Mount Shuksan Ski Mountaineering Course: May 2017

Mount Shuksan Ski Mountaineering Course: May 2017

Originally written in Spring 2017

Shuksan sizing up the team

Day One: Hike to Camp

The relentless fuel of political satire. How can we keep doing this? It’s overwhelming and I’m exhausted from hearing about it. My next scheduled ski trip with Pro Guiding Service distracted me from the unrelenting steps to building a sustainable guiding career. The game of guiding, the gear, the courses, the travel. After a day climbing a 30’ wide 60’ tall section of the only dry rock at exit 32 I drove back to Bellingham and started laying out the mountain tools for a long awaited, long aspired to, long admired journey into one of the most viewed areas of the North Cascades. Dialing in my kit, I dished out on a new backpack, an impulse buy that turned out nicely, tightened every bolt on the split board, chose the most appropriate rope out of the quiver, the two most diverse ice axes, a hybrid axe and one tool, the right layering system that would provide warmth, breathability, sun protection, without adding bulk. The most calorie dense and flavorful food without eating ramen and PB & J. Every part of my kit was thought out and nothing extra would be needed. For years I have traveled through this area being restricted to the lower flanks of this strikingly beautiful peak. Diligently I plodded our route on USGS topo maps, eyeing every slope angle and aspect, every campsite and coordinate, every distance and leg between sections of skinning, booting with crampons, roped travel, and transitions. With enthusiasm I laid out a thorough time plan for steep skiing and advanced ski mountaineering over four days of shred descents on Mount Shuksan. I slept well the night before and woke easily with the soothing sound on my alarm. It’s terrifying to wake to a buzzer, a foghorn, a siren, instead, I prefer soothing chill waves of sound in the early morning. It was comfortable cool with the diffused hues of the pacific northwest spring morning light as I walked in the local brew for a morning coffee and breakfast. Shortly after my co guide and trip mastermind Chris Simmons arrived and we departed east from the hamlet of Bellinghampshire. Away from the calm waters of Bellingham Bay, away from the constant buzz of the interstate, away from pulsing political rhetoric towards the greener breeze blown countryside. Towards rolling meadows nestled between leaning foothills, past blueberry farm houses, vineyards, and clear cuts. Against the flow of swollen rivers, rushing creeks, and babbling streams. Oddly enough we opted out of a sunny second breakfast at the Wake and Bakery and headed to the Glacier Public Service Center. Here we would meet our guests. Large green leaves fluttered overhead in towering trees, the grass was long, lush, and green while it waited for its first trim. In the parking lot we were greeted by a group of four eager and excited young men. In short order we started dumping gear in a professional show and tell. We checked that everyone had the appropriate gear for the next 4 days. And before we knew it, two cars were packed as we headed up the North Fork of the Nooksack River, east bound on Highway 542, the Mount Baker Highway. As we wound up the road, the lower flanks of the mountain peered through tall trees until, eventually, we parked at the gate of the White Salmon Lodge and prepared for departure into North Cascades National Park. With loaded packs and shouldered skis, we strolled across the once bustling and now quiet White Salmon parking lot until Mount Shuksan came into view. This stunning 9,131’ mountain dominates the view from the Mount Baker Ski Area. During the winter, thousands of people sip hot coco and stare out from the lodge at the steep snow-covered faces, hanging glacier, falling ice, and sky piercing summit. These moments leave burning desires in the imaginations of those sippers. It leaves a desire to someday climb, ski, or just get closer to this monolith. Mount Shuksan is so large that it tricks our perspective. It seems quite close to the comforts of the Mount Baker Highway. But the scale is deceiving, something that has stayed in the forefront of my mind every day I have spent riding in the White Salmon Valley. This mountain deserves attention, it demands it, there is no easy access, no trail to access, and timing with snow cover is everything. Now with skis on, we slide uphill, cut through the forest on a snow buried road, below the chair lifts, and into a clear cut. Here we would get our first chance to see the teams ski performance. While descending through slushy spring snow, around deep melting tree wells that were hanging onto branches, avoiding the prickly stems of devils club, trying not to kick off loose rocks that were sopped with moss and running water while kicking precarious steps into forest duff, we entered open snow filled meadows and landed on the floor of the White Salmon Valley. From here there is only one way to go and the next several hours the team skinned through the thinning old growth forest, into the expansive destruction zone that the Shuksan Arm, the White Salmon, Hanging Glacier, and North Faces, spill enormous avalanche debris piles that gouge the mountain side with tumbling broken timber, blocks of rock, and large blue blocks of broken ice. As we ascended, we balanced kick turns with heavy packs, loaded with 4 days of rations, and enough technical equipment to keep things honest and safe. We skinned next to cracked snow holes that spewed and gushed fresh snow melt waterfalls that would suddenly disappear under the gaping above average snowpack. Occasionally kicking off small loose wet avalanches we climbed up to the treed knoll alongside the Hanging Glacier. Our steady graded, artistically contoured skin track gained the White Salmon Glacier. Precise switch backs zippered through the steeper slopes as we maneuvered around buried crevasses, to gain our first night’s camp on top of the White Salmon Glacier, in the pit of the Shuksan Arm at 6,800’. Perched high above the valley and still well below the looming summit pyramid, the team began settling into camp as the sun sagged closer to the horizon on the Pacific Coast. Expansive views to the southwest of Komo Kulshan, Ptarmigan and Skyline Ridges, Table Mountain, and the Slate Mountain Massif, to the northwest was the border peaks of Tomyhoi, American and Canadian Border Peaks, Larrabee, the Goats, and the Nooksack Ridge. The warm calm air was broken by a constant hiss of compressed gas as stoves melted snow into water. Meanwhile small birds flew up from the forest chirping away as they basked in the last warm sun rays of the day. Alone on the mountain we enjoyed solitude in an area that thousands of people from all over the world stare upon. We scaled slopes that dreamers imagine themselves on. Every winter skiers long for the legendary terrain and snow of the Mount Baker Ski Area. That is now a little blip far below on the elbow of the Shuksan Arm. They come for that little blip we came for this massif.

Spreading out at the Fischer chimney Camp

Day Two: Summit Shred

Peering out of the tent door, still sealed warm inside our sleeping bags, diluted, diffused, broken rosy clouds rippled against a blue sky as they cleared around the golden sunrise light splitting across the conical summit of Mount Baker. The valleys below held gray, black and white clouds. The stoves began to hiss again, warming water for coffee as we rustled together the tools for a day of shred alpinism. On our first morning we left camp skinning towards Winnies Slide that would give us access to the upper mountain. We would switch from skis to kick step boot packing up the lowest angle possible at 48 degrees. In the past I have measured this slope in different areas and it can exceed 55 degrees. Once on the ridge we broke though crust enroute to the upper Curtis glacier, on a change of aspect, due south west, we broke out the crampons and crossover stepped up moderate frozen snow until the glacier leveled out. This led us to a short break to prepare for long rope glacier travel and at the same time a route selection discussion. Originally, we had planned to ascend the standard route through Hells Highway but after reaching a better view we concluded that the Hourglass was in prime condition for a moderate snow ascent. Again, Chris broke ground as we crossed the Upper Curtis towards the Hourglass Couloir. Throughout the winter I saw this route go from an ice climb, to steep snow, back to an ice climb, and finally and surprisingly to moderate snow. On a wind scoop of snow, below the west face buttress of the summit pyramid we transitioned from long ropes to double end roping up pitched snow climbing. To this point we had been evaluating and assessing the team, they had been moving great. Now we had the opportunity to demonstrate a variety of technical rope skills and alpine snow anchors. Coming off the wind scoop we belayed across an obviously broken and bridged bergschrund onto moderate 38-degree snow slopes. Running a full rope length, I built an anchor to protect crossing the hole, stomped out two platforms at different levels, and a quick belay brought my teammates up to the anchor. After explaining the system I had constructed we transitioned and climbed 3 more pitches taking us over small snow-covered cracks and a steep 45-degree crest onto the Sulphide Glacier. While we were in the Hourglass, we focused on solid climbing technique and thorough concise instruction. High clouds began to fill in and obscure the flat white glacier covered terrain around us. Another short break with food, water, and we were skinning again. For several hundred feet of white out, we plodded towards the central gulley of Shuksans summit pyramid. Using GPS and an altimeter Chris led the group up to the toe of the gulley for yet another transition from skis back to ropes for our final push to the summit. This time I led up on belay, crossing a couple small glide cracks and set up an anchor. My team followed, then I set up a short rope to ascend moderate snow slopes stomping into soft wet shin deep snow. As the angle steepened, we began switch backing with cross-over steps taking us up through the clouds. The slopes steepened until the terrain demanded more pitched and belayed climbing. Unable to see further than a hundred feet, I led up steep snow towards rime covered rocks that appeared to have an exit out left. Stoked to be using troisime and both axes I reached the rocks and rime, where I searched for soft snow and only found weak rotten rime ice, it warranted my attention as I searched to place an ice screw after a few minutes of searching I realized this was not the best option and looked to down climb. Meanwhile Chris and his team recognized the route error and headed climbers left to find easier access through the gulley proper. I had led us slightly off route and inevitably into a dead end. Given our equipment selection and snow conditions I downed climbed, set up a short rope, and followed Chris’ tracks. Continuing up we encountered a shorter narrow section of rime rocks. One more pitched section granted us passage to the summit. A narrow ridge of snow with the steep west face to our left led us to the small, steep, platform of Mount Shuksans summit at 9,131’. For years I have skied the lower flanks of this mountain, stared at it from a distance while touring the surrounding mountains, on days with poor snow quality, rain, avy conditions or mere laziness, I would stare at the western faces of this mountain, studying the intricacies, folds, chutes, slide paths, ice falls, nooks and crannies. Many days I wallowed, soaking wet through thigh deep slop, teetering skin tracks that crossed open rushing creeks in order to dive deep and learn what this mountain was about, and now standing on top of it a sense of connection, meeting for the first time, after staring at each other from a distance finally everything was right. Chris and the team found out this was my first summit of the peak. This was not something I was hiding, but in my mind had little to do with our ascent, I had a connection with this place. With six people on the summit ridge, we carefully transitioned to downhill mode, while Chris dug a solid ice and snow bollard to rappel over the rime covered rock flume, down a full rope length back onto 45-degree terrain. I went first on an extended backed up rappel and gave backups to the following rappelers. One by one, each person came slowly to a halt, sliding into a small snow platform, coming off rappel, then with some direction they descended into the white abyss below, gradually fading away to a regroup spot at the toe of a small ridge. Eventually we were all off the summit, grouped back together, we coiled the ropes, packed them away, and as we continued our descent we carefully avoided small glide cracks, slim snow bridges, and piles of loose wet roller balls that came down the Central Gulley onto the Sulphide Glacier. We emerged from the ping pong ball and readily took advantage to cruise arching turns toward the top of the Hourglass. A short discussion and reminder of conditions in the Hour Glass, steep loose snow, short firm patches of snow, sharks tooth rocks on skiers left, the bergschrund at the exit apron, and onto the wind scoop below and away we went one at a time. In no time we were following our track back across the Upper Curtis Glacier, carving turns on softened corn snow, over the rolling convexities that seem to fall thousands of feet away to Mount Ann. Swooping right past another enormous wind sculpted moat, along the backside of the White Salmon Headwall, into a notch that granted easy safe downhill access onto the upper section of Winnies Slide. Traversing left we again followed our track down the steepest section of this day’s ascent along the pit of the Shuksan Arm back to our camp at 6,800’. Stoked to have summited and followed our route back to camp over pleasant conditions we quickly packed up and prepared to move camp to our next location, the North Face ridge bivy. A short skin up led us into another transition and discussion about our intended route. Unlike the previous sections of our day, Winnies is a long continuous planar slope nearly 3,000’ high with little to no areas of protection. Once a person has embarked onto this slope they are on the back of the white dragon, stepping on to its outstretched tongue trying not to tickle the beast. Two short benches below permitted us a couple hundred feet of progress before dispatching onto the expansive 42-degree slopes below. One by one we slide slow cautious turns, limiting loose snow movement, through a rock constriction, in between glide cracks, over a snow bridge, and beneath a small cliff. The best spot to regroup, not “safe” by any means, but certainly an area of reduced vulnerability. From our turns and the tiny tips of our boards small point release wet slides quickly entrained more snow gaining mass and spreading out to 150’ across, cascading over the snow-covered cliffs below, and into the apron at 4,600’. Careful and cautious awareness prevented any sort of terrible incident, preventing anyone from riding the dragons breath on a steaming express to the valley far below. Exiting the slope to skiers left we rode the toe of the White Salmon Glacier across our up track from the day before and onto the White Salmon treed knoll at 5,100’. Throughout the day we had accumulated a lot of time leaving very little day light. With an additional transition and another hour plus up to our bivy we decided to set camp near tree line on the knoll at 4,800’.



Day Three: Instruction & Chill

The soft drumming patter of rain splatted against the tent. It was still dark but much warmer than the previous night above tree line. A few rolls in my sleep and the darkness fell to a soft green as the nights short storm left clear skies shining through our tent walls. At the end of the day yesterday we decided to adjust our plan for conditions and decided to take a rest day and cover more skills in an instructional classroom format. As the sun rose higher and the temps warmed, stoves hissed as they melted snow, then boiled water. Hot coffee filled our bellies and warm sun filled our spirits. The previous day wasn’t cold but with my wet boots and all day clouds the change was welcome. Our tidy camp quickly became a sidewalk sale, a junk show, climbing skins draped across tree branches, sleeping bags hanging like hammocks from tail plunged skis, boots and liners with tongues out capturing every bit of the sun’s rays, criss crossed poles cradling ropes, sleep pads standing tall as their owners looked on, waiting for a gust of wind to blow them away into the valley floor another 1,800’ below us. We dispersed our equipment around camp attempting to dry any and everything we could. At the same time a low hum that grew louder like an approaching passenger jet, turning into a swooshing like sheets of paper sliding off a tilted table, like grains of sand rolling in a breaking tide, plumping like pillows dropped onto a down comforter, we look up to see the warming snow pack loosening its strangle hold on the cliffs and glaciers on the lower west faces of Mount Shuksan. The Hanging Glacier repeatedly dropped tons of snow onto the spillway below, the White Salmon Head wall, the Aryete, the NWC all letting go of its winter coat. This large shed was like a mountain goat preparing for summer, like a malamute aching to cool in the warmth of spring. Dozens of large loose wet avalanches spewed over the cliffs and slopes throughout the morning. In the same way as we were drying out from the nights moisture the mountain showed us that it was affected by the nights rain. In two groups we discussed navigation, trip planning, and time plans. In two groups we came up with an estimate of our next day objective. Climbing and skiing Mount Shuksans North Face. After about an hour we gathered together our estimates and ideas and concluded on the amount of time we needed with current and anticipated conditions. Fortunately, we were all very close in our estimates. Soon enough we had camp packed, our boards on, and ready to descend the remaining 600’ to a bench in the terrain at the headwaters of the White Salmon Creek. Once again we transitioned to uphill mode and in typical fashion among splitboarders in the backcountry I found myself waiting for the skiers to complete their transition. Kick turns, switchbacks, loose wet snow, stomping in a stable path, up through a notch below “the pimple,” a hump at the bottom of the NWC, we contoured beautiful large radius turns through the landscape as we gained the bivy ridge below the North Face. Towering, looming, teetering, steep, the face hung above us as we imagined where our route would lead us. Contemplating how conditions would be, what challenges we could encounter as avalanches continued to pour off the escarpments around us. As the afternoon wore onto early evening, we practiced a variety of technical skills for ski mountaineers such as snow anchors, belay techniques, and crevasse rescue. Bright white daylight softened into golden hues as the warm spring sun lowered onto the Pacific horizon. At this elevation and latitude days are long. High above but close in distance, the horizon not too far off, and nothing to block the daylight, in the Cascades we enjoy longer days than elsewhere in the lower 48. Another evening of hydrating with fresh mountain snow melt, warm tea, hot freeze dried meals, or prepared real food brought from home, we soaked in the glorious views under the North Face and peeking Nooksack Tower. Across the valley to the White Salmon Glacier, Shuksan Arm, further in the distance, but still enormous Komo Kulshan, the Coleman Pinnacle, Ptarmigan Ridge, and the tiny plateau of Table Mountain. Down valley to the west southwest the tiny ski area and the recognizable Slate Mountain, to the northwest Tomyhoi, Canadian Border, American Border Peaks, Larrabee, and the Goats. The saw teeth of the Pleiades, to the north was Slesse, the Nooksack Ridge, through a pass was the Mount Redoubt Massif, Ruth Mountain, Icy Peak and the Pickets. Each new perspective grants us a new idea of what a mountain is, of what our landscapes provide for us, how could we ever possibly climb every peak, I don’t know but we will try.

Skinning up towards the North Face bivy


North Face bivy camp

Splitter, Tent, & North Face


View of the White Salmon Glacier, the upper Arm, and Baker in the distance

Day Four: North Face Shred and Exit

The glow of morning had begun as we woke, even though there was a thin crust on the surface of the snow the night was warm and calm. We slept with the door open to let all the mountains good tiding come flowing in throughout the night. There certainly is an order of things early in the morning when a plethora of gear is required. In large pursuits in the mountains efficiency is key and from the moment the wakeup call jingles everything must flow, not an extra step taken, from layering and dressing in a sleeping bag, to arranging your items the night before, remember your avalanche beacon before your wind breaker, cozy warm dry sleep socks get traded for ski socks then boots, right into hot water for coffee, meanwhile your food has already been packed and so was your water for the day, gather up the sharps, ice axe and crampons, and lay them out waiting for hands and feet, helmet on. This time we didn’t need our headlamps as we geared up, oh ya don’t forget that, in the pack you go. Splitboard with skins strapped on the pack with one trekking pole out, start stacking the rope and bam! Hot water is done. Ok rope will have to wait for coffee, pump the brakes, drink hot coffee, eat breakfast, look at the route as it towers overhead, now back to the rope. How’s everyone doing? Enough food, water, layers, extra gloves, sunglasses? Back to coffee and breakfast, prime the navigation device, and prepare for pin dropping with ease, a few sunrise photos. Now how is everyone doing? We will leave camp harnessed, and helmeted, and cramponed with ice axe in hand. Tied in and clipped in, we head out from camp under the rosy cheek Cascadian sunrise. A soft crust easily cracks under foot, it never really had a chance to freeze under this warm high pressure, kicking in steps, setting spikes into the snow, we move in long rope glacier travel off the comfort and relative safety of the broad ridge and onto the first exposed steps of the lower North Face. A thousand feet below steep slopes dive straight into a flat white snow covered surface that’s dotted with turquoise pools of water that have formed on the still frozen Price Lake. Large avalanche debris piles have broken through the surface of the lake leaving areas of cracked ice. Step after step, we traverse under another cliff that hangs overhead, the same overhead cliff that the day before had spun soft loose wet slides blowing in the air. Across low angle side hilling then across runnelled sections of snow that had been gouged by avalanches. Into one trough, out of the next, we bounced along below a large ice bulge, and out onto lower angled slopes. Now we were above some major exposure, we transitioned from crampons and ropes to skinning for several hundred feet. We slid along gaining elevation, each kick turn putting us closer to the inevitable crevasse that lay in the compression zone in the lower 3rd of North Face. Continually glancing onto the next section of our route, from camp this section lay hidden from view, just around the contour of the mountain we could not see the objective crux of the route. Each moment allowed us to make decisions as we moved, until we gained the edge of a crevasse, here the slope steepened to about 45 degrees. Just below us a snow bridge had plugged the gapping crevasse, allowing us to cross with suspicion. Next, we would transition again from skiing to climbing. With splitboard on my feet I drop my pack, took off the rope, ice axe and crampons, this frees up straps and space for my splitter. Here the snow was soft enough and the bench below the crack was relatively flat. So, I stepped out of my boards plunge them in the snow, strapped them to the pack, flaked out the rope, sat down and put on my crampons, then reapplied sunscreen, grabbed a bite to eat, and swigged some water. At the same time Chris’ team was just about ready to fire off across the snow plugged crevasse, up the steepening, runneled, and firmer gulley of snow. A couple pitches and we were back on skins plodding up the middle of the face. Here was technical skinning, on firmish snow, climbing higher and steeper above exposure. Eventually the team decided that cramponing would provide more security and we fired up the remaining 600’ feet to the Upper Hanging Glacier. This time we would be near the Hanging Crystal Col. What a position this was?! A beautiful plateau of ice fell away over the giant mountain side as if nothing existed between us at 8,300’ and the valley below at 3,000’. A near vertical mile of sheer alpine shredding was at the tips of our toes. We had exceeded our turn-around time which generally is not recommended. However, on this day the reward and additional time needed was justified. The warming slopes below were definitely a concern but as we dropped in firm conditions prevailed. Just enough softening occurred at the top enabling us to slide turns off the Hanging Glacier down the North Face. Fantastic position, reasonable turns, and everyone’s solid composure stoked the vibe. Once we reached the narrow constriction above the primary crack hazard Chris had slowed and scouted an elegant solution to avoid the crack hazard. One at a time we slid down a ridge that separates the North Face Center from the North Face proper.Then instead of fall line skiing, risking the potential of getting swept in loose wet snow, Chris traversed, ski cutting the wet stuff, prepping the crux moves so the group was able to navigate across the gulley, above the cracks, onto the lower slopes. From here the lower angle terrain was fun and required one more crux section traversing back skiers left above the void of Price Lake. Success! We rode back into camp with a major ski mountaineering objective accomplished! Congratulating each other for a short minute and we had to start packing up camp. We still had a somewhat complicated exit ahead of us. Our initial descent from the parking lot to the valley on day 1 did not seem reasonable to ascend back up over loose rock, moss, branches and general thrash. And so, we scouted a line that would take us along a gradual contour back to the bottom of the chair lift. So that's what we did. Sluggishly we graded up slope, until the final creek crossing at Rumble Gulley, and back to proper ski runs. The trip was a success we had ridden big lines, no one was injured, and we had navigated a complex mountain with several complex routes with even more complex attitudes. ​

​- Originally written in Spring 2017