Mount Baker - I mean Shuksan Summit -- Quick and Simple (by Evan Wong)

May 23rd and 24th, 2009

What a difference a year makes.  One year ago almost to the day, I was hating life climbing the Kautz route on Mount Rainier on a ski mountaineering trip with Pro Guiding Service.  Now a year removed, a year wiser, new skills, and almost an entirely new set of lighter gear, I was ready to take on a slightly less daunting objective of climbing and skiing Mount Baker via the Coleman-Deming route.  Or so that was the plan.

The Mount Baker portion of the trip was literally a washout from the get-go.  Martin called a week before departure saying that the Glacier Creek access road was closed due to storm damage restricting access from the north and wouldn’t be repaired until the fall.  The Easton Glacier route from the south was still an option, but – as Martin put it – highly undesirable since snowmobile access was still allowed on that side of the mountain.  His idea of a nice ski climb in the mountains didn’t include hearing the high pitched whine of Ski Doo’s nearby.  He said the trip was switching to Mount Shuksan instead.

Now the mention of Mount Shuksan evoked two thoughts to me.  The first of ducking the rope lines at the top of Chair 8 at the Mount Baker Ski Area and venturing out onto the Shuksan Arm and Elbow seeking untracked powder.  Those were the good thoughts.  The other was viewing it from near Artist Point and thinking it was a really steep and rocky mountain.  Not so good.  “You’ll be fine,” Martin assured me, “it’s like Baker, just a bit more tech.”  Now being a techie guy in my everyday life, I figured Martin wasn’t talking of new electronic gadgets, he was really saying “it’s going to be way harder” in a polite, non-threatening, guide-speak way.

The trip started early Saturday morning in the parking lot of the North Cascades Ranger Station in Sedro Woolly.  There I met the other clients Doug, Kim and a husband and wife team of Craig and Charity.  Kim and I were in a PGS avalanche course together during the winter, so it was a pleasant surprise to see her on the trip.  We also met our other guide Erica Engle, whom I knew previously working at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort, so it was great to see her again too.

Things started on a high note right from the get-go.  Charity, who works at Outdoor Research in Seattle, presented Martin with a prototype OR trucker hat – apparently his favorite type.  Martin gushed over it and placed it on his head where it remained a permanent fixture throughout the trip (and it would not surprise me if he slept in it).

Martin then quickly conducted a gear check that went something like this: 

“Everybody got skis?”  “Yes”

“Boots and poles?” “Yes”

“Avy gear?” “Yes”

“Sleeping bag?” “Yes”

“Okay, we got the basics, everything else is a luxury.”

I remember thinking that I had never quite thought of food and shelter as a luxury before, but whatever.

After consolidating cars at a remote parking area, we drove out to the trailhead where we started hiking with skis on our backs.  A short while later, we reached the snow line and started touring through the forest.  The snow was soft and the air temperature warm making for quite a bit of work trudging uphill on skis.  But when we passed a couple climbing the mountain alpine style and post-holing past their knees in the soft snow, we realized how cool we really were floating past.  It wasn’t too much longer before the peaks in the North Cascade National Park started making themselves visible, and soon after Mount Baker made an entrance across the valley in all her glory.  The high pressure that made for hot and steamy conditions also made for blue skis and good visibility.

The initial plan was to camp high on the Sulphide Glacier but that meant crossing avalanche prone slopes in the heat of the afternoon.  After some consideration, Martin and Erica decided to camp a bit lower in a nice spot with a full view of Mt. Baker.  The rest of the afternoon and evening was dedicated to the usual tasks of drying gear, making dinner, and generally enjoying the great vistas and the spectacular sunset next to Mt. Baker.

Summit day began early because of the shorter first day.  After a quick transceiver and harness check, we pulled out of camp heading up the Sulphide.  After what seemed like hours of endless climbing, crossing large frozen avalanche chunks, switchbacks, kick-turns, and huffing slowly up the glacier, the inspiring view of the summit pyramid finally popped into view in the distance about the same time as sunrise.

At one point, Martin passed me and I noted how appropriate he was climbing on his K2 Skuksan skis, as were Kim and Doug who also had pairs of K2 Shuksans as well.  Erica and I both had K2 Mount Baker [Superlight] skis which would have been appropriate had we been climbing that namesake mountain.  The five of us were having a small K2 ski love-fest as it were until Craig and Charity spoiled it by showing up with their Black Diamond Kilowatt skis (which are awesome skis as well).

After more hours of endless climbing, we made our way past the Hourglass to the base of the summit pyramid where we took a break to make the switch from ski mountaineering to alpine climbing mode.  This meant caching the skis and ski crampons for ropes, ice axes, and boot crampons.

All of us were excited to make the summit push except for Charity who was having second thoughts about climbing the steep couloir leading up to the summit.  She wasn’t sure about how much energy she had, and was clearly worried about getting into trouble high up on the mountain and not having enough energy for a safe ski descent.  I could very much relate to what she was going through having gone through the exact same mental exercise on my Rainier trip the year before (I ended up not going for the summit then).  After talking herself out of going, she changed her mind at the last second and decided to go for it.

With Craig, Kim and I settled in on Martin’s rope line, and Charity and Doug on Erica’s line, we started climbing the steep chute up to the summit.  By “we” climbing the chute, this really meant Martin and Erica climbing up and setting an anchor from which they’d belay the rest of us up.  It wasn’t very long before we were all standing on the summit of Mount Shuksan!  That’s all of us including Charity, whom we all got excited for when she made it up the last push.

Two things came to mind on the summit.  The first was how great the view was looking down on the Hemisphere chair line at the ski area, the view of Table Mountain, the Arm, and of course Mt Baker.  The second was how small the summit really was and how steep everything was on each side.  With all seven of us up there, it was standing room only and you really minded where you stood.

The ski descent from the base of the summit pyramid back to the camp site was a blast as expected.  Ski descending a big mountain when it is doable beats walking down any day.  It was just as fun for me too watching Kim, Doug, Charity, and Craig chasing Erica down the glacier and having a good time skiing down.  After breaking camp, it was back to skiing down through the forest and back to the trail.  Soon enough, we were walking back towards the car with skis on our backs, save for a minor detour where Martin decided to get us a bit more vertical which we paid for by doing a bit of climbing and bush-whacking back up.

On the walk out Craig, whose was getting somewhat tired, had a bit of trouble negotiating several low hanging branches on the trail with his large pack and skis high in the air.  Several incidents reminded us of the Japanese game show “Hole in the Wall” where he had to bend at awkward angles to maneuver the skis past different branches while trying not to get knocked over.  More than once I thought he was going over, but several of us gave him instructions and pushed and prodded as he contorted into awkward positions and we got him safely past.

All in all, it was a great trip and a fantastic experience for us all.