An Epic Summit Journey on Mount Baker in Washington

The wind was whipping as the five-man team nonchalantly climbed the final thirty feet of snow to the top of Washington’s third-tallest volcano. We were six hours into our summit push, but thanks to some summit stoke, our legs felt as fresh as ever. As we crested the snowy perch onto the summit of Mount Baker, 360-degree views of Washington’s North Cascades befriended us.

It was breathtaking.

There’s nothing like standing atop a snowy volcano and peering at the world’s beauty. From the summit of Mount Baker, you’re treated to some of the most magical views in all of Washington. And after six hours of climbing, it was so worth it!

If you’re considering summiting Mount Baker, I’ve detailed everything I can think of, from the trip recap with Cascade Mountain Ascents, to what it’s like being on a rope team, photographing the trip, and much more.

Three Days Summiting Mount Baker via the Easton Glacier Route

Here’s how our three-day trek went for summiting Mount Baker, aka Koma Kulshan, which means Great White Watcher.

Trailhead to Sandy Camp

Around 11:30 am, the gang loaded up our heavy-ish packs, took one last look at civilization, and headed into the forest. It was a beautiful, sunny, early summer day in northern Washington. Just the kind you hope for when you set out on an adventure.

The first 1.25 miles were gentle, uneventful, and nicknamed the highway for its straightforwardness. When we arrived at Rocky Creek, the bridge hadn’t been put in by the Forest Service yet, meaning we had to cross the creek gingerly. I’m happy to note we all stayed dry for both crossings.

four mountaineers head towards mount baker in washingotn
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
a team of climbers head up the trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
climbers heading up the trail with mount baker in the background
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Fifteen minutes later, we hit snow on the trail, and the team put on their snow boots. We bade goodbye to dry dirt, for 90% of the remainder of the Baker summit trip would be on snow.

Thankfully, the snow was packed in and gave us good footing as we headed up the switchbacks toward our junction with the Railroad Grade Trail, which beelined us to Sandy Camp.

While I’d done Park Butte Lookout twice, this was my first time going up the Railroad Grade. It’s a narrow path with a steep drop-off on top of a lateral glacier moraine. I think the best way to describe it is it’s similar to walking on the top of a snowboard halfpipe.

This part was relatively easy, but it was quite congested, with three teams, including ours, heading up and another coming down. After looking at the timestamps from my photos, this 1.2-mile section took a bit over an hour.

The final stats for day one were four miles and 2,700 feet of gain.

a tent at basecamp on mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Homebase At Sandy Camp

Once we found a spot, we set up camp. The team leveled out the snow for our tents, dug a little private area, and found a water source. (A small trickle that ended up being pretty clutch!)

Then, we relaxed for a bit before discussing what summiting Mount Baker would be like. This included getting our crampons ready, talking about ice axes and self-arresting, and discussing life on a rope team.

After making and eating dinner, the squad headed into their tents to get some sleep before our early wake-up call the next morning. I stayed up a bit longer to shoot the sunset, though by 9 pm (still before sunset), I called it a night.

Even though I was excitedly anxious for summiting Mount Baker, I fell asleep quickly and hardly stirred.

Summiting Mount Baker

At 2:30 am, warm and in the middle of a nice dream, our guide Zack tapped on the tent. It was game time!

A quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee warmed my insides, and by 3:45 am, we had all of our gear on (harnesses, crampons, helmets, and warm clothes). We headed up the last bits of the Railroad Grade trail before quickly breaking to rope up.

From here on out we would be walking on the Easton Glacier. Thankfully, it was entirely covered in snow, and we went straight up it.

Washington’s long summer days mean early sunrises. By 4:30 a.m., there was light in the sky, so we used our headlamps sparingly and were guided by the morning light. It was an incredibly peaceful time to be on the mountain.

climbers with their headlights illuminting the way
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Snow and Ice

Overall, the trek up was uneventful—some might even say boring—but boring on a mountain means things are going well!

Thanks to our slow speed, I was able to have some conversations with other climbers on the mountain. This helped kill time and make for a more interesting approach. With how spread out you are while roped up, there’s no good way to chat with your own teammates, so the person behind you or next to you quickly becomes a friend.

Our team took four or five breaks on the way up, each about an hour apart. The final one was at Mount Baker’s crater, just below the Roman Wall. This allowed us to soak in the views, scope out the crater, and fuel up for the final push.

sunrise while summiting mount baker with glacier peak in the background
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
a climber walks up the steep slope while summiting mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
our rope team looking at the camera while on the roman wall
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
looking down from the top of the roman wall at the people summiting mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

While the Roman Wall sounds intense, it’s just a steep section of the mountain. We made three switchbacks and, in no time, were heading towards the summit of Mount Baker. From the top of the Roman Wall to the top of Baker, is about two football fields long and nearly flat. Just below the summit perch, we dropped our packs and made the final 30-foot trek to the top!

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The Summit of Mount Baker

We did it! Our fivesome had completed summiting Mount Baker and stood on top of the third tallest volcano in Washington. The day was gorgeous, albeit windy, and we had stunning 360-degree views of Mount Shuksan, a thousand feet below, and the entire North Cascades range. Over to the south, Mount Rainier rose like a white dome on the horizon.

It was surreal. Never did I think I’d get the chance to summit Mount Baker, and definitely not 16 months after undergoing a bone marrow transplant to beat cancer. It was a culmination of hard work, medical progress, and some pretty damn good determination. But as a photographer, I was snapping images all over the place and honestly didn’t have much time to reflect on the experience.

our rope team while summiting mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
Looking out from the summit of mt baker onto mt shucksan and the north cascades.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
lookout out onto the vast north cascades range
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
summit views from the top of mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

After 45 minutes on top, we turned our backs to the summit. Our trek down was somewhat speedy and totally gorgeous. We were all ready to be back to base camp, get a real meal, and close our eyes.

However, two thousand feet above Sandy Camp, the snow softened to slush, and it was post-holing for what seemed like an eternity. I fell over more than thirty times and sunk down to my kneecaps a few more dozen times.

While the snow was undeniably terrible, being on a rope team did make it harder. You’re trying to find solid snow, not step on the rope, and move quickly downhill. In the conditions we were in, being roped up was miserable. Yet we all persevered!

Once we finally made it to camp, wet, hungry, and tired, the entire group hit their beds for a well-earned nap. Thankfully, we timed the entire day right. As we returned to camp, the summit of Baker became shrouded in clouds, and for the next 15 hours, raindrops ebbed and flowed from the heavens above.

Final Stats for day 2: 6+ miles, 4,700+ feet of gain and decline

Sandy Camp back to the Car

Our alarms went off a little after 5:30 on Sunday morning, and we began the packing process. Unfortunately, it was misting, making for a less-than-ideal situation. Still, most of us had slept since 8 pm, so we were very well rested—though somewhat sore.

On a positive note, the gang moved quickly to pack up and we made speedy work of the snowy section before finally getting back onto solid ground. Two hours later, we were unloading our packs, giving high fives, saying goodbyes, and going our separate ways.

It was a fantastic trip with memories that will last a lifetime. Soaking in mountain views, trudging up an alpine stair stepper, lacing up crampons, sharing stories, and so many more fun moments made this an unforgettable trip.

I’m incredibly grateful to the team for letting me come with them and push my body and mind to new heights.

Final stats for day three: 4 miles, 2,700 feet of decline

Safety While Summiting Mount Baker

Go With A Guide

This one’s key. If you don’t have experience hiking on a glacier or mountaineering, go with a guide. They will teach you the basics, provide gear, and be someone you can rely on. I’m glad I went with CMA for the first time. The guide-to-guest ratio was perfect, and it allowed us plenty of time to ask questions and learn from an experienced pro.

Bring the Correct Gear

If you don’t have good gear, you will not have a fun time. The CMA team will provide some gear for you, but you’ll need to bring all of your clothes. They will provide a full list, but here’s a general overview.

Communicate with Your Team

Whether you’re roped up or not, stellar communication within a team is crucial. This means being open to saying that you need a break, something doesn’t feel right, or you need help. If you don’t speak up, your guide and other teammates won’t know what is happening.

glaciers on the route up while summiting mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Check the Weather

You will not have cell service for most of the hike. But we did sparingly have some cell service at Sandy Camp, which made it nice to check in with loved ones and get an accurate weather forecast. While weather can change quickly on the mountain, knowing what might be coming is incredibly important for being safe on the mountain.

If it looks like a storm is coming, do not push your luck and try to summit Mount Baker.

Leave No Trace on the Mountain

Recreating responsibly while summiting Mount Baker is paramount and helps others enjoy the beauty of the mountain and the alpine. Everyone who summits Mount Baker should carry a WAG Bag and carry it out. As the saying goes, there’s no ‘Poop Fairy’ on the mountain.

It’s also imperative to pack out what you pack in. All trash – no matter the size – needs to be picked up and thrown away at the trailhead or at home.

Photographing While on a Rope Team

This part was challenging. I was last on our five-man rope team, which gave me a little more flexibility, but it was still hard as I had to shoot on the move (and without stepping on the rope). The hardest part was in the wee hours of the summit push, when the lighting was less than ideal, making it harder to get a strong focus point.

Thankfully, the saving grace for a lot of it was the ability to have a pull-out screen, which let me photograph things to my right without having to rotate completely in that direction. All I had to do was point my camera that way and then look at the screen.

The entire experience gave me a ton of respect for those who do this professionally on even bigger mountains. (Though, I would assume they are on a separate rope team, which would give them a greater ability to move to land epic shots.)

My Photo Tips on Baker via the Easton Glacier Route

  • Shoot quickly and decisively: You have a very limited amount of time, so I spent a lot of the walking time looking ahead and thinking of unique vantage points. This allowed me to act fast when I saw something that looked cool.
  • Be okay with missing shots: You’re going to miss some shots. That’s okay. Remember, you have the entire way down to photograph the landscapes.
  • Use scale and lines: Being on a vast mountain, everyone is going to look small. I took advantage of shooting wider shots to convey how smaller everyone looked while summiting Mount Baker. I also tried to show off the steepness of the slopes with people on them to magnify the experience for the viewer.
  • Shoot, then crop: If you see something that might look cool, snap it and figure out the exact composition later. The power of modern editing is immense, and you can do a lot with a little.

Things To Know About Summiting Mount Baker

Where should you stay before/after your summit?

I recommend staying in Bellingham. The drive from the city center to the trailhead is about 75 minutes, and Bellingham has all the lodging, breweries, and restaurants one needs to prepare for the hike and then enjoy your post-summit celebration. Additionally, you’ll need to meet with your guide team beforehand, and grabbing a hotel here makes the entire process easier.

What are all of the routes up Mount Baker?

There are four standard routes that lead to the summit. Most people follow the route I took up Easton Glacier, starting from the Park Butte Trailhead. But with that comes heavier crowds. (The Squak Glacier route also starts at PBT, but you quickly leave the main trail for a less traveled route.)

  • Easton Glacier (Most Common Route)
  • Coleman-Deming Glacier
  • North Ridge
  • Squak Glacier

Cascade Mountain Ascents leads trips on all of these routes, giving you a chance to find a route you’re comfortable with or one that will push your skills to the next level.

Is it hard to summit Mount Baker?

As my economics professor always said, it depends.

For me, I didn’t think so. Yes, it was a tough climb, but considering how slowly we went (or, I guess, how it felt), I never felt exhausted or overly fatigued. And by the time we reached the Roman Wall, adrenaline was coursing through my body, with the summit just football fields away.

It’s definitely a challenge, but doing it in mid-to-late-June meant it was a simple walk up a snowfield. Later in the year, you have to zig-zag up it to avoid crevasses, which makes it longer and more tiresome.

How long does it take to climb Baker?

Our squad started the day at 3:45 a.m. and reached the summit a little before 10 a.m. Then, we made it down before 2 p.m. The trek down would have been faster if the snow had been less cruddy as we post-holed most of the final 2,500 feet to Sandy Camp.

So, if my math is correct, it was a bit under 11 hours on the trail. Some people may consider hiking down, which would add another 90-120 minutes to your hiking day (not including packing up camp).

Can you climb Mount Baker in one day?

You sure can! It’s going to be a heckuva push with 15 miles and almost 8,000 feet of gain. I think most people who do it in a day end up skiing/snowboarding down, dramatically cutting their time on the trail and making it way more feasible.

Considering the mountain’s potential risk, only those in top shape and experienced on the slopes should attempt to ski down a volcano.

four climbers head down the mountain on snow
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Is summiting Mount Baker via the Easton Glacier good for beginners?

Most definitely! Considering this was my first mountaineering and ropes experience, I think climbing the Easton Glacier is perfect for getting your feet wet. With Mount Baker only 10,700 feet tall, there’s not a noticeable lack of oxygen, which makes the climb doable.

Additionally, if you go in June, the trail will be well-packed down without (hopefully) any open crevasses that will add difficulty/danger to the trip.

If you’re considering summiting a volcano in Washington, this is the one to start with, and going with CMA is the perfect call!

How much does a guided trip cost?

A three-day trip up Mount Baker’s classic southern side costs $1,050. This includes your guide, ropes, tents, stoves, fuel, and two breakfasts and dinners. It does not include your mountaineering boots (easy to rent) or transportation to the trailhead. (PS: Make sure to tip your guide afterward!)

Final Thoughts on Summiting Mount Baker

The climb up Mount Baker was a fantastic experience, and I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to do it. Looking back over the last year and a half, my progress from lying in a hospital bed for 21 days to summiting the third-highest volcano in the state is truly miraculous.

I hope these photos and trip recap from summiting Mount Baker help inspire you to set out on the mountain safely, learn new skills, and experience the majesty of standing on a summit. You won’t be disappointed, I promise!

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside