Sliding Down the Saddle – Descent of Mount Baker – Part 3

Just a little the worse for wear

My goal of cranking out our entire Mount Baker trip in a few weeks has been waylaid by work, as so many things tend to be. But fear not; we haven’t been stuck on the summit forever – we did in fact make a not very elegant but nonetheless effective descent.

One thing I inadvertently omitted from the account of our trip up to the summit was the eerie, almost tropical breeze that accompanied us at the beginning of our summit night. It was a harbinger because heat was the theme of the way down.

Of course, the first challenge of the descent was to reverse our way down the Roman Wall. As the smallest of our team of four, I was assigned the front of the rope, which meant I had the responsibility for picking out the footsteps we would follow on the way down. I had last led a rope line on Mt Elbrus and I was terrified as guide S short roped us (so he could control the rope better) and I cast a look down at the truly steep slope before me. He’d done the same short rope up the Roman Wall as well, which gives you some inkling of its incline.

It was much harder to get into a steady pace on the switchbacks on the way down, as we had very varying speeds on descent. To my surprise, the really vertical part was actually easier than the switchbacks – it required a boot plunge into already carved steps that you slid into – some almost 18 to 24 inches – but they felt fairly secure. The only problem was that so many other ice axes had already traveled that way when you dug your axe in you were just as likely to hit an existing hole and get absolutely no purchase.

I’d forgotten how much I liked leading a rope. The Roman Wall demanded absolute concentration and my legs felt shaky at times – nerves – but that complete absorption in the moment is one of the things I love best about mountain climbing (and glaciers, in particular). As our guide said – every step had to be purposeful. I’m afraid there are no photos of this. My hands were otherwise occupied.

Not quite sure about this angle but this is what it felt like

We made it down the Roman Wall in decent time and then reversed positions and I was now at the end of a long rope. Our guide, SH, was concerned about speed because temperatures were climbing and water was getting low also. Apparently my Florida heat training helped because I got down with water to spare.

But this is where the different trekking speeds really slowed us down. If I went too fast the rope would pool around J’s legs and he’d trip so I had to keep stopping and we never got a good downward rhythm going. It took almost five hours to get down (recall it had taken about eight to ascend), and it was an enormous relief once we could unrope and slip and slide down the last little bit.

Crevasses presented a few adventures on the way down also. The glacier is always moving and the cracks in the snow were no longer where they were or the same width. In fact, although I didn’t see it, T reports to me that M had a “crevasse crash.” The snow at the edge of one deep crevasse had gotten slushier, and you needed to dig in your crampons before hopping across it to get traction. As M approached, she couldn’t get a good foothold, and, worried about breaking her leg if one foot slipped in, chose to dive headfirst across the crevasse with full momentum. According to T, she quickly uprighted herself, sat up, and started laughing.

Back in camp everyone was exhausted. Poor J was still enduring whatever stomach issue was plaguing him, and M was also having to cope with feeling unwell. We had a latish dinner of spaghetti and needless to say, all were asleep at an extremely early hour.

Next up – the hike out, the miracle of my mountaineering boot drop, and had I actually gotten myself lost somewhere on the trail system of Mount Baker.

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