return to kulshan | c2c baker via squak ski tour

19 miles . 7850 ft gain . 10778 ft high

Mount Baker Wilderness

It all started the weekend before. We had just skied Mount St Helen’s and I had just come back from a multi-week trip and had only ski toured once in the past month. Despite the tired legs, I was already stoked to get outside again the next weekend. Lately, there’s been a fairly big heat wave around Washington and on Helen’s, we saw evidence of that during our descent. It was great for a couple thousand feet and then it got quite heavy and less fun to ski. Still more fun than walking down the mountain, but we gotta have some critique. So needless to say, all of us were quite doubtful of another ski weekend the next week with the forecasted increase in temperature and sun exposure.

Obviously as this trip report title suggests, we went skiing anyway! Spring is when shorter, low elevation hikes start to clear of snow. But bigger objectives are still a bit under a snow cover and not the funnest to walk, so you might as well take advantage of ski tours that happen at higher elevation. Highway 20 had just opened after a long winter being closed and WSDOT working hard to remove all the accumulated snow for summer passage. This is usually when people flock over to Washington Pass to ski something like the Birthday Tour or Black Peak or Silver Star. And while those were at the top of my list for suggestions after having such a fantastic time skiing a lesser traveled mirrored tour of the Birthday Tour by Kangaroo and Wallaby. But then when Baker was back on the suggestion list, that was way too enticing to ignore.

Skinning at dawn

It was a shorter drive from Seattle, meaning I’d get more sleep vs the minimal 2 hours I got for Helens. We start a bit lower than Washington Pass and are south facing but you end up at least 2000 feet higher, which also equates to cooler temps. Some of the WA Pass tours also require some bushwhacking/route finding shenanigans whereas Baker is usually more straightforward since it is skied often. I was tempted to just go up and down the Easton Glacier because I’ve been on it before, but upon consultation with friends, Squak seemed way better as a ski descent. It’s more straight forward, supposedly less miles and fewer crevasses to navigate. What’s not to love?

I think it’s debatable whether it’s better to sleep at a trailhead or waking up earlier and getting to sleep in your own bed. It’s probably more of a personal decision but given the choice, I prefer sleeping at a trailhead so your sleep cycle is slightly more regular. The early wake ups are already hard and to tack on a drive for an even earlier wake up is usually a recipe for foggy brain. But then this also depends on your ability to sleep outside or in your car. For some this could be less sleep than you would at home. I surprisingly got a decent amount after a harder time falling asleep as cars passed by. But at 1am, our alarms went off and we slowly got our gear together.

Alpenglow on Kulshan
Twin Sisters Range

At 1:45am, we were on our way with our trail runners and skis on our packs. We passed quite a number of groups who had their gear already packed. Smart of them! While they were all trying to get a few more z’s, I was happy to be on our way to get a better chance and catching alpenglow right above the tree line. Alpenglow makes all alpine starts worth it!! In our zombie state of mind, we quickly finished the 2.5 mile road walk to the trailhead, hanging up our trail runners on a tree. We passed and got passed by a few people near the trailhead but soon, we had the forest to ourselves and it was so peaceful. I was thankful to have old tracks from friends to gain advantage on the terrain. Some take the Scott Paul Trail directly and others gain the ridge off trail. Both work and the trees are mostly spread apart enough, it’s quite easy to go up without navigating branches. There was something quite serene about moving by headlamp (thanks Dan for bringing a second pair after mine was rapidly dimming, and I had forgotten one for Helens too…).

“Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear?” – Taylor Swift

We moved at a fairly decent pace, getting quite warm despite the sun below the horizon. As the stars faded into the blue sky, I was eager to get higher out of the woods. Thankfully, we were moving at just the right pace to bask in the pink glow for a brief few minutes. Shuksan was gorgeous and we got a glimpse of the Twin Sisters Range and literally all of the rest of the Cascades down to Rainier. I’ve seen this scene before but it never gets old. I took out my telephoto lens and snapped a few more and that was the icing on the cake. This is why I bring multiple lenses even if it means more weight!

After the alpenglow event, it was the rest of the long slog to the summit, nearly 5000 more feet to go. For me, I couldn’t think about exactly what that meant, just focusing on staying energized and not overly tired. I was able to set a steady pace through the forest but my egg sandwich could only sustain me for so long and I started to decelerate my pace. I could feel my quads working hard and we weren’t even half way up. And this is where having a good friend comes in. They see you on the path towards bonking and they make you stop and fuel yourself. I’ve never been good at that. It’s easy to stop and feel good and just take 2 small bites of something. But for how much work you make your body do, that is never enough. Maybe for a day hike, but definitely not for a long alpine day.

Someone’s overnight tent and a winter ptarmigan

A few groups ahead
Slogging to each knoll

Stuffing myself and downing some electrolytes, I felt better and re-energized by the next break. Once you’re on the path out of bonking and stay on that path, somehow your appetite comes back, which solves so many problems, including attitude sickness. Knoll after knoll we’d surpass, stopping more frequently than we did in the forest. Food, sunscreen, water, food, water, layers. And repeat and random mix that dance. On the way up, I noticed that everyone we’d seen (or who had passed us) were all male. Where were all my female climbers? And suddenly it felt both a little lonely yet empowering on the mountain.

We crested 9000 ft and started seeing the hoards of people on the Easton route. This is right below the crater where the two paths meet up and share the last thousand or so feet of ascent to the summit. And alas! The female climbers were to be found. Quite a few were on guided groups but a small handful were in personal teams. We took a nice long break by the sulfur smelling ridge and marveled as people started skiing down the Roman Wall. I was thankful that all the crevasses were filled on our route. It makes navigation so easy!

A few guided groups up Easton
Taking a look at the summit
Another party coming down

We probably could have shortened our break because we were really pushing our descent time for maximizing snow quality. We booted up the Roman Wall and skinned the top to the true Baker summit. We reached it right before noon, which clocked us around 10 hours from the car including breaks. We shared the summit with quite a few people and were some of the last to leave with a few people arrive way later. Stubborn to say I skied from the summit, I left my skins on and weaved my way down the nub before skinning back to the top of the Roman Wall. We let all the guided groups go ahead of us, seeing that they were all much stronger, faster skiers than us. It’s nice to not feel the pressure to perform or go speedy when other people are right at your tail.

Summit views
The guided groups preparing to ski down

Skiing the Roman Wall

On the Squak

The top 3000 feet of descent was incredible soft corn. I could have done with slightly firmer but it was so much better than I had worried about with our late turn around time. But then as we started down the Squak, it felt like we hit a wall immediately. From beautiful turns to tough concrete snow that wanted to fall on every turn. I was happy to only ski about 1000 feet of the mess when we hit the forest. Surprisingly, the shade in the woods was just enough to firm up the snow for a decent ski, only sloppy because of all the coniferous needles and navigating some tight trees. The lovely thing about volcanoes is that the slope angle is never too steep, so even tree skiing is manageable. We took advantage of the old growth and tried to follow our up track until we randomly got pulled into a luge track that was steeper than I wanted and I pizza’d for dear life. But then it turned onto an old logging road east of our up route, which was a lovely ski out to the trailhead. And then we were basically back! 13 hours later, we were back at our car again and couldn’t have been more excited to take off my soaked boots! 7800 ft of up and down on skis in the books. And the coolest part was that we’d summit 2 volcanoes on skis within 7 days and the wildest is it was Dan’s first and second ski tour ever. Can’t beat that!

  • Don’t forget your headlamp!
  • Whether or not you rope up on a glacier is a personal/group risk assessment and most groups we saw that day did not rope up if they were on skis, but maybe half did if they were on foot. But everyone should be in a harness ready for rescue even if you don’t rope up. We did not have to navigate any visible crevasses.
  • We took 10 hours up leisurely with plenty of rest and about 3 hours back to the car including a 2.5 road walk. Turned around at noon on a 65F degree day was about the latest I would’ve descended.
  • There’s a sneaky luge track out that you might randomly find near the bottom few hundred feet.
  • Technical ability: The steepest part is the Roman Wall near the summit which only gets to about 30 degrees, but the rest is like a green/blue resort run. Trees can be pizza’d down haha but they’re relatively open and slope angle is mostly quite mellow, but the snow is probably most variable here.
  • Clothing: It was around 45F at the car to start and possibly close to upper 60s at the summit and back to 80s at the car. I wore a thin pair of capri leggings with ski socks and a sun hoodie to cover up and lots of sunscreen on the face. It was a great combo, never got too hot unless I wore my hardshell for too long.
  • Check out the Easton route here

Photos taken on Canon 5D Mark IV

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