|Page Type:||Trip Report|
|Lat/Lon:||48.93571°N / 122.11647°W|
|Date Climbed/Hiked:||Jan 19, 2022|
This is a unique trip report that involves an alternative mode of descent (paraglider!) near the top of Shukan. Skis are my main mode of transport in the mountains, but I have been expanding on that with a paraglider as well. My intention for this trip report is for entertainment and some inspiration for those looking to experience an alternate mode of travel in the mountains. We did not summit, as it was not in our best interest that day. Launching from the summit would be very scary and dangerous, as there is no practical or safe spots. Our mission was simple: Climb and Fly safely. We used skis for a part of our ascent, and for our launch. We ascended the White Salmon Glacier, to the Curtis Glacier, to our launch point at the top of the gentle part of the Hanging Glacier. See photo below - We launched in the middle left of the photo, at the top of the glacier.
Paragliding is a very special sport. A paraglider kit (harness, glider) can weigh anywhere from 5-30+ pounds. Apart from a harness, reserve (optional) and glider, you typically caryy the standard clothing for mountaineering. Adding crampons, skis, etc can make for a beefy pack. At first glance, a flying descent tool seems an obvious choice.... Who wouldn't want to fly off a summit and land back at the car, avoiding long arduous deproaches, bushwhacking, and saving time?! I started paragliding with this exact dream in mind. Unfortunately, it hasn't been so simple. I have been humbled about how difficult/rare it can be to make big mountain flights. I have been paragliding for nearly two years, and the process has involved frustrations, mentors, patience, too much time spent looking at wind forecasts, and countless hours practicing/researching. I'm still an infant in terms of progression. As most people on this page know, mountains attract strong and sometimes bizzare wind conditions. This makes for extremely unsafe or unfeasible flights. Some ranges, the Alps for example, are a bit more conducive for mountain flying. We're not so lucky in the North Cascades. Approaches are long, launches can be rather sketchy, landing zones sparse (The EVERGREEN state!) :). Despite all of the setbacks, you are ocassionally rewarded for the hard work and patience. This reward is a beautiful and safe flight back to the car, reducing a 6 hour descent into less than 20 minutes. In wintertime, as there are generally no thermals to 'stay up', you gently glide to your landing zone. These flights from top to bottom are called.... 'Sled Rides'!! :)
Winter in Washington can be trying. We spend a ton of time obsessing & brooding over the weather in the Cascades, longing for any chance of sunshine we can squeeze out. While at work, my friend Josiah and I noticed the mountains were forecasted for a weekend of VERY stable air. High pressure and a layer of stagnant air was setting in the region. This meant light winds and beautiful weather. We checked the forecast on Shuksan and knew the weekend had a good chance for light winds all the way up to 9000'! It was time to start planning. We had heard of a few people launching the Hanging Glacier, near the summit of Mount Shuksan, and landing at the Baker ski resort. This seemed the most feasible option, as the upper hanging glacier is gentle (20 degrees) and has a very large runout zone for launching with skis. If you blew the launch, you had time to kill the wing and restart. Winds were also forecasted to come from the north & west. This was our intended direction and headwinds are favored. A dangerous aspect of paragliders is that they are not rigid. Turbulence can cause a wing to collapse and act very dangerous. This is a bit of a double edged sword, as non-rigidity means light and packable. Winds blowing from the 'back' or over ridges can generate 'rotor', which is essentially just turbulent air. Graphic below:
As you can see, things need to be nearly PERFECT before considering launching. Enough of the paragliding lore, I will describe the adventure!
We left Bellingham at 4:30, reaching the White Salmon Parking lot at 6:00AM. The night was clear and the surfaces were frozen solid. Our team consisted of two skiers (Myself and Josiah) and a snowboarder/splitboarder (Todd). Josiah is a great mountaineer and one of the better pilots I know. We've been on a few adventures together and I consider him a mentor. In fact, Josiah taught me how to launch on skis a year earlier in the Baker Backcountry. His decision making is conservative and trustworthy. On top of that, he's fun to be around. I had never flown or climbed with Todd, but knew he was a strong climber with some serious paragliding skills. This would be Todd's second time launching off Shuksan (So fun, why not do it again?). I've never seen a snowboard launch using a paraglider, but I was intrigued. It certainly takes a bit more control and skill to manage the wing while riding a snowboard. With skis, the launch is simple, you point your skis, pull up your wing and off you go!
We started skiing in the dark, to the valley below Mount Shukan's north face. After a few weeks of rain and sun, the snow conditions were awful! Being the second time I had gone up this way, I warned Josiah that the initial descent into the valley was unpleasant. Unpleasant was an understatement. Coupled with our giant packs, we felt like we were learning to ski all over again. Luckily, the descent was a mere 800', and we only suffered a few minor falls. Embarassingly, I fell on the very first turn... Feeling like a newborn calf on skis, wobbly legs and all. I think all of us agreed that those were some of the worst ski conditions we had ever experienced. At the bottom, we put on our climbing skins and up we went, skinning and booting around avalanche debris, ice, and manky snow. After 2 hours of shennangins, we were finally at the base of the White Salmon Glacier. This was a bit concerning, as we were hoping to travel at a conservative pace of 1000' per hour, to reach our launch point around 12PM, when winds were forecasted to be most favorable. Our speed equaled that of a wounded snail, moving at 500' per hour. Thankfully, the snow conditions improved and we battled above treeline. Our speed increased and we were moving at a much steadier pace.
The White Salmon Glacier is rather mellow, but has some steep pitches. In good snow, you could keep your skis on for most of the ascent. With the recent rain and wind pummeling the snowpack, we were switching from boots to skis. As the snow was not quite supportable, we had to deal with some post-holing. Normally, this wouldn't phase me too much.... But my pack was HEAVY. Josiah and Todd both had 'mini-wings' and light harnesses. I had my full size glider and harness, so I certainly had my work cut out for me. Regardless, we kept strong and kept our pace forward. We switched turns post-holing and breaking trail.. It seemed that nobody had been up Shuksan for weeks, I wonder why......
The entire ascent went without any major blunders. It was January, but felt similar to March. We couldn't believe how pleasant and calm the day was! The excitement and anticipation was high, as we crossed each glacier.
Once we reached the hanging glacier, we could see our launch in site, with Mount Baker, the chiliwacks, and the coast range looming large in the background. I was a little concerned, as catabatic winds were blowing strong downslope. We would not be able to launch in these winds, and the thought of skiing down the mank was nerve-wracking. We felt safer flying that day than skiing. My partners were confident that these downslope winds were just a product of the cold/shady rocks and the morning temperatures, which proved to be a spot-on prediction. After much effort and booting, the slope on the glacier became gentle and casual. We skinned to just below the col between the hanging glacier and crystal glacier.
Once on top, we threw our packs down and let a deep breath of relief and exhaustion. We were about the have the flight of a lifetime. Josiah and I traveled to the saddle to check out the winds, they were blowing light and straight on. We took a few minutes taking in the glory of the North Cascades. Knowing we were about to launch from 8500' and fly nearly 4 miles back to the ski resort gave me the jitters.
We set up our wings on the gentle slope and did our checks to make sure all of our lines and connections were made. Todd quickly pointed his snowboard down the slope and went first. His launch was perfect and effortless. 5 seconds later, he was in the air, on glide all the way back to Baker Ski resort.
Being the more inexperienced pilot and with a larger wing, Josiah had agreed to let me launch first, in case I needed assistance. 'LAUNCHING!!!!!!!!!!!!' I yelled in excitement and pulled my wing up. Keeping the wing under control, I was airborne and soaring hundreds of feet above the Hanging Glacier. I couldn't believe I had just launched off Mount Shuksan!!! Josiah launched a few seconds after me, and we were both on our own personal cloud 9, flying over Shuksan arm and admiring the beauty of our position. Around us was nothing but smooth air, jagged mountain peaks, and glaciers. For 15 minutes, we were the birds!
My glider, being full sized, had a much higher glide ratio than my partners. Consequentially, my wing is slower, but I could go further. I watched them both fly fast and follow the beautiful Shuksan Arm. Towards the resort, I saw they were not going to be landing outside of the resort, as we had planned. They were far too low. I felt a bit nervous for them, as landing options were sparse and they certainly weren't going to make friends with ski patrol. They are both good pilots, and honed in on a landing spot, right next to the car. I'll have to admit a pang of jealousy, they had beers waiting for them in the car! I managed to fly over the resort and into the backcountry, away from any obstacles & chair lifts. It was a blast flying over the resort, I could see people waving and taking videos. A few people were even coworkers and friends of mine, they showed me their videos the next day with excitement.
Landing with skis is simple. On foot, you typically try to land upwind or in light winds. Gliders are relatively fast, coming in too fast on foot can result in a very bad day. With skis, it doesn't matter too much which direction you land in! I landed pleasantly with my entire body numb from adrenaline. It felt a bit like 'coming back to earth', still in disbelief that I was near the summit of Shuksan just 15 minutes earlier. Curious folks didn't quite understand when I told them I came from Shuksan, it is a bit bizzare. I packed up my wing and skied back to the parking lot, where Josiah was waiting with a beer and a high five! We went back to where Todd landed and shared our mutual excitement, with the hopes of more amazing and safe flights together in the future. This adventure is going to be a tough one to beat!
I hope you enjoyed the story, thanks for reading :) See you in the mountains or in the sky!!!