Hit the North Cascades with American Alpine Institute

Guide service has been summiting Baker since 1975


Photo courtesy of Richard Riquelme

Climbers hike up the Coleman Glacier toward the col, the lowpoint, between Mount Baker (left) and Colfax Peak (right).


The North Cascades are home to more than 300 glaciers, and for many people the Coleman Glacier on the north side of Mount Baker is their first introduction to the world of moving ice.

“You couldn’t design a better classroom for a first experience,” Dunham Gooding, founder and director of the Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute, said about Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier. “It exhibits all the same features of the bigger mountains of the world and it’s amazingly accessible.”

During the summer months, AAI leads three-day guided trips to the 10,778-foot summit of Mount Baker, from which climbers can see the San Juan Islands, the Coast Range in British Columbia and the rest of the North Cascades. Such stunning views combined with the beginner-friendly terrain attracts climbers from all over the country, Gooding said.

The class follows the most common climbing route, which starts on the Heliotrope Ridge trail and ascends the Coleman Glacier. High camp is established at 7,500 feet and from there climbers move onto the Deming Glacier before tackling the final obstacle, the Roman Wall.

Founded in 1975 as the Mount Baker Guide Service, AAI now employs 30 certified guides and leads an average of 15 trips up Mount Baker each year. During the excursion, climbers learn the basics of glacier travel and mountain safety.

“Just putting a rope on doesn’t automatically make you safe,” Gooding said.

Once climbers learn how to stay safe, navigating the terrain to reach the summit just becomes a big problem to solve, Gooding said, and people by nature enjoy problem solving. Mountaineering then doesn’t sound so complicated and it becomes a matter of applying the right skill at the right time.

“It makes a much richer experience if they understand the equipment and the process,” Gooding said. “People come away having acquired far more skills than they expected.”

This all comes with a caution label though: climbing Mount Baker may be fun and habit forming.

“The majority of people get hooked on climbing by going on that mountain,” Gooding said. “Before long they’re going to Ecuador or Alaska where it’s the same problem just a bigger mountain.”

For those looking beyond the local mountain range, AAI also offers international expeditions, from China to Patagonia and even Mount Everest.

For Gooding, Bolivia stands out as his favorite place to travel and climb. Over the years of leading groups through that section of the Andes, he has been a part of numerous first ascents of peaks that sometimes don’t even have names.

“There aren’t many places left in the world where you can go and no one has been there before,” he said.

Though he has traveled the world seeking summits, Gooding, said he always enjoys coming home for local adventures.

“Out the back door, you’ve got world-class glaciers and climbing. Out the front door, there’s world- class sailing. I’ve seen many spectacular settings around the world, but I’ve not seen anything like what Bellingham and Whatcom County can offer.”


Climb Mount Baker with AAI

Length: Three days. Summit: 10,778 feet. Season: May through early September. Prerequisites: Backpacking experience and good level of physical condition. Cost: $590 for a group of three to five people.

To see a list of other guided expeditions and courses, visit American Alpine Institute online at www.aai.cc or call 671-1505. You can also pick up a brochure from their office at 1515 12th St. in Fairhaven.

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