Veterans Expeditions: Summer Missions in the PNW
For the past three summers, Veterans Expeditions (VetEx) has run a Pacific Northwest climbing series where teams of veterans have tackled many of the classic climbs in the area including Glacier Peak, Eldorado Peak, Mt Hood, Mt Shasta, as well as multiple routes on Mts. Rainier and Baker. As the snow fell over the winter, our teams poured over guidebooks and maps, dreaming up objectives for the summer trip to Washington. Among those objectives were a training climb on Mount Baker with our 2019 Women’s Denali Team, an ascent of the classic North Ridge route of Mt. Baker, and for two of the VetEx leaders, making ski turns in every month for a full year.
As the summer rolled around and planning began to wrap up, the objective list stood ambitious yet attainable: A splitboard mission on Mt. Adams’ Southwest Couloir (as well as a to-be-determined splitboard descent to earn July turns), The 2019 Women’s Denali Team training climb on Baker via the Coleman-Deming Route, the North Ridge on Baker, and the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak. The first team headed out mid-June going west from Colorado to get after it.
The trip started out on a very successful ascent of Mt. Adams in clear skies and heavy winds with a descent of the Southwest Chutes. One of the classic descents of the Cascades, the couloir is a wide, perfectly pitched 35-degree chute complete with prime corn conditions that the makes the PNW so famous for summer ski missions. After a 4,500 foot descent from the summit and some minor bushwacking to regain the hiking trail back to the parking lot, the team arrived, stoked, tired, but ready for the next mission! With a few days before the arrival of the Denali team, the two team members managed to squeeze another quick mission to the top of Ruth Mountain, riding the Ruth Glacier and earning their July turns.
As the Women’s Denali team began to trickle into the Seattle Tacoma airport to gear up for the training trip on Mt. Baker, the excitement from the two previous climbs set the tone for the next week of training. For a majority of the Denali team, this would be their first time on a glacier. After hiking to the foot of the Deming Glacier to make camp for the week, the classic Pacific Northwest rain reared its head. However, this forced the team to conduct training in less than ideal conditions which may prove to be great training for Denali’s big days of high winds and heavy precipitation. While the team waited for a weather window to make a push for the summit, rope teams practiced the skills absolutely essential to safely climb Denali: self-arrest, crevasse rescue, glacier travel, running belays, as well as spending time confined to a tent on a glacier waiting for better weather.
As apprehension began to grow within the team as to whether there would be an opportunity to make an attempt on the summit, it appeared as though the weather would provide a small window to go for it. On the final night of training as the light from the late evening sunset began to fade, alarms woke the team from what little sleep they were able to squeeze in with a 10PM wake up. The team gathered their equipment, checked and rechecked the contents of their packs, and set out by headlamp tied into their respective rope teams using Sterling ropes and began to move from camp at Heliotrope Ridge towards the summit of Mt. Baker. The team, tired but caffeinated, moved quickly to the saddle at 9,000 feet separating the Deming and Coleman glaciers. From here, the nature of the climbing changes from easier glacier travel to steeper snow. More specifically, the Roman Headwall, the crux of the route, lay just ahead of the teams. This crux consists of moderately steep, exposed snow climbing, and due to the time of day the snow conditions were on the harder side. A slip on this section could lead to a big fall, potentially sending a team falling thousands of feet below into the heavily crevassed Deming Glacier. The team moved methodically up the headwall, placing running belays, and focusing on their headlamps’ illumination, and careful footwork. Ascending the head wall without any trouble, the team was greeted with the warmth of the sun cresting over the horizon to reveal an incredible sunrise just 100 feet below the summit. After grabbing the obligatory summit photos, the team made quick work back towards camp in order to rush back to the Seattle airport so team members would not miss their flights home.
After the departure of the Denali team, the Veterans who remained returned to the Deming glacier in order to make an attempt on the North Ridge of Mount Baker. For the North Ridge, the teams decided to use the Nano IX Sterling single rope which would allow them the best option for 60 meter pitches of ice and steep snow as well as a very lightweight rope for a small team. The North Ridge turned out to be what is expected of such a classic route - a beautiful setting, stomach-churning exposure, and absolutely delightful climbing.
After the descent back to the car, the teams had one rest day and then knew in order to get their last objective in; they needed to quickly get over to Marblemount in order to procure a permit to climb in the Boston Basin area. An extremely tough permit to get during peak time, the team was unable to get a permit to climb Forbidden. Disappointed and tired from the pace of the last several climbs, the team sat dejected in the Ranger station brainstorming alternative plans.
On a rest day prior to the North Ridge climb, the team had watched “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey”. Using the film and Fred Beckey’s legacy as motivation, the team set its sights on one of the classic Beckey routes in the Washington Pass area. As stoke began to rise again, the team headed to make a climb of the South Arete of South Early Winters Spire. The team, with sore legs and backs from 6 climbs so far in 3 weeks’ time, slogged through the scree and talus to the base below the route. As they worked their way up to the ridge in Beckey’s footsteps, the team was rewarded with amazing views of the North Cascades, thrilling ridgeline exposure, and beautiful weather. A perfect end to another climbing series in the Pacific Northwest.
Written By Scott Partan, Veterans Expeditions Colorado Team Leader
After graduating high school in New Hampshire, Scott enlisted in the US Army as an Intelligence Soldier and served two tours in Iraq. After his time in the military, Scott received a B.A. in Political Science and pursued his passion for the outdoors in New Hampshire before moving to Colorado. Scott currently works for SOS Outreach in the Vail valley sharing these outdoor passions with under-served youth. He climbs rock and ice regularly and he is often out of cell range split-boarding in the backcountry during the winter.