Mount Baldwin (#49)
Day 42, Mount Baldwin
I was very conflicted over how to climb Baldwin. The standard route takes the northwest face, which provides a moderate climb to the summit, and a decent, albeit fairly short, ski line. The southeast side is graced by a fantastic ski line, a long and striking couloir, but requires a steep, 4th class climb up notoriously loose rock to reach the summit. Always a sucker for a classic line, I chose the southeast couloir.
I was happy to find that the road was clear all the way to the McGee Creek trailhead, and I set off up the rocky trail just as the sky started to brighten. A mile and a half of dry trail brought me to consistent snow and the start of my climb away from the creek.
Firm, frozen spring snow provided fast and easy climbing up into the hanging cirque and to the base of the couloir, which snaked its way through the towering cliffs above. The snow stayed firm all the way up the massive apron, promising great corn skiing in a couple hours.
Once I entered the couloir, however, things quickly turned to mush. Soft snow, nearly a week old, still lay deep in the narrow, steep chute. I had expected it to be fully cooked down and consolidated by now, but it must have blown in deep during the storm. I wallowed upward, progress drastically slowing.
The face was heating up quickly, and I became wary of wet slides and rockfall off the steep walls above. I was slogging my way up the barrel of a loaded gun, and with each passing minute the trigger became touchier. Eager to get out of the line of fire, I pushed hard, heart rate rising as I swam upwards through boot deep mush. Multiple times, small rocks cascaded down into the couloir below me, each time providing a burst of adrenaline to keep me moving fast. Sweat soaked my shirt and stung my eyes, occasionally blinding me. Finally, I hauled myself up and out of the top of the chute, panting and exhausted.
I considered forgoing the summit and dropping in right away, but decided that ski conditions weren’t going to deteriorate much more than they already had. I pulled on trail runners and continued up the loose, blocky ridge. At first, progress was fairly quick and easy. Then, I reached the final head wall, and that changed dramatically.
Steep, wet, unconsolidated snow was plastered over even steeper, loose rock. Each move required excavation of snow, ice, gravel, and dirt to find relatively solid hand and footholds. Upward progress slowed to a standstill. Multiple times, I reached a vertical crux and almost bailed in frustration. Each time, after long, careful examination, testing holds, and digging in the snow and loose rock, I found a way around or over.
It was painfully slow, wet, insecure, and uncomfortable, but I made continuous progress upward. More times than I’d care to admit, I resorted to trusting detached blocks or disintegrating footholds that were clearly untrustworthy, gingerly weighting them and willing them to stick to the mountain. I pushed off dozens of large blocks, sending them tumbling endlessly down into the abyss below.
At long last, I reached the summit, but felt no joy or satisfaction, knowing the most difficult and mentally taxing climbing was still to come.
I didn’t stay long, as I knew I needed to maintain my state of focus and didn’t want to get accustomed to the comfort of secure terrain.
I briefly explored alternate descents, was unsurprised to find no good options, then started my way back down the steep chimney that I had emerged from.
On the downclimb, I had the benefit of knowing where to go, but the disadvantage of having to commit to blind footholds, lowering myself carefully over bulges onto snowy, muddy, sloping footholds. Time stretched and my focus began to wane, but I forced myself to stay engaged and to climb slowly and deliberately.
When I finally reached easier terrain, it was as if a pressing weight was finally lifted off me. I was proud of how I climbed and that I had managed the difficult conditions well, but disappointed that I had committed to the ascent in the first place. It was a poor decision, one made with pride rather than good judgement. The climbing had been at the very limit of my risk tolerance for two long, tenuous hours.
The skiing was difficult and tedious, with small wet slides and roller balls constantly releasing off my skis. I settled into a rhythm of making a few turns, then pulling off to the side of the chute to let all the slow-moving junk slide on past.
Fortunately, the couloir was a fairly moderate pitch, and the skiing secure. I exited the chute and did indeed find good turns on the long apron, each one lifting my spirits slightly until I was carving fast, wide turns with a big smile back on my face. The good corn skiing continued all the way back down to the trail.
I finished the day feeling physically fine, but mentally exhausted, and immediately fell asleep, very glad to be back to safety.
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