Skiing Mt Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier in Washington’s North Cascades
Elevation Gain/Loss: +/- 7600 ft.
Distance: 18 miles roundtrip
USGS Quads: Mount Shuksan
It’s late May and time for another Pacific NorthWest road trip. Opie Jahn and I hopped in the Tacoma and made the 12 hour journey to the North Cascades. Our time was limited, but we wanted to ski. The first destination – Mt Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier route. It tops out at 9131′ or 2783m.
After cruising Highway 20 over the Washington Pass, we hooked a right in Concrete, WA and headed past Baker Lake to the Shannon Ridge trailhead. It was late, dark, and a long drive, but we did manage not to hit any of the bear playing in the woods. In the AM, we exploded our gear, made piles of what we needed and packed for an overnight attempt at Mt Shuksan.
After chatting with a forest ranger about conditions, we decided to set out for camp just below the notch. The notch is the unofficial National Park Boundary. You cannot camp in the National Park without a backcountry permit. Permits may only be picked up from the ranger stations in Sedro Wooley or Marblemount in person. Since we didn’t want to turn around we chose a spot on the map near the notch, but outside the Park boundary. We double knotted our approach shoes, chucked our heavily weighted packs on our backs, and started to hike.
The Shannon Ridge Trailhead begins at 2500′ and Opie made sure to sign in at the trail registry. It’s an easy walk with intermittent snow patches. It was a total of 4 miles to the campsite. Cruising through the tropical green colors of the PNW was a blast. There were frogs hopping around, mosquitos buzzing, and plenty of wet snow, but we were keen to get on to the skis. Around 3300 feet we decided to switch to skinning. We probably could have waited another 300 feet, but oh well.
The skin took us through old growth forests, pink flagging, and it eventually opened up on an open ridge at about 4600 feet. Here’s where the views began. Baker and the Pacific were off to the west, Shuksan was to the North, the seemingly endless Cascades to the east, and Baker Lake and more mountains to the South. We cruised on to about 4900 feet and set our camp in our predetermined spot. It would be about 5 miles and 5200 feet from camp to the summit – one way.
Our camp had some exceptional views of Baker. Plus it was a great chance to test out the new Beta Mid shelter. It rules and is highly recommended. The whole shelter weights in at 1lb, 7oz. Six guylines stake it out and two adjustable ski poles at 140cm prop it up. We proceeded to dig out the snow around it and let it work harden for a nicer surface. Then we piled snow around the edges to eliminate drafts. Overall no complaints. Beta Mid’s rule.
After camp was set around 2pm, we set to boiling water with the trusty old JetBoil. It’s nice to watch the pot of water boil when it only takes 3-4 minutes. It gave us plenty of time to get amped for the journey tomorrow.
Around 6 pm, we decided to lay out the sleeping bags and go to sleep. Shuksan is near the Canadian border and the sun stays out until about 10pm in May. Even with sunglasses on and Arpa hats over our faces, it was hard to get to sleep. Around 2am, the alarm on my Suunto Core buzzed and we woke up. We polished off some water, ate some yummy probars and broke down camp (the one downside of the Beta Mid is that you need to pack all of your gear before you leave because you need your poles and “stakes”). We were skinning toward the notch by 230am.
The nice part of the alpine start is the day seems to last forever. It’s nice to start walking in the dark by the light of a headlamp and the stars. Plus, you have to add a couple of dark photos for proof!
We headed toward the notch at about 5300 feet, wrapped around a cliff band, weaved through some debris, and quickly found ourselves on the Sulphide Glacier. Ski crampons were a must on the ascent, but the Sulphide does have some rolling terrain where ski crampons can be a bit annoying.
I love watching the sunrise over a mountain range. It’s breathtaking.
After a bit of a climb, the Summit Pyramid came into view. This is my 3rd attempt on Shuksan. Once I got rained out – totally soaked through and we decided to turn around. The next time we made it up Winnie’s slide on the White Salmon Glacier and turned around due to avalanche conditions. As the Summit Pyramid came into view finally, I was stoked. Things seemed to be lining up in our favor – solid snow conditions, good timing, dry…
We continued up the west side of the Sulphide Glacier. Every so often wiffs of sulfur would let you know that you were in the Cascades. At the top of the Hourglass, I spied the Stoneman Couloir – a line I skied in April near the Heather Meadows parking area of Mt. Baker Ski Area.
Every time we looked West, Mt. Baker dominates the sky line, but Shuksan’s Summit Pyramid is our destination
Our route to the top was a bootpack straight up the South Face Gully. It was steep. It measured in at 52 degrees. Otherwise the bootpack was very straight forward and the gully seemed very filled in. Nearing the top we trended up the west route over a small ice bulge and wrapped around to the summit. There were a few rocks to climb, but an easy route to the top.
I lead and Opie cruised on up behind me. I have a feeling the climb pushed his comfort zone a bit, but it’s good for him. Sitting at the top was unreal and well worth it.
The views from the top are unreal. You can see hundreds of miles in every direction. Sitting on the summit of Shuksan is a bit unnerving as there is lots of exposure in every direction. You can see the rowdy north face, Shuksan Arm, the Sulphide, Nooksack Cirque, Mt. Baker Ski Area, Mt Baker, the Pacific, and the snowy peaks of the Cascades. Mind blowing.
Now it was time to ski. Opie rappelled down to the main gut of the gully as it was to skinny and rocky to ski. I downclimbed. We helped each other put on skis and got ready to charge 50 degree+ terrain way the heck out in the backcountry of Washington.
Below may be my favorite picture of Opie. A classic steep skiing hop turn straight out of a early 90’s ski flick.
At the bottom of the Summit Pyramid, we reloaded some of the excess weight we had stashed at the base and started to meadow skip back down the glacier. We weaved through a few crevasses at the top, but mostly just enjoyed the mellow corn snow the Sulphide Glacier had to offer.
Lower down on the route, near the notch, we kicked off a few good sized wet loose slides. We were in and out in good time and we’re happy to reach the notch and cruise back down to camp. We JetBoiled some more water, repacked out kit, and skied on down. It was around 11am on Saturday as we were heading out and there were lots of people heading up – a bit late in my personal opinion.
The snow in the old growth was great. It was a nice combo of bushwhacking, skiing, and navigating to find the trail.
We skied a bit farther down slope and were relieved to take our stinky boots off and and get back into our approach shoes. We strapped our skis and boots on the packs and hit the trail. I saw more frogs on the trail – not something you see very often in Montana. It was also nice not to have bear spray at all times – although I did see a bear coming in to the trailhead.
Finally we made it back to the truck and exploded our packs. While we let things air out, we drained the remaining water in our dromedaries and started to plan where to go next – Sahale Mountain.
On a side note: Congratulations to Opie. As for as I know, Opie is the first person with a Star Wars sleeve to ski Mt Shuksan. If anyone can prove me wrong, please contact me.