5 min read

Climbing Mt. Shuksan

Sulphide Glacier route, September, 2023

I’d never been to Anacortes, but this is where our group headed for a day of preparatory rope work on Mt. Erie before journeying to Shuksan in the North Cascades. The town sits on the Washington coast where the San Juan islands break off into the strait between the US and Canada. I got to the Ship Harbor Inn in the evening before our rock climbing day, cracked a beer, and watched ferries coming and going in the sunset. 

I was here for my last item on the Denali prerequisite list—a glacier skills seminar with RMI. The program is six days long (ours ran September 2-7) and it’s designed to acquaint climbers with the more technical aspects of crevasse rescue, building anchors and pulleys, rappelling, and so forth. It’s also an opportunity for guides to see if you’ll be a good team fit on Denali. No one wants to spend 20+ days in tight quarters with a jerk. 

We met our guides, Mike and Sam, up at the top of Erie for a gear check and then we moved right into knot-tying: reviewing clove hitches, Munters, figure eights on a bite, alpine butterflies, Prusiks, and more. 

It was pretty hot on the rock, but our guides led us through belay procedure, multi-pitch operations, fixed-line travel with an ascender, and we capped it all off with some rappels. 

After driving over to Burlington, I spent an hour meticulously packing my bag for our climb up to Shuksan’s camp on Sulphide Glacier the next day, where we’d be spending four nights. I bought a bunch more food to be on the safe side, and maxed out my backpack’s 60-liter capacity. 

 Climb day 1

In Sedrow-Woolley, my fellow clients, Davis and Dilip, piled into my rental car and I drove us to the Shannon Ridge Trailhead, where we threw our packs on and started up the trail to our camp at 6,200ft. 

This first day was arguably the hardest of the trip, as we shuttled 50+ pounds of gear and food up about 3,700 feet of vert.

In my summer of climbing around the Cascades, I’d been lucky not to encounter really any bad weather, but on our climb, Shuksan delivered us a rainstorm that would last the next two days. When we arrived at camp, we were already pretty soaked. We set up our tent and immediately got inside. Rainwater pooled in the gaps between our sleeping pads. Our sleeping bags were damp. The temperature sank down into the low forties. That first night was cold. 

Climb day 2

We awoke to the storm still hanging over us. Aside from making some freeze-dried food, we hunkered down in the tent all day, and I made significant headway on a book. 

Trips to the camp’s composting toilet were…chilly. 

Climb day 3

On the third day, we rejoiced at the bits of blue sky we could see. Slowly, but surely, the clouds boiled out of the canyons around us and we finally saw Shuksan’s severe and beautiful landscape, with the glaciers giving away to a vast rock slab, interspersed with waterfalls that crashed down out of sight.

We finally had our first real glacier skills day. Mike and Sam led us out onto the Sulphide and we started off by building various anchors with pickets and ice screws. Then we moved into simulating a teammate falling into a crevasse and transferring the weighted rope to the anchor with Prusiks. Once we’d gotten the gist of that procedure, we built 3:1 pulley systems to bring up our fallen comrade. 

Mike, our lead guide, then put us to the test by falling backwards into a real crevasse to show us how the load would feel. I caught the bulk of Mike’s weight and the harness dug into my leg and burned. It took what felt like an age to transfer the load to an anchor, but we got him up after 5-10 minutes. 

We ended the day on the Sulphide with some ice climbing out of a crevasse which I loved. There’s something incredibly satisfying and kind of unreal about pulling yourself up vertical ice. 

After returning to camp, we watched the sunset glow across the glacier and prepared ourselves and our gear for the next day’s summit bid. 

Climb day 4

Summit day. It’s always a little bit of a scramble getting myself into a ready state while also trying to caffeinate and eat when I’m not hungry. Fortunately the pressure was off. As with Baker, Shuksan doesn’t fall apart as the day goes on, so the timetables are more lax compared to something like Rainier. We still wanted something of an early start though to beat any incoming weather in the afternoon. 

After putting on crampons, we set out on the Sulphide once more and then switchbacked our way up the steeper rise around the cliff bands.

Somewhere around 6:30am the sun illuminated the mountain in gold. We wended our way through the crevasse fields and across a large flat section before getting to Shuksan’s prominent and rocky summit pyramid. 

When we got to the loose rock, we stowed our crampons and proceeded up a gulley. It was a lot of third/fourth class scrambling. Mike had Davis and I on belay pretty much the entire time. 

When we gained the summit ridge, the views became incredible. We could see Baker for much of the climb, but we now could look down into the Baker Ski Resort area and the glaciers spilling down Shuksan’s north side. The exposure on this aspect of the mountain was huge, with precipitous drops on both sides of the ridge. 

After getting to the top, we all sat back for a long time and marveled at the Sulphide and Crystal glaciers from this new angle. I penned my name into the logbook. This was the most beautiful summit of my summer. It helped also that Mike said he decided to recommend me for a slot on Denali with him next May, which made my spirits soar. Getting access to the West Buttress expedition has been my objective for the whole year. 

On our descent we became enveloped in clouds and it started snowing lightly. But back on the glacier, it was hot. I delayered all the way back to my sunshirt as we retraced our path around the icy chasms. 

As we approached the steeper cliff bands above camp, giant runnels of glacial melt ran through the ice, making the Sulphide seem alive. 

Back at camp we had a few nice views of the surrounding canyons before the clouds socked us in again, which made it wet and cold once more. After another hearty freeze-dried dinner, we piled in the tents and turned in for the evening, satisfied with the day.

Climb day 5

The dramatic action of the clouds give Shuksan an extra mystique. It kept bringing to mind that Caspar David Friedrich painting of the “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.”

This was my final scheduled climb for the year, barring whatever I can get into in the back home in the Tetons. Looking back, I was lucky enough to see the summit of all four big mountains I attempted between May and September. I took a few risks, such as trying to nail the weather window on Shasta between lightning storms, but mostly made good decisions. I also befriended a wide range of fellow clients and guides which made each climb more meaningful. 

Having an endorsement for Denali, the reason I was here, gave me a spring in my step on our descent back to the car.