MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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August 2, 2019

AICC Blog 2019 6/30-7/5

Summits don’t define success on a Mountain Madness Alpine Ice Climbing Course. Some reflections on a six-day itinerary of ice on the north side of Mt. Baker from MM guide Arthur Herlitzka.

The morning of June 30 I met fellow Mountain Madness guide Jacob Oram and our clients Seb and Adam in Seattle. We departed Seattle and headed north en route to Mt. Baker with an overnight stop at Deception Pass state park to kick our course into gear. 

The idea of an AICC (Alpine Ice Climbing Course) is to meet our guests where they are in their skills and decision making progression, and how it relates to Alpine Ice Climbing. One of the key benefits to a Mountain Madness progression is the low client to guide ratio on the trips. We were fortunate enough to be fully covered at a 1:1 client to guide ratio (2:1 is a max ratio for us for a trip like this).

With this in mind, the goal of our first day was to get a feel for the current base skill set of each guest, and to get on the same page regarding important climbing related fundamentals and communication. We selected Mt. Erie, a rock climbing crag west of Mt. Baker with a stellar view of Puget Sound. A controlled rock crag environment allows for speedy acquisition of new skills and review of old. Practicing ascending, knots and friction hitches without having to worry about cold hands, wet gloves, snow, rain, or wind is much more conducive to efficient learning. 

Days two and three consisted of establishing camp on the north side of Mt. Baker, starting at the lovely Mirkwood Campground. This camp allows quick access to the lower ablation zone of the Coleman glacier. Here we continued with instruction of movement and anchoring skills on dry glacier (bare ice non-snowy glacier).  We practiced cramponing, ice anchors, ice climbing movement (the fun part), glacial navigation, and the ‘big picture’ of piecing together a complex mountaineering route.  Check out Jacob and company cruising on the lower Coleman:


Seb refined his ice movement on this trip! He styled his way up and down and up again. Nice work!


After ice specific movement and anchoring we bumped camp up to Hogsback — from where we made our summit attempt and spent the remaining days of our course.  With close access to glacier and snow, we refined movement, anchoring systems, and practiced self-arrest. We talked through intricacies, the varying levels of security in snow belays, and movement. 

Our day wrapped up discussing risk management and decision making skills, and how they relate to a committing route like the North Ridge. The first risk management decision to make is whether to go or not to go. The mountain will always be there.

Fast forward to 2:30am the next morning and we are crunching our way up hill in the dark negotiating the complex Coleman glacier. With an uncertain weather forecast, our first crux of the day was to navigate to the toe of the North Ridge route through low visibility conditions. It is key to keep your wits about you when navigating heavily glaciated terrain. One must find the path of least resistance, and keep a clear vision of how to reverse the route if need be.

Quickly getting light out... headlamps off soon.

Cool cracks! Mt Baker was feeling a lot like Rainier in terms of how many (and how large) the crevasses were.

On the ascent it is important as a climber to continually make observations on route conditions, weather, your partners, and efficiency of movement. Assembling a well-rounded picture of the day is important in making key risk management decisions.

“We’ve been hiking for 3 hours and I have yet to be able to see the summit.” 

“Visibility has been good between 6000ft and 7000ft but I can’t see below or above these elevations.”

“The clouds cleared and saw the upper route... but only for 5 minutes”

“Our team is moving well, but visibility is getting worse”

All of these observations were going through my head on the way to the toe of the North Ridge. Upon arrival a decision needed to be made on whether to commit to the route and go for the summit or turn at the toe and reverse our glacier crossing. We decided to spend 25 minutes making final observations of the weather. The hardest decisions to make are the uncertain ones. It’s easy to make a decision to climb when the group is strong and the weather is great. Or not to climb when the weather is terrible. But with a strong group and ‘iffy’ weather there is a grey area. “Maybe the weather will improve...” 

In the end it comes down to taking responsibility and making a hard decision. This day we decided to turn around and reverse our steps. The weather and visibility were not within our acceptable level of risk tolerance for a route of this commitment.

Sometimes the most growth as a climber comes from getting shut down. This was definitely a learning experience for the students on this course. Direct experience with the game of determining potential risk factors, and whether it is worth it to climb or wait for another day. 

We descended to Hogsback and decided to pack camp and climb ice on the lower Coleman again as a consolation prize. Not too shabby of a consolation prize!