As an aspiring alpinist I stood on top of modest Ruth Mountain and gaped at the depth and chaos that is Mount Shuksan’s Nooksack Cirque. Made famous by its inclusion in “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America”, Price Glacier dominates this most impressive aspect of one the most iconic North American peaks. It would take me nearly two decades to finally climb the route, and it was worth the wait.
The difficulty will depend on time of year and the snowpack. In early season with a heavy snowpack, the giant crevasses and bergschrunds may be solidly bridged making for a simple ascent. When I climbed it in mid-August of an average snow year, I could easily understand why these walls were once considered impossible. After its inevitable first ascent by Fred Beckey it was heralded as the hardest alpine ice route in the contiguous United States.
Today, most competent alpinists will want to take two to three days to approach, climb, and descend via one of the easier routes. Familiarity with the chosen descent is advised. Beware that this route has objective hazards; I nearly got the chop when a TV sized rock came down the gulley between Nooksack Tower and the main lobe of Price Glacier. A bus sized piece of ice calved off an overhanging serac right above my partner. A lucky crevasse swallowed the brunt of it, my partner was hit by ice shrapnel. Get an early start and climb fast. Some parties have bivied on the route, an unappealing proposition.
From I-5 drive east on Mount Baker Highway, SR 542, enjoying views of the Twin Sisters Range and Mount Baker as you drive into the heart of the North Cascades. Stock up on last minute supplies in Bellingham. There is a ranger station at the east end of the Hamlet of Glacier. This is a good place to get a last minute conditions report and, although not required, you can register your climb. Just don't forget to sign out at the conclusion of your trip. Continue driving east, eventually crossing Nooksack River Bridge and immediately turn left onto Hannegan Pass road. After about a mile, turn right onto Nooksack River Road and continue to a parking lot at the road's end.
Price Glacier, in addition to offering a challenging alpine ice climb, has a logistical problem as well. Climbers typically approach from the Nooksack Cirque trail head and descend via Fisher Chimneys, hiking out via the Lake Ann trail, leaving the climbers 13 miles away from their entry point. We solved this problem by stashing a bike at the exit point. It took me only 23 minutes of downhill riding to reach our car at the Nooksack Cirque trail head before returning with the truck to pick up my partner who was waiting with our packs.
Hike through forest following the river for about one and a half miles. Cross the Nooksack River on a good log. Climb the opposite bank steeply up the forested hillside. The trail is not well defined and existing flagging can be confusing. Once on the opposite bank, find the rocky stream bed that is the outfall of Price Lake. Follow the stream bed until able to gain the steep, brushy and forested ridge on climber’s left. Bush whack up the hill side following an indistinct path. Surprising exposure in places, slippery footing, and heavy brush makes for slow going here.
From the moraine below the lake, follow a trail through cliff bands until able to work your way up and left onto the heathery ridge on the south side of the lake. Follow the ridge to rock slabs then ascend the slabs up and right. The first bivouac sites can be found on flat rocks just below the ridge crest and margin of the glacier. Another bivouac site can be found on the exposed saddle an hour's travel along the glacier below Nooksack Tower. Expect the approach to take the better part of a day.
From the rock slab bivouac, hike to the ridge crest and the margin of the glacial lobe. Gain the glacier and traverse climber's right along the glacier right to an exposed snow saddle below Nooksack Tower (possible bivouac here). From the snow saddle drop down and work your way onto the main lobe of the Price Glacier. Crossing under Nooksack Tower exposes the climber to rock fall, move quickly and make sure to set your first belay only once past the rock gulley that lies along the main Glacier.
Your route will be determined by crevasses and bergschrunds. In late season expect bare glacier ice and steep climbing as you are forced to drop into and climb out of the overhanging sides of crevasses and bergschrunds. The first ascent party as well as some subsequent parties have been forced right onto steep, rotten rock to bypass the steep broken glacier high up. We were fortunate to find a route that stayed entirely on ice, albeit on overhanging AI-5. Climb onto the glacial plateau and make your way to the obvious, classic summit pyramid. The easiest route, but the one with the poorest rock quality, lies on the south face. The west ridge of the pyramid offers an enjoyable and solid 4th and low 5th class route to the summit. Most descend the south side via down climbing and rappels.
Fisher Chimneys is an obvious choice for the descent, but is a non-trivial route of ascent in its own right. White Salmon glacier is also workable, but probably only in early season when the valley is covered in snow. Either way you will need to make for arrangements for getting back to your car. Thumbing a ride has worked for me in the past, but stashing a bike is more reliable.
Standard alpine kit for 2-3 days
6 - 8 screws
small rock rack (a couple of pins, a few nuts, a few cams or hexes)