Mike Fields and I left Seattle Friday (April 29) morning to attempt Mt Shuksan by the Sulphide glacier. At the Ranger station, we saw that the forecast called for rain. Well, we had decided to go any ways.
We met a couple at the trailhead who were planning to ski the route. That should've given us some ideas - but we decided to leave the snowshoes in the truck. There is no snow on the trail till around 3900 ft, and only patches till you get to the clearing at 4600 ft. Weather was quite good - clear and sunny in fact. Got some good views of Mt Baker. We saw the couple skinning up high up on the ridge.
The snow was quite soft by this time of the day and soon we realized that we are in for some slogging on knee-deep snow. We took turns breaking trail, sinking at times to our thighs. It took more than four hours of slogging to go from 4600 ft to 6500 ft. We were quite tired and decided to camp on the flat spot (6500 ft) right before the place where the glacier started to steepen a bit. We got some good views of the summit pyramid before we walked into the place where we camped.
The skiers met us on their way down after a while. They had only one axe each, and said that the summit pyramid was a bit sketchy. Besides, it was getting late for them and hence they decided to turn back after ascending about 300 ft on the summit pyramid. They mentioned that there was only one visible crevasse, but they found a thick snow bridge across it. Soon, we were covered by thick clouds on and off - maybe a sign of things to come!
Got up at around 2:30 am the next morning. The snow felt hard and frozen. After a cup of hot chocolate, we roped up and started moving before 3:30 am. We had clear and calm conditions for quite a while. The wind picked up a little when we were close to the base of the pyramid. Then it got cloudy and started snowing a little. Soon, we could not see much at all. It was not blowing hard yet though, and we decided to go for the summit.
The snow on the summit pyramid was in near-perfect condition. We might have missed the central gully in the near white-out and actually started way out to the right. After going over a few rocks covered with stable snow/ice, we found a place to traverse left into the main gully. Both of us felt good using a tool and our ice axe, and we wanted to get to the top and down as quickly as possible. So, even though we were roped up, we decided to climb without putting any pro in. The gully was consistent at 45 degrees with several short sections of 50-55 degree snow/ice. We found some water ice at a couple of places too.
Got to the top in about an hour from the base (around 7 am). We could hardly see anything around, and hence wanted to get down immediately. There was a rap anchor close to the summit for the steeper portion near the top, but both of us felt confident about down-climbing the gully, and started down. This time, we just went straight down aiming for the base of the pyramid. There were tracks of some huge rocks that had slid right down the central gully. Things were still frozen though and we managed to downclimb without any incidents. The weather cleared out for a short while on our way down on the glacier, and we could see our tent appearing as a speck on the glacier far below.
We broke camp pretty quickly. We were already feeling the snow softening a little bit. Glissading wherever possible, we slogged our way back to clearing at 4600 ft. The snow was real soft by now (even though we never saw much of the sun), and in fact I punched through till my chest at one spot. Met a team of three coming up with snowshoes -- snowshoes would've made life much easier for us!
Overall, it was a great climb. Couldn't get the great views of the summit pyramid that we were hoping for, but we could not have asked for better conditions high up.
* crampons, ice axe, and second tool (for summit pyramid)
* rope (you could go unroped if you stay on the West end of the glacier).
* brought pickets and ice screws, but did not use them
* bring snowshoes/skis!!
* Can drive to the trailhead. Trail clear of snow till 3900 ft.
PS: Photos were taken by Mike Fields