The forecast was for sunny weather the entire week, and I was itching to get out into the alpine and enjoy the sunshine. When Wade called and said that he had Thursday off, the planning started. Initially we thought about a ski tour of Yellow Astor Butte, but when a trip report came back as “not recommended” for snow conditions and approach hardships, we decided to try the Sulfide Glacier on Mt. Shuksan instead. Upon further discussion, we decided to leave open the possibility of a summit bid, although the extra weight we would be carrying would make the skiing somewhat more difficult.
At the way too early hour of 0530, we met at the Sharpe’s Corner park and ride for the two-hour drive. We were able to drive all the way to the Shannon Ridge Trailhead at 2500 feet, and were booting up the trail at 0800.
After about 800 feet of vertical, there was enough snow to throw the skis on and skin our way up onto the ridge. The trail initially travels through an old clear cut then enters and old growth forest at around 4000 feet. There was not a lot of snow here, but there was enough for good skinning. We reached the tree line about 1030, and stopped for a quick bite of lunch.
A climb through a notch and a traverse around a peak on the ridge brought us to the glacier. The conditions were almost perfect without a cloud in the sky, and a light wind at the most. The temperature was almost too warm, even in a short sleeve shirt. The snow had a good crust over some loose sugar snow, which made for mostly excellent skinning. We reached the bottom of the summit pyramid at 1430, and stopped for a rest and a power bar. Only 800 feet to go! We started the crampon up at 1500.
For the summit bid we had packed up the hill an eight mil sixty meter rope, and extra set of ice tools, harnesses and slings, crampons, and some pins (because as Kit Lewis says, “You can’t winter climb in the Cascades without pins.”). The central couloir on Shuksan is about 700 feet vertical at about 45-50 degrees. Starting up we decided to see how the conditions were, and belay if warranted. The conditions turned out to be optimal; perfect ice for front pointing the entire way up. We ended up free climbing the entire route, or at least Wade did. About 50 feet below the summit the couloir split. I took the right hand gully, while Wade continued with the left one. About 15 feet below the summit, I ran into a vertical step of rotten rime ice. I yelled over to Wade to ask him how his gully was looking. “It was OK!” I heard from the summit. Not wanting to down climb, I asked Wade to drop me the rope and belay me up. After some flailing around on the rotten ice, I joined Wade on the summit. Success at last! (I had been turned around on Shuksan the previous four times for various reasons.)
Since we had made the summit at the late hour of 1620, we did not stay and enjoy the view for long. The time that we did have up there was well appreciated. The view was supreme, without a cloud in the sky, and the sun setting over Mt Baker. We decided to belay on the down climb past the steeper headwall, and then do a running belay for the rest of the downclimb. We were back at the skis at 1715. Hurrying to get the skis on in the fading light, we could not help but to stop to admire one of the finest sunsets I have ever seen. The exceptionally clear sky and the view from the glacier combined to provide us with one of Mother Nature’s grandest scenes.
The ski down was tough. The crust that had been so good for skinning up now made turning difficult. The sun had set, and the moon only provided a dim flat light. After several face plants, I gave up turning on the steeper sections, and just cut the slope back and forth, making my turns slower and less frequent. We stopped below the notch to put our headlamps on, and again at the tree line to put our skins on. Skiing through the trees by headlamp is an experience that every one should have. By this time our legs were trashed, and we had to be careful not to hurt ourselves trying to expedite the return to the car. I finally gave up skiing, and Wade concurred. We boot packed the rest of the way out, and returned to the car at 2030.
When I think of winter climbing in the Cascades, I think of deep snow, high winds, and cold temperatures. This climb was anything but that. The low snow pack enabled us to drive to the trailhead and hike the trail quickly, while the clear warm weather made the outing seem more of a spring ski. A truly rare day, and a summit to boot.