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under-represented strength | mt baker via easton

14 miles . 7500 ft gain . 10778 ft high

I recently had the pleasure of photographing the first Women of Color mountaineering course on Koma Kulshan (Baker) as a collaboration between Trail Mixed and Climbers of Color. When I was first saw the call for photographer, I couldn’t have been more excited! I love taking pictures and what better way to support a group than documenting the course? The several months leading up to the climb, it was a tight scramble to find other people for my rope team. Between a lack of female mountaineering photographers (especially of color) and needing schedules and skill levels to align, we didn’t finalize the team till basically the week before. But boy was I glad to have a team because a solo ascent would not be wise for a mountain with open glaciers.

Trail Mixed was formed last year as a way to support women of color in the outdoors. The cofounders Liselle and Quena have worked tirelessly to get this group off the ground, finding sponsorships and creating events that are welcoming to all. Climbers of Colors has been established for a few years now (founded by Mariko and Don and their friends) and provides affinity groups for the underrepresented to find a safe place to learn outdoor skills, including mountaineering. What they do for the community is incredible and though outreach isn’t my forte, uplifting people through photography is something I love to contribute to.

Due to scheduling conflicts, we arranged for me to hike separately from the main group (we technically had to be separate groups due to the 12-person wilderness limit anyway) and meet everyone at base camp. The tricky thing is that camp has a potential to move based on availability and communication would not be easy without cell service. So starting from the Park Butte trailhead, I followed the trail and then once it ended, I followed a dot on my map, eventually reaching Sandy Camp. I had summited Baker the same route a few years ago during the early season when everything was snow covered from the trailhead. It was unfamiliar to follow the trail through the subalpine meadows, but a pleasant walk without the drag of the snow. Sandy Camp was truly a mountaineer’s base camp with dozens of groups littering the Railroad Grade trail.

Arriving at Sandy Camp along the Railroad Grade trail
A few years ago in May when Railroad Grade was all covered in snow

My golden ticket was a group of Black Diamond tents (they helped sponsor and provide gear to the participants – isn’t that neat?) and ideally also a group of women of color. It felt somewhat like a treasure hunt or iSpy. Or perhaps Clue. Are those tents Black Diamond? Not really, moving on. Is that a group of 12 females? Nada, next. Hmm a white dude, definitely not. And so on and so forth we went till we got closer to the pin on the map. Ah ha, a group of Black Diamond tents and the laughter that only a carefree ladies group could kindle.

I was greeted with the warmest smiles and eager energy. Everyone was stoked for an amazing weekend of learning and fun. And immediately my heart melted, maybe even got slightly teary-eyed. It wasn’t till now that it struck me how wonderful it is to see women of color gathered to climb a mountain. Never before had I climbed a technical mountain with a person of color. Never have I climbed with such a large group of ladies. Never have I seen such a sight. And a sight to behold! Even in just the first few minutes, I could feel the fierce strength of each participant, yearning to explore, sharing the wonders of the mountains with that nervous excitement for the next few days on the mountain.

Learning to use a wag bag is pretty entertaining when Dawa teaches it

I’ve often wondered the importance of representation since I’ve clearly gotten decently far in the world of mountaineering without truly seeing other people who look like me. My white friends were enough and I loved their company. I think sometimes you don’t know till you’ve really experienced something and this was just the case. There was definitely a greater sense of belonging, like I didn’t have to prove my worth or ability. That I could just be. Definitely it helps that I’m more comfortable with mountains and all, but I think this is something hard to describe but that you must experience yourself.

As the sun set and everyone ogled eyes at the colorful sky, the impressive Dawa taught us how to use a wag bag. Somehow it was comical even through the lesson. Side note: you can usually get wag bags or blue bags from the ranger station. They’re super important when you’re traveling on snow and rock (aka for mountaineering and other hikes) because poop can’t decompose like it does several inches into soil. If you haven’t heard of Dawa, she’s a Sherpa and the first female Nepalese to become an international guide with her IFMGA certification. There’s articles about her, but meeting her in person and seeing her humor come to life is something else. She’s got this relentless determination and selfless heart, truly a role model in so many regards. In some ways, it’s intimidating to know how strong she is to have climbed multiple 6000+m peaks and then reality pulls me back and she’s just another mountain lover sharing her joy with the world.

Evening light over our glacial tarn
Morning light

We retreated to our side of the glacial tarn to keep the 12-person party limit in check. We being my rope team of photographers. The next morning, we had an early wake up and straight into lessons. At least everyone could stay seated on the rocks to practice rope skills and tying knots. Mariko and Theresa led this section as Dawa took a break. It was cool to see them take turns teaching, since it must be exhausting to be “on” for so long. Even with my goal as a photographer, I would need to take breaks and just sit and watch. It’s Theresa’s first season as an AMGA mountain guide, and how amazing it is that she can continue knocking down walls and bringing more people of color into the world of mountaineering as an instructor for Climbers of Color.

Learning the ropes

The participants all came from various backgrounds and some of them even rock climb, so they knew some of the basic knots. It was cool to see everyone learning and how each person would get excited when they finally tied a double fisherman’s knot all on their own! And despite knot-tying being an individual skill, everyone was helping everyone – what an amazing supportive group.

After tying ropes and making their own prusiks for self-rescue, they all worked on snow travel skills with an ice axe and crampons. The whole morning I was thinking how cool it would have been had I taken a course like this. With other women, with people of color, learning all these skills at once. Instead, I learned bit by bit over the course of a couple years, self-learning and mentored by friends. And for the second half of the day, we went out on the glacier for some crevasse practice. And truthfully, I had never climbed in and out of such a crevasse, so it was kinda fun for use photogs too!

Snow skills

 

Headed towards the glacier
Crevasses on lower Easton

To get to our designated crevasse, we had to jump over some smaller cracks, which proved to be fun to navigate for all. This weekend was created as a mountaineering leadership course, so everyone had a chance at setting up their own crevasse rescue system. And of course, people took turns being inside the crevasse, which produced nothing but smiles! And before we knew it, it was time to retire back to camp for dinner and rest for an early alpine start in the morning.

Enjoying sunset
Our camp in the distance

Even though we got up before the sunrise, many groups were already half way up the mountain and even approaching the Roman Wall. Headlights were shining like connect the dots. And as we started roping up to cross the glacier, the sun started to light up the sky. And for a couple of hours, we all kept turning around, enjoying the gorgeous colorful horizon. I remember the last time up here, we also had an amazing sunrise over some cloud inversions.

Sunrise
Cloud inversion from a few years ago
Little ant climbers

Weaving in and out of the crevasses was fairly straight forward given the hundreds of foot prints creating a clear path. Though every so often you’d deviate for a slightly easier crossing. The only other tricky section was some icy slopes, which can be uncomfortable as a new mountaineer who’s just getting used to crampons and walking on snow. But everyone did just fine and pressed forth. 

At the crater rim, we had our third and final stop. And like most every other volcano, stunk like rotten eggs. To stop it from getting to my head, I kept thinking, it smells like egg salad (which I enjoy), so it’s not stinky. Even here, just about a thousand feet from the summit, I could feel how much energy I have. Years ago, I was already completely exhausted, so it was cool to see how a few years and better fitness does. And honestly it was incredible to see how well all the participants were handling it.

Ascending the Roman Wall
My first attempt photographing this crevasse switch back during my first summit here

Finally, we were headed up the Roman Wall, a steeper slope with even more giant crevasses to switchback through. And some of the crevasses I even recalled them the same as before. Probably due to the fact that I pour over my pictures often rather than my actual memory. But the best part was as we crested the edge of the flat summit. I couldn’t believe that I could actually walk at a decent speed rather than dragging them up to the true summit. Feeling strong is incredible and it definitely helps to have a direct comparison to the past.

The amazing WoC crew!
Bonus picture: me struggling on my first WA volcano (pic by Marisa)

I was so proud of everyone making it to the summit, whether tired or still energetic by the end. Oddly, the summit was snow-free. I’m not sure when it usually melts out but I was completely expecting snow the whole way up! We made it up quicker than our schedule, so we took our time to enjoy the summit as other climbers came through. Not before long, we headed back down the way we came, traveling quickly so we could hide from the blazing sun again. 

Back at camp, late afternoon was carved out as nap time to relax. I’m not sure that anyone actually took a snooze, but everyone was much laid back, somehow still soaking up the sun on rocks or munching on snacks. We chatted and connected a bit more, but all I could think about was how beautiful a women of color group who mountaineered together. Not that anyone is less capable, but that it is possible to uplift others who may not otherwise get this experience. And actually, this group was way more capable than I ever was when I first stepped into the alpine world. I don’t know exactly how each participant was chosen, but they all exemplified leadership in various ways and clearly had a passion for mountains. And their strength and confidence somehow touched my heart. And as I left camp that evening (they stayed an extra night), I couldn’t help but feel the joy.

Descent
One of many skiers braving the crevasses
Nifty short roping by the guides to safely descend the water-logged path

So thank you to all those who made it possible. From the sponsors and donations to the eager participants and experienced guides, and of course Trail Mixed for pulling it all together and my wonderful rope team. Here’s to seeing more diversity outdoors and more adventures ahead for all of us mountaineers who don’t necessarily fit the historically stereotypical mold!

Notes

  • Beta here is probably irrelevant at this point, and not map since it can be found on many other resources (follow the Railroad Grade and then navigate the crevasses to the summit). Generally, the crevasses to walk over were fairly benign in terms of availability to walk around or step over. There were some icier sections that don’t really need protection but a more taut rope would benefit newer mountaineers. Apparently it is still skiable from the Roman Wall but down Squak.
  • Sandy Camp: I haven’t seen a lot of GPS/maps of Sandy Camp but when you’re on the mountain it’s fairly obvious. This time of year, it’s about where the snow starts and the Railroad Grade trail ends. There’s a lot of flat open camp spots everywhere and it’s past the designated campsites along Railroad Grade.
  • In the summer (as opposed to early season), there’s a lot more people on the mountain, so you’d need to be comfortable stepping off the “main route” and passing people in either direction.
  • I’m not sponsored to promote anyone, but:
    • Trail Mixed Collective is an organization that supports women of color outside from running to hiking to mountaineering and more
    • Climbers of Color is an organization that hosts climbing/mountaineering courses and events for people of color
    • And props to my fellow photogs: Lynn and Wade I love how we all had a different take on the same subjects!

Photos shot on Canon 5D Mark IV and Canon Rebel T6 unless otherwise noted

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