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About Us > Adventures > Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Shuksan - Sulphide Glacier 8/9-10/03

There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Wisdom comes from good judgment; good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” There’s another that says: “Hindsight is 20/20.” While our recent climb of Mt. Shuksan was successful, in hindsight, I’d do things differently.

When we left Seattle’s Park and Ride at 6:15 on Saturday, 8/9/03, it was pouring. First rain in about two months, and nowhere was it forecasted for the weekend. We decided we’d at least go to the Sedro Woolley Ranger Station and see what it was like there. The rain had lessened considerably 75 minutes later, and since there was one permit still available for Shuksan, we decided we’d at least go to the trailhead and see what conditions were like there. The weather continued to improve, and by the time we were walking away from our cars at 10:10 a.m. it looked like we’d actually have a nice first day of the climb.

Ten of us from the Seattle Mountaineers started out along the 2-mile overgrown and abandoned forest service road until we were in eye-high dew-laden brush that slapped us in the faces as we passed underneath. We played leapfrog with a party of two and a group of three as we made our way up a steep ridge to gently sloping forested terrain, emerging onto a ridge with great views of Mt. Baker. At the border between National Park and National Forest, we stopped to eat lunch and wait until all party members could regroup. From there, we had a 15-minute scramble up a climber’s trail to gain the notch at 5,700’ where Doug and I had camped in October 1999.

The difference in snow levels from year to year is remarkable; in 1999 (a high snow year) the other side of the notch was completely covered in snow; in early August 2003, there were a few small patches on the other side of the boulder field. We made our way up the glacier to “high camp” at 6,400’ and set up our party’s 5 tents a few minutes away from the high composting toilet that happens to have a great view of Mt. Baker. A number of members of our party were chomping at the bit to go finish the climb that evening, in the hopes that we could beat any bad weather that might appear the next day, but at least one of the party members would not have been able to do that much in a day. It was already 3 p.m. We heard several avalanches come down in the icefall. As tempting as it was to finish it off that evening, I decided it was in the best interests of everyone if we kept the party together and stuck to the original plan to get an alpine start first thing in the morning.

A group of three (one of the leapfroggers) finally appeared in camp 90 minutes after we did and decided to set up right beside us. We fondly gave them the nickname “spaghetti, meatball and sauce” in reference to the climbing rope that dangled below the faster climber’s pack as though it were so much pasta. It turns out that they were up in the area for a whole week, so their packs weighed considerably more than ours, slowing them down on the approach. One other climbing group of four came up about two hours after we arrived and proceeded up to highest camp at about 7,200’ where we assumed the twosome had chosen to go as well. After setting up camp, we filtered water (much faster than boiling it) from a stream below camp, ate a leisurely dinner, and had a chat with Ranger Craig who was policing the area. He provided beta on the climbing route and also checked on the weather report which sounded much like any Pacific Northwest weather report in August: breezy, winds from the southwest, chance of showers. We shot countless photos of the spectacular sunset over Baker, one of the most brilliant I’ve ever seen. Thin bands of clouds completely covered the sun from top to bottom for just a minute or so; the sun emerged from below, an inverted rise, seemingly defying all laws of nature. As soon as the sun plopped below the horizon and the last flash of red disappeared, we headed for our tents for a few hours of sleep. The moon was nearly full, the winds were calm to 5 mph, and we kept our fingers crossed that the beautiful weather would hold.

Sunday I woke up at 2:30 so I could wake the group, and when I stepped out of the tent at 2:45 the sky was filled with stars and the moon was showing through a thin layer of clouds far to the south. By 3:45 when we finally started heading out of camp, large patches obscured the stars in places, but there was no wind to speak of. By headlamps, our two teams of 3 and third team of 4 made steady progress up the steeper part of the Sulphide Glacier until we could skirt to the right, through and around a few open crevasses. When we reached the basin at the base of the summit pyramid and could see the route up to the gully, one rope leader called forward that he’d seen lightning in the clouds behind us. While I’d been watching the skies around us, I hadn’t caught any glimpses of electrical activity. In the distance we could hear very low, faint rumbles of thunder. I suggested that we should keep a close eye on the systems developing around us. By the time we were about to cross the basin, we were too far from camp to be able to reach it before the squall passed through. We had a few options: race forward and tag the base of the summit pyramid before retreating to camp; turning around right then and risk running into the path of the storm as we traversed the ridge on the return; or waiting it out for a few minutes to get a better idea of the storm’s path.

We headed over to one of the rock spires so we wouldn’t become lightning rods ourselves, but I also knew that we had to be ready to ditch our pickets, ice axes, and remove crampons at the first sign of static in the air. After a few minutes’ water and food break, we continued onward, following two unroped climbers who quickly passed by us on the way to tag the summit. We watched the path they took, then started to follow. However, I had a moment’s doubt when I saw another ominous black cloud approaching closer to our area, and called a rope leader summit. We were all in agreement that we should tag the rock then get back down, so we continued on our way once more.

About 45 minutes later we had each person at the base of the rock and could hear the pair’s voices echoing down the scramble gully. The entry to the gully was marked with an upward arrow. About the time we reached the rock, snow started to fall on us mixed with rain, and the thunder sounded like it was on the other side of the rock pyramid. Scrambling up wet rock was out of the question. We were amazed to see another rope team of four continuing up below us. We grabbed another bite to eat and then, as quickly as ten roped people can do so, retreated. Once we reached the flatter basin bottom, we had a short clothing break, and the other two rope teams raced on ahead with the two solo climbers, leaving our rope team of four in their dust when we had to stop for yet another clothing break. When I started hearing what sounded like buzzing near my ear, I recalled what had happened the previous year on Glacier Peak at the crater rim, and yelled as loud as I could, “BUZZING! GET RID OF YOUR METAL!” I tore my pack off my back, let go of my ice axe, and stripped the crampons off my feet, then huddled in a little ball away from the metal gear. Looking back, I saw the others had done much the same, and when I asked if anyone else had experienced the static, they nodded yes. When Doug, on the far end of the rope, told me the static was gone from his hair, I eased up, tested my own, then listened to see if I could hear the static on the picket. All clear. I hooked the crampons back on the pack, hoisted the pack to my shoulders, still alert to any static or buzzing sounds, and then we continued on our journey back to camp; fortunately, we didn’t hear any thunder or see lightning discharge after we’d felt the static, unlike the trip on Glacier Peak when the flash and boom had been far too close to danger for comfort.

By the time we returned to camp, two hours had elapsed since leaving the summit block, but the other teams had already curled into their sleeping bags and refueled. I announced that we’d be leaving at 11 a.m. so everyone could have a short rest and get packed up. A 15-minute catnap later, and I was ready to start packing up, especially when the thunder returned a little closer this time, and the fog started to roll in. By the time we had taken down our tents, it was raining steadily, and once we reached the cars, squishing in at least Ľ cup of water in each boot and soaked to the skin, the rain finally stopped and the sun finally returned, as though to say “Thanks for getting off the mountain.” In retrospect, the appropriate turn-around time probably would have been when we first saw lightning; we were lucky this time, and everyone admitted to having a great learning experience and a fantastic climb. Maybe our new climbing credo should read: “Safety, Summit, Flashless, and Fun.”


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