|Skiers traverse below Jagged Ridge on the East Nooksack Glacier of Mount Shuksan, April 2004. (Map, 300kb)|
Northwest climbers have long regarded the Cascade volcanos as the "major peaks" of the range. Although it is not a volcano, Mount Shuksan arguably belongs on this list due to its prominence in the history and geography of the range. Shuksan is among the most massive peaks in the Northwest and, after Rainier, it is the most famous. The postcard view of Shuksan from Picture Lake has been displayed all around the world. Its mountaineering history goes back to the 1800s. For the variety of routes on its many faces and ridges, it has no equal.
Mount Shuksan was first skied in 1941 by Hank Reasoner and Dr. Otto Trott. Reasoner was a ski patrolman and lift operator at the Mount Baker ski area. Trott was a German immigrant and perhaps the most accomplished all-around mountaineer in the Northwest before World War II. In 1939, Otto Trott and Andy Hennig climbed the Hanging Glacier (or Northwest Face) route of Mount Shuksan. This climb introduced the latest European ice climbing techniques to the Northwest.
During their March 1941 ski ascent, Trott and Reasoner followed the White Salmon Glacier. They climbed the glacier roped together on skis, making hundreds of switchbacks and occasionally giving each other ice axe belays. They tackled Winnie's Slide on foot, then skied to the base of the summit pyramid. They climbed to the summit at twilight and used a flashlight to signal their friends at the Mount Baker Lodge. Years later, Hank Reasoner recalled the caution with which they approached this ascent. "You climb the mountain in the mood it's in, not in the mood you're in," he said. "Otherwise the mountain will kick your butt."
After a bivouac at the base of the summit pyramid, Trott and Reasoner skied the entire route back to the base. It was the finest ski ascent made in the Northwest before the war, and a fitting close to the pioneering era of ski mountaineering on the "major peaks."
Shuksan was the site of several early steep skiing descents. In June 1979, Karl Erickson and Greg Wong skied the North Face. Erickson used leather climbing boots for the ascent, then switched to alpine ski boots for the descent. In about 1987, Steve Vanpatten and Jim Witte skied the south face of the summit pyramid, finding the rock well covered by snow during their early spring ascent. They skied the first few feet with a rope belay, then untied from the rope and completed the descent. In May 1993, George St. James descended the Northwest Couloir on a snowboard.
Early in the spring of 2004, Jason Hummel invited me to join him on a ski traverse of the mountain. His plan was to ascend the White Salmon Glacier from the Mount Baker ski area, climb and ski the summit pyramid, then traverse the Nooksack Cirque to Icy Peak and Ruth Mountain, descending along the Hannegan Pass trail (see map, 300kb).
This sounded like a great trip, but I hesitated initially to accept his invitation. Jason and his friends are among the most active of the younger generation of ski mountaineers who are pioneering steep ski descents in the Cascades. With over twenty years difference in age and unknown differences in attitude, I was unsure of whether we would be compatible. But over time Jason won me over with his enthusiasm, and I concluded that the trip was well conceived.
On April 2, Sam Avaiusini picked me up at my house around three in the morning. I'd slept poorly that night, anxious about joining a group of young and ambitious ski mountaineers in unknown country. I'd previously skied the Sulphide Glacier several times, and I once made a winter ascent of the Price Glacier, but the Nooksack Cirque was new to me. I'd been impressed by its wild appearance during previous trips up Ruth and Icy Peaks.
We met up with Jason Hummel and his twin brother Josh and their friend Sky Sjue. In two groups we drove to where snow blocked the Ruth Creek road, about two miles from the end, and parked Jason's truck. Then we shuttled back to the Mount Baker ski area in Sam's truck. We set out from the White Salmon day lodge around 7:30 a.m. and traversed steep woods to the open, avalanche swept basin below the White Salmon Glacier.
We spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon climbing the White Salmon to the upper Curtis Glacier and following Hells Highway to the Sulphide Glacier. We stopped for the evening at the only feature we could find near the east edge of the Sulphide Glacier, an exposed rock with a huge wind scoop on its west side. The wind scoop offered no protection from the wind. (If it was windless I suppose the scoop wouldn't be there.) Since I hadn't brought a tent, I began excavating a snow cave immediately. Everybody pitched in but as usual the hole required about two hours to dig. Sam, Sky and I settled into the cave, while Jason and Josh set up their tent in front of one of the two cave entrances.
The next morning the wind was calmer, and we set out for the summit pyramid around 7:30 a.m. In about an hour we reached the top. We all carried our skis up, but I didn't think I'd ski down because the snow was crusty and a chill breeze made it unlikely to soften. We huddled somewhat out of the wind just below the summit. Eventually we got cold and returned to our skis on the windy side. The sun had been working on the south facing gully since our ascent and the snow seemed to be softening up. We put on our skis and Jason led the way down the summit pyramid.
I enjoyed watching my companions handle the steep turns below the summit. Jason and Josh were on heavy-duty telemark gear, while Sam and Sky were on sturdy alpine touring gear. It was clear that their heavier gear gave them an important margin of performance and safety. I was on ultralight alpine touring gear, and I felt it important to ski slowly and without any slip-ups. The other guys were able to recover from minor bobbles, but I didn't want to make any bobbles at all. We descended the pyramid in good order and returned to the snow cave to pack up.
Around 11 a.m. we hoisted our packs and dropped onto the Crystal Glacier. I hurried ahead to scout the entrance to the Nooksack Glacier headwall. Approaching the unseen headwall from above was a bit intimidating. To skiers' right was a long line of cornices. To the left and below me was an ice bulge that fell away over a cliff. But between them was a narrow ramp and chute that sloped rightward from the edge of the ice bulge to the moderate headwall beneath the cornice. It was skiable. We'd come prepared to rappel over the cornice, but it was not necessary.
Once down the headwall we entered the best section of the trip, a two-mile traversing descent between the shelf of the East Nooksack Glacier and the walls of Jagged Ridge above. Jagged Ridge was festooned with flutings and snow feathers plastered to the face. But the wall was so steep that it didn't hold enough snow to threaten us, at least on this particular day. I felt that our timing was perfect. We were late enough in the season to have reasonably consolidated snow and longer days, but not so late that the glacier had begun to break up. In late spring and summer the Nooksack Glacier becomes a chaos of shattered ice.
From the east edge of the Nooksack Glacier we climbed to the Spillway Glacier saddle on Icy Peak. Snow reached all the way to the summit of Icy on its northeast side. After skiing from the top we descended powdery snow on the Spillway Glacier and traversed to the saddle between Icy Peak and Ruth Mountain, where we camped.
The final day covered terrain that was familiar to me. We climbed the southwest gully of Ruth Mountain and followed its beautiful south ridge to the summit. We descended to Ruth Creek and followed the Hannegan Pass trail, with just a few bare sections, to the end of the road. I didn't recognize the spot where we'd parked Jason's truck as we approached, because so much snow had melted from the road in three days. We headed home content, having threaded a beautiful route through wild country in ideal conditions.
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