The Amazing Mount Shuksan!!
Finally I get another chance at a Bulger this year. It had been a month and a half since I have even seen a unique summit yet a Bulger. And this time I was invited to attempt one of the most photographed mountains in the world, Mount Shuksan. This year has been an utter nightmare for me for hiking and climbing. I have not really been hiking and climbing a lot other than occasionally doing dumpster dive repeats. There have been some bright spots this year but those have been few and far compared to most years. Money and vehicle issues have only made it worse and the final issue, my job schedule has really done a number on me. But luckily my friend Dave stuck in there with me and invited me on a dandy of a trip. This is a trip I really needed because before this trip I have been dealt disappointing blow after disappointing blow. We were originally supposed to go on this trip on Memorial Day weekend but the weather looked hazardous so we passed on this trip until July. Luckily the weather improved dramatically and our trip was given a go.
Saturday July 13th-Heading for Camp
Dave met me early at the Everett bus terminal early on Saturday and from there we headed up to the ranger station. According to the ranger there had been no updates for two weeks. They were also going to have a ranger check for the portable bathroom and potentially dig it out. After going through the paperwork Dave and I secured the permit and we were on our way to the Shannon Ridge Trailhead. The road up to the trailhead actually was not that bad and the actual trailhead was in good working condition. So far everything was looking good.
As for the Shannon Ridge Trail it begun out predictably in excellent condition. It gave no hint at what lied ahead for this trail. Unfortunately after 4000 feet this trail became a disaster. Logs were down all over the place and the trail in many places didn’t even exist. For one of the most photographed mountains in the world, this trail up was a complete and total disaster. There was a lot of energy spent on this poorly maintained trail and after popping on to Shannon Ridge near “The Notch” we were tired and had to take a good break. We met our other two members Kim and Robert at “The Notch” and from there proceeded on to camp. I know there are a lot of budget cuts going on, but this trail is going to one of the most popular mountains in the state and one of the most photographed mountains in the world. The least it could have is a good approach trail!
Mount Baker from Shannon Ridge
View from "The Notch"
Once through the notch the route up became mostly snow-covered. There was one interesting side traverse from “The Notch”. In snow the ice axe and crampons really helped and though we had to use some caution, the side traverse really became a non-issue. Soon we were on the climb up to the snowfield to our campsite. At this point the 45 pound pack was really starting to do a number on me but I held strong and within an hour from “The Notch” we made it to camp in good shape. Throughout the climb up to camp we were greeted by some clouds which made it just enjoyable enough for us to climb the mountain without sweating in the heat.
A view back at "The Notch"
Nearing the camp
Settling In at Camp
We were greeted at the camp by the ranger who at the time searching for the portable toilet. He claimed that our campsite could potentially be on it but he said at this point the toilet was too deep in the snow to be dug out so he let us camp there. He also gave us confidence on the climb up Shuksan by telling us that the actual climb up Shuksan looked to be decent. He did warn of icy spots and some iffy snow sections within the pinnacle. He thought we probably would have an easy time on it though all of us had our doubts. From camp the Pinnacle looked nasty. For Dave whose calf was now acting up; and me, who is now out of shape, the goal was to get to the base of the pinnacle and to see what the mountain conditions were from there. From what we saw anyone with cams and sling going up the SE Rib was going to be in great shape but anyone going up the gully was going to have their work cut out for them.
Looking up at Shuksan
The view back at Baker Lake.
The Struggle to Sleep
From there we setup camp under the warm sunlight. The tent was nice and toasty and at least the start of the sleep was looking really good. Within minutes of getting in my sleeping bag I was knocked out. But I made a big mistake in that I brought my summer sleeping bag (45 degree bag) and now I was beginning to pay for it. By the time midnight came around I was shivering severely and had to put every layer of clothing on just to survive the night. The temperatures got so cold that the small bouts of sleep I did became a struggle. I had been hallucinating about people turning the temperature up at the camp and dreaming about being back at home. I hid myself in that summer mummy bag just begging for the daylight to come around so I could warm up. A part of me at this point just wanted to be out of the mountains and back in Seattle. This is one mistake I will never make again.
Day 2-The Climb
Morning Light on Mount Shuksan
When we all woke up the temperature was 26 degrees, 15 degrees below the forecast low. The thick frost froze to our tent making a crunchy sound as we got up. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who suffered from the surprise cold that night. The others in our group complained of the same thing. At this point a part of me was done with this mountain and just wanted off. But I knew it was unwise to stop now because I had 2500 feet of safe snow travel and I could not stop until at least making it to the base of the pinnacle. Now it was time for business and that was to attempt Mount Shuksan. So we all roped up for the glacier travel got our gear ready and headed for the sharp pinnacle of Mount Shuksan. As soon as we were roped up we were off and running.
Robert, the leader, setup a good steady pace. Even in the poor shape I was in I was able to hang in there with the group most of the way up the mountain. We did have to take a couple small breaks but the breaks did little to slow us down on this mountain. The sun soon warmed the camp and made the night cold a quick and distant memory. The higher we went the more amazing the views of Baker and the North Cascades. In all the years of climbing in the mountains this was clearly one of the prettiest views I had ever seen in my entire life. It is no wonder why there is a huge climbing culture in the Pacific Northwest. My personal passion for climbing only got enhanced by the wonderful glacier travel on this mountain. Though physically it was very tough on my now weak body, the views were nothing short of incredible and invigorating.
Classic North Cascade Views!
Mixed ice and rock! For two of us this was game over!
In about three hours from camp we were at the base of the glacier where we greeted by four other groups trying to make the summit of Shuksan. A number of teams were already coming off the mountain not prepared for the challenges that Shuksan offered. After hearing the report that one team gave and seeing the horrific struggles that the other teams were going through Dave and I who struggling with health issues previously mentioned backed out and decided to call it there. From what we were seeing and hearing for others, to continue on was going to be a serious risk which none of us had any desire to take. Robert though was feeling confident that the other groups were struggling from not reading the route and he proceeded for the summit and Kim decided reluctantly to go with him. It turned out that ALL OF US
made the right call in this situation. I will elaborate on that statement I made later in the trip report.
Nice peaklet we noticed on the way down.
On the way up we had only past a couple of crevasses heading to the summit block. In fact there was only one crevasse we even crossed over and that was easily avoidable. Dave and I decided to at noon turn around and head down. They were well aware of our decision and both parties separated at that point. We knew by the large crowds that it was going to be hours before they were going to make the summit. Following the same path we came up was much quicker and easier and we only saw one crevasse open on the way back. Within an hour and a half we were back at camp. Once we took down camp we made quick time heading to “The Notch”. The snow was perfect for glissading though serious caution had to be used because a glissade too far could have ended disastrous. For me I slow glissaded roughly 1000 feet all the way down fairly close the traverse. If you choose to glissade here, go slow and use caution. Some of the run outs were fairly questionable.
The traverse to “the Notch” seemed much more questionable this time around because the steps from the day before had melted out some and the drop-off was questionable in spots. Once past that notch things flowed fairly smoothly until we reached the so-called Shannon Ridge Trail. About a dozen times we lost that trail but luckily Dave’s GPS brought us right back to where we need to go. After battling it out through 500 feet of slush, mud, log and more horrible crap we finally made to the better section of trail. That same section though pissed us off again and hopefully this trip report will encourage someone to fix up that approach trail!!!
Once we made it to the maintained section of the trail I all of the sudden felt the need to race to head home. Though I was tired I mustarded up the energy to get us off the mountain as quick as possible. All I could think of was about catching that bus in Everett so that Dave did not have an additional two hour car ride home. I also knew that if we got back early enough that we could get ourselves something decent to eat. Now with no major obstacles on the trail I decided to put all my energy together and speed on out of there. Dave despite a painful calf hung in there quickly we speed down the now much better trail back to the car. I knew by the pace we would be back to the car in good time. In fact by 6 pm we were back at the car. This was great relief to both us because now we had a lot of time until the last bus out of Everett. After stopping for something good to eat we were soon on our way back and I was able to catch an early bus home.
Remember when I said all of us made the correct decision? Well the other two in our group, Robert and Kim, found a way to bypass the log jam that was going on at the summit block and made the summit by 1:30. Robert was very correct in finding a better route to the summit that he saw as being low Class 4 at worse while he scrambled past a lot of the parties who were protecting harder routes just 20 feet to the east of him. Though they both struggled on the initial snowfield, they soon found great rock on the way up that had excellent handholds. Once they got to the summit they were able to find even a better way off the pyramid, not even having to rappel off any of the rocks on the way down. They were the first ones off the pinnacle after being the last ones on. They made it back to trailhead by 9:30 which was just after sunset.
So do Dave and I have any regret over our decision? Personally I know we made the correct decision as well. My feeling is that if all of us went up there we might have prevented Robert’s and Kim’s chances of success. Dave was also in serious pain from a calf injury the previous week while I was very tired from the night before. I also am far from best scrambler in the group and probably would have wanted protection which would have further delayed us reaching the summit. If both of us went and did make the summit we might have made it at 3 pm. We would have not been off the mountain until 11 pm or later. Then Dave would have driven me all the way home and instead of him making it back by midnight he would have made it back at 5 am. That is of course providing there was no injury by us from a potential fall or other issues. Both Dave and I were already compromised.
I will be back and hopefully later this year. Now knowing what I know about Shuksan I will have a better plan of attack for this mountain. First and most important I will have a better sleeping bag for the trip. That cold night still makes my bones shake. I will aim for the western section of the pyramid. I will still bring a rope and slings to rappel (sorry folks I love rappelling). Finally I hope to rapidly get into better shape for future climbs as well. See you again soon Shuksan!!