On two marathons

After finishing the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon almost an hour later than I was hoping, making another attempt soon was never too far from my mind. I put it off for a while. I completely stopped running between September 2016 and August 2017 other than to do two little 5k races and one 10k — the latter was supposed to be my second marathon but got drastically downgraded.

Eventually, though, I had to get past this, to do better somehow, so on the last day of July I signed up for the 2017 Seattle Marathon. It was scheduled for November 26th, leaving seventeen weeks to train. That works for following the typical marathon training plans — a week longer than we gave ourselves for the TCM.

But training this year was similarly dismal. I started TCM training with a half marathon and started Seattle training with a 10-mile run. I ran 26 training runs each year. They totaled a paltry 241.4 miles before the TCM and 240.2 miles before Seattle. I used a different training plan this time, still torn from the pages of Runner’s World, but my original longest runs of 20, 21 and 22 miles were reduced to a single run of 19.74 miles. Overall, my ten long runs averaged 14.6 miles in length this year versus 15.6 average miles for eleven long runs last year.

To make it worse, my taper this year really fell apart. After the ~20-mile long run, I did two 15-mile runs. From there, 22 days remained until the marathon, and I just stopped running. Other than three miles around the middle school’s track with seven days to go, I did not do much of anything except work. And occasionally I stretched for a while.

The Seattle race falling six weeks later in the year than the TCM pushed the later weeks of training well into short fall days, wet fall weather and two-day weekends instead of a summer schedule of four-day work weeks. I just did not want to run, especially in the shorts and long-sleeve base layer than have been my running uniform for a while now. Knowing I was supposed to be running didn’t help, because I hate being told what to do (even by a non-judgmental page from Runner’s World).

All of these comparisons make my preparation this year look as poor as or worse than last year’s. However, for all but the last few weeks of the season I felt better about my training. The reason, I think, is reflected in these two numbers from each year:

2016 training runs over 17 miles
Average pace: 11:27 min/mile
Average cadence: 161 steps/min

2017 training runs over 17 miles
Average pace: 10:33 min/mile
Average cadence: 170 steps/min

Most of the difference in both pace and cadence is due to walking less in the final miles of long runs this year. That, in great measure, was due to less cramping, which I believe was aided by better nutrition. I emphasized pasta and other carbs for the night or nights before long runs. Instead of relying on an empty stomach that works great for short races, I doubled breakfast before long runs to two English muffins with peanut butter and honey (three before the marathon this year). I used Gu packets only at miles 10, 13, 16, 19, etc., rather than starting each run with Gu drops and eating a steady diet of Gu. I concluded each long run by drinking a large bowl of chicken broth, which seemed to bring water and salt levels back to normal most quickly.

So I felt better, other than knowing I had not been running enough. With no significant time nor will remaining to correct the lack of mileage, I bought a new set of running layers made for colder weather, ran those final three training miles in the new suit and concluded it would work, and took off very nervously for the marathon. My goal of a sub-four-hour finish had long been replaced by the simple goal of running the race I wanted to run: a completed marathon largely free of significant cramping and completely free of unplanned stops, hobbling or otherwise slow walking.

2016 vs 2017 marathon pace
2016 and 2017 marathon pace by mile

The chart above shows this year’s pace in blue over last year’s pace in yellow. My Seattle time was 4:29:02 versus last year’s 4:57:09. Notice all of the complete stopping in the Twin Cities race. Not this year. Other than a bathroom break and stopping to leave gloves with my cheering section, I only slowed my run when it was necessary to walk off leg cramps. I did not stop on the side of the course in fruitless attempts to stretch the cramps out of opposing groups of leg muscles. I instead lengthened my stride and walked or slowly jogged until they loosened.

You can also see in the final mile of each that the tired runner can glimpse the Space Needle (end of Seattle) from a greater distance than he can hear the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral near the end of the TCM. It is amazing how much energy can be summoned and how much pain decreases with the smell of the finish line.

Seattle Marathon cropped.jpg
On the left around mile 17 with an estimated two thirds of the race left to run (more photos)

The marathon

Well, it’s done. Emily and I completed the Twin Cities Marathon a week ago today. I shall attempt to recall the details of the race and the last weeks of training — for the record, and because I am nearly certain to attempt another marathon in the near future.

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Trying to stay warm outside the Metrodome-replacing U.S. Bank Stadium.

I completed the race in 4:57:08 (chip time). That was about an hour slower than my stretch goal of getting a 3:__:__ finish time. There were a few reasons for that.

I started the race with a sore right knee. This was an injury that started a year ago during my first half marathon. It’s some sort of swelling inside that did not look bad on an MRI and did not concern the surgeon a couple of months ago when he looked at it. Skiing last winter seemed to help it, and so did getting better running shoes early in my TCM training schedule. What aggravated it was running the hilly Quilcene Oyster Run half marathon pretty aggressively two weeks before the TCM.

Quilcene’s fast, steep downhill on asphalt seemed to make it worse, and I spent the two weeks between the half and the full heating my knee with a rice bag and popping turmeric-and-pepper pills. The final two weeks of my taper involved almost no running. I was hoping it would improve enough to run the TCM and read a lot of unsubstantiated online advice saying rest would be better for me than trying to push ahead with the scheduled tapering runs.

The knee improved, but even my two-mile easy run two days before the TCM made it worse. Early in the marathon, I assumed I would be dropping out before five miles or so. I could feel the familiar swelling, weak, locked-up feeling. However, I knew from previous runs that it seemed to loosen as I ran longer, so I periodically stopped, stretched my knee to free it up, then continued. The first time I had to stretch it was around mile 5.5 at the first sighting of our family cheering section.

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The expertly navigating cheering section.
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We were always quite happy to see them, except at their last stop before the finish when I was falling apart and could manage only a couple of high-fives as I ran by.

The knee did improve along the way, but as it faded my legs started to cramp. Stretching the knee left my hamstring and calf loose, and they began to cramp horribly whenever I did that. That was manageable by alternately stretching the front and back of my right leg, but the cramping got worse and also affected my left leg.

I had experienced this on long training runs, but those were fueled by Gu packets and very occasional water. I assumed that the ready access to electrolyte drinks during the TCM would eliminate it as an issue, but I assumed incorrectly. I don’t know where I failed on nutrition, because I ate three Gu Roctane packets, drank a cup of Powerade and a cup of water at each water station and also had a Clif energy gel when they were offered mid race. But I definitely failed. I slowed as my legs refused to flex in a normal stride without cramping.

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Note the early stretching episodes several miles apart. The cramping started after three hours, and note the long stop and subsequent walking after around four hours.

Around mile 23.5, I stumbled to the curb again, this time aiming for some grass instead of a nice stretching post. My hands, wrists and tongue were numb and stiff — maybe my toes and feet, too, but I can’t quite recall. My legs cramped painfully if I attempted to flex them. I awkwardly lowered myself to the grass and began attempting to stretch one band of muscles without slackening the opposing ones so those cramped. That was pretty impossible, and I began to think of dropping out. But the finish line was so close, and I knew from texts that Emily was close to the finish line. No fucking way are you going to do this again, said I, so no fucking way are you not crossing that finish line. To stay in front of the drop-out bus and get an official finish, I had about 100 minutes left to move myself something less than three miles. I could have crawled and made it, so off I went.

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Emily pulled away from me when my cramps got bad, but we passed each other and ran together a few times earlier in the race.

I tried to jog, but the legs wouldn’t do it. Part of that was something physical, but part of it was mental, because I was able to start jogging when I saw the cathedral, heard its bells ringing and saw the giant flag suspended between opposing St. Paul FD and Minneapolis FD tower ladders two blocks before the finish line. Shuffling somewhat awkwardly, I’m sure, I managed to keep running through the finish line.

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Couldn’t really avoid finishing once I got this far. Passed that lady, too, I did.

Between the 18.6-mile timing loop and the end, 2012 finishers passed me; I passed only 29 other runners. I fell from 4596th place to 6717th place out of the 8556 eventual finishers. (Another three thousand registered for the race, maybe started it but didn’t finish within the six-hour limit.) Emily did much better, well within the range of when she wanted to finish and about half an hour faster than me.

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We both made it! No more marathons necessary (but not really).

The medal was obtained. I scarfed down a cup of soup broth and a couple of packs of Old Dutch chips close to the finish line. A banana, too, I think. I let the phone sit for a minute, strapped to my arm, because I didn’t have a free hand or free energy to text. Eventually I retrieved my warm starting-line clothes from the UPS truck, claimed my finisher’s t-shirt and left the runner’s area to meet Emily and the family. We left pretty quickly in search of beer and food.

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With Grandpa Dean, the preeminent and tireless supporter of family athletes.

We ate, we drank, we didn’t throw up — somewhat surprisingly for me, because my longest runs have been followed by a few hours of intense discomfort. Perhaps the water stations were an improvement after all. Now I just need to fix the cramping issue and try it again — as soon as my left foot starts to feel better from its stress fracture or whatever is going on in there.

Or maybe an ultra would be more my speed. They let you stop and eat, and apparently I just need some soup broth and Old Dutch once in a while. Until then, I’m pretty happy with my now complete list of running records in Garmin Connect:

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Six weeks until the marathon

[Written Sunday, but the WordPress link to my hosting elsewhere has been really poor lately.]

It’s been a rough month for my training. I don’t run well after work, or after anything really, so working a 4/10 schedule in the summer was rather key to my training plan. I could sneak in a short run after work one day of the week, but long runs on Friday mornings and semi-long runs on Sunday mornings have been the foundation. I like to carb load, go to bed on time, sleep, then eat a banana and a pack of Gu drops and hit the trail.

Spending a month of Thursdays late at the fire hall in volunteer orientation, and increase the daytime temp around here (it’s finally been summery), and I end up running later in the day in the sun, poorly rested and poorly nourished. Or not at all. Saturday’s were spent at the same place.

This doesn’t get you to a marathon: 

Another excuse along the way was a pair of SAR calls involving a fair bit of loaded-down hiking. The first was a couple of weeks ago on a Wednesday — I think it’s the furthest I’ve hiked in a day, got me home late and left me with a sore left Achilles region. The second was this past Wednesday, an overnight with no sleep except maybe dozing off between radio calls a time or two.

I can’t guarantee the latter isn’t going to happen again in the next six weeks, but I’m done with orientation and ready to get back on this. Off-schedule, because I just needed to get in some miles to reassure myself about my condition and my ankle, I did 15.6 today at long-run pace. Friday, it’s back on the long-run schedule, hoping to do my first 20-mile run.

Then it’s back to a half marathon next week, back up to 20 miles the third week, then the tapering down to the Twin Cities Marathon. Assuming no injury, I’m reasonably sure from today’s result that it’ll be okay.

Training for the TC Marathon

Around mile 5 of my long run this morning [Friday, when I wrote this — having WordPress troubles], I said to myself, “Self, training for a marathon is as worthy of being recorded on your blog as is climbing a mountain or sitting on your ass reading books in Pokhara.”

I agreed with myself, because I’m like that and because this might be my sole attempt at a marathon; or maybe I’ll fail and have to try it again; or it will be hell but a few months after the race I’ll forget the hell and consider committing to another. In any of those cases, I’ll want to be able to read a bit of the journey again to remember it, to improve on it or to swear off running forever. Thus, I write.

Emily and I registered to run the Twin Cities Marathon. It’s scheduled for October 9th. That is the same day as the Chicago Marathon, which was Emily’s sentimental favorite for our first run. I tended to agree, not least because I spent a lot of cold marathon mornings and long days being a nerdy ham-radio operator at various medical stations along the route. But we were far too late to register for Chicago, and since October is a more pleasant time than the official holidays to see my family in MN, we diverted to the TC race.

Training began on June 18th with, for me, the running of the summer half marathon, Longest Day of Trails, here in Port Townsend. I had not been training, but I finished within 2 seconds of 2:00. Not my fastest time on a half, but not my slowest and a respectable kickoff to training to double that mileage.

We each came up with a training plan. Emily is following one from a well-timed issue of Runner’s World. The same issue brought our marathon and its coincidental scheduling with our preferred Chicago run to her attention and led her to register us. Her plan came highly recommended by Wild Bill of SAR and Rainier-climbing fame, who took to marathons a few years ago and runs them as regularly and impressively as people I more historically envied consume bottles of fine wine.

My schedule came from that guy who wrote the book on marathon training, the one heavily involved in the Chicago Marathon for years. He publishes a few variations online. I found one that seemed to fit my pre-training race mileage, if not my lackluster weekly training mileage. With a few modifications to fit my work schedule, trips we have planned for the intervening months and shorter races that I could run locally along the way, it got added to my Google calendar, and I try to do what it tells me to do.

That brings me to today, the end of the sixth of sixteen weeks of training. In general, I’ve been adding mileage by increasing my weekly long run by one mile one week, by a second mile the second week, and then dropping that significantly the third week. In between, I do some hills, some intervals and some shorter pace runs — as time allows. I know I should do those more religiously, but I can’t run in the afternoon as well as in the morning with an empty stomach, and I leave for work early and work long days.

Last week’s long run was 17 miles, or 16.98 due to Garmin’s tendency to retroactively knock a couple hundredths off what it tells me on my wrist. This week’s was 18 miles, and next week it drops to 13. They’re all hard, except the first several miles when my heart rate stays low and it feels easy.

Today I made several mistakes, including selecting a hilly midsection of the course to do something more entertaining than last week’s back and forth on a lovely trail that is unfortunately too short for these runs (around 7.3 miles end to end). I also failed to eat enough carbs last night, failed to run early to avoid the recent, sudden onset of summer on the Olympic Peninsula, drank too much water while not processing any of it, and ate an apple from the tree in our yard too late in the morning, just before the run. The apple wasn’t processed either, as became clear when I spent the afternoon stumbling between the couch and the bathroom vomiting everything I tried to consume to refill my tank.

It was my slowest long run to date at around 11 minutes/mile. I walked big sections of it, especially from mile 15.5 back to the car. And I ended up short by four tenths, though that I can blame on a closed trail area and an aggressive owl, though the trailhead signs warned of such. Not my best showing, and I wasted the afternoon in misery instead of stopping by the office to get some quiet Friday work done or grocery shopping. I’m eating and drinking some now, though I’m still four pounds lighter than yesterday.

One positive thing is that I have time. This training schedule has me running 20 miles three times, I think, before tapering down for race day. If I need to repeat the 18-mile run and not get to 20 miles as early, that’s probably okay. My goal in running this marathon is a finish I can enjoy after running with reasonable style. A chip time of 3:something sounds great, but it’s unnecessary and less important than not being miserable.

So, it just can’t be like today’s run. Except the shoes. I went to the closest running store last week and had them fit me for a pair of shoes, which were worth the one-time payment of full list price.

Recap of the Baker Climb

The gear is washed or hung up to breathe. The beard, such as it is, still grows until the sunburn fades. The legs and shoulders this Wednesday morning were finally just a bit sore, not especially so. And the GPS tracks are downloaded and cut and projected in Google Earth as bites of the trip I can try to remember and describe. The following is probably more than most of you want to read, but I’m looking forward to reading it myself a year from now or later, so here we go.

Approach Day

We met in Lyman, WA, somewhat accidentally. Emily and I left Port Townsend Friday afternoon, having worked a bit in the morning. Bob left a little earlier to pick up Micah and to stop and register our climb (optional but recommended) with the rangers, who also furnished the necessary blue bags for use on the privy-less mountain. We texted along the way to coordinate some final details. “About done dining in Lyman,” transmitted Bob, and Emily and I were 8 miles out. That caused me to write the soon-to-be-a-hit song “8 miles from Lyman,” which was not an immediate hit with my passenger — but the driver rules on music choice.

We drove up just after they walked out of the restaurant to their car. Bob and Micah were but two in number, I soon noted because of my high-trained senses and deductive abilities. John, who was to be our fifth, had formally dropped out, they said. Douglas, our substitute fifth or possibly our sixth, would follow separately the next morning.

We formed up and followed each other to the trailhead. Schriebers Meadow hosts a moderately sized campground and a lot of parking. We found a wide space that is allocated to livestock trailers during the fall, parked our cars in the back of it and settled in for the night — Bob set up a tent, and we moved the gear into the front seat of the Forester and the sleeping bags and pads into the back.

Packing up

We were all awake by 06:00 or 06:30 Saturday, repacked our bags, split up the group gear and started the GPSs. We left the trailhead at 08:15.

Starting the approach

Here’s the first leg, trailhead at the bottom center and the seasonal bridge over the largest stream crossing on the approach in the top center:

01 - to bridge
From the car to the bridge. Progress: 1.3 miles and 404 ft up to 3738 ft.

And here is the second leg, which looks suspiciously like the first:

02 - back to car
Back to the car. Progress: 0 miles (but 2.5 miles traveled) and 0 feet above the trailhead.

Why, you ask? Because it was at the bridge that I realized that, in the relative darkness of a cloudy morning, I had left my glacier glasses in the back of the Subaru. I dropped my pack and jogged most of the way down to the car a little after 09:00, grabbed the glasses and ran a little but mostly walked back to the bridge. I figured I was 30-40 minutes behind the other three, and I started up the trail hoping to catch them.

03 - catching up
From the car again to the where I caught the group. Progress (not counting the false start): 2.7 miles and 1495 feet of ascent.

After crossing the bridge, the trail got steeper and got into switchbacks. I slowed down a bit, afraid of tiring myself because of the jog, my normal inability to pace myself reasonably and my wanting to catch the group. I still made good time and caught up with the group at about 10:20. They were at the start of what is called Railroad Camp, a series of tent platforms for backpackers located near where the trail climbs onto the Railroad Grade moraine. We rested there a while, with my late arrival slowing things a bit.

Climbing to the Railroad Grade

From there, we headed up the trail a few minutes, dipping down to a small creek then up to the Railroad Grade. We would follow that, still a fascinating place despite the clouds keeping us from seeing our route on Baker, the rest of the way to where we made camp.

04 - to camp
Onto and up the Railroad Grade. Progress: 4.5 miles and 2998 feet up to camp at 6269 feet.

We were walking along the top of a huge moraine formed by a retreating Easton Glacier that was obviously once much larger than its current size. Opposite the valley that now contains the creek that drains the glacier is another lateral moraine of similar size, and both look like they were formed yesterday of loose soil and rocks big and small. The Railroad Grade Trail is named for the regular grade of the top of the moraine, not because it ever played host to railroad tracks. It features an abrupt change in orientation about halfway up the trail, which was cause for theorizing about what caused the glacier to turn at that point and when it did so.

Railroad Grade

We were significantly delayed by marmot traffic.

Marmots on the Railroad Grade

We made it to the end of the trail to see several parties already camped at that level and for a couple hundred feet above. Some were on flat areas on the rocky ridge that bounds that side of the Easton. Others, especially the large Mountaineers party that headed up the trail just before our group that morning, were on the snowfield opposite the rock ridge from the glacier. We had discussed earlier wanting to be as high on the ridge as possible to ease our summit day, so despite tired legs, lungs and shoulders with our full packs, we moved higher, Micah running ahead to scout it so we did not waste effort moving too high.

Base camp

We stopped for the day at 12:45. Emily and I were on the rocks, a spot just large enough for our tent and flat enough to be tolerable with two layers of sleeping pad. Bob and Micah were at the top of our rock projection, partially on the snow, theirs a better view of the summit as the clouds moved away. We unpacked and set up tents, guyed them out reasonably well against winds that were forecast not to be too strong, and unpacked everything else in our packs, looking forward to when we would be packing them only with light summit loads.

Base camp

The sun became strong as the clouds left, and climbing slightly above my and Emily’s tent revealed the majority of the Easton Glacier route, the top of the volcano (if not the summit itself) and the prominent gap in the crater rim that would be our focus for the lower several thousand feet of summit day. Douglas, the lately added substitute fifth member of our group who is familiar with the route and hiked up by himself due to a later start, arrived and set up his tent. He was not feeling well and was immediately doubtful for the summit attempt. We applied sunscreen, dried socks and boots in the sun and enjoyed the warmth — but kept long sleeves and hoods and glasses (good thing I went back for them) to protect ourselves from the sun.

Mt Baker

We took it easy, choosing to lay back and preserve energy rather than playing around on the glacier. I was glad for that, since I seem to recover slowly from a lot of exertion and do not do well if trying to push again a second day, and my forgetfulness had already added two-and-a-half miles plus a bit of rushing up the trail to what the rest of the group had done. Water was collected from what was running down the rocks (with the help of the plastic sheet from one of the blue bags — and unused one, of course) and filtered, and dinners were cooked around the middle of the afternoon.

Prayer flags through the tent wall

View from the tent

Around 17:00, we settled into the tent, so warmed by the sun that we kept the front door, the vestibule and the back window fully open. Emily watched a movie on her one example of choosing early sleep over weight considerations: a fully charged Kindle Fire. I read a book on the Kindle that helps me sleep. We both dozed quite a bit, a pleasant surprise to me after not sleeping much if at all on Rainier a year before.

Summit Day

At 00:30 my ABC/GPS watch started beeping. It was the first time I used the alarm, and I remember it being a pleasant but awakening tone. We had an hour and a half until our planned departure. We laid there for about five more minutes, protected from potential oversleep if we dozed off by my cell phone alarm, which was programmed as a backup for a few minutes later. The second alarm was unnecessary, as it had gotten cold in the tent and we had a lot to do. Headlamps, puffys and approach boots went on, and we started puttering around the tent, heating water for breakfast and coffee, piling on top of our sleeping bags the things we had decided to leave behind and cinching down the side straps on our packs to slim them appropriately for their minimal loads.

Harnesses went on, hero loops around the neck, double-length runners around the shoulders clipped with a carabiner in the front as emergency chest harnesses in case of a crevasse fall, personal anchors girth-hitched to our harnesses and clipped around our backs and the remaining prussiks, runners and biners clipped to gear loops for use later. Breakfast was swallowed, nausea-inducing though it was (even oatmeal) due to the early hour and lack of sleep. Headlamps were removed from heads and clipped to helmets. Last, we swapped approach boots for climbing boots and, at the last minute, removed the crampons I had us fit to them the night before without thinking that gaiters needed to be fitted to the boots first. With gaiters on and back in our crampons, we took one more sweep around with the headlamps, then headed onto the snow left of the tent’s rock, walking up it to find Bob and Micah busying themselves around their tent.

“At least they’re still packing,” thought I silently, since were were a few minutes late due to the crampon fiasco. Relieved about that, I next thought about the snow, which was a bit too soft for my liking. “The fucking snow is too fucking soft,” or something similar to that said I aloud. It was crusty on top, but it had not frozen enough to support my weight reliably without my boots punching through that crust at the irregular intervals that were sure to be tiring and frustrating. Still, it was better than climbing when nothing had frozen at all, and it would make for a more secure feeling than scratching crampon teeth and ice ax across seemingly rock-hard ice.

At 02:07, we formed a pretty tight formation and dropped to the snowfield to climber’s left of the rocky ridge, then started to climb. Our plan was to get to the Portal, which is at the top end of that snowfield, where we would rope up and exit to the Easton Glacier.

05 - camp to roping up
Our tent (the lower bunch of swiggles) to Bob’s tent (the hard right at the top of our outcropping) to the upper end of the snowfield where we roped up. Progress: 465 feet above camp, 4047 feet to go. Elevation 6734 feet at 02:43.

Before leaving our tent, I had told Emily, who did not seem to be exceptionally interested in climbing at 02:00, that the rope-up point was the final bail-out point where we could easily and safely return to camp unroped and apart from the group. However, when we met up with Bob and Micah it was evident that they again numbered but two — Douglas had opted against going up. We would be a single rope of four, and it would be outside our planned, safe group size if two climbers bailed. The decision point was, barring sickness or injury, the camp. So up we went.

At first, Bob set a quick pace that was taxing my already tired legs and sleep-deprived mind. We did not get too far, though, before he stopped us for a layer change, and I mentioned that had been full-throttle for me. The pace the rest of the day was more sustainable, and we moved better together as a group than our rope of five had a year before on Rainier.

As long as we were stopped, Bob suggested we rope up. We were facing a short but steeper slope, and at the top of it we would be on the glacier — or nearly so. The short wardrobe-change break turned into a longer one as we roughly measured lengths of rope, tied our butterfly knots and attached our foot and harness prusiks. Bob in the lead and I at the rear also tied into the ends and took the remaining coils. Even in the light of half a moon and four headlamps, the so-neon-it-almost-hurts-your-eyes orange of my Sterling 9.2mm rope was quite sexy.

We climbed the short steep section together, getting a feel for the speed, the slack, the weight of the rope. Then we settled into a good pace on the glacier itself, though the fact that we were on the glacier was far less noticeable than it had been on Rainier last year. Other than a few crevasse crossings, one of which was on a lengthy but substantial snowbridge over a beautiful-scary crevasse, the Easton was pretty sedate and often seemed to be a giant, safe snowfield.

06 - roping up to 1000'
Our first leg on the glacier itself to our first regular rest stop. Progress: 1079 feet above camp, 3433 feet to go. Elevation 7348 feet at 03:38.

Bob stopped us just about a thousand feet above our camp for a regular rest stop. I still was unsure of the capacity of my tired legs and unwilling mind to get me to the top, or even to the crater a thousand feet below the summit, but looking at my watch and seeing the first 1000′ ticked away was encouraging. The lack of headlamps from other teams as we looked below was a bit empowering, too — we had been the first team out of camp by quite some time, and we had the route to ourselves at present. And we took enough time at this stop for me to burn some Drum (everyone knows you can’t climb a mountain on no tobacco at all), and to draw from the 16.9-ounce bag of salted-caramel Gu I was carrying in the pocket of my softshell.

But it was soon time to get going, and we moved further into the middle of the glacier. The boot track of previous climbers saved us a lot of work. On the steeper sections, the solid footprints kept our ankles from having to work too hard to follow the grade. The compressed surface of those prints had frozen much more solidly than the surrounding snow, so while we walked parallel to the boot track on gentle slopes when the snow would hold us, we diverted into the boot track when we started punching through outside it.

And the boot track kept us from having to navigate much, as it was fairly cleverly laid out to wind its way up toward the crater without losing elevation. It often appeared we would crest a rise in the glacier and drop down the other side, but the track would each time aim for a slightly higher rise, and in this way we continued up without sacrificing elevation by dropping into sunken areas.

07 - 1000' to 2000'
The second thousand feet. Progress: 2264 feet above camp, 2248 feet to go. Elevation 8533 feet at 05:06.

We stopped for another break after our second thousand feet. I had run low on sugar about midway through that run, and toward the end I passed word up the rope that I needed a calorie break. Bob stopped shortly after that, and I had a homemade date-and-nut bar (an adaptation of the Steve House recipe) and a couple of heavy pulls on the Gu. That and some water got me back to normal quickly.

While I really just needed a minute to get some calories into me, this became our second main break. Headlights had been switched off. The light of the sun was spreading across the sky, but there was no refuge from a bit of a cold wind in the center of the glacier, and we started moving again with fingers that took twenty minutes or so to recover from the exposure.

Glacier and Rainier in the spreading daylight

The goal when we resumed was the gap in the crater rim that had been visible since camp (or since Port Townsend, really). We knew that to be a good rest stop, knew it to be the shift from the relatively gentle glacier to the steeper snow covering the Roman Wall and — most importantly — knew it was a mere one-thousand feet from the summit.

08 - 2000' to crater
The longest leg, from our second rest stop to the crater rim. Progress: 3457 feet above camp, 1055 feet to go. Elevation 9726 feet at 06:36.

This was the longest section between break stops. The sight and thought of the crater kept us motivated, and even looking down at the snow in front of our feet we knew by the sulfuric smell we were getting close. Looking back the other way we saw the shadow of the mountain first in the haze to the west and then lower, sinking down the east faces of the nearby peaks. Still deep in the shadow ourselves, we watched the sun rise by this evidence rather than by seeing it.

Mt Baker's shadow in the haze

Mt Baker's shadow on nearby peaks

We watched a team of four traverse toward us from the Squak Glacier. They were lower than where the normal route from the Squak joins with the Easton route just below the crater rim. We had earlier seen headlamps above us on the ridge to the west, making their way above the Roman Wall; while they had initially been fleeting and perhaps mistaken for stars, in the growing light we could see the silhouettes of several parties slowing climbing toward the summit from that route.

Pausing just below the crater

A few minutes after we were passed by the team that had joined our route after traversing from the Squak and perhaps fifteen minutes below the crater rim, we paused for a minute. It was a long push, and we needed a short break. Then we moved up to the rim, joining the group that had passed us, sitting for the first time in the loose gravel and feeling the warmth of the sun and the steam. This being, in retrospect, much more interesting than the summit itself, combined with our feelings of exhaustion, we spent a lot of time here watching, listening, photographing and videoing the actively venting crater.

Rest at the crater

Another group at the crater

Crater

And then we moved on to skirt the edge of the Roman Wall, the only steep and exposed and the most probably icy portion of the route.

09 - crater to unroping
From our final rest stop at the crater rim to where we unroped on the summit snowfield. Progress: 4426 feet above camp, 86 feet to go. Elevation 10695 feet at 08:36.

We set out a few minutes after the group from the Squak. A few hundred feet from the crater’s edge, the route split into two: One track traversed to climber’s left then led straight up the steepest portion of the wall with frozen steps, and the other remained closer to the crater rim and had a few switchbacks to lessen the grade. The other group and we opted for the traverse and direct climb rather than the switchbacks.

In the lead, Bob kicked the existing steps a little deeper on the steeper portion, but this was still the only section of the route that forced me to be a little uncomfortable with the exposure, nothing near the paralyzing fear of last year on Rainier but a touch of the same. I had tried to prepare for that in my mind, but this section was so short that I really did not get a chance to test myself. After a bit of huffing and puffing, the slope eased. I sent the question up the rope as to whether we should wand the exit from the summit snowfield onto the wall for our descent, but we did not need to do that — it turns out to be easy to find in weather that completely clear.

We were on the summit snowfield somewhat suddenly. The summit was quite obviously a smallish nub, still covered in snow, far to climber’s right — obviously because it was covered in climbers from other routes. Actually, it appeared so damn far and so high that it was discouraging, though my “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” grossly exaggerated the remaining exertion that would be required. We began to head that way, then looked at all of the climbers walking past free of their rope shackles (though, again, my rope is damned sexy, so one never minds carrying it) and stopped our team to drop our rope and other gear we didn’t need since we were no longer on the glacier. Then we proceeded individually to the actual summit at 08:44 after six hours and thirty-seven minutes of climbing.

10 - unroping to summit
From where we unroped to the actual summit. Progress: 4512 feet above camp, 10781 feet above sea level, 0 feet to go, at 08:44.

 

The view over the crater

Emily and me on the summit

Team on the summit

The view was exceptional in the morning sun, from which there would be no shade for hours. If there was much wind I do not remember it, and I spent the time on the summit in my thin hoodie base layer without needing the other layers in or strapped to my pack. After taking photos and enjoying the view from the summit nub (especially to the east but also south to Rainier), we gathered back where we had unroped and ate. I had the everything bagel with peanut butter and red onions that I had been saving for the occasion. Emily pulled out of brick of vegan “cheese” and snacked on a few chunks. We let a few of the groups that had followed us up the Easton route make their way past us so we did not have to pass them on the boot track, especially on steeper parts of the wall below us.

Resting on the summit snowfield

Rest stop

At 09:36, after fifty-two minutes on top, we started climbing down, reversing the order of the rope. Down the wall, where we met a group despite trying not to. Down to the crater, which we initially bypassed but then where we found a little shade to rest a moment and change to lighter layers because of the heat. Down, down, down the glacier, back across the couple of snow bridges. Using the boot track to avoid punching through, stepping next to the boot track with crampons just scratching the frozen surface, and occasionally heel plunging through the surface crust to get to the soft snow, increasing the amount of descent per step.

Back to the Portal overlooking the snowfield where we had started, at which point we unroped. I gathered the (sexy-as-all-fuck-orange) rope, strapped it to my pack and started an awkward descent, half boot glissade and half plunge step, half traverse and half descent, to where the tent and its prayer flags finally appeared at just before 13:00. I skipped right past the Bob-Micah-Douglas compound, from which Douglas had departed on his own that morning, and dropped my pack, crampons, gaiters and boots and our tent at 13:01. The descent had taken three hours and twenty-five minutes, 51.6% of the ascent’s time.

Final bit of roped descent

Ice fall

It’s nearly impossible to lessen the time spent eating, treating more water and packing up the camp. It seems it should be quick, but it isn’t. Again, I thought Emily and I were slow and holding up the group, but we were not really. Wind had increased and made us take a little more time, cautious not to lose the tent, gear or trash as we repacked everything. At 14:45 we left camp with full stomachs, heavy loads and a desire to get to the car, to pizza, to bratwurst, to shade, to the ferry, to sleep. Maybe we were about 35 miles from Lyman.

Shift in the morraine

Descending the Railroad Grade

Heading out

Baker photos and maps

Group selfie low on the descent

It will take some time to write up the adventure, so for now enjoy some photos from my unimpressive camera phone and some maps with our route traced. Beyond the selfie/group shot above, the photos can be seen on my Flickr page. And here are some depictions of our GPS tracks:

Mt Baker 2016 climb in Google Earth
Our ascent (red) and descent (green) between base camp and the summit
Mt Baker 2016 climb in Google Earth upper 1000'.png
The top thousand feet or so from the rim of the crater to the summit and back
Mt Baker 2016 climb in SARTopo
The same tracks on a custom map from SARTopo (caltopo.com is the non-SAR version)
Mt Baker 2016 approach and climb in SARTopo
The same SARTopo map with the hikes in (orange) and out (blue) added
Mt Baker 2016 approach profile from SARTopo
Finally, an informative SARTopo profile of the route from base camp to the summit