Mount Shuksan has stood as the backdrop to much of my time as a hiker and climber. Some of the earliest trips I can remember were to Artist Point, Table Mountain, and Lake Anne. In the winter that area was the setting for my first snowshoe trip and my first night in a snow cave, and a winter ascent of Table Mountain remains one of my favorite easy scrambles. And all that time Shuksan soared into the sky, strung with hanging glaciers, laced with rime. The mountain’s west face was my prototypical Cascadian peak, much more so than Rainier or Baker.
The climbing of the peak has also been in the background for me these last few years. An unsuccessful attempt on the Sulfide was one of a handful of serious climbs my father did while I was in high school - before I did any mountaineering to speak of; and the Fisher Chimneys was among the most intense climbs accomplished by a friend of mine from the Boy Scouts.
As I sit writing this there is heat shimmering off the meadowy shelf I’ve chosen for my bivouac. Ants are carrying away the crumbs from my lunch and bees of several varieties are buzzing about the blooming heather. It is summer at last in the North Cascades.
The occasional booming of the icefall of the Crystal Glacier across the valley reminds me that I will need a true alpine start tomorrow, but with only 3000 feet to the summit, I do not predict an arduous climb.
And in the mean time my insoles and socks are laid to dry and there is a stream not fifty feet below me. Sometimes I think that it is places like this, and not the summits themselves, that drive us to the mountains. Peaks are fine goals, and they give purpose and direction to our time here, but it is the accidental occurrences, the unlooked for wonders, the moments of rest, that provide the sublimity that causes us to seek to call this place home.
It seems like most of my better climbs this year have happened almost by accident, so, true to form, this climb, postponed several times because of more favorable weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, was a backup plan for the Kautz, which was canceled due to my partner’s injured knee. I knew that soloing Shuksan is relatively common from the Sulphide route, but I was a little leery until I was told that some parties, specifically the one that wrote the Shuksan In A Day
trip report, and made the excellent video there posted, never rope up at all until, conditions depending, the summit pyramid.
as usual, photos can be found here
From the descriptions of a rough climber’s trail, I was surprised to arrive, this would be around 10, at a well maintained trailhead. Contrary to my expectations of a Sloan-esque bushwhack, the approach was actually quite pleasant; although there was a rough patch between the end of the maintained trail and the snow below Shannon Ridge. Once I gained the ridge, the climb was a joy, snow solid enough for good step-kicking with patches of rock up to the notch and then across to the high camp, where I found a handful of tents. Not being too eager to bivy on the snow, I found a patch of dirt in a heather step maybe 100 feet below and some seat-shaped rocks on which to spend the afternoon.
After dinner I explored farther down and found what could be a fascinating bouldering problem, though, being along, I did not really want to attempt more than a few traversing moves.
For my summit attempt I left camp at 3:20 in the morning, there were several reasons for this. The first was that, as a solo climber, any snow-bridge collapses, however unlikely, could be tragic and so it was important to get off the glacier by noon. The second was that I had heard that the gully often gets choked with climbing parties, and the last thing I wanted was the be stuck behind some slow, fumbling, group, wasting time and delaying my descent.
The route was simple enough, although I did manage to take a wrong turn at one point, and by 4:30 I was nearing the upper plateau and I no longer needed my headlamp. As I neared the summit pyramid the snow gradually hardened, so that by the steep snowfields leading to the gully I had to make do with the steps and ice-axe holes left by a previous party. The gully itself was surprisingly snow-free, with the exception of a small patch of ice near the summit that was simple to get around.
The scramble had its crux relatively low, maybe 50 feet above the bottom of the gully, and beyond that the holds were good and despite being sustained class four, it was not unduly difficult. The trick to staying on route seemed to be to note the crampon scratches on the rocks, although why someone, by all evidence a large number of someones, would not have removed their crampon by then I cannot say.
At 6:45 on the summit I received my first direct sunlight and ate what breakfast I could (I barely had an appetite the whole trip).
Descending the gully was not half as bad as I anticipated. I had packed up a rope and harness but ended up down-climbing all the way. I think the nature of gully climbing is that whatever the difficulty, it never feels as exposed as on a ridge or face, and so however precarious you actually are, you wind of climbing more confidently than you would normally.
About two thirds of the way down I met a climber coming up wearing some, as his partner farther down referred to them, “silly tights.” They looked like the sort of thing rock climbers wore in the 80s, which, incidentally, I have inherited a pair of, though I have never dared to wear them on a climb. Passing two other groups near the base of the gully, I began the long descent down to camp, shedding layers rapidly in the direct sun.
Once off the glacier I retrieved my stashed bivy gear, briefly re-hydrated, and started the final descent to the Shannon Ridge trail. By noon I reached the parking lot.
This was definitely the best climb of the year so far and quite possibly my favorite climb of the last three years. Not as difficult as my Sloan or Baring (winter) climbs, mostly for psychological reasons, but consequently more interesting and enjoyable than either. The route, although overshadowed by the arch-classic Fisher Chimneys (which I intend to try one of these days), is really aesthetically excellent, even if it is simple compared to the standard routes on any of the volcanos.