Mt Shuksan, Sulphide Glacier

July 3-5, 2007/ Glacier travel, skiing, snow up to 50° and some rock/ice on summit pyramid

We did not get around to climb Mt Shuksan on our first visit to the Cascades in 2003, so the peak was high on our list this time around. We were hoping to get on the north face but the lack of snow coverage on the approach combined with the very warm conditions convinced us to pick an alternate route. We set our minds on skiing the Sulphide Glacier.

On July 3, we're up early and gulp down some breakfast, before driving up to the Shannon Ridge trailhead. We get to see a black bear on the road on the way there. Once at the trailhead, we spend a good half-hour getting the packs ready. We look like christmas trees with the skis, boots, pickets, ice axes, ice tools, helmets, and water bottles strapped to our packs.

The trail follows the gentle grade of an overgrown logging road for the first couple of miles. Heavy packs... we're not used to this anymore. It's our first overnight trip in a while. The trail is in good shape though. We then reach the point where the road turns into a climber's trail, going steeply uphill toward the ridge. Good trail for a while longer, then snow cover and deadfall begin. A bit of care is required here to stay on tracks. There are flags in the branches here and there, but not in a consistent line, as is often the case. We use a mix of GPS and intuition to lead us. Really, all we need is to get up to the ridge, no big deal. No real bushwhacking to be found under the big trees. Just some deadfall to navigate around.

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The Sulphide Glacier and the summit pyramid, seen from Baker Lake.
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Packing at Grandy Lake campground.
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Eric fine tunes the skis.
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Starting the long approach.
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The approach follows an old logging road and a climber's trail in the forest before reaching a snow ridge leading to a col and the glacier.

Once on the ridge, the snow cover is continuous and we change to skis and skins. We skin up and down the rolling ridge to the base of the steeper (maybe up to 35 degrees) slope to the pass. We manage that on skins as well although traction is not great (few inches of very soft mashed potatoes on top of firm neve). The views of Mt Baker are spectacular. The last few feet to the col are on dirt. The col then leads to a long traverse NE across steep snow (maybe 40 degrees?). Given the difficult traction and edging with the skins, we take the skis off and boot traverse those slopes. It's pretty exposed but not difficult at all. We eventually get back on gentler slopes near the toe of the Sulphide Glacier and put the skis back on for the last couple of miles to camp. We're getting pretty worked going up the last few hundred feet of elevation.

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Changing into ski boots on the ridge.
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Skinning up the rolling ridge with Mt Baker in the background.
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Lucie taking a breather just above the col.
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We take off the skis to make an exposed traverse on steeper snow.
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The last snow slog just below camp.

Eventually (7 hours after leaving the trailhead), we reach the inviting flats at the base of the west edge of the glacier and beautiful camps (on snow). One party of two older guys is there. They attempted the summit this morning (we saw them coming back down) but turned back at the base of the summit pyramid, reportedly because they were too tired from the approach the day before.

We pick a ready-made snow platform on the side of a minor ridge line, just above the main bowl. We're reasonably protected from any wind but still high enough to get incredible views. The glacier looks in really good conditions for skiing. We set up camp and start melting snow, for a few hours… Then dinner and to bed by 8PM.

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The views from camp are incredible.
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We spend the evening melting snow and...
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...looking at the summit pyramid surrounded by clouds.
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Settling down inside the tent.
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Camp at sunset.

The alarm is set to 3AM for an early start (we figure it will take us 1.5hr to get ready and leave camp). We stuff ourselves with food and water for breakfast, get everything ready and go. It's 4:45AM by the time we leave camp. We are treated to a beautiful sunrise.

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Room with a sunset view of Mt Baker.
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Leaving camp at sunrise.
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Sunrise views.
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Looking down toward camp.
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The Sulphide Glacier with the summit pyramid in the background.

We decide not to rope up as the glacier looks very smooth; no sign of any crevasse on the left edge. We skin up. The surface snow is already soft leaving camp. Higher up, things get pretty firm, and we use our ski crampons to continue. At some point, the snow gets hard enough that the ski crampons don't even penetrate fully anymore.

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Skinning up the gentle glacier.
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Taking a break along the way.
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Great views of Mt Baker in the early morning.
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And up...
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...and up.

We crest the bulge into the upper basin and see a party of three heading toward the pyramid. Shit. They're coming from Hell's Highway and the Chimneys. We decide to leave the skis near Hell's Highway, as we think we can see signs of covered crevasses in the final slope to the base of the pyramid. Eric changes into his La Sportiva Trango boots, while I stay in my ski boots (my leather boots are a bit too soft for steep snow). We also rope up in glacier mode and start up the slope (kicking steps; no crampons). It's a longer way than it looks to the pyramid, but we are making fast, steady progress. The party of three is now climbing the central couloir and appears to be moving very slowly. They are belaying pitches.

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Slogging up the slopes of the upper basin.
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Ascending the snow slopes above Hell's Highway with Mt Baker in the background.
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Looking up at a party of three, ahead of us on the summit pyramid.
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Simul-climbing the steep icy section in the central gully.
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Summit shot.

We follow their track to a constriction at the base of the upper couloir. Things here get a bit more interesting and pretty steep and exposed so we put on our crampons for extra security. The other three are now just above Eric, stopped at a small rock island. Their leader is just starting up, placing pickets and on belay. We decide to try and pass them (after asking). Eric quickly leads through the ice and rock restriction, placing two nuts for running belay, then heads straight up the snow gully, passing the other leader on the left (he approved). No tracks anymore (they were probably wiped out by wet sluffs the day before?). Good step kicking in pretty soft snow. We zoom past the other party, then reach another water-ice section just below the summit. Eric clips a runner into a rap anchor (slings) for a quick running belay, climbs the slippery section then belays me up. Fifteen vertical feet to go to the top. On steep rock. We don't use protection; it's class 3 and 4 scrambling. We have a summit!

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Summit views .
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Ditto.
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Smiile!
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Going down the rocky 4th class section near the summit.
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Descending the snow slopes to Hell's Highway where we left the skis.

Perfect blue skies and great views, particularly of neighbouring Mt Baker. We put on our puff balls, have some food and water, take pictures, and start thinking about going down. We wait for the party of 3 to summit and immediately go down. This should minimize the time we'll spend exposed beneath them. We scramble back down to the top of the icy section, and make one rap (from existing anchor) past the ice and into the snow. Another party of two is coming up (unroped). We pull the rope and follow the now well established tracks back down to the top of the small rock island where we had passed the other three. Things looks a bit sketchy below here. The snow is now very slushy and this section has very little of it or none at all in spots. We elect to rap. An anchor is already here anyway. With a folded 60m rope though, we barely reach to the middle of the hard section. So we set up another anchor (from scratch: two nuts and a cordelette), and finish rapping the icy section and back into the snow. Straightforward stepping down from here (though it is still steep).

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Rock buttress just above Hell's Highway with Mt baker in the background.
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Putting away the glacier paraphernalia and getting back on the skis.
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Lucie skiiing down the gentle slopes of the upper basin with the summit pyramid in the background.
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Fun and easy skiing down (click here for movie; 4.7Mb AVI file).
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Pulling into camp (click here for Lucie's impressions; 5Mb AVI file).

We head back down to the upper basin and change back into skis. We first need to climb back up to the bulge (put skins on) before we can enjoy the long ski back to camp. We were anxious about our skill level (the last time we skied was three years ago on Mt Adams…), and about the snow becoming too heavy. Fortunately both fears are unfounded, and we find ourselves making exhilerating turns down the gentle slopes all the way back to camp.

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The summit pyramid seen from camp.
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Views from the tent.
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Napping in the tent.
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Beer time! Well, that is if we had brought any beer...
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More views.

Once there, we don't really feel like going down, as initially planned. The views are awesome, the weather perfect, and we have an entire afternoon to relax in camp. Hard to pass. It also turns out that we have plenty of fuel left (we've melted a lot of snow in the sun, using our trash bag and a large platypus). We're staying. The party of three is still making their way very slowly back down the summit tower. We spend the afternoon lounging in the tent (the sun is beating down hard so we need the shade). Nobody else at camp! We have lunch (bread and saucisson), and get a bit of on-and-off sleep in the tent. Then dinner, and watching the views and sunset from the ridge. Pure bliss. A party has set up camp a few hundred feet below us… they're missing the views; I guess they ran out of juice short of the normal camp. We go to bed late. No alarm needed!

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Playing with the camera...
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More views from camp.
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Lucie looking at the summit pyramid as the sun is going down.
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Sunset views from camp.
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Ditto.

We head back to the trailhead the next morning. We get up not too late but take quite some time having a leasurely breakfast and packing up. Temperatures are sweltering hot. When finally ready (it's 10AM), we shoulder our heavy packs and tentatively point our skis down the slopes. It's a lot of work but we actually manage to make pretty decent turns on the way down. We reverse the traverse on skis this time (getting better edging without the skins), and reach the col. We step down from the col onto the steep slopes below, then put the skis back on and make more turns back to the ridge. The snow here is still OK but there are very deep melt runnels that make the skiing pretty tricky. We make the best of it, and follow the ridge until we start down again following patchy snow between the trees.

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Camp in the early morning light.
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Panoramic view of the Sulphide Glacier and the summit pyramid from camp.
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Packing up.
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Skiing down to the col.
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On the snow slopes below the col.

We finally stop and remove the skis 300 ft or so below the ridge, when progress becomes nearly impossible. Back to boots, and to carrying those heavy planks! Within a few hundred feet, we make it back to the trail (thanks to Eric's good navigation!), and walk down. Amazing how much melting has occurred in the last 3 days! We hike down, meeting a group of 8 or so who are making their way up. We're back at the trailhead around 1:30PM, suprizingly fresh thanks to the mixed mode of travel. We almost ready to drive away when another large guided group shows up (Mountain Madness) with 12 people…! Glad we did the climb when we did it. It will be a zoo up there tonight!

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Following the climber's trail...
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...and the abandoned logging road...
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...back to the car.