Mount Shuksan, North Cascades National Park
Wandering into the Iron Skillet in the town of Sedro-Wooley, I was unsure what I might find in terms of climbers. I was about to embark on a glacier climb of Mount Shuksan with ten people I had never met before. One of them might have to haul me out of crevasse, or catch me on a belay when I took a tumble off some rock. It was a lot of trust to be putting to strangers. Tom, Jeff, Corey, and Chris were seated at a back table about to order breakfast, easily recognizable as climbers rather than locals. Joining them, I did my best to try to get to know the people that might have to save my life over the next day and a half.
June 18-18, 2006
After a large breakfast, we met the rest of the climbing party at the ranger station and car pooled to the trail head. We split group gear and figured out who was tenting with who, and then hit the trail, an old, overgrown road bed.At 3400 feet, the trail finally began its climb to the alpine, leaving the dull forest behind. Nearing 3800 feet, we ran into the snow that was to be our constant companion for the rest of the climb. In good shape, the snow allowed a rapid ascent up to a ridge where the mountains truly began.
Our route was obvious: Shoot the large gap in front of us and then climb to the Sulphide Glacier, which was to be our highway to the summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan. Viewed from the side opposite us, Shuksan looks like a difficult and ominous mountain. From the south, however, the climb is almost a walk. Baker lake, almost hidden by clouds, stretched out behind us. Mount Baker was somewhere in the clouds, but never really came out.
After passing through the gap, we encountered several climbing parties on their way out. All had failed to make the summit due to poor snow on the summit pyramid. It seemed, however, that if we reached the pyramid before the sun had reduced it to a sloppy mess, we might have a chance at summitting. Rather than a casual stroll as a civilized hour, we would now have to get a 3 am start. After chatting for thirty minutes, we left the others and traversed on snow above and around a large cirque on the other side of the gap.
Finishing the traverse, we climbed directly up, looking for a place suitable to put up the five tents that our party was carrying. While there was plenty of space, little of it was sheltered should a storm blow in. Fortunately, Tom spotted some disturbed snow above us and a brief climb brought us to a spot sheltered from the wind. Two tents from Alpine Ascents International were there already, but the spot was too good to pass up.
The party quickly broke into tent groups and got to work on the innumerable number of chores that are required for snow camping. A platform for a tent gets dug out and the tent set up. A kitchen pit gets dug out of the snow. Stove gets fired up to melt snow into drinking water for the night and for the summit attempt. Hot drinks made and dinner cooked. While it takes some time, nothing is particularly difficult to do and the hours passed quickly as I got to know the various members of the party.
Eventually the four members of the AAI team returned from a day of glacier travel practice and began their own process. There were two guides and two "uber clients" from Boston that were spending several days practicing various glacier and rock techniques in the mountains of Washington. While friendly enough, they mostly kept to themselves.
After dinner we met to discuss gear for the next day and rope assignments. I would be on the lead rope team, directly behind the lead climber. This meant that it would be my job to stop the fall of the person most likely to break through a snow bridge and fall into a crevasse, not exactly the most relaxing position on a rope team. I tied my prussiks onto the rope I'd be on and set out my crampons and ice axe next to the spot in an attempt to make the 2 am wake up and 3 am start time go as smoothly as possible. Oddly enough, I felt none of the nervousness that I had expected gut to feel. I felt no trepidation, no worries. I was actually anticipating, with eagerness, my alarm going off in less than five hours.
My $13 K-mart watch went off as planned at 2 am, rousing myself and Chris, my tent mate, into action. The air was a bit above freezing when I got out of my sleeping bag and dressed myself for the two thousand foot climb on the Sulphide Glacier. I was a bit too efficient and found myself tied into the rope and ready to go fifteen minutes before our planned start. Others were less so, and I found myself sitting on my pack until nearly 3:20 am, when our rope moved out in front. A thick white mist hung about us and Jeff, the lead climber, navigated with a compass, following a perfect route up and along various features of the glacier. I should have been amazed at the time with the line he followed, and I was later, but at the time I was concentrating mostly on his body, fifteen meters in front of me, watching for any signs of a fall.
Up we climbed and slowly the mist lifted, though only partially. We were in a small clear zone from the weather, with short views around us and plenty of clouds in the distance. Two and half hours of easy work got us to within sight of the summit pyramid, tantalizingly close and looking very feasible, as long as the weather held.
Unfortunately, our weather break ended quickly as we made the last push to the base of the pyramid, and we were greeted by that feature with snow and complete white-out conditions. After thirty minutes of talking and waiting, we took a vote. The party was evenly split between trying the pyramid in the white out and returning to camp, which forced Tom, the climb leader, into casting the deciding vote. You don't climb into bad weather, and so we turned around for the walk back to basecamp.
As we descended, of course, a large patch of blue sky appeared overhead and the sun obliterated the white out, leaving some to question the wisdom of our decision just 30 minutes early. I had no such issues, knowing that Tom had made absolutely the right call at the time. Besides, after thirty minutes of sun the weather returned, including winds and snow, even as low as basecamp. Although I had failed once again to get to the top of a mountain in Washington, I wasn't especially dismayed. Shuksan will be there another time.
From Lakewood, drive I-5 north to Mount Vernon. Take SR 20 (North Cascades Highway) east through the towns of Burlington and Sedro-Wooley (stop here at the ranger station to pick up a permit). Continue to Baker Lake road. Take the road to Shannon Creek road and drive to roads end. Baker Lake road becomes unpaved after a while, but is in good shape. Shannon Creek road is in less good shape, but should be passable, with care to ordinary vehicles. I was riding in a Tacoma pickup truck that bombed along with no problems.
Mount Shuksan involves crossing a glacier and should not be attempted without the proper gear and training. If you don't know what is involved in a glacier climb, you should not try this. If you do not have glacier gear, do not try this.
Take the Shannon Creek trail (initially an old road bed that is overgrown with vegetation), climbing eventually to a prominent ridge crest. Here the trail ends. However, navigation is easy as you are out of the forest. A massive gap is your target. Climb to the gap (snow covered in June 2006). On the other side, traverse left around a cirque and then up and to the left. Keep going up until you find a place where you'd like to camp (several options). Follow the Sulphide Glacier to the summit pyramid (easy route finding in good weather).