up to us – staying clear of the edge I wasn’t able to see how deep the crevasse was. Was I ever in for a surprise. I eyed the snow anchor suspiciously, it was my first time seeing an ice screw and all he did was wind it into the ice and declared it an anchor. I had to muster up plenty of trust in the first climb.
Over the edge I went, trusting that ice anchor to stay where it is, trusting the rope, harness and knot I tied, trusting the person lowering me down as her face disappeared from view. As I slowly made my way I looked down and saw that the crevasse dropped so far below I couldn’t really see the bottom past the narrowing walls of ice. Initially fear stole my breath, and then I was fascinated and amazed. Once I learned to trust the system I was free to be absorbed by my surroundings, to feel the rush of adrenaline surge through.
I managed to squeeze out four climbs before my hands and arms rebelled. My toes were throbbing from kicking in the ice, and my forearms were screaming murder. I learned a new term from a fellow group member used by ice climbers – “screaming barfies”. With a perplexed look on my face she explained that screaming barfies happen when your hands and arms go numb and then blood returns along with so much pain it makes you want to scream and barf at the same time. I’m happy to report I did not experience this screaming barfies sensation, but the pain was still enough for some teeth grinding.
We returned to the parking lot after another 2.5hr hike down in the darkness. I could see all the moisture from my breath rise up under the beam from my headlamp, and the only sound was the crunch of snow beneath our boots. I was exhausted but elated. An amazing adventure and experience I would return to in a heartbeat.