Skiing The White Salmon Glacier on Mount Shuksan
Elevation Gain/Loss: +/- 6150
Distance: 10 miles to top of Winnie’s Slide
USGS Quads: Shuksan Arm, Mount Shuksan
Before we began this adventure we used two resources that I highly recommend for everyone:
- Martin Volken’s – Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes – Washington – An excellent and detailed guide book for Washington State.
- Lowell Skoog’s Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project – Mount Shuksan – A wonderful collection of Shuksan routes.
Shuksan is a magical mountain that has kicked my butt multiple times. I still have not stood at it’s summit. Someday I will.
My first attempt at Shuksan was up the Sulphide Glacier from the Shannon Creek trailhead. This attempt was on April 8, 2014. After three miles of road walking in boots. The proper trail begins. Get ready to cross some creeks. We hiked for several hours, crossed many streams, and literally got soaked to the bone. We camped about 6100 feet in the forest and turned around at first light. As this was the first attempt at North Cascades glory, the mountains definitely won.
After a day at a Q Laundry in Bellingham, our second attempt with the White Salmon Glacier was bound to be better. To begin the adventure we parked on the main road outside the locked gate to Mount Baker’s Ski Area. We kicked things off with a 3am on April 12 with an alpine start across the White Salmon parking lot and up the snowcat access road toward Chair 8. It’s a mellow, rolling approach. Before the trail goes a bit uphill, we ducked under a rope and followed the old tracks to a clear cut. We skied the clear cut about 1000 feet down. At 3am, the snow was unsupportable and sketchy – an early warning sign that things did not freeze. At about 2800 ft we found the White Salmon Creek. This is where the uphill begins.
We strolled up the creek for about 15 minutes until the forest opened up to massive piles of avalanche debris. We skirted the debris and mounted attacks to climb 20 foot tall mounds of half frozen chunder. We continued up our route toward the glacier as the sun started to rise. With smiles on our faces we reached the glacier. Those smiles quickly turned upside down as a full whiteout approached.
Sitting in a whiteout in unfamiliar terrain listening to rocks, ice, and snow tumble down onto a glacier is a little intimidating. Spencer and I were unfamiliar with the route, so we chose to sit for about half an hour to wait out the whiteout as neither us wanted to test our navigation skills inside a ping pong ball. Eventually the sun burned off the clouds and we ventured onto the White Salmon.
One thing I would recommend for the White Salmon Glacier in April is a good pair of ski crampons. I had few issues (at least for 1500 feet) making a solid skin track. Spencer was crampon-less and had more issues. Eventually the skin track became too steep and we transitioned to crampons – bad idea. Unless you like wallowing in the snow, it would be wise to skin until the first ridge line. We passed the steeper section and continued to weave through obvious crevasses, stunning vistas of Shuksan Arm, and slowly views of slowly spinning chairlifts in the distance on the ski resort.
Eventually we reached a steep north facing wall. Here we transitioned to crampons and booted up the frozen wall of what I believe to have been 50 degrees. At the top we soaked in the views. The hanging Curtis glacier, the sea of snow on Mount Baker, the jaw dropping north face of the summit pyramid, and our future route across the Curtis and around to the Sulphide Glacier.
After much debate at the top of Winnie’s Slide (which is marked incorrectly on the USGS maps), we decided to turn around. The warm day, sunny temps, and the lacking of overnight freeze had us nervous about our exit route – particularly the last 1000 foot hike back to the safety of in-bounds. So we transitioned to ski mode and made some turns.
When we reached the ski area boundary. We finished our water and peanut M&Ms and skied back to Mount Baker Ski Area. At the White Salmon Glacier Lodge we ditched our gear and grabbed an Apres beer – all in the shadow of Shuksan.