Upon landing in Seattle both myself and my climbing partner were greeted with voicemails from the head of the climbing school that our guide is associated with. She explained to both of us that another one of their clients (“Bill”) was in town for a guided climb on Mt. Baker, but that his guide had just gotten hurt and had to back out. Bill had flown into town from Florida for the climb, so the school wanted to try and get him something to climb since he was already in town. Thus they wanted to see if we wouldn’t mind him joining our (formerly) private guided climb. We knew two facts about Bill, first was that he had at some point climbed some pretty serious mountains (Rainer, Shasta, Whitney) and that he was 69 years old. So it goes without saying that we were a tad concerned. But, for a number of reasons, we agreed to open up our trip to Bill and let him join. It was the right thing to do, as both of us realized that had we been in his situation, we would hope that someone else would open their trip up to us.
With that, after a quick night in Seattle we made our way out early in the morning towards the ranger station in the little town of Sedro-Wooly, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Once there, our guide, Chris, arrived. We hadn’t seem him since he guided us on Adams the year prior. We talked for just a few minutes before Bill showed up with this wife. We all went into the ranger station to get the appropriate permits and most importantly, to talk about the weather.
The forecast over the last few weeks had been a bit variable. But the gist was that it was going to rain on Friday (day 1), be rainy and windy on Saturday (day 2), and then clear on Sunday (day 3). Thus our plan was to hike and climb into high camp on Friday, spend Saturday doing some training and resting, and then make a summit push on Sunday morning- tag the summit early, head back down to high camp and break it down, then climb and hike out to the trailhead. Given the weather this was an ideal plan. We got what we needed from the rangers, and then headed outside.
Once outside, we did a gear check. Essentially we all empty our packs onto the grass for Chris to go over our gear to ensure that we have what we need and that we aren’t carrying things we didn’t need. I was able to rid myself of a few things that dropped some ounces from my bag (as Chris says “pounds are made of ounces”). Chris then divided up the group gear for each of us to carry. This was primarily group food (breakfast and dinners), two tent kits, stoves, and ropes. This of course added considerable weight to all our bags. I would guess that with the group gear, mine topped out around 40 or 50 pounds. With all of our gear checked and repacked, we loaded the cars and set off. We had about a 90 minute drive following Chris into the backcountry and to the trail head.
About an hour into the drive we finally started to get a glimpse of the North Cascades. We first saw Mt. Baker and Baker lake, which were quite stunning. The rising evergreens all around us and cool temperatures provided a sublimely serene setting to the undertaking we were about to begin.
We arrived at the trailhead. We all donned our boots, hefted our packs onto our shoulders, grabbed our ski poles, and set off onto the trail.
The Shannon Ridge “trail” was a first for me. In my experience, a “trail” is a relatively cleared path through the environments. Sometimes it may or may not be marked, but just looking at the ground can usually tell you that you’re on the path. But the Shannon Ridge trail is known as a “climbers trail” which means that while some small part of it may be cleared and obvious, the rest of it is narrow, brush and/or tree covered, messy, and complex. It makes for slower going.
The first few hundred feet of the ascent were on the nice easy part of the trail. It was wide enough for two of us to walk side by side and it was shaded (and thus cool). It was partly cloudy at this point.
After this small part of the trail, it got steeper quick. The trail head is at 2,300 feet. The location of our high camp was going to be at the bottom of the glacier at about 6,400 feet. Thus in this first day we had to cover 3,100 feet on the ascent. A big number but not by any means a significant challenge. We set off from the cars at 1030 or so, and since our goal for the day was to reach camp, we had plenty of time to get there before dark and setup camp.
As the trail got steeper it’s quality also lessened. It quickly narrowed so that you had to move in more or less single file. It also became uncleared, basically meaning that it was overgrown with trees and bushes and other such flora. Thus walking through it was a continuous practice of moving over or under or through branches and bushes. This part of the trail was then followed by “deadfall,” which is when the giant trees fall down. There were a few dozen such trees along this complex trail, and it took some work to navigate your body (with a 50 pound giant pack) either over these huge trees (some 5 to 6 feet in diameter). It was at this point that the main indicator of our future pace would be clear: Bill was simply moving slower than my partner and I (and the guide). It was little one minute pauses here and there or an extra minute or two for him to negotiate a complex move over a dead tree. These were little delays but they add up quickly and do have a significant impact on your pace and thus schedule.
So, moving a bit slower than planned, we finally made it out of the deadfall section and began to come above tree line. We reached a little open flat section where we decided it would be a good time to stop and take a break (eat, drink, etc.). From this position, our guide explained, we had one particularly harder part of the trail to tackle next, and this was negotiating from our current position on the Shannon Ridge up into the notch, which is a section of the rock (literally a small notch) that allows you to pass through from the forested side where we were into the higher elevations and the alpine environment. The challenge was the trail from our break spot to the notch was steep (the steepest thing we’d seen so far) and covered in loose dirt and small rocks (which means loose footing at best). With the unsure footing and the heavy pack on your shoulders the way forward is to move and think fast. Quickly look to see where your next step will be, get your foot onto it to make sure it holds, then move your weight up onto it. As you’re doing that, you start looking for the next step. This is important because it minimizes your time putting your weight on each step, thereby minimizing the chances for footing to give way and you to fall backwards. In this particular location, a fall would be potentially very painful…but our exposure was such that a fall likely wouldn’t be fatal. To make it a tad harder, the clouds had departed and the sun had come out. Even though the temperature was in the 60’s it certainly felt like the 90’s.
We quickly ate and drank and then attacked the trail. Bill slowed down and had some real trouble in this section. Our guide was in front, then Bill, then my partner, and then me in the rear. So the biggest problem this caused was that as Bill would take slow steps up, we had to as well…thus putting our footing at risk over and over again. This slow movement on the notch (combined with the slow movement through the deadfall) destroyed our pace. It was nearly 5:30 when we finally reached the notch. From here it was another 1,200 feet to high camp and it was a mix of rock and snow. So, in the interest of time, our guide decided that we would just make a low camp right at/on the notch. We’d make camp, spend the night, and in the morning pack up and move the last 1,200 feet up to high camp at 6,400 feet.
The views from our camp at the notch were just outstanding. From here we could see down into the valley, Mt. Baker, the Picket Range, and other peaks in the distance. There was a combination of snow and forest cover throughout the view, with clouds moving in and out of the valley and across the different mountains we could see.
We set up camp (my partner and I in one tent and Bill and our guide in the other) and began prepping for dinner.
Our guide’s exquisite cooking abilities were brought to bear as he put together a starter of tomato soup and then sausage and mashed potatoes (“bangers and mash”) with snap peas. We ate while enjoying the view and conversation. It wasn’t too long after dinner and cleanup that we retired to our respective tents, my partner and I both reading on our Kindles before turning in.
We awoke relatively early the next morning but didn’t need to rush, as our sole goal was to reach high camp at 6,400 feet, just another 1,200 vertical feet from the our camp site at the notch. But this 1,200 feet was radically different from our path prior to the notch. Now on the north/eastern side of the mountain, we were exposed to ice/snow and rock. The trail from this point switched between steep but easily passable rock and snow and ice. Unfortunately the weather worsened (as the forecast foretold), bringing clouds down to our altitude and severely reducing our visibility. It was relatively slow moving in keeping with Bill’s pace, and the last section of ice brought us full time onto the glacier. As we donned our crampons for this section and made the final push towards camp, we could actually see the tents of other parties up above us, a nice motivator for forward progress. This particular slope wasn’t terribly steep or challenging, and it was nice to be off rock and onto the glacier with crampons where I felt far more sure with my footing.
Yet our slow pace was still a killer…we didn’t pull into high camp till around noon. What should have been a 90 minute (at the most) trip took nearly three hours. As we arrived at camp, we scouted out tent locations and luckily found two that were on rock (vice snow). We dropped our gear and began setting up camp…but we weren’t alone. There was another guided group (2 guides with nearly 10 clients) that were in the immediate vicinity as well. They weren’t there for a summit attempt, just some skills training on the glacier. But having some other folks around was nice. Our two tents ended up bookending the guide tent from the other party. Their clients were in tents a bit further up the glacier (but within ear shot). A party of three arrived soon thereafter and parked their tent in a small little space down the rocky outcropping.
The view from high camp easily surpassed the view from the notch. We had views of one side of the Sulphide Glacier, basically an ice fall, that came down and off the cliff. A sense of scale is hard to get here, but the ice chunks were probably the size of mid-size sedans. Every few minutes we’d hear the crashing and rumbling sound of giant chunks breaking off and heaving down the glacier. Further afield we could see into the green and lush valley below, alpine peaks in the distance, and the glacier all around us. Sadly, we couldn’t see the summit. It was shrouded in a cloud. Throughout the day the clouds above and around us would come and go somewhat, but the cloud on the summit never dissipated.
Once camp was setup we had a quick bite to eat, and then got to training. In preparation for the summit pyramid the next morning (class 3/4 rock) we did a mini rock climbing skills class. While I had some background here, my partner did not. So we went over the basic setup of the belay and rappel systems we’d be using, the cams and the knots, and some quick overview of technique. This ended up running for about two and a half hours, and by the time we were done, it was time to start dinner.
Our schedule, at this point, was the following: we had hoped to cruise into high camp on day 1, which would have allowed day 2 to be nothing more than a bit of skills training and mostly rest, in preparation for the summit push and monster day 3. But because of the slower pace and the delay, day two was spit between the morning climb into high camp and rock skills in the afternoon. We had to eat early, because we had to get to bed early, because summit day was set to start at 2am.
Chris, our guide, and Bill were talking pretty extensively throughout our time at high camp in the afternoon, and a bit later in the day Bill revealed to us that he wouldn’t be making the summit push with us. He recognized that his slower pace (as we had experienced up to this point) would be a much more serious liability and danger on summit day than it had been between at the trailhead and high camp. Thus on summit day, it would just be my parter and I with Chris. We were pretty pleased with that decision, and we would later see that it was 100% the right one.
Chris kicked off dinner, which would be Pad Thai. And, it was amazing. Seriously the man has an incredible ability to make good quality food at altitude and with pretty limited resources. We ate, talked a bit with the other guides in the tent next to us, and cleaned up. By about 6pm my partner and I retired to our tent and began the arduous task of trying to sleep.
Now it had been cloudy all day long for the most part, and going to bed when it was still light out would at least be countered somewhat by the cloud cover, maybe allowing it to be dark enough to close our eyes and fall asleep. Of course, as we zipped up the flap on the tent, we got the feeling of brighter light shining through the thin tent fabric, indicating that the sun had decided to make an appearance now. Awesome. Sleep would be much harder.
We both donned the Kindles again in an attempt to make ourselves sleepy…but that didn’t do much. So we laid down, and just waited.
As nice as it was having the other guided group up at camp, and even though they were probably 100 feet up the glacier from us, their laughing and talking was loud enough to keep us awake (of course, since they weren’t going for the summit, they had no need to hit the sack early). Despite the noise, I think I eventually fell asleep around 8 or 8:30.
But it didn’t last. I tossed and turned, got hold and cold, and just didn’t sleep all that well. I was pretty solidly awake by 1am, and just laid there counting down the minutes till 2am when Chris quietly came over to wake us up.
We quickly got up and got our clothing layers all set. Our gear was packed the night before (our pack on summit day was much different, no extra stuff. Basically just water and some clothes and some food). Chris made some oatmeal and hot tea for breakfast, which I tried my best to stuff down. The weather, well, looked ok. The skies immediately above us were clear minus a few random small clouds. Up the glacier it was harder to tell, primarily because it was dark. But since the conditions immediately around us looked good, and the forecast called for clearing, we decided that it was time to push off. We stepped onto the glacier and got into our crampons, roped up (Chris in the lead, then me, then my partner in the rear), grabbed helmets and headlamps and ice axes and bags, and began to move: it was 2:45am.
Climbing up a glacier in the dark is an odd sensation, just as we had experienced on Mt. Adams a year prior. On one hand it’s easier because you can’t see more than what your head lamp illuminates (which is basically a few feet in front of your boot), but you know that you are on this huge expansive ice sheet that slopes down into a dark abyss (maybe bringing pain and/or death if one were to fall and slide and not self-arrest).
The first 30 minutes were actually pretty easy. We got into the rest-step rhythm and just kept moving forward and up. The incline wasn’t much more than 10 or 15 degrees, and we were able to get pretty good footing and purchase with the crampons. Our understanding of the glacier was the following: it starts pretty gradual, then gets steep, then gradual again, then steep, then gradual again. Then you lose some altitude as you navigate to the right area, and then there is a final steep push up to the base of the summit pyramid (the “pyramid” is simply exposed rock at the top, roughly in the shape of a pyramid. It’s about 700 feet tall, and is exposed in the summer when some of the snow melts). This pattern was pretty accurate as it had been described to us. The problem, though, came around 3:30am or so. We climbed higher and into a cloud bank. This did two things. First, it destroyed what visibility we had before. Now looking up (forward) was like looking at a cotton ball right in front of your face. Second, it added freezing rain (ice, maybe?) to the mix. Our progress thus looked like the following: move up the glacier for about an hour, then stop to rest. Stopping on an ice incline can be a challenge, but we drive our ice axes into the ice and knotted our rope around them for extra security. We placed our backpack on the ground, and sat on it, driving the heels of our crampons into the ice in front of us. Of course, now that we’re sitting, we’ll freeze due to the cold temp. So before you even sit down you have to get out a warm insulated coat and get it on. Of course it’s raining, so you get out the gore-tex jacket as well to keep dry. Then before you leave, you stow all the extra clothes…all while keeping your balance on the glacier. This is a relatively delicate dance that we did over and over and over again.
The rain continued on and off, the visibility stayed bad and remained so even as the sun came up around 5am and began to slightly illuminate the bad visibility around us.
It wasn’t long before we came up on a crevasse, which is a section of the glacier that has separated and/or melted out, leaving a giant hole or crack that can be as small as your boot or a crack that is a mile long and 100 feet deep. These are obviously quite dangerous, so we have to go around them. With no visibility, Chris can’t realistically determine which way around them (left or right) is best, so it becomes a bit of a guessing game. On top of all this, you have the threat of hidden crevasses and weak snow bridges, all things that Chris is keeping a keen watch out for. The lack of visibility means that we have little advance warning of these things, instead of seeing it as we come up close to it, Chris doesn’t actually get eyes on the crevasse until he is a step or two in front of it (hence small, concentrating steps forward). We hit the first one in the dark, and even as he turned to the right and guided me to do the same, I still made enough forward progress that I stepped within a few feet of the crevasse without even seeing it.
This became a constant theme for the rest of the trip up: run into crevasses, and navigate around them. Some we went around, one we stepped across (it was only a foot or so wide), and one had a snow bridge over it that Chris swore would hold our weight to walk across it.
The biggest issue with the visibility was that it forced a lot of course correction, and the rain forced a lot of stops to take on and off the rain gear (its too hot to leave on when its not raining). This slowed our pace considerably.
Finally we hit the final steep section, and the clouds around the 700 foot rock summit pyramid shifted for just a moment revealing the huge pyramid about 200 feet above us. Seeing it was a nice motivator, and we began to move again.
The last crevasse we saw was actually right in this area, and was actually a bergschrund, the crevasse at the top of the glacier. This thing was basically a huge gaping hole that from our vantage point at least looked very deep. We steered clear of it, but the last section of glacier to climb was more or less right above it, and to us this seemed like the steepest section we had to conquer. Of course the risk of falling here isn’t necessarily greater than elsewhere, but have this giant gapping bergschrund just below us gave us extra motivation to stay on our feet. Another group had climbed right before us, so we were able to utilize their boot prints on the slope, giving our crampons extra purchase.
Finally, at 8:20, we pulled up to the summit pyramid. The melted section of the summit pyramid leaves this small gap between it and the glacier, which was a great place for us to dive into in order to rest, assess, be off our feet, and hide from the wind and rain.
From here, we had some decisions to make. We had intended to reach the pyramid by 5:30-6:30 am or so. Assume one to two hours up it, an hour down, and then back down to high camp by 12:30. But due to the weather, visibility, route finding issues, crevasses, pace, etc, we didn’t make it to the pyramid till 8am. We sat for a few and considered our options. At first, I felt completely destroyed. My legs were super tired, I was cold, and ready to go home. But immediately upon sitting down I broke out a cliff bar and gnawed through it (partially frozen it felt). By the time I finished it, I felt 100% better. I had more energy and was ready to tackle the summit pyramid. But, sadly, it was obvious to our guide first and my partner and I second that we just didn’t have the time. If we were to make a try for it, we would be further hampered by two factors: a group of 8 or 9 folks had just beaten us up there and were moving up the rock, slowly, without rope. So we might be delayed as we move behind them. Second, due to the cloud cover, the rock was soaking wet. This would make climbing it more difficult and add time. With all of this considered, the right move was to turn around and head down. Even through the true summit was only 700 or so vertical feet above us, the hours it would take to ascend and descend that section were too much of a risk.
With that decision made, I took a few seconds to sulk. But that didn’t last long: it was time to get up and head down.
The weather hadn’t gotten much better by this point. The sun was certainly up, but that just illuminated our lack of visibility. Crawling out of our crack and looking over the edge back onto the glacier, we were greeted by, well, nothing.
Due to the steepness of this section and the presence of the crevasses around us, we would want our most skilled team member in the last position (“highest”) in order to arrest a fall by either my parter or I. That meant our guide was in the back, and one of us had to lead the descent (to start at least). With our roped positions already set, this meant my climbing partner would lead down. This was a heady task, and with a little encouragement he popped out over the edge and onto the glacier, taking very careful heel-first crampon steps. I, in the middle, followed. Chris, on the end, kept us on a super short rope through this section. Once past this immediate section, we changed positions and Chris once again took the lead.
We continued to come up on and move around crevasses:
We shaved about two hours off our time on the descent, hitting camp at 1230 (which was when we had planned to return after the summit in the first place). Recognizing that my partner and I had already been on our feet for 10 hours, and Bill’s likely pace, we wasted little time getting camp broken down and packed up. Our packs, one again filled with all the food and tents and other items and took on their familiar weight (albeit a bit less than on the ascent to high camp). We were back at camp, packed, hydrated, fed, and on the move within an hour (probably our best time for the whole trip). Our first challenge was the trip from high camp back to the notch, which was the chunk of glacier followed by alternating patches of rock and snow/ice.
Bill broke down pretty fast, moving pretty slow and losing his footing a number of times (luckily in places where we was able to fall and stop himself from sliding). Seeing this, our guide quickly began to move with Bill, more or less arm in arm over the snow and ice, while my partner and I moved ahead. Our guide gave us the go ahead to move without him across this section, which was at the least a nice endorsement of at least our basic crampon and ice axe abilities. We moved pretty seamlessly across, then stopped and waited about 15 minutes for Bill and Chris to make their way to us. Once they arrived, Bill took a break to do a quick wardrobe change, and we were off. From here to the notch was pretty solid, but slow. Chris led, with Bill behind him, and my partner and I bringing up the rear. We made it back to our original camp 1 location at the notch, and then began to tackle the steep section just below the notch (that Bill had some trouble with on the ascent two days prior).
We moved slowly, ensuring that we had good footing before placing weight down. But at one point Bill lost his footing and went down pretty hard. He seemed to recover relatively quickly and attempted to get up, but his knees gave out under the weight of his pack and body and he went down again. Chris sprang into action, getting his pack off of him and getting him to his feet. He seemed ok once the pack was off. So, Chris put Bill’s pack on his front (still with his own pack on his back) and more or less ran about a quarter mile to a rest point, where we had stopped two days before, prior to attacking the notch. Once there, we all took a break.
I sadly discovered I was out of water (a result of my giving half of my stock to my partner before we departed high camp), but this was the least of the issues. The primary concern was Bill. It was now 3:30pm, and we had a number of hours left to go even at a good pace. We needed to be off the mountain before dark, and we had to ensure that Bill didn’t get seriously injured in the process. So, Chris strapped Bill’s 40 pound pack to the top of his probably 50 pound pack, allowing Bill to move mostly unencumbered by weight. My partner and I took a few of Bill’s things and strapped them to the outside of our bags. Soon enough, we were off.
At this point we were moving quickly, and it wasn’t terribly long before I began to break down (physically) from some combination of the heat (the sun was back on us now), lack of ample water (my partner was sharing with me thankfully), toe pain (toes were hitting the front of the boot’s toe box) and shoulder pain (from the pack). Within an hour of our departure from the rest area I was moving much slower than before and generally just felt miserable….and wanted nothing more than to be off the mountain. For me (and others, evidently) this is usually one of the toughest parts, the last section of the hike/climb out. We had been on our feet for nearly 15 hours already, running on limited sleep and limited food/water.
Ultimately, we made it through the dead fall section and the nicer part of the trail and came into view of the parking lot at the trail head at about 6pm. Once at the car, I collapsed into the front seat. We just quickly stowed gear and got back on the road for the 90 minute drive back to the ranger station, where we got everyones gear sorted out, said our goodbyes and thank you’s, and went on our respective ways.
We didn’t make the summit of Mt. Shuksan, but I wouldn’t call the trip a failure. Not only did we make it off the mountain alive (which is always a win), but my partner and I got exposed to a much truer glacial mountaineering environment (as compared to our previous climbs), and dealt with the more routine pitfalls of glacial mountaineering: bad weather / bad visibility, crevasses, steep snow/ice, route finding, complex scheduling, etc. We had a blast, were treated to beautiful views, and spent some quality time doing something very exciting. Ultimately I think that I would have had the energy to go for the summit, had the timing and weather been more cooperative. Chris made the conservative call on deciding to descend when we did, and given our relative inexperience and Bill’s pace later in the day, this was absolutely without a doubt the right call.
As for the gear, two things come out of this. First, I will be getting new boots; likely the same ones but in a larger size. The toe issues are more than likely a result of the boots being a tad small, and now is a good time to remedy that. My pack, well, I like the Cilo gear pack I have a lot. But it’s shoulder straps and hip belt just aren’t beefy enough for me. My shoulders were pretty destroyed at the end of this trip, including a skin injury that is now, a week later, starting to heal. Thus I’ll be shopping for a new pack before my next climb. More to come on the pack and boot saga.
Bill was a nice guy, and I think I can say that we enjoyed being around him for the most part. At 69 years old, even just making it to high camp was a pretty incredible accomplishment, and I can only hope that when I am his age I am as capable.
Just a few more photos….
And now, to figure out what to climb next year…..