Peak(s):  Mt. Shuksan - 9,131 feet
Post Date:  06/16/2011
Date Climbed:   06/14/2011
Posted By:  Furthermore

 Mt. Shuksan: Intro to the Northern Cascades.      


Mt Shuksan 9,131

June 13-15, 2010
~12.3 Miles, ~6,900 Gain
Trailhead: Shannon Ridge Trailhead
Route: Sulfide Glacier


I first saw Mt. Shuksan in September 2008 and ever since, I made it my number one climbing priority, over Rainier, in the Pacific northwest. How would I find a partner? I met Gary that following fall at a fourteenerworld gathering and we both wanted to climb Shuksan. Excellent. It only took about 2 years to get the trip planned. Gary also had two friends, Kirill and Tom, that were also interested in climbing this outstanding peak. Finally, we organized schedules, plans and dates to climb Shuksan. Due to delightful airline travel for work, I was unable to return home, from the east coast, in time to catch my flight to Seattle. I had to delay everything by a ½ day.

Mt Shuksan from Lake Ann in 2008.

Our original plan was to climb the Fisher Chimneys from the north, but with the tremendous amount of snow that the Pacific Northwest received, conditions and the approach were well out of reason. Our backup plan was the Sulfide Glacier.

When I finally arrived into Seattle, I got picked up and we stayed at a hotel close to the airport. We woke up at a reasonable time and made the ~2 ½ hour drive to the trailhead. Since my arrival had been delayed, Gary had already obtained the permits from the Park at the Sedro Woolley ranger station the day prior. I suppose that is one advantage of my canceled flight. As we drove toward the Shannon Ridge trailhead, we found an abandoned ranger Jeep with the siren blaring. What a fine wilderness experience. At the trailhead, we ran into a skier who lost his partner on the descent and was becoming worried. We later found out, from the ranger station, that his partner had spent 2 more un-planned nights in the woods and ended up bushwhacking down the wrong drainage to Baker Lake.

Organizing gear went quickly and we were hiking up the Shannon Ridge ridge trail just before noon. It is amazing how much greener Washington is compared to Colorado. After about a mile at ~3,100 feet, the snow started. We hiked in boots for about another ¼ mile before we put the skins and the skis on. Travel was steady as we slowly skinned our way upwards. Route finding was somewhat challenging as we tried to follow older tracks in the snow.

So green.

After skinning up a steep slope, we had a fantastic skin upward through a forest with massive trees. Making our way upward, we finally gained the defined Shannon Ridge where the views of Mt. Baker were excellent with the clouds rolling in and out. Working our way up the ridge, the trees thinned out and just before camp we ascended a steep hill that took us to the top of treeline. We arrived at camp, ~5,400, at 5:30 PM. Shortly thereafter, we melted snow for water and cooked dinner. Our evening was filled with the sounds of a helicopter searching for the lost skier.

Skinning through the forest.

Kirill with Mt. Baker on the skin up.

Shannon Ridge with Mt. Shuksan.

Final hill to camp.


Anticipating an early wake-up call, we went to bed early. Around 1:00 AM, I woke up to go to use the outside facilities and the tent was completely engulfed in clouds with a light mist. Later, when my alarm went off at 4:00 AM, I could hear the rain on the tent and I did everyone the benefit of turning off my alarm and turning back over to go back to sleep.

Things didn't improve. We all woke up around 7:30-8:00 AM and it was still drizzling. 20% chance of rain? Card games, tricks, naps, and stories were exchanged all day as the rain was on and off with an occasional gust of wind. Activities outside of the tent were very short and limited. Fortunately, we had brought enough food for another night. Around 6:00 PM, the drizzle and the rain stopped and we could re-enforce snow walls around the tent, melt water and cook dinner. Things were damp. As hard as it might to imagine, we were able to get cell phone service through Verizon and Sprint and were able to get an updated weather forecast. The weather looked better but with a storm rolling in the following evening. The forecast was for 20% chance of rain. Where have I heard that before?

As I was re-enforcing snow walls around the tent, I talked to a guide and a client who had thoroughly enjoyed a very wet ascent up to camp. I couldn't imagine climbing all day in such delightful weather.
Going to bed early was tricky since all of us had taken several naps throughout the day. The alarm went off at 4:00 AM and the weather had improved somewhat but wasn't ideal. At least the tent wasn't engulfed in clouds. There was an overcast layer.

Cooking breakfast, adjusting and packing gear we were hiking with skis on our backs around 5:45 AM. The snow was firm as we ascended. Near 6,400, I tried putting on the skins but was shortly stopped by icy steeps slopes just a few hundred feet higher. We decided to ditch the skis and proceed without them. Unfortunately, Gary wasn't feeling the best and decided to carefully return to camp. The snow was firm but just soft enough to not need crampons as we worked our way up the mellow Sulfide Glacier. The cloud layer didn't burn off and we started placing wands as we continued upwards into the clouds. Visibility was bad.

Sunrise on day 3.

Tom hiking up after leaving camp.

Hiking up to the base of the Sulfide Glacier.

Tom cresting 6,400.

Climbing higher we could see the sun trying to penetrate the clouds. Would it be possible that we might actually get sun? Just as we climbed to the base of the summit pyramid, we were on top of the cloud layer. It was an ecstatic sight viewing the summit pyramid covered in snow/ice. It looked steep.

First view of the summit pyramid.

We put on our crampons and roped up as we started up the steep snow gully to the summit. The snow was perfect crampon snow and the climbing was aesthetic as we continued upwards to the summit. We really couldn't have asked for better conditions. The sun was shining.

Starting up the pyramid.

Heading up the gully.

Heading up the gully.

Steep section.

The guided group behind us.

Mt. Baker.

Nearing the top.

The summit was small and amazing as we all arrived around 11:50 AM. The views of Mt. Baker were outstanding. We spent close to 20 minutes on the summit as we waited for the guide and his client to ascent to the summit. We didn't want to down-climb on them and constantly shower them with loose snow and ice.

Summit ridge.

Tom and Kirill on the summit.

Summit! (Photo by Kirill)

Group photo.

Crowded as it was, the summit barely had enough room for the five of us. For our descent, we decided to rope up with the guide and do a lowering belay. 1 50 and 1 60 M rope in two lowers would get us to the base of the pyramid, safely. Tom and I down-climbed first and set a snow-picket/ice ax anchor for Kirill and the client, John. They arrived and by the time the guide reached us, weather began to move in. As Kirill and John, descended to the base of the pyramid they disappeared into the clouds. Tom and I then followed where we arrived at the base of the pyramid around 1:45 PM. The descent took longer than we all anticipated.

Weather rolling in on the descent. Kirill and the client down climbing.

Tom down-climbing.

Now for the challenge, returning to camp. Even without sunshine, I was amazed at how much the snow had softened up. The post-holing slog began; mostly ankle deep but at times, knee deep. We managed to do a good job of route finding until I had picked up 3 wands and a very recent skier had destroyed our trail. I found some old boot steps and didn't realize how much left it veered. Red flag number 1: I should have taken a compass heading at this junction. We followed the old boot steps passing a rock tower on our right. Red flag number 2: we didn't see a rock tower on our ascent even when the visibility was so poor. After a few more hundred yards, the boot track came to an abrupt end.

Discussion was heated as we were confused on where to go. The visibility was only about 30 feet and we couldn't see $h@t. I began a direct descent for about 100 feet but the slope was way steeper than anything we ascended; red flag number 3. While trying to figure out the next best plan of action, the guide and his client showed up. That made us feel a little better, but things didn't seem right. The guide and his client began to glissade directly down. We followed them for another 100-200 feet vertically. It was steep and it was getting a whole lot steeper. Something wasn't right. There was a short clearing and we could see a ridge to our right. The guide seemed to think we were on track since the ridge could be the ridge that follows the western edge of the Sulfide Glacier.

To the right we went. The slope didn't ease and it was slushy. I was getting nervous on the steep slushy slope with 5 people. Red flag number 4: we could hear a river. Tom and I discussed how we couldn't hear a river on our ascent. For a brief moment, the weather cleared and we could see a valley below. It was STEEP. Heading right, heading down, and heading left were all bad options.

Seriously lost in the sauce.

The guide pulled out his GPS and decided that we should head left slightly angling up. Tom and I were convinced at this point that we had gone off the wrong side of the ridge and that heading left wasn't a good option. The only option left was to reascend 200-300 feet back to the trail and intercept the ski tracks and that is exactly what we did. Slog fest it was back to the trail. I pulled out my compass at that point and figured out we made 100 degree left turn off course following those boot tracks. Once back on track, we found another wand we had placed. Seeing that wand was a really good feeling.

Magic wand, take us home.

Route finding was not a problem as we returned to our skis. Descending on the skis was very enjoyable even if we couldn't see more than 100 feet. At this point, it was easy to follow the trail as it was heavily worn. I was bummed we didn't take the skis higher but in way, happy we didn't. We could have skied off course a lot faster and farther.

The ski was a little slushy as we returned to camp at 5:20 PM. That detour and post-holing really set us back. Gary was glad to see us as he was starting to worry about us. Again, it was much later than any of us had anticipated. All of us made the decision to pack up and get out fast.

Kirill making tele turns.

Me making some turns (Photo by Kirill)

Everyone had AT boots or Tele boots but me. I skied, for the first time (usually my plastics), in my leather mountaineering boots. The skiing for me was challenging with a camp pack, slush, and such a loose fitting boot but I managed. The trees with tight turns were especially tricky.

Gary on the descent from camp.

Some of the tree wells we skied past were scary. Up to 4 feet deep and that still wasn't the base of the snow. Skiing into one of those would be hazardous. We arrived at the car at 7:30 PM. Ditching the camp pack and putting on the flip flops felt great. The beer in Sedro Woolley was especially rewarding. Too bad the weather didn't work out better or we would have climbed Mt. Baker as well.

Mt Shuksan from Lake Ann in 2008.

Cascade thoughts:
1 ) GPS is mandatory. I manage very well with just a topo and compass in Colorado but considering how fast and how long poor conditions roll in it just isn't bright not to have one. That poor chap who descended off course spent 2 additional days in the woods and we almost had an epic descent into an unknown valley.

2 ) More wands. We had 8 wands and we should have had 20-30 considering the conditions we encountered.

3 ) Full on Rain Gear. Thinking snow climb, in June, I brought just snow pants that are somewhat rain repellent. There is a reason the trees are so big and everything has ferns and moss growing on it. Only one of us brought rain pants.

4 ) Extra dinner paid off. Without the extra dinner, we wouldn't have summited.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions

Good-lookin' peak     06/17/2011 01:29
And awesome route. The climbing shots are great!


Gorgeous     06/17/2011 14:56
Thanks for posting. I love the PNW.


Very nice!     06/18/2011 14:23
Beautiful line, and good job solving the navigation problem. Love to get out that way sometime.

I'd take a little issue with ”GPS is mandatory” - it sounds like GPS might have been leading ”the guide” astray while you found your way back to camp the old-fashioned way.


Regarding GPS     06/19/2011 00:43
The guide didn't bring the GPS out until we were lost. I'm assuming he didn't want to take his client back UP and was angling across to save gain. If he had followed his ascent track down from the start, he wouldn't have had any problem.

It is good, however, to know that the old-fashioned way did work.

Brian C

Awesome     06/19/2011 04:05
I know where I'm planning next up in Washington! Thanks for posting.


One of my favorites ...     06/20/2011 21:50
I love climbing this peak. 8) I'm amazed at how much rime was on that summit pyramid. Sounds like a good decision not to take the chimneys route. Thanks for posting ... makes me wanna go back (like NOW). Happy trails!

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