It is tempting to say that Mt. Shuksan was a nice consolation prize for being unable to summit Rainier due to weather just a few days ago. But with all deference due Rainier, her sister to the north can stand on her own as a unique mountaineering adventure. This is the report of the all too brief stint of six California Mountaineering Club members in this area of the North Cascades in mid-July.
The only preparation our group did not have for our foray to Mt. Shuksan was coming to grips, without being rendered nearly speechless time and again, with the singular beauty of the territory into which we had ventured. Because the images from my mousy little Canon will reflect much better than my words ever could what I’m talking about, I’ll avoid efforts at verbalizing about the scenic wonders of this place.
The Ultimate in Scenic By-Ways
Glory of the Shannon Ridge TrailAt the trailhead (2,500’), we distributed group gear and got our packs organized pretty quickly. We stepped into the sunshine on the Shannon Ridge Trail and found it a real delight: verdant and deep evergreen come to mind as shorthand for this trail. A minor annoyance was the presence of continuous pools of mud along the trail, evidence of recent rainfall. But this was no big deal except for those who had trail runners on.
About 2 miles into the hike, we got our first panoramic view of Mt. Baker. The mountain would remain a dominant fixture of the skyline from this point forward. As if by design, just when the group was ready for a long break and some lunch, we wandered onto a spacious open ridge top with breathtaking views in every direction. We basked in the sun, ate, and finally had to motivate ourselves to lift our packs and carry on.
Shortly after leaving our rest stop, we ascended to a notch framed by trees, which gap served as a divide between the thick forests and valleys we had come up, and the terrain towards the Sulphide Glacier, our destination for the day. From this point forward, we began slogging in the snow. But the scenery continued to amaze as the horizon bristled with jagged, snow-covered peaks
Campsite Extraordinaire on the Sulphide Glacier
Near dinner-time we had a visit from a commercial guide and his clients coming in from a glacier skills practice session. They were camped a little ways off from us and were embarked on a six-day mountaineering course. Well familiar with the mountain, the Argentine guide gave us some helpful beta on our route for tomorrow. His group would also attempt Shuskan tomorrow, although they didn’t plan to leave until the gentle hour of 8 a.m. Talk about a coddled group!
As the saying goes, we had a very pleasant evening and turned in early for our 3 a.m. wake-up. As with most alpine starts, this one came fast.
Summit Day: A Pulse-Quickening 4th Class Route, Incomparable Views, and a Few Disquieting Moments
Conditions were promising as we tied into two rope teams and started off a little after 4 a.m. We enjoyed the brisk air and the relatively gentle ascent on the glacier towards the base of Shuksan. The larger crevasses made for eye-catching scenes as our pyramid-shaped objective came closer and closer.
At the base of the mountain we unroped and discussed our route. We could see several steep areas of snow on the route that we would have to negotiate so we kept our crampons on. Though the rock section on this lower part of the route was 3d class, keeping crampon points on the slick rock required constant focus. We finally reached a point where we felt comfortable shedding our spikes and then continued, aiming for a central gully leading to the summit.
We were expecting a Class 3 route with some Class 4, but we got just the opposite: consistent Class 4 with some Class 3 and a few low Class 5 moves. There was loose rock everywhere so we moved carefully. Yet, overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable climb.
All agreed that it would not be a good idea to attempt to down-climb the route. There would be unacceptable risk nailing the low Class 5 moves going down. The numerous rap slings anchored around rocks told us that others had shared our apprehension about down-climbing the route.
By the time we got to within 200 feet of the summit, Ben had diverged to a route more or less up the middle to the summit, while the rest of us found a gentle Class 2 ridge left of center that comfortably transported us to the top.
At the top, we were literally mesmerized by the views. Mt. Baker dazzled most of all. Hundreds of unknown, unnamed peaks sprawled in every direction, offering the promise of a lifetime of exploration and first ascents. Well over a hundred miles away, Mt. Rainier peeked through the distant haze. It was hard to believe that we were seeing what we were seeing on a summit only 9, 131 feet high!
We started working our way down and began putting together 3d class sections. We finally locked into a consistent 3d class line of descent. This time around, 4th class moves were the exception. We encountered only a few places where it was necessary to face in, including one airy traverse. We were all pleased that we didn’t have to slow down for rappels.
We made quick time to where we had left our crampons and packs, and continued the descent. The only remaining minor challenge was a 50- degree snow slope, about 60 meters in length, that we carefully down-climbed. Then it was back to tie into our rope teams and aim for camp.
This clip shows the climb up the 4th Class gully.
To the Edge
As it turns out, we got tempted to aim too directly for camp. At one point, we eye-balled what looked like a direction of travel that would greatly shorten our route. We headed that way.
After just a few minutes, I (second on the front rope team) saw the leader stop and quicken the pace of poking for crevasses with his axe. It took but a couple of seconds for my apprehension to rise at seeing his axe plunge time and again into the snow nearly up to his hand, coupled with a very concerned look that came over his face. Then I thought I saw his feet sinking into the ground where he was standing. By this time, my mind and body braced for hitting the ground in self-arrest. In a split second of thought, I was concerned that the snow might be so deep and soft as to make arrest extremely difficult.
The next thing that happened was the leader shouting in an unmistakable command voice to reverse course immediately if not sooner. We turned around without mishap, but all indications were that we had dodged a bullet.
Back to RealityBack on route, we covered the last section of terrain back to camp fairly quickly. Our round trip had been a little over 6 hours. We had a snack, broke camp at any easy cadence, and headed back for the trailhead. The weather was warm and we plodded, plunge-stepped, and slid down the slushy slopes until we hit our favorite ridge top rest spot. Once again, that spot saturated us with a "stay-a-while” feeling and we had to muster the will to move on again. Below this spot we again entered thick forest cover and the muddy trail.
As we covered the last couple of miles to the trailhead, it occurred to me that, due to the drop-dead beauty of this trail, I did not have that “when will this trail ever end” feeling common nearing the end of most outings. Instead, the trailhead seemed to arrive quickly. That meant back to big cities, airports, and the rest of it. But I’m thankful for a hobby that allows me to see and experience, under my own steam, the best that the natural world has to offer. And make no mistake, this area of the North Cascades is all about the best in nature.