Things are about to get steep. Mick at about 6300ft. on Shuksan’s North Face after a lucky break avoiding some morning ice fall debris.
Shuksan North Face route (picture taken last year from Mt. Ruth).
Shuksan North Face route (picture taken last year from Mt. Ruth Summit).
Shuksan North Face route, Price Glacier in the center (picture taken last year from Mt. Ruth Summit).
Shuksan from Mt. Ruth summit with a tidal wave of cloud between us (picture taken last year).
Around midnight on July 20th I received a call from a friend living in Europe while getting into my car. I wasn’t in a normal mind state. I had just walked over 3 miles in the rain at night, alone, right down the center of the paved road that goes from the Lake Anne trailhead, through the Mt. Baker Ski resort entrance, and down to the White Salmon Lodge parking lot. I had been climbing for the 16 hours straight in the freezing rain, and this was after taking a ~55lb pound pack up and over Shuksan’s North Face route the day prior (I brought too much beef jerky and a few 10-pound dumbbells just in case I got bored and needed a work out).
While trying to have a normal conversation, my mind drifted. I felt like I had just been through a traumatic event, like a Republican National Convention or something. When I returned to work on Monday everything felt trivial. Nothing seemed to matter compared to what I had been through. Now thinking about it a few weeks later it doesn’t seem that bad. The mind and body must purposefully reduce our memories of extreme events as a survival mechanism. Anyway, I’m sure a lot of people reading this have been through much worse, but it’s all relative, and relatively speaking this was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had. Certainly the most intense in climbing, even though my Mt. Baker North Ridge attempt in May seemed hard to beat.
I remember calling out to the only soul I saw on the way back to my car. He was going into a private lodge near the ski area. I just wanted a ride to my car. He pretended not to hear me, then closed and locked the door behind him. I dunno, maybe I would’ve done the same. What was someone doing walking down the middle of the road at 11pm when the resort was closed and not one other person was outside?
When I finally made it to my car it was still raining. Mick, Catalin, and Alin had setup camp in their wet clothes back at the Lake Anne trailhead. If I was to continue to the car, they insisted I take a tent, sleeping bag, etc. just in case anything went wrong. I just couldn’t bring myself to try and setup camp in wet clothes. I would’ve walked 10 more miles just to be able to turn on the car heater and get into something dry. The car to me also represented the removal of any further variables that could go wrong. It was some kind of peace of mind that I needed. I was obsessed with getting to the car and no one else understood.
This idea of the car as safety, however, was problematic. My car had died about 10 times on the way up here due to a faulty aftermarket remote start system. We kept pulling over on I-5 as the car died, but eventually we just accepted it as the cost of getting this trip completed. We had already postponed it once due to weather, and other trips had been compromised early this season due to unpredictable early season weather patterns. We were going to make this one happen, 15-20 minutes at a time, which was the interval in which the car would die. To make matters worse, sometimes the car wouldn’t start after dying until I performed certain button-pushing and waiting rituals with the remote. We were really risking getting stuck out here, but fate dictated that we were going to get on this route come hell or car-dying-a-lot water…I think that’s how the saying goes.
Given all of this, you can only imagine the grin on my face when—after stumbling to my car late that night—I tried the remote…and the car actually started! I went straight for a cooler Mick had brought and drank this peach-flavored canned drink that tasted like the nectar of some goddess (I’ve had goddess nectar before, this is how I know). I ate and changed into dry clothes and pumped the heat. After 16 hours of freezing in the rain, the feeling was indescribable…but here I’ll try, “good” and “warm”. Yes, “good” and “warm” is exactly what it felt like. My friend called as I drove back to the Lake Anne trailhead. The road was closed and I wasn’t going to hike another half mile back up to where they were camped, so I parked and eventually passed out in the back seat.
2 days earlier we had weighed our packs at the White Salmon Lodge parking lot. Mine was 60 pounds with one of the 60 meter ropes. I thought I must be crazy to carry that heavy sack over the this route. The photography equipment adds 10 pounds for me easily. At least wasn’t bringing the dolly and all of the battery/equip that goes with that, I rationalized. So yeah let’s just get on the move.
For this climb we had enlisted the help of Mick, a professional guide who came highly recommended from Alin/Catalin. Our failed Baker North Ridge attempt left us wanting someone more experienced to help fill in some gaps in how we ran things on harder routes. The original plan was then to follow up the Shuksan North Face immediately with our own Liberty Ridge adventure. Then the trip was postponed due to weather, so Liberty Ridge still awaits maybe next year. Anyway the idea was to have Mick there as more of an adviser, not as someone to hold our hand. He really came through, especially when things got dicey near the end of the trip.
We started bushwhacking almost immediately after parking the car near the White Salmon Lodge’s outer gate. It felt like we were in a 70s swingers’ club, so much bushwhacking over such varied terrain. We’d come to these stream/river drops and have to navigate down, through, and over to the next one. Catalin took a scary fall on one after perhaps miscalculated how steep it was. Branches kept trying to rip my gear off my pack, and were successful at least once with my camera tripod. After hours of bushwhacking, our legs and arms looked like something that has a lot of scratches on it. Like a scratched up leg…or arm. Hi mom.
A hop, skip, and a jump later we made base camp around 6,000 feet overlooking Price Lake. There was a water source a few hundred yards back down the slope where we camped. I made sure to drop my nalgene bottle just before filling it up. Catalin and I watched it tumble down into oblivion for what felt like several minutes. I had done the same thing on Baker’s North Ridge. Never ask me to hold your Nalgene bottle if you actually want it back.
Clouds began to roll in and a thick moisture began immediately soaking everything that was left uncovered, including my sleeping pad. That night was the most miserable night of my life sleeping on a soaking wet pad, halfway out of my tent in my rain shells. I had brought the 2-pound outer tent of my Hilleberg Akto to use as a 2-man tarp tent. It kind of sucked this first night. Mick’s Indian Food was good for dinner, but not for after dinner if you kids out there know what I’m saying. I put on some Chopin in the headphones and thought about a happy place, like the exact same situation, but with just me in the tent and everything dry.
Mick had scoped the route earlier and could see that the route was mostly doable. There was one hidden section he wasn’t 100% on, so we’d just need to go for it. We woke up early with the stars still shining. Price Lake below was now fully covered in clouds, which meant it was time to start the route (it didn’t actually mean that, but that’s how I took it). To be truthful, I was a little sick from nerves, but I just pushed it all down, took out my tools, and yelled a few lines from Braveheart (well, mumbled them to myself after everyone had already started towards the route). An hour later Mick was showing me the low/high dagger ice axe positions (I believe that’s what you call these - more pushing the axe into the snow vs. swinging) which I’d seen Ueli Steck use in Reel Rock 2010. It changed my life on this route. I had been swinging my tools like an idiot, using way too much energy unnecessarily on snow that was penetrable with much less. I had done some ice climbing in Ouray a few years ago, but I generally haven’t done much in the way of steep routes since and in Ouray I was mostly swinging away at hard ice. Baker North Ridge caught me off guard in terms of how steep it was, so I need some practice and the remote North Face of Shuksan seemed like the safest bet (there is no ice climbing video game for the Kinect yet).
Anyway Mick was moving across the lower, exposed part of the route, occasionally putting down a picket. All of a sudden ice debris started coming down the route directly in front of us. Alin yelled “Avalanche!” and I started moving backwards. “Avalanche” was probably an overstatement, but there were some deadly chunks coming down this face right in front of us. We all paused and Mick asked if we wanted to continue. Affirmative. We kept going and crossed these 15-foot wide slide paths, maybe 3-4 of them. We would have to cross them once more higher up, and no one really wanted to do that. Things started to get steep, and on our second crossing of these slide paths we moved as quickly as possible. Stepping through them made your stomach ill. You knew stuff that would kill you had bowled down these and would do it again without giving a shit about your little adventure.
We started to get into some steep terrain. 45-60 degrees was the norm for the rest of the face, and it felt like most of it was on the steeper end of that scale. The snow was getting softer too as the sun rose higher, so we really wanted to get up and off this thing asap. Mick and I were on one rope, Alin and Catalin on another. Mick would mostly solo up, and I would follow being belayed. As we got higher I would take the lead a couple times on some of the super steep, then set anchors and belay Mick up. We probably should’ve done a lot more simulclimbing, but the belay breaks were nice, especially when carrying this ridiculous amount of weight. After running the 60m rope out on a 55-60 degree slope it was hard to find the calf strength to keep that up without at least a short break. We worked our way around a few crevasses/moats and finally made it to the top. I was so happy to be alive. I was also feeling really comfortable now on this terrain.
It wasn’t lost on any of us that a fall during a large portion of our climbing would’ve probably killed both rope mates. You have to wonder if it’s safer in a lot of these situations to just solo the thing, rather than be exposed to rock/ice fall longer or trust that a picket would actually hold a 180 foot whipper on a 60 degree slope. I think we all actually felt pretty comfortable on the terrain, however, and if we didn’t we would’ve put in some intermediate pro. Mick was good about having these types of conversations post-climb, discussing pros/cons, things we could’ve done differently, etc.
Anyway at the top Mick decided to hang a left around the summit pyramid. He thought about going straight up the pyramid from the North, but wasn’t sure about our rock skills and I wasn’t sure about climbing in boots with a 55-pound pack up some harder rock. It seemed to take forever to get back on the Sulphide, mostly because we were out of water, the sun was in full force, and the wind was gone. We tried to move quickly under some big seracs on the SE side of Shuksan, but we were nearly finished from dehydration.
Mick wanted to continue to the summit before camping due to time, but we conspired against him and forced a mutiny that involved us boiling water asap. We agreed to camp closer to the southeast to save time, then the water started boiling. I just can’t go fast if I’m completely dehydrated or way too hot, and climbing just isn’t that fun for me when unnecessarily forced into pain. I can take it when it’s necessary, but I’m not trying to climb miserably thirsty if it’s not 100% needed.
To help speed the water situation, I tried to get creative and had Catalin lower me into a moat/crevasse where we could see water drops. I ended up untying from the rope when I saw a ramp out through some holes. The drops ended up being too small and it was taking 20 minutes to get a half liter.
After setting up camp, drinking and eating, we hustled up the summit pyramid. I had been there two years before from the Sulphide (blog entry here). I had tried to solo it after Brendan’s blisters rendered him unable to continue. I turned back about 300 or so feet from the summit when I no longer felt like I could comfortably down climb the 5th class stuff.
We reached the top and the view was amazing. You could see our basecamp, and the parking lot, and Mt. Baker, and trees, and other stuff that you have in a mountainous landscape. Would you believe goats? Yeah, we couldn’t really see any goats. Well, it was really satisfying to be up here after doing such a remote route. We hadn’t seen a soul on that route at any point until we reached the Sulphide, where there were droves. Standing on the summit was nice, but then I kept hearing the voice of Ed Viesturs. No, not “Getting to the top is optional..”, his other quote about sharing a sleeping bag with another dude “spooning is OK, forking is not”. I’m paraphrasing.
The next morning the light was so gorgeous I wanted to throw my Canon 5D MKII off a cliff. The shutter had stopped working with “Err 30” at the base of the North Face route, and I haven’t mentioned it until now because I still am pissed about it. It meant no time-lapses, and no cool pics from me above about 6500ft.
Anyway the weather started coming in quick, and in no time we were lost in a whiteout above the descent to Hell’s Highway. My GPS was brought out and saved the day. In no time we were rapelling down the super steep onto the Upper Curtis, Mick soloing like a madman behind us.
It had started raining and things were getting miserable and cold. If I’d have known this would last until midnight that night (it was around 9am) and I would’ve immediately jumped into a crevasse like it was a Mario Brothers warp pipe and hoped for the best. Things cleared up for a quick minute as we descended toward Winnie’s slide. Mick belayed Alin and Catalin down a steep, icy slope to the rocks above Winnie’s slide, I opted to solo down feeling really comfortable at this stage. I wish I could also say fast, but I just mean “comfortable” (I was the last one down).
It had started raining hard again and Mick was getting super cold. We all were, but I was a little bit better insulated at this stage. I built an anchor at the top of the steepest part of Winnie’s slide and we all rappelled down, with Mick cleaning and soloing down.
Entering the Chimneys, I didn’t know what to expect. I had tried this route as an ascent route last year (more on that here with some of my favorite pics), but we couldn’t find the right entry point. We now had similar problems, we couldn’t find the descent route. Mick had done it multiple times so we were all pretty puzzled. Good thing it wasn’t raining and we weren’t freezing. After exploring a few options, Mick setup an anchor and rap’d down to check out an unlikely steep descent. He emerged a while later and said it was way too steep. We tried a few more paths, and finally re-ascended and found that a snow wall had hidden the route in the most cruel, perfect way. It was ridiculous how cunningly this snow wall cut off the route at the just the right point such that you would follow a different game path. Easily forgivable route finding error in my opinion.
We were off down the chimneys. There were one of two spots where Mick helped lower us, but otherwise it was totally doable down climbing, even the spots there were rap anchors could be down-climbed without much difficulty.
The rain had subsided for a bit, but it started in again as we got lower and lower. We met a handful of moats that were ridiculously technical to get onto. Underneath them was a gap that would seriously injure or possibly kill you. Mick helped protect these as we used two tools to mount the snow over the intimidating gaps. We were all completely soaked by now and freezing, and the obstacles kept coming. Sketchy moat after sketchy moat. We stopped taking off crampons because we’d have to put them back on again, sometimes in the worst spots. I was miserable by this time, and could not even think of stopping again to pull out the ropes and setup pro. Mick remained super calm and calculating, bringing out the ropes and dutifully protecting all of these sections. If I wasn’t with him, I probably would’ve just taken the risk and solo’d due to just how uncomfortable standing in the freezing rain that long made me. I’m like a cat - I just hate being all wet like that. If you would’ve offered me $100 to take off my pack and put it back on, I would’ve told you to F off. That’s how uncomfortable I get when cold and wet. But we got through it. Seeing the frozen-over Lake Anne was not pretty, but it meant the worst of it was behind us. Now please stop raining? Nope.
One last mistake before the long hike back from Lake Anne. I had been following the trail on my GPS, and had initiated an argument with Mick/Catalin about the route. I started taking my own route, then realized too late that the trail had forked. Mick and Catalin were trying to cross a raging river higher up, now that was impossible. Mick started to talk about camping out here as it was getting late. It was simply not an option for me. I was going slowly, but I had a ton of reserves and the motivation to get someplace where I could be dry was huge for me.
Mick lead us right to the river, had us unstrap our packs, and just plowed through the icy currents up to our knees. We kept moving but Alin was slowing down a lot. He was carrying a wet 60m rope, which must’ve weighed over 10 pounds with the water weight (I don’t know how exactly much weight water adds to ropes, but it’s a lot). Tensions were running high as the group was leaning towards camping and I just did not see it as an option. We stopped for 10 minutes so Alin could rest. It started to get dark. We kept moving, with Alin transferring the rope to Catalin. Later Catalin would say he wanted to abandon the rope and just write a check to the owner for the amount, it was that trying to carry it after 15 hours of climbing.
Later that night after walking down the center of the road alone in the dark, thick rain, I was sure that—after all of this—a cougar was going to jump out of the woods and eat me.
Bushwhacking towards our route. Someone needs to fire the landscapers responsible for this part of the North Cascades.
Mick makes his way through dense brush. After 3 miles of ‘Nam-like bushwhacking incurring tick bites, gashes, strangulation and gear pick-pocketing by branches, we noticed a clear trail 200 feet south of our path. Kidding there is no trail here, only pain.
Hope. But also a lot more bushwhacking. Photo by Alin.
Catalin, refusing to let me initiate an immediate airlift, settles for a band-aid.
Sunset at base camp. Disgusted with the subpar North Cascadian views, I shortly retire to my tent (kidding, this place is beautiful).
I think this is me returning from scoping the base of the route the night before. The route is that mess of crevasses in the top-right that drops down several thousand feet to Price Lake.
Looking out from Shuksan to Mt. Ruth (far right) and friends. Last season Catalin and I were looking over here from Mt. Ruth. After hearing huge rockfall sounds the entire night on Ruth every hour, I remember thinking that people must be crazy to climb these parts of Shuksan. Well maybe I was looking more at the Price Glacier, which I’d love to do someday.
Alin and Catalin are either putting the tent up, or taking it down in the morning. I can’t remember. Either way they are doing a great job :).
Mick leading out the more moderate base section of the North Face. Moderate in relative steepness to the rest of this beast, but the exposure here was deadly.
Alin - probably the last smile of the day until we reached camp that evening and realized we were still alive.
Mick continues on the base of the route. Alin yelled “Avalanche!” and we saw big chunks of ice come down on our intended path. Mick asked for confirmation that we wanted to continue. Yep.
My stupid camera breaks just after I take the first picture in this post. My camera, tripod, lens, batteries, all probably close to 10 pounds. I’d carry up an extra 10 pounds on the Shuksan North Face for nothing. Very frustrated at this point. This picture is of my broken SLR shutter being worthless.
As we top out the route, my camera somehow manages to take one last picture of Mick contemplating going left around the summit pyramid. 3/4ths of the way up the North Face I was able to search online for the error on my camera (just like John Muir would’ve done). I would need to send it in was the consensus on the forums. As Mick approaches this crevasse he comments “Wow I really love crossing snow bridges at 1:30 in the afternoon” :).
Fisher Chimney descent in the most miserable of rainy conditions. Here I think we got a 40 minute respite from the soul crushing rain. Taken using my iPhone, just like old man Fisher probably did on his first ascent.
Mick on the Fisher Chimneys. So many miles to go before we slept. Taken using my iPhone.
From base camp to the summit via the North Face route. Mt. Baker sits and watches us with complete disinterest.
Full route from the White Salmon Lodge parking lot, over Shuksan, and back to the White Salmon Lodge parking lot. My GPS didn’t get the approach so I drew it in here. Overall I think the whole thing was well over 20 miles, which included me walking the last 3 miles back solo on pavement with mountaineering boots to the car from the Lake Anne trail head.
Hell’s Highway and Fisher Chimneys descent. The moat crossings after the Chimneys may very well have been the most trying parts of the trip. Hell’s Highway is something to see.