After our excessively long summit day, I slept soundly, which is not as easy as it sounds when you are overtired and sleeping on a slab of ice in a sleeping bag on an ancient thermarest pad. I’m not exaggerating- when we took the tents down we discovered that’s exactly what we were all camping on. See photo!
After more oatmeal – which I was definitely getting tired of – we reverse hiked our way back to the van, starting with the Railroad Grade. This time, instead of wearing my mountaineering boots I chose to wear my brand new Merrill’s, breaking one of the cardinal rules of hiking – don’t go a long trek in brand new boots. The downward slog caused multiple top of toe blisters and no less than five toenails paid the ultimate price.
But I digress. The real marvel of the Railroad grade, which, you will recall, is a slim reed of a trail with precipices on either side, was my mountaineering boot miracle. T had tied them to the sides of my pack, where they inelegantly protruded out in an apparently not very secured way. At the steepest and narrowest part of the trail, I could feel one fall off. I wisely thought, well that’s it, there’s no way I’m going after it – only to have said boot drop right at my feet with nary a roll to the side. With luck like that I really thought I should buy a lottery ticket.
The other odd part of our hike out was that at one point J, who was still not feeling well, managed to pull ahead of me. It had to do with a river crossing that I took my time at….while another group was well behind. For what I’m sure was a brief few minutes, although it felt longer, the trail started to look terribly unfamiliar. I called out to John to no avail, and started to convince myself I must have taken a wrong turn – not that I even recalled seeing any paths veering off. Finally, some other hikers walked by and assured me I was indeed on the way to the parking lot. I was relatively sure that there could only be one such parking lot on Mt. Baker, so that calmed my frazzled nerves.
We finally all made it back to the parking lot, in a state of bedragglement. After all, we’d been wearing the same clothes for four days, some of us had been ill, and we were all footsore. We were too late for our planned celebratory lunch, so we stopped at a Food Coop in Mount Vernon, where we had a very elegant little picnic sitting on a wall in the store parking lot under the overpass.
After surviving Seattle’s quite notable traffic we made it back to the Mountain Madness office where our little band of adventurers broke up and went our respective ways. We’d all bonded on the trip – one of the great things about mountaineering is the relationships you can form with a good group of people. And another is the relationship you form with the mountain. You don’t climb it – it lets you do so.
I had been apprehensive about putting my crampons back on. But this trip confirmed that thrill is still there. Now we just have to pick our next adventure.
The first night of our expedition was the coldest of our three camping nights, and my feet never got warm. For some unknown reason I had failed to wear socks.
But the day dawned bright and sunny. This was to be our rest and training day. We were treated to a non oatmeal breakfast of surprisingly good scrambled eggs from a powder, topped with cheese and turkey bacon jerky. Who knew. SH had dispensed packets of instant oatmeal to everyone for the remaining days, which led to great confusion as to who had the right number of packets and what that number was. He’d also doled out lunches for the next days – wraps that we were already calling salami bombs and I’m sure they added to the weight of my pack.
After a leisurely breakfast we donned crampons and climbed up the nearby snow bank. There we proceeded to practice movement on the snow (duck feet, French technique), self arrest (flip your ice axe around, pick side down, plant it, dig in with your knees and feet, hips raised, and kick), and movement on a rope with a team. It had been four years so I was glad of the practice. M, one of the folks from Canada,was definitely the most adventurous on the self arrest practice – she picked up a lot of speed as she simulated her fall down the slope. J and I were a bit more cautious.
We spent the afternoon reading, napping, and prepping our packs for a 1 a.m. wake up call. I also spent quite a bit of time observing our comrades from other groups – campgrounds are second only to airports for people watching.
We had an early dinner of rice, orzo, the ubiquitous salami chunks, followed by a sunset walk, and were in “bed” by 8. Needless to say, sleep was hard to come by, but I know I must have drowsed off, waking about five minutes before the alarm, just in time to force down my two packets of instant oatmeal. At least we also had dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate chips to add to them.
We finally started off at 2:15 a.m., only 15 minutes after our appointed time. Slow was definitely a theme of this trip – after all, it was referred to as the “slow Baker” expedition in the marketing materials. But let me also add a little flavor. Of our five merry climbers, only M, J and I had worn crampons before, and M had not done so for years. T (friend of absent S) and TF (the other person from Canada) had never worn them. So all in all, I think we made a pretty good showing.
It’s always spooky to take off in the dark, accompanied only by the glow of the headlamps, but the air was perfectly still and I was hiking in only a soft shell jacket. We started off with our crampons on – which was great as we avoided the agony of having to struggle getting them on somewhere on the glacier in the dark.
After about 45 minutes we crossed a rocky area with a bit of scrambling and it was time to rope up – we were well onto the glacier. SH led a rope with J, T and me; H led the other rope with M and TF. Z and C were on their own rope. Z did decide to wear something other than his kilt for the summit day.
I could feel myself slipping into that zen like state of a steady pace where focusing on putting one foot in front of the other is the only thing in your head. I’ve so frequently channeled our guide Ossy’s instruction to me on Cotopaxi in Ecuador that you have to find your own way up a mountain. This time I also repeated SH’s mantra – step purposefully. Surprising how these mountain directions do a lot for everyday life.
The trail was moderately sloped with a couple of flat platforms at 7000 and then at 8000 feet. There weren’t a lot of other groups but we were passed by some who were huffing and puffing – my goal was not to do that! The sun eventually rose and we could see the shadow of the mountain cast along the valley.
There were any number of crevasses that we had to wind our way around or step over, sometimes with the help of a snow bridge and sometimes without. The widest was perhaps 18 inches. They are eerie. You can see blue ice lining the sides and no bottom, and it looks like a fall would usher you into some completely other world.
We ultimately reached the crater. The mountain is still an active volcano but I wasn’t really aware of any sulfur; it certainly wasn’t anything like Cotopaxi. I was conserving my energy so didn’t walk over to look into it, but I did enjoy my salami bomb. I was making a big point of eating a lot as I know in the past I have failed to do so and that does not work well in the mountains. In the meantime, I learned later that both J and M were feeling unwell, but what troopers! They soldiered on without a word of complaint and still with appreciation of what we were experiencing.
Finally we reached the so-called Roman Wall, unclear why it was so named, but it provided the source for a running series of jokes about the ancient Romans and their visit to Mount Baker. The Roman Wall is indeed steep; it is really the head wall of the mountain and considered the crux – that is, the hardest part. It’s the part I’d been dreading. It averages about 40 degrees according to what I’ve read, and starts at about 9750 feet.
The first part is a series of switchbacks that nicely ameliorated the steep slope. I’ve always said you can climb most anything with enough switchbacks. But near the top, they cease and there’s a straight vertical climb. Kick into the step of the person before you, step up, and repeat. Twenty five or so straight up feet of this. A few more switchbacks and suddenly you’re back on a relatively flat area with the summit not far away.
The summit is a small 50 foot high or so mound that protrudes off the flat area. Unfortunately I kept having the image of a pimple, which does not appropriately capture the grandeur of the view or experience. We all collapsed for a few minutes and I took my obligatory yoga pictures – but couldn’t wait to start up the final steps to the summit. It was about 8 hours since we’d started our jaunt.
The views were spectacular, as the photos show. And I once again had that top of the world feeling, that exhilaration that I’ve never really been able to capture anywhere but a summit.
I later found out that TF’s parents were from South Africa and in the early 1950s, when they were in their 20s and had been married for four years, had travelled to England, bought a 1933 London taxi for 50 pounds, and proceeded to travel 6,000 miles throughout Europe, camping along the way in their taxi. So many people asked them what they were doing they painted the facts about their journey on the outside of the vehicle – the media picked it up and the taxi became known as their traveling suitcase and they the “traveling suitcase couple.”
What a spirit of adventure! I’d say that TF – and all of us on this trip – were carrying on a bit of that legacy, even at much more advanced ages. I’m sure TF’s parents would approve.
But as I’ve frequently said before here, what goes up must come down – and so it was with this trip also. That’s for next time.
It was the afternoon before the trek/climb. After visits with family and friends – and an absolutely gigantic lunch in Gig Harbor (perhaps I am taking the idea of carbo loading too far) – we got an Uber and headed off to the Georgetown Inn in the Georgetown area of South Seattle. Known for being “gritty,” there are a lot of breweries and some interesting restaurants, but it is a long way from gentrification. The hotel had been recommended by our guiding company, but the desk clerk still seemed surprised to see our two very large backpacks walk into the lobby.
We located an Italian restaurant called Mezzanotte in what looked like a deconstructed building. Three levels of crumbling brick walls, ceiling tin covering some of them, and lots of people sitting outside. We were just as happy to sit inside and enjoy our fancy pasta – mine with king oyster mushroom Raghu and J’s with a very peppery sauce. We walked briefly around the neighborhood and back to our perfectly acceptable hotel – if a little noisy due to some bizarre mechanical noises that clicked and clacked throughout the night.
We woke up at 5:30 and met S, our friend from Alaska who was part of our Elbrus and Stok Kangri expeditions, in the lobby. We all ubered off to the Mountain Madness office, accompanied by three very large packs. The MM office is in a small house and there seemed to be at least three trips all packing up in various areas outdoors. Fortunately we found our correct group (I suppose otherwise we might have inadvertently gone ice climbing or something).
We met our fellow climbers – T, who is S’s friend and a pilot, two women from Canada (about my age or a bit older), and our guides, SH and H. Having nicely packed our packs, we now had to completely unpack, and lay everything out on the ground so our guides could confirm we had what we needed and left behind what we didn’t need. Apparently all of us had panicked when we got the packing video only two days before, which had led to multiple unexpected last minute purchases such as glacier glasses and sun hoodies! Two items, by the way, that I was very glad to have.
Everyone ended up leaving behind at least some items. I ditched my rain pants and second pair of pants. We reloaded our packs (my guess is mine was about 32-33 pounds), and met our porters, C, a Montana State student who was really serious about the mountains , and Z, a mid 20s exmilitary guy who was really serious about his sugar addiction. Z became best known on the trip for his hiking kilt – all he needed was a sporran!
After our packing and repacking extravaganza, we all loaded into the van, packs atop and in the back. We were enjoying trading travel stories with S, when just outside of Seattle he received a call to let him know there was a family medical emergency. S understandably felt he had to return to Alaska and pick up his wife so they could go where they were needed, so he ended up taking an Uber back to the airport. What a disappointment – this had been one of his bucket list trips. His friend T was a super good sport about it, and things were greatly eased by the fact that we really did have a congenial group.
We started off yet again, making a few bathroom and snack breaks. Z proceeded to sample every variety of junk food known to man (or at least available in Washington State), and I even found myself buying a large chocolate bar. Maybe it’s contagious.
Finally we turned off onto a series of dirt roads, gaining altitude over some teeth shattering potholes that sent the whole van rattling. We entered the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, and traveled along more dirt roads, ultimately meeting up with all the vans and cars of other Mt. Baker adventurers. Vehicles were parked way down the road, but we were totally lucky and someone vacated a spot right by the trailhead. One final bathroom break in our last real bathroom and we were off!
The trail starts off as an easy walk, even with a crushed gravel trail in some spots, but rapidly starts a somewhat unrelenting slope up. There are a fair number of dried out rocky river beds to navigate, tree roots to clamber over, and stone steps to climb. You first hike alongside the towering dark evergreens that stalk the trail; after some elevation gain the trees give way to shorter growth and meadows spotted with pink, purple, and white bell shaped flowers. I would have loved to use my plant identification app but there was no cell service and we weren’t stopping much anyway.
After a while, we reached the portion of the trail known as “Railroad Grade.” It’s a very skinny, straight ridge line that leads to Sandy Camp, which was to be our home for the next three nights. It is on an incline, although not particularly steep, but there is a lot of exposure. One side is a sheer drop down of rock and gravel caused by the receding Easton Glacier; the other side is a slightly less sheer drop into a wild flower covered meadow. I would definitely have preferred to fall meadow side, but neither option was very appealing. At times the path was barely a foot wide and you had to navigate over rock. At some point it must have been wider, making the trail look like a railroad track – hence the name, I presume.
Once we finished the Railroad Grade it was a short jaunt to camp (although maybe jaunt isn’t the right word when you’re lugging heavy packs). Sandy Camp is a small bowl quite close to the edge of the glacier and partly on and off snow banks. It’s somewhat sheltered from the wind – although wind was almost nonexistent while we were there anyway.
SH and H set up tents and we helped shovel snow to flatten out the foundation. As the temperature warmed and snow melted we ultimately found ourselves camping on quasi-islands. SH had to move his entire tent the next day because it turned out he was on a pond! C and Z, in the meantime, had to hike back to the lot to pick up their personal gear for the mountain and return again that same night. What a long day! Altitude gain was about 2300 feet.
After we settled in, we had a dinner of Mac’n cheese and smoked salmon and hiked up to a nearby bluff to see a spectacular sunset. On one side are the majestic mountains of the Cascades, on the other, the glassy ocean with Vancouver Island in the background. The setting sun backlit the clouds and snow capped mountains turning everything a soft apricot. It was a good omen for the next day and our upcoming summit attempt.
They don’t say a little black dress can be worn anywhere for nothing. A case in point.
The other week I was invited to speak to the Florida Young Lawyers division about mental toughness (which I call resilience) and my mountain climbing adventures. Having rejected the urge to show up in full battle gear – crampons, helmet, boots and the like – I decided my REI black travel dress would convey the necessary formality (these young lawyers were much more dressed up than we older lawyers tend to be) while still demonstrating that mountain “savoir faire.”
The event was in Tampa, and our plan for afterwards was to drive southeast toward the heart of Florida to a Hipcamp named Camp Catfish. It advertises itself as one of the top Hipcamps in Florida for 2021. It was a primitive site – no water, portapotties or any amenities (if you consider a port a potty an amenity). Just four leveled off pull in sites on a piece of property bordering the Peace River.
The drive to Camp Catfish took us along two lane county roads wending their way through fields of crops and citrus groves. I know Florida’s citrus industry is on the wane, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re in the midst of acres of orange trees.
Finally our GPS – yes, we had no address, only GPS coordinates- took us to a dirt road. Nestled along side were a few small farms and dwelling places – one was a “peace bus”. Truly looked like a spot for those living off the so-called grid.
We reached the end of the road and pulled into the campsite, marked by a Camp Catfish sign. Each site was large, with plenty of privacy. J and I immediately set to work – even though we’ve gotten a lot faster there’s still a lot of set up to do, and J insists on setting up an awning even for a one night stay. Hopefully some time we can go for two nights and enjoy the fruit of our labors.
Now what I haven’t mentioned is that I saw absolutely no point in changing clothes – hence I found my self erecting a privacy tent and making up the roofnest in a black dress! Well, I did change into tennis shoes. Like I said, those little black dresses go anywhere.
I did find something else to wear for a lovely short hike to the Peace River on the Hipcamp property the next morning. The river is home to many fossils – sharks teeth, armadillo plates, and the like – and the other campers were taking full advantage. They floated sieves in the river, dug up portions of the muddy riverbed and strained it through. They also had the biggest tent I’ve ever seen and I wondered if they were actually professional fossil hunters. After all, it was only $10 per night!
The hike itself took us through hobbit land. Covered in emerald green ferns, gentle rises and falls, and a canopy of old oaks.
I left the best for last. The night was moonless. There were no clouds or light pollution of any sort and the sky was embroidered with a thick weave of brilliant stars. Peace River. A wishful hope in these times.
I’m at my first in-person partners meeting in two years, staying at what I’m sure is a five star hotel. Who knows how far into the three digits it’s charging.
But this is life after the pandemic – or at least after we’ve gotten used to the pandemic – and much has changed in the hospitality industry. Or perhaps what I’m really demonstrating is that I’ve simply lost touch with the modern world of hotels over the last two years.
It started when I left my law firm’s dinner at a reasonable hour, returning to a really lovely room in a hotel that shall not be named. I was looking forward to enjoying a super expensive package of nuts from the minibar – which in my naïveté I just assumed was still a “thing.” But when I realized my keycard wouldn’t unlock said minibar I dialed 0 – at least that usually still works – to inquire about the issue. I was informed that Covid somehow had required the emptying of all minibars (despite the fact that minibars, whose ingredients are individually packaged and as pristine as a first snowfall, would hardly appear to be spreaders of Covid).
So giving up on that, I thought I could at least make a cup of decaf coffee in the fancy Illy coffee maker that was on top of the empty locked minibar. But Illy coffee machines should be banned as apparently no one, hotel staff included, knows how to use them.
With all the high falutin’ technology in this room – there was an imbedded TV screen in the bathroom mirror (what??) you would think you could at least turn the lights off with the help of one switch. But no, the switches were multiple and varied and at the end of the evening I found myself looking for manual off and on switches on each light fixture as the only way to power down. At least they still have switches. By the way, that omits the earlier hunt for the bathroom light switch, which turned out not to be close to the door but required a venture into a dark bathroom to find it somewhere in the center of the room over the middle of the vanity.
As I re-read this it certainly sounds like a rant of first world problems. But I’d never have thought that climbing up a ladder to my comfortable queen size mattress in my rooftop tent, illuminated by a little string of built in, battery pack operated LED lights, would be easier than staying in a swank hotel!
This blog post was supposed to be about our first actual out of the driveway camping experience in our rooftop tent (called a RTT by those in the know). But with 2021 rolling out in as haphazard a manner as it rolled in, this post is similarly going to have to careen across many topics. Think of the ball in a pinball machine going this way and that – perhaps a good analogy for the year.
To go back a few weeks – we did indeed get to adventure for one night at a Hipcamp site on the north shore of Lake Apopka. It was a fairly short drive from Orlando – light industrial areas morphed into light agricultural areas, anchored by what I learned is one of the largest blueberry processing facilities in the country. Who knew.
This particular campsite is notable for its whimsical decorations – LED dinosaur lights adorned our spot, and odd remnants of old vehicles and other objects (like a swan boat!) dotted the landscape.
The RTT experience itself was great. There’s a sense of security in sleeping ten feet above the ground, and the views are magnificent. The campfire was great and dinner would have been also had we remembered any utensils. I found myself googling “how to eat baked beans without silverware.” After rejecting the idea of whittling a fork (we didn’t have a knife either!) we resorted to using the tops of our water bottles as scoops.
The next morning was misty and grey. There was a hiking trail just across the street. Huge elephant ear plants around our tent and gone to the wild citrus made us feel we’d entered a world far from 21st century Florida.
But despite our plans for further adventure in 2021, the world of work kicked in and the next RTT inhabitants were Daughter A and fiancé N – in the driveway! Their sojourn – one night only – was occasioned by a Covid/omicrom outbreak among yours truly, J and daughter S (who we suspect imported this strain from a brief trip to San Francisco). And yes, all of us are fully vaccinated and boosted. We did, however, ultimately manage to cordon off the house so A and N were able to sleep indoors.
Fortunately we have a large porch and the contaminated ones were able to sit at the bottom part while still socializing with the others who held court on the top part. Our kn95 masks were de rigeur. Thank God the weather in Florida was compatible with outdoor living, and thus far we’ve limited the outbreak to the original three. But I must say I have rarely spent this much time outside – even on a camping trip. We spent a lot of time watching TikTok videos of other families in similar straits.
So, J and I will shortly see off the last of our holiday houseguests and plan to spend NYE in our covid imposed bubble instead of at the fancy dinner we’d planned at a local restaurant with M and S.
2021 had its moments – A and N’s engagement, Long’s Peak and Colorado, a family Thanksgiving extravaganza, and some great visits with my parents, among them. And let’s not forget the vaccines! I have a very definite feeling that without them I would be facing something very different than a head cold and fatigue.
Here’s to 2022! And to adventure, whether in a rooftop tent in the driveway or beyond.
I haven’t mentioned it before on this blog but as of a couple of months ago J and I became the proud parents of a RTT – also known as a rooftop tent. This little dwelling place sits snugly atop our Ford Explorer and provides a safe and comfortable place to sleep with views to boot.
Installation is a bear. Step one involved procuring the proper crossbars – an item I’d never even been aware existed before. But J persevered and after only four trips to Ace Hardware he had the necessary tools to attach said crossbars to the top of the vehicle.
Step two involved the tent itself. Day one of step 2 involved unpacking and ground assembling. The thing arrived in a gigantic box on a solidly constructed pallet (that has turned into an excellent platform for my orchids). With the help of friend S we unpacked it and attached various bits and bobs such that we could get it to pop up on the garage floor. Whew – quite a stench. The smell of new fabric.
Day two of Step 2 involved assembling a crew of four strong friends in addition to assembling the tent. J and I had tried to lift the thing and dead lifting from the ground to above a Ford Explorer was not in the cards. Turned out with the assistance of some of our stronger friends – all fueled by coffee with chicory I bribed them with – the “lift” was quite doable. It was up!!
A little detail. The tent has a hard top and folds down to a thin 4 or so inches. The car still fits in all parking garages even with the tent riding on top. It has screened entrances/windows on each side and on the front. You access whichever entrance you’ve chosen via a telescoping ladder that hooks onto the side. There are various bags you can hang on the outside for storing shoes so you don’t track anything in.
Inside it’s tall enough for me to stand up at the highest point. There’s a four plus inch built in memory foam queen size mattress, with lots of pockets on the sides and ceiling for storage. And, most cool, you can plug a battery pack in and a string of LED lights illuminates the interior.
When you want to put it up, you simply undo the latches and push. Beyond that it’s just a matter of pushing out the awning that shades the entrance on the front. Storing it is a little trickier – one person pulls down, you have to make sure all the fabric is folded in all around, and then you secure the latches. Compared to putting up a ground tent, it’s instantaneous.
Camping trip number one was in the relative safety of our driveway – to the great interest of our neighbors. Based on accounts in all the rooftop tent camping groups I immediately joined on Facebook, apparently that is a time honored tradition.
Camping in the front yard is one thing but camping in the woods another. We just finished our first one, so there’s another story on the horizon. This Thanksgiving giving thanks for the many adventures with friends and family that are yet to come.