With the promise of good weather and sufficient snow-cover, Redwood, Cameron, and I extricated ourselves from the office around 4pm on Thursday and made our way towards Shuksan in Redwood's orange VW Bus. We made a requisite stop at the Co-Op in Mt. Vernon for some snacks and, with our late start, we finished driving as far as we could up the access road around 7pm. We geared up with skis, ice axes, harnesses, crampons, helmets, crevasse and camping gear and started off on the trail.
We had parked about a half-mile from the turn-off from road 1152 to the 014 branch at 2,200', so we skinned and hiked bare spots about 2 miles to the trailhead at 2,500'. From there, a few stream crossings and more bare spots brought us to consistent snow around 3,000'. We kept chugging along, with much of the trail lit by the half-full moon. The trail brought us to a clearing at about 3,500'. The trail kicked steeply up at this point and we switch-backed our way up, slipping often on the steep, frozen slope with heavy packs not helping matters.
The slope eased somewhat as we moved from the clearing to a wooded area and we continued to make good progress. It was nearing 11pm at this point and we decided that the next good flat spot would be our home for the night. The dense woods eventually yielded to an open ridge with sparse trees and an amazing view of Mount Baker, lit by the moon. We all had huge grins on despite being quite tired.
The ridge continued along for a little ways and we decided to set up camp just below a steep headwall that we would take in the morning to gain a pass. We worked pretty efficiently to set up the tent and cook dinner, but by the time we had each eaten two rounds of pesto pasta, it was after 2am. The three of us packed into the tent and agreed on a 4:15am alarm...it was hard to get much sleep knowing that we would wake up so early, but I quickly passed out in my new 0-degree down bag.
The alarm sounded and each of us lay silent for a few moments, not wanting to exit the glorious comfort of our sleeping bags. Cam sat up and that was enough motivation for Redwood and I to follow suit, put our boots on, and pack up. Having eaten dinner only a couple of hours before, none of us were very hungry, so we made a very quick exit from camp and started up the headwall.
Cam stopped to put on his ski-crampons, which I soon learned were an amazing idea. The slope was completely frozen, with just a little bit of powder on top of it. I kept switch-backing up the face, getting more and more comfortable with switching directions (I'd never done that before while skinning) and we eventually got up near the top of a gully. There were a bunch of snow chunks in the way to make things difficult and the angle was steep enough that we boot-packed the last bit.
Just over the ridge, we ran into a large group of tents from a guided snowshoe trip. A few of them were awake and greeted us, joking and asking if we had brought them coffee. Just past their camp at about 5400', we stopped to take a few pictures as the sun was just coming up and also figure out where our route went. Looking at the GPS and reading the route description, we agreed that we needed to traverse a pretty steep, frozen slope under some rocky cliffs. We took the skis off, strapped them to our packs, took out the ice axes, and boot-packed across the traverse. It wasn't all that steep, but the frozen crust made things a bit tricky.
Once we were past the traverse, we skinned though a large field of avalanche debris in the form of huge snow chunks, and then began going straight up the Sulphide Glacier. The angle to straight up was about all our skins could take, but Cam set a very efficient course. It was at this point that we could see the summit pyramid. From that angle, it looked incredibly steep and technical. We all muttered that it looked a bit sketchy and kept moving.
By the time we were on the glacier section, the sun was rising up higher and illuminated the whole open face. The route took us over some small ribs and then left us on a massive expanse of snow that led all the way to the summit pyramid. We got into a rhythm and kept pushing one ski in front of the other. Mount Baker was visible on our left for much of this section and we passed a secondary peak. The last pitch toward the summit was pretty steep again and we were all feeling the altitude. Cam and I topped out a little shy of the summit ridge at about 8,800'.
The wind was howling and we were wearing every layer we had at that point, so we quickly took the skins off and began our descent. I hadn't spent much time on skis at all recently, so it took me a few turns to get it back, but I was soon really enjoying the skiing. Recent snowfall and warming temperatures (it was about 10am when we began descending) made for some awesome ski conditions. We kept moving down the open expanse of snow-covered glacier and couldn't stop talking about how great it was.
The avalanche debris section was a bit tricky, but coming back across the ridge was a breeze now that the snow had softened. Even the very steep section down from the pass was not terribly difficult. Once back at camp, we immediately took our boots off and basked in the sun. It was a perfect day, with an amazing view of Baker and no need to move any faster on the descent, so we ate lunch and took naps. The climbing and skiing had thrashed my legs, so I was glad to take a little time to recover.
In our early-morning daze and quick start, we had neglected to anchor our tent and, despite it's protected location under a tree and dug into the snow, the wind must have picked up and pushed it a ways down the hillside while we were climbing. After lunch and naps, we rigged up a pull-rope and post-holed down to the tent to get our gear back. Redwood was able to pull everything up with our rope and Cam and I slowly made our way back up in the deep, now quite soft snow.
The rest of the descent was fast and without incident, though I did find the super-steep tree section a little above my head, so I boot-packed about 100' of it. The lower elevations were much warmer and we had to take the skis off constantly to cross bare spots on the trail. The last few miles were pretty brutal with wet feet and tired legs, but we made it back to the bus and celebrated with a PBR, followed by dinner at a brew-pub in Mount Vernon. Such an awesome adventure. We had covered close to 30 kilometers and about 6,600 feet of elevation.