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The Notebook: Baker or Rainier?

Welcome to The Notebook, where we will have guest writers presenting special features based on their fields of expertise, covering topics from mountaineering to adventure travel and everything in between.

By Peter Potterfield

As the author of Selected Climbs in the Cascades, both volumes 1 and 2, I get emails daily from adventurers coming to the Cascades for the first time wanting some insight into the best climbing routes in the range. And who can blame them? When it comes to alpine climbs, the Cascades offer arguably the best routes in the Lower 48.

None of the peaks in the range is more unique or appealing than the Cascade volcanoes. Draped in glaciers, studded with fearsome rock spires, and all rising above 10,000 feet, the volcanoes offer a climbing experience unrivaled outside of the Alps, or Alaska, or the Himalaya. There are six of these giants in the Northwest: Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Glacier Peak, and Mount Baker. But for most climbers seeking a world-class route on a big mountain, access, quality and climbing routes mean the choice comes down to just two: Mount Baker or Mount Rainier?

I was faced with that very dilemma when I first moved to the Northwest after a decade of climbing in the Rockies. I was stoked to get up on those big, ice-clad ghostly white mountains floating on the horizon in all directions, but frankly lacked the skills. Crevasse rescue, ice climbing, glacier travel, reading avalanche conditions—these were all skills I needed to acquire. But where to do it? On 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, lord of the range, rising above Seattle like a paper mache stage prop? Or the more remote and aesthetic 10,781-foot Mount Baker in the far north, monarch of ineffably beautiful North Cascades?

The decision was easy: Baker. This, the third highest peak in the Northwest, wears its heavy mantle of ice with exceptional beauty. Its high altitude and position west of the Cascade Crest—Baker is only 35 miles from tidewater—place it to receive the full blast of wet winter storms, feeding its glaciers. That becomes ever more important as climate change threatens Cascade glaciers farther south. Baker is snow white and pristine in its ice clad beauty.

For any climber wishing to add ice-climbing and steep snow-climbing skills to their resume, Mount Baker is perfect. It’s got everything Mount Rainier has—glaciers, crevasses, ice falls, steep ice, steep snow, craggy rock spires—and more. Situated within the wild North Cascades, often called the Switzerland of America, Baker comes with pristine wilderness and a sense of solitude that is unique among the Cascade volcanoes. But what it doesn’t have is perhaps its greatest draw: crowds and permit hassles. Multiple routes, from straightforward glacier climbs such as the Easton or the Coleman, to steep, aesthetic ice climbing routes such as the North Ridge, Baker offers a range of routes, difficulties and glacial terrain free of the crowds found on Mount Hood or Mount Adams or Mount Rainier.

A final consideration: altitude. For those of us who live at sea level, a trip above 14,000 feet comes with tiresome, debilitating effects of altitude, and the real possibility of high-altitude sickness. Now Baker is a big mountain, and at almost 11,000 feet, it is not immune to that danger, but acclimatization is easier and quicker. Altitude problems are far less of an issue on this peak. And the lower high camps and shorter summit days on its routes make climbing and learning on Mount Baker more fun and less stressful than doing the same program on Mount Rainier. Let’s be clear this is an equal climb technically but perhaps a better intro into glacier climbing and one of the pearls of the mountains every climber should attempt.

It worked for me, that’s why I ended up writing the climbing guide to the Cascades. Within a year of my tutelage on Baker, I climbed all the Cascade volcanoes: Mount Hood at night under a full moon (never turned the headlamps on) for a dawn summit, remote Glacier Peak via the Rabbit Ears route, and Rainier for the first of a dozen summits via the Emmons with my friend Scott Fischer. I did Adams the first time via the North Ridge, the “mule route” is just too boring. My time on Baker had me more than ready for all of that, and what was to come in Alaska and the Alps.

And the beauty is, gaining proficiency in big-mountain skills on Mount Baker is immediately transferable. Learn your chops here, where you likely will have more fun and fewer altitude problems, and enjoy a rare pristine setting and a genuine sense of solitude, and you are set up for what’s next: Rainier on a technical route, other Cascades climbs Denali, or Aconcagua.

Peter Potterfield collection

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