Saturday, May 15, 2004

Mt Shuksan

Skiing the Sulphide Glacier on Mt Shuksan
Elev: 9,127 feet
May 15, 2004

BUSIAD: "Badass, Uber Shuksan In A Day." That was the title for the weekend. Our crew of seven drove up to the Shannon Creek Trailhead late Friday night and quickly assembled camp, hoping for at least four hours of sleep. Based on weather reports forecasting precipitation Saturday afternoon, and general spring avalanche rules, we decided to get up at 3am and head up the trail at 4. We were going to try and climb Shuksan in one long day via the Sulphide Glacier, and ski back down. Based on the conditioning of the group and prior experiences on the mountain, we calculated that given decent conditions, nine hours to the summit was a good, conservative estimate.

So shortly after 4am, we struck out for the Sulphide, about 15 minutes after a party of two intending to climb it in one day as well, but on foot. Actually leaving close to our target time was a victory in itself. Fortunately some in the group are better morning people than others – they not only got the show on the road, but kept the general spirits of the group up even while hoofing up the trail in the dark.

Dusk began to brighten the starry night just as we reached our first stretches of consistent snow cover. We ditched our trail runners in a garbage bag and marked them with a wand for retrieval on the way down, then donned our ski boots and resumed climbing through the old clearcut, up the ridge leading to the notch that provides access to the Sulphide. As we emerged from the trees, we were granted stunning views of Mt. Baker’s east flanks, views which would persist throughout the day, graciously giving us a nice backdrop for the day’s adventure. At this point, shit started happening. We stowed three blue bags in the trees, marked them with another wand, and a few pounds lighter, continued up the ridge.

We reached the notch around 7. The sun had been up for a few hours now, revealing a high, hazy cloud ceiling, with some thicker clouds past Baker on the western horizon. We pulled out our ice axes and booted around the firm snow of the steep avalanche slopes just past the notch. We passed by the other party and pulled up to the lower camp sites just off the western edge of the glacier, quickly devoured some food, then put on the skis for the steady slog up the glacier. But of course, not before employing more blue bag technology.

We skinned up the rolling, left edge of the glacier. Maria, who brought her snowboard and traveled on snowshoes, roped up with Marcus in case of any weak snowbridges on the route. The snow was firm enough that she kept up quite well, even pulling Marcus on a downhill section. On the surface of the snow, was this very strange, frozen surface layer. It was so thin and light, that with each step the layer would shatter and skitter down the slope below for a foot or so making a very pleasant tinkling sound, like a chandelier shaking lightly. We had noticed a sun dog, a large halo encircling the sun, appear earlier, and now puffy clouds were creeping into the valleys below. It seemed an afternoon forecast of precipitation could be pretty accurate.

At the section of the glacier where it bends rightward, past Hell’s Highway and rises on up to the summit pyramid, Chad claimed his first blue bag experience. Prior to commencing the process, he solicited any last minute advice the group might have for him. Becky wisely offered that he should be careful not to step in it when he’s finished. The reason for Chad’s confused expression would reveal itself later in the day. But to spare you the anticipation, it turns out he believed the proper technique to involve holding the bag in the open position underneath himself. This required that he poop in a tele stance because, given that he was in the middle of a glacier with his skis on, there was no other way to keep his balance. We pieced it together later when he described how tiring it was and how difficult it was to switch his tele stance without disrupting the careful alignment. Upon informing him of the alternative, “grab bag” method, he smiled and surmised, “Oh, that would be a LOT easier!”

We pushed up the unrelenting final stretch to the summit pyramid, reaching a small rock outcropping east of the central gully around 11:30. We were right on schedule – we figured it would take a good hour to an hour and a half to climb the 45-50 degree central gully up to the summit. However, we were knackered from the last pitch up the glacier, and as we sat around eating lunch and melting snow for water, we watched some dark, threatening clouds approach from near Baker. Sitting there 800 feet below the summit, looking up the gut of the tantalizing central gully, we decided to start the ski down.

But what a ski it was! We head back out across the Sulphide, then down. It felt like skiing hard packed powder at a resort. The thin, frozen surface shattered under our skis, and our edges sent wakes of it down the slope with an audibal rush. The noise made it sound as though there was someone skiing on your tails. At one stopping point, we noticed that we could see our reflections in the icy surface, yet it gave no resistance as our skis cut right through it.