It was an ambitious plan. To wake a short 2.5 hours after ringing in the new year, trudge with full alpine climbing and skiing gear to the highway to (hopefully) be met by my ski partner, Matt Henry, who was coming up from Seattle. From there, it would be an exciting attempt at the summit of Mount Shuksan. At 9131′ it is one of the more prominent peaks in Washington, but more notably, it’s the most photographed peak in the state, and some would say in the entire country. As apt an example of Cascadian ferocity as you can imagine, it’s west side, viewed from the Mount Baker Ski Area, is a maze of jagged rock and hanging glaciers of blue ice. A dream and a nightmare combined, it’s high on the list of any northwest alpinist, and my time to attempt the summit was way overdue.
As 4am came and went in the cell phone coverage-less town of Glacier, Washington I began to wonder if the plan was going to run amok from the start. At 4:15 when Matt pulled up in his brand new Prius with all of its cozy luxuries, my doubts were allayed.
We left the White Salmon parking lot of the Mount Baker ski area a little after five by the light of our headlamps and the help of a bright moon and skinned the cat track toward the bottom of Chair 8. When the skin tracks broke left toward the White Salmon drainage and the base of Mount Shuksan, we dutifully followed. The next move was a mistake. Instead of descending directly to the valley as is standard, we were lured up-valley by a meandering track that held the promise of saving some elevation. By the time we decided we needed to drop down to the valley, we had come too far. The further we descended, the deeper we got into a large and hectic ravine with the odd waterfall and sinkhole. By the grace of god, the power of LED headlamps and the sublimity of the deep Cascade snowpack, we found a ‘skiable’ route through the entire gully (although not without getting some wet boots) and were soon at a sane and organized skin track on the valley floor.
The skin up the White Salmon drainage was uneventful. In fact, it was exquisite. The moon shone bright on sparkling settled powder, the wind was non-existant. Headlamps off, we enjoyed the solitude of the mountains in the pre-dawn darkness and covered the ground while lost in peaceful thoughts. The nearly 5000′ of climbing from the valley to the top of the White Salmon Glacier, the most straightforward route on the westside of the mountain, was made infinitely easier by the existence of stable snow and a two-day old skin track which wound it’s way efficiently and safely through the rolling terrain of the glacier. As the morning light illuminated the surrounding peaks in all of their glory, we turned the corner onto the Curtis glacier and were face to face with the impressive volcanic form of Mount Baker, seemingly close enough to touch.
We intended to climb to the summit via the easiest route, which goes by the unnecessarily dramatic name of Hell’s Highway, and then make our way to the Northwest Couloir for an exciting descent. But another option presented itself as we traversed the plateau. A climbing line called The Hourglass was looking to be in prime form, sporting a combination of packed snow and glacier ice. Given the equipment I had in hand: one good ice axe, a whippet (ski pole with a small ice axe tip), and my superlight aluminum crampons, I was a bit dubious about climbing a line with no less than 3 pitches of blue ice. Matt, on the other hand, was drawn to the line like a moth to flame. Matt and I have sort of an arrangement that distills down to this: I get scared on the climbs, where he is most comfortable, he gets scared on the ski-descents, where I feel right at home. With our combined comfort zones, we tend to get a lot of things done together. I believe my exact words were “Alright, f**ker, let’s climb it.”
As is so often the case when the comfort zone is pushed, this climb up the hourglass became the highlight of the day. The snow sections were straightforward and confidence inspiring and the ice was of a quality that allowed solid placements of the good axe, tolerable traction with the aluminum crampons and absolutely nothing but a point on which to balance when the whippet was swung and subsequently bounced off of the old, strong ice. We soloed the first pitch, and then quickly belayed the second and third using a couple of ice screws we had included in our kits, ‘just in case’.
Atop the hourglass, we again reached a mellow and wide bench in the form of the upper Sulphide Glacier. This would lead us to the summit pyramid, a phenomenal bit of post-holing in soft wind-packed snow and eventually the exciting last pitch of rock, snow, ice and rime that would guard the summit.
Upon reaching the summit tired but ecstatic, we were greeted by a small plane flying by at close proximity. I waved my ice axe, and the gesture was returned by a dip of the wings. I’m sure each of us had some little bit of jealousy regarding each other’s relative position. Next, we checked the time and the weather and were forced to make a tough decision; we’d burnt too much time climbing and the light was going flat. We would have to come up with a more expedient descent option than the Northwest Couloir route that we would ski in an ideal world. After all, my wife and friends were in the ski area lodge having a beer, and we had to cover a 6500′ descent as quickly as possible in order to join them before dark.
A spooky 150′ down-climb from the summit put us in position to ski from a very high point on the summit pyramid, a luxury afforded by a big early-season snowpack and ideal snow conditions. The summit dispatched, we decided to finish our descent with a less glamorous, but ridiculously fun ski descent via the White Salmon Glacier. With over 3000′ of sustained steep and continuous powder skiing, this was an absolutely exquisite consolation prize. About 2/3 of the way down, we ran into my buddy, Kyle Miller and his partner Ben, and completed the last bit of pow shredding and the final climb of the day in the company of another very enthusiastic party. Darkness fell as we pushed our way back down the cat track to the parking lot, and the light of the grooming machines setting to work for the night gave us what we needed to avoid resorting to headlamps for the second time.
An hour later I was in a cozy cabin in Glacier Washington, the same one I had been in way back in 2012, more tired and far more satisfied than the year before. I didn’t make a new year’s resolution; I think life needs to happen in the present, but this trip has strengthened my resolve to make forays into the greatest parts of the wilderness for as long as my legs and lungs will allow. And I don’t think this is a resolution I need to worry about breaking.