The golf-ball sized chunk of ice hitting Anna’s helmet was the last straw. We had already caught a crampon from above, and from the approach watched a Nalgene ping the entire summit block, and saw a microwave sized rock cross between two rope team members. We were on the steep snow of Mt. Shuksan’s summit pyramid and had paused to evaluate a mixed rock section. Above us was 3 parties totaling 20 climbers. The snow was in good shape, but we didn’t love the transition or further exposure to rockfall. The decision to turn around was easy.
A few nights before I had been sitting in Melissa’s living room. We were trying to figure out what to do when her roommate suggested Shuksan. “Don’t you need permits?” I asked. “Not if you camp outside the park boundary” he said. “Fuck yeah!” we exclaimed. Melissa and I had been looking for that perfect climb to do together. Something that we both felt comfortable going out on, since we hadn’t really been climbing together, but that was a technical step up from the scrambling we’d been doing so far. Shuksan via the Sulphide glacier fit the bill perfectly.
Getting permits can be the crux of climbing in the north cascades. You can try to get permits well in advance, or you need to go to the ranger station in Sedro-Wooley or Marblemount within 24 hours of your trip. Permits are limited to preserve the wilderness experience. This is incredible once you’re on the route, but a bit stressful if you really, really, want to go climb a mountain at a certain time. I obsess a little about permits, and so when I called the ranger station the day before to ask if they had any left, I was elated when they said they had 4 more parties. Confirming their open time, they said 7am. I dutifully organized the crew to meet at the ranger station at 6:30am. It turns out that the Marblemount ranger station opens an hour earlier than the Sedro-Wooley WIC. Guess where we were going to get permits? You better believe we were first in line for permits at Sedro-Wooley.
Permits obtained, we all piled in Anna’s car for the long, gravel road drive to the Shannon Ridge trailhead. We quickly sorted gear and hit the trail around 10:30 am. I like to approach in shorts. A major downside of this technique showed itself when I found the trail overgrown with stinging nettles a quarter mile in. Otherwise the approach was straightforward. Walk up a trail. Try to navigate to gain the ridge. Realize the trail is actually the creek you see in front of you. Sigh a little bit and walk up the creek.
With a little effort we were quickly rewarded with up close and personal views of Mt. Baker, Bacon Peak, and then gradually more peaks of the north cascades. This marked the end of the typical approach shenanigans. I was immediately struck by how little relative snow there was compared to two years prior. Shannon ridge was still covered, but we hit snow higher and the basins past the notch were lower, more of the rocks cleared off, and the summit pyramid looked positively naked, with only a small snow finger leading to the top.
Once through the notch we made good time to camp. Our decision of a camp at 6200’ or a camp at 6400’ was made when I vaguely remembered seeing some photos from the 6200’ camp a couple years ago and wishing our camp at 6400’ had better views. My vague memories were so, so right. We found some rock to camp on, with running water, panoramic views of the summit, the ice falls of the Sulphide glacier, Mt. Ruth, Baker Lake and countless other peaks and valleys. This is one of the prettiest camp sites I’ve ever had. We shared the camp with a party of 3 climbers about 50 yards away, but otherwise had it to ourselves.
The thing with alpine climbing is that camp sites provide only a brief respite. With 2am alarms set for a 3am start, we boiled water (it’s a bad idea to leave your filter at home), ate dinner, and passed the heck out. That 6:30am meet time left us all short on sleep and we were happy to get horizontal.
The 2am alarm came and we awoke to a clear night and firm snow. Ideal conditions for travel. We made quick time on the Sulphide glacier following some tracks and wands from a group in front of us. Light travels far at night on a glacier, I had seen their headlamps while they were getting ready. They were camped at about 7000’ and left camp at about the same time as us. I was resigned to not being first on the summit block. Now the mission was to get up there before anyone started descending to minimize our exposure to rockfall.
We only found one crevasse of note on the route. It was easy to walk around and on a mellow slope. The wands crossed near it. Our rope team was a little bit more conservative and gave it a wider berth. As I was walking past the crevasse I saw what looked like a human sized hole in the snow surface. Did someone fall in?
We made it to the base of the summit pyramid in about 3 hours. For the last 45 minutes of this approach I watched two large parties meet and then try to route find on the summit block. By try to route find, I mean they did not move for a very long time. One party of 11 remained in 3 rope teams and ascended mostly on snow. Another party, of 7, appeared to un rope (or short rope) and scramble up the rocks, heading toward the 5.6 ridge. They eventually all sorted themselves out, making it across the snow and, in the party of 7’s case, rappelled into the snow gully from the ridge and ascended from there.
This route finding is what brought the rocks, the ice, and the Nalgene. At the base of the pyramid we met three climbers from BoeAlps who had come up the Fischer chimneys route. Melissa and I had met one of them on Snoqualmie mountain back in March. The wilderness is big, but also a small world. It turns out that one of these three fell in to that crevasse we saw! They only went in to their armpits. That must have been scary.
We all saw the rockfall and route finding challenges so we hung out for 45 minutes at the base of the pyramid. At this point our feelings about going on were mixed. We were cold, the day was slipping away, and we knew folks above us could still kick down things on us. As we watched, we saw the teams on the pyramid made enough forward progress, and the rockfall abate, so our team decided to give it a try.
The Shuksan summit pyramid is 30 to 45 degree snow, and it was firm. Progress was easy with the steps already kicked, but this is still terrain that requires care. Some moats were opening up and the route traversed above some rocks. A fall here would have significant consequence. This was Anna’s first experience in snow this steep. She was already doing great, and a quick lesson in down climbing from Melissa and I only increased her confidence. We made quick, careful time to the rock / snow step in the gully. We didn’t love the step and we turned around, helped by the message of more ice fall on us.
The snow remained in great shape and the downclimbing was straightforward. We roped up and found sun baked snow on the glacier. It was perfectly sloppy, leading to knee deep post holing back to camp.
With some spare time, we curled up and took a 30-minute nap in the tents. Have you had a post-climb tent nap? You should. We packed up camp and made good time out. The walk out was straightforward and substantially shorter than I remembered.
This was great weekend. A lot of little things added complexity to what is a pretty easy climbing route. We made great decisions together as a team and everyone had a good time. I was happy to get out climbing with Melissa and Anna and hope to do so again. Though hopefully next time with less rock fall.