Mt. Shuksan via Sulphide Glacier

Having spent too much time on volcanoes, I wanted to give a mountain a try now. Mt Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier seemed like a reasonable solo. Some confirmation from research and satellite imagery showed I could avoid crevasses by staying on a certain part of the glacier. After that, steep snow would bring me to the summit. Since it was late June, the snowpack would be deep, and I was confident about the trip.

I wanted to do this overnight, so I dealt with the permit registration process. I managed to do it over email, but wow, what a hassle. This was a weekday early in the season too — there wouldn’t be any enforcement. I’m not going to bother again for weekdays, out-of-season ascents, or obscure peaks.

Shuksan was still early season because the pyramid gully had snow in it. It was a weekday as well. When I pulled into the Shannon Ridge trailhead, there was only one other vehicle. Great — Shuksan would be pretty empty.

I packed my bag. I brought a 60m rope so I could rappel, and a crevasse kit just in case. Early evening, I started to hike up. About 1,000 to 1,500 feet of gain later, I reached continuous snow. There weren’t any footsteps to follow, so I forged my own path until I broke treeline. After that, following the ridge brought me to my campsite. I camped off Shannon Ridge, right before the climbing route traverses underneath some cliffs.

The trail below tree-line, during the switchbacks.
Shannon ridge, breaking out above treeline.

I brought a bivvy bag, but I chose to cowboy camp instead. The gorgeous North Cascades were spread ahead of me, and who wouldn’t want to sleep in front of such a view?

I whipped up some ramen for dinner. I melted a few liters of water for tomorrow, and then I went to sleep. My alarm was set for 3:30 a.m. the next morning.

Throughout the night, it was unseasonably warm. This ascent took place during the few weeks when the Pacific Northwest was hot. I woke up, and got moving right away before the snow would degrade.

I traversed underneath some cliffs for the first few hundred feet of ascent. I put crampons on for this. After that, the angle eased and I found myself on the Sulphide Glacier. I harnessed and racked up, then went ahead. I took off my crampons as well. Step-kicking was easy, and it was low-angle.

Pre-dawn over the North Cascades.
Sunrise on the Sulphide Glacier.

I followed my route, — a long traverse on the western edge of the glacier — which would avoid crevasses.

Pre-dawn on the northern sky, over the Sulphide Glacier. Route goes up and traverses, hugging climber’s left.

The ascent on the glacier was straightforward, and a few hours later, I reached the base of the pyramid. By now, the sun was out, and the snow was a soft mess.

There was another party here. They started a car-to-car ascent early that morning. The pyramid gully snow wasn’t in good condition, so they were about to attempt the low 5th-class ridge.

I decided between soloing up the ridge or going up the gully. In the end, I chose the gully. I had absorbed all the beta on that but knew nothing about the ridge. Though I suppose “go straight up” is all the beta you need for that route.

Approaching the gully from the base of the pyramid was strenuous. It didn’t seem to freeze last night. I was ascending on rotten snow. I worked hard for every step, digging in deep so the snow would support my weight. The snow was pretty shallow — no more than a few feet — and over rough rock and boulders. So, I wasn’t worried about wet slides, but the climbing did.

I saw below me on the glacier that the previous party was now turning around, not able to get up the ridge.

I reached the point where the gully steepened to a consistent 55 degrees or so. There was a big choke point here as well. Right here, the snow was especially terrible — pure sugar. I tried climbing the snow, but I couldn’t get any purchase. The rock surrounding the snow looked like it would go, but there was running water over most of it.

With how bad the snow was, I gave the rock a try. I made a few moves one way, but that was too wet and difficult. I tried a few other routes until I found one which seemed to be better. I climbed 10 feet above my stance, intending to cut back into the gully where the snow looked better.

As I made a move, I lost my foot. It slipped off the rock, and I barn-doored and started falling. In the split second I was in the air, my eyes were on the Sulphide Glacier. I had enough time to think “I hope I don’t bounce off too many rocks and stay on the snow.”

Then, by reason of luck or gravity, I landed on the ledge and stopped there. Bruised, but unharmed. My ice-ax and gloves were scattered around me.

In hindsight, I should have turned around well before this point — as soon as I realized the snow was terrible. If that wasn’t enough, this fall was a clear message from Mt. Shuksan saying “Stay away.”

But for some reason, I decided to keep going. Perhaps it was because the summit was less than 500 feet above. Maybe it was because the other party had now turned around and I could be the only successful climber that day. Maybe it was summit fever. Maybe the fall gave me the adrenaline needed to pull through. Who knows. But, even though I made it, it was the wrong decision.

I started climbing again, this time staying in the snow. I had my boots on the snow and my axe hooked on ledges and cracks through the choke point. This was enough to start climbing up with better security.

A dozen feet later, the snow improved, but it was still sugar. I had to work hard for every step. Ascending was slow.

Two-and-a-half hours after starting up the pyramid, I reached the summit. It was exposed and airy, and the view was beyond beauty. It was the most gorgeous sight I’ve seen so far. An empty, airy summit — with the entirety of the North Cascades before me — wearing their spring coat.

Looking deep into the North Cascades.
Looking down on the Sulphide Glacier, with Baker Lake behind. Mt. Baker just out of frame to the right.

If I had time, I would’ve stayed on the summit for hours. But, I had to get down — the sooner, the better.

I brought a 60m rappel rope. I found the rappel anchor and inspected it. There were several slings and accessory cord tying several rap rings to a large block. Excessive, but it was secure. I did bring tat and rap rings in case I’d have to make my own, but if they were all this good, I wouldn’t need to.

I threaded the rope through the anchor and started to rappel. I was beyond glad to have the security of a rope now.

I continued rappelling on numerous anchors until I was almost out of the gully. On one rappel, my foot bumped into something in the snow. I pulled it out, and it was a snow picket! Someone must have bailed on it God knows when — or why — this was 20 feet from a rap anchor. But, I’m not going to complain about a free picket. I attached it to my backpack and then continued down.

One last rappel over some cliffs brought me to lower-angle snow below the main gully. After that, some spicy traversing and down-climbing returned me to the Sulphide.

Now, with the sun on the glacier, it felt like a million degrees. I descended the glacier, glad that the other party who’d turned around did the post-holing for me.

Looking back across the glacier, up the summit gully I climbed. It probably melted out a few days after this.

I made quick time to my campsite. There were a few more parties camping now. They’d ascended from the trailhead while I was climbing. Tomorrow they’d be climbing Shuksan. I shared my beta and a recommendation for the NE ridge instead, then continued down.

Recent wet slide on cliffs across a drainage from my campsite.
The North Cascades from my campsite. The vertical relief of these mountains from the valley floor is amazing.

Descending Shannon Ridge was miserable because of the soft snow. But. not as bad as ascending it would be. Once I reached dry ground, some easy downhill hiking brought me to my car. I dried out my gear for an hour, cooked a late lunch, and drove back to Bellingham.

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