Mount Baker Ski and Splitboard Descent
In Spring skiers and split boarders start heading to the high country for summit descents on Mt. Baker. Baker was first skied in 1933 and remains a worthy PNW prize. These routes can be skied in the right conditions mid-winter, but April is when they begin to get used more regularly and the season winds down in June, depending on your appetite for hiking with skis at the start and finish.
We run these as 1-3 day programs, with the majority opting for 2 days, giving us time to enjoy the hike in, get a few hours of sleep, and time the descent for optimum conditions. Our season generally begins on the north side (via the Coleman-Deming Route) simply because the approach is shorter and by May we are often also using the Easton Glacier on the South side. We consistently see the best conditions in May and early June with additional time carrying your skis at the start as the trails melt out.
Each route finishes on the Roman Wall, the final steep climb to the summit and usually the crux of the descent. We feel like this is best done as a custom program as it allows you to invite people of a similar ski ability and fitness level. All participants need to be good skiers as this is glaciated terrain that at times can be steep and you need to remain in control. You need to feel very comfortable on your skis to ski from the actual summit. Many groups, with any guide service, opt to do that last steep bit with boots and crampons and will often sometimes climb the steepest skiing at the top if the conditions are firm. While we occasionally find powder conditions, this is ski mountaineering and variable spring conditions are the norm.
Mt. Baker Ski Descent from the NorthSki descents of Mt. Baker made from the North meet in Glacier, WA at the USFS Ranger Station for an equipment check followed by a short drive to the trailhead. Early season you can expect 60-90 minutes of additional hiking on the road that approaches the trailhead as it is not plowed and melts out irregularly. From the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead at 3670’ we either follow the usual summer trail or take a more direct approach via Grouse Creek. The decision of which approach is based on current avalanche hazard.
For 2-day ascents we meet at the Ranger Station around 9 am and for 1-day ascents we meet much earlier, depending on the forecast.
If camping we usually stay at the Hogsback Camp (5900’) and review the skills that we will need for our ascent and ski do a review of using an ice axe, crampons, ski crampons, harnesses and the climbing rope. We usually try to be in bed while it is still light out and get some sleep before our early wake-up. We often wake up later on these trips than normal summit climbs as we want the Roman Wall to have time to soften up.
The ascent takes 5-6.5 hours and climbs around 4800’. We usually shoot for about 1000’ per hour with short breaks to adjust clothing, eat, drink, and check-in with one another. In most years the skinning is fairly straight forward up until the Colfax-Baker saddle at 9050’. It is not uncommon to need to use our ski crampons in here and we rope up for some sections. Above the saddle we often choose to carry our skis as the next obstacle, the Pumice Ridge, is often covered with rime ice. Once past the Pumice Ridge we have that last steeper climb up the Roman Wall followed by the traverse across the summit plateau to the actual summit of Baker.
The initial ski descent on either route has about 400 feet of of steeper skiing, above 35 degrees. This section requires care and careful skiing and can be skipped if it is simply too firm. Once down to about 10,000 feet the slope angle has eased considerably and the skiing can remain challenging due to typical surface conditions until we get down to the Colfax-Baker saddle. On either 1 or 2 day ascents we aim to be back at the car by late afternoon with 3 days climbs getting out a bit earlier.
Total Distance and Elevation Gain for North:
- 7100 elevation gain and descent
- 11 miles RT (+ any road distance to/from TH)
Mt. Baker Ski Descent from the SouthSki descents of Mt. Baker from the South meet in Sedro-Woolley, WA at the USFS Ranger Station for a quick equipment check and then drive about an hour on paved and gravel roads towards the Schriebers Meadow trailhead. We usually start working this route a bit later in the season than the Coleman-Deming as the approach is a bit longer.
Weekend or Weekday?If you can swing the time off on a weekday trip, you are less likely to have many people on the route. The route is not exactly crowded early season, but we enjoy the quieter weekday trips. Both work, but it is nice to get in there before the weekend skiers have arrived and have a less skied route.
Early season it is not uncommon to hike on the road for a couple of hours before reaching the trailhead and then work our way up to Sandy Camp (5900’) or to other camps to the East. At camp we brush up on the same set of skills for the next day’s ascent: use of the ice axe, crampons, ski crampons, and the climbing rope. We have dinner and review of the plan for morning and get to bed early.
In the morning we ascend the Easton Glacier and edge of the Deming Glacier with our usual last stop being somewhere near the Sherman Crater at about 9700’. The lower glacier involves winding through crevasses with short steeper climbs and the angle slowly picks up a as we climb higher. The final stretch up the Roman Wall has that same 400’ of steeper climbing that rolls up and joins the CD route just before the summit. We feel like this section can ski a bit easier than the CD version, with a ski depot option if it is too firm.
On the ski down the guide will have you follow a very specific route through the crevasses and is unroped. From camp we can often ski quite far down valley, but almost always have some carrying to do prior to the trailhead.
Total Distance and Elevation Gain for South:
- 7600 elevation gain and descent
- 14 miles (+ any road distance to/from TH)
Qualifications: Baker Ski & Snowboard DescentSki or Splitboard Ability: While Baker gets skied often, it is not a descent to be taken lightly. You should be a good skier or snowboarder. People commonly inquire about skiing down simply because it sounds easier than walking. This should not be your first mountain descent. Things you should feel comfortable doing include: skiing with a 30 lb. backpack, skiing a wide variety of snow ranging from powder to breakable crust to corn, and climbing and descending 4000-5000‘ on skis for 2 days. You cannot undertake the Mt. Baker ski program without any experience outside of a ski area. Most participants have some experience AT skiing with a guide, and show up with some recent tours on their resume. We are happy to arrange a ski or split board assessment in advance of the trip. Splitboarders should be familiar with their equipment and generally choose to board with ski poles. Most snowboard boots are not appropriate for the ascent unless they are waterproof. We are happy to discuss split setups that we have seen people succeed with. Ski Crampons and/or crampons that work on your board are mandatory.
Ski & Snowboard Skills AssessmentIdeally we will have had a chance to ski with you in advance of your trip to Mt. Baker, but we realize this is not always possible. If you have skied previously with a ski guide we are always happy to discuss your ski ability with them if that will help you make your decision, but we have also provided the following list of ski skills if making a self-assessment as you ponder the trip.
Advanced Ski and Snowboard Skills
- Able to ski or board fall line in most snow conditions (powder to wind affected snow).
- Able to make parallel or stem-christie turns on 35+° groomed or firm snow.
- Able to side-slip on firm slopes up to 35+°.
- Able to ski or board moguls in soft snow.
- Able to do kick turns facing in or facing out on 35+° slopes.
- Able to skate on level terrain.
- Able to ski fall-line in tight radius turns in good conditions.
- Able to ski black diamond runs at ski areas efficiently and in most snow conditions.