Schooled by a Girl: 3 Days on Mt. Baker with Pro Boarder Liz Daley
Liz Daley is stoked, all smiles as she stands on the edge of Mt. Baker’s sulfur-scoured crater. Steam and smoke billow behind her as she deftly coils a rope around her shoulders. We grab another handful of whatever food we have left, cramming it into our mouths without tasting, knowing we’ll need the energy for the descent. 4,000 feet below, our tents sit, roasting in the June sun, waiting patiently for our return.
A far cry from how the trip started, wrapped in classic northwest coast fog, rain squalls nipping at our noses. Tip toeing across raging rivers and skinning up manky snow stained red with blooms of bacteria had us stripping and adding layers every half an hour. We reached camp in a near white-out, another group’s tents barely visible not twenty yards from where we began dutifully stomping out our tent pads.
After helping us pile snow around our tents to keep out the wind and combat the furious daily melt, Liz dug out our kitchen, an L-shaped trench that functioned as both table and chairs. As our water boiled, we went over knots and the basics of roped glacier travel—30 feet apart, tied in with butterfly knots and prusiks in case we had to climb out of a crevasse. We ate our dinners sitting on our jackets, trading stories of gnarly lines, avalanches, and epic days, Liz always the quickest with another tale of grand ascents and hairy situations.
At 28, Liz already has an impressive collection of peaks in her bag, including “15 or 16?” summits of Baker, not to mention regularly shredding Chamonix like it’s incriminating evidence. Still, despite her intimidating talent, she remains as approachable as any boarder chick in the tram line—her infectious laugh and bar-room humor clearly betraying her elite tomboy status. Having Liz as a guide felt like touring with a friend—a friend who just so happens to be a nationally recognized rider with more knowledge and experience than mountaineers twice her age. A comforting thought, given the day we had ahead of us. As the last of the indigo hues faded to black over the Northern Cascades, we fell into a restless sleep, anxious for the morning like it was Christmas, 1992.
Breakfast at six a.m. and roped up by seven, we managed a respectable 1300 feet per hour as we climbed towards the no-fall zone. The sky was clear. The sun, unforgiving. Blocks of ice the size of office buildings loomed above us, and in the distance, the crater smoked patiently. As comfortable as Liz had made us feel, this mountain never lets you forget it means business. Crevasses, seracs, and bergschrunds were commonplace; de rigueur for Mt. Baker. A loose ski crampon in the middle of the no-fall zone didn’t seem like a big deal until we watched it skitter down the icy slope nearly 2000 feet before disappearing into a dark gash in the glacier far below. No mistaking, this was no place for mistakes. And yet, once we’d clicked in, helmets cinched and boots locked, the mountain was transformed. The no-fall zone became a playground, crevasses gap jumps, and we carved turn after turn of bluebird corn all the way down to camp. Exhausted, we knew the trip was far from over. Another day of instruction followed by a knee-straining descent back to the trailhead with fully loaded packs awaited us. No big deal, we thought, as we struggled to get our boots off before we crashed. No big deal.