Mt. Shuksan (Sulphide Glacier) & Mt. Baker (North Ridge)

A week free combined with marginal Alaska weather, so Jake convinced me to cash in some Alaska Airlines miles for a flight to Seattle so he could introduce me to the North Cascades. Our 4 bags (brimming with ice, glacier, rock and camping gear) tipped the scales at 200lbs total and we boarded the 12:45am redeye out of Anchorage. We tried to sleep but it didn’t work out too well and 3.5 hours later we were in Seattle nursing coffee and hefting giant backpacks to the rental car agency.

Mt. Shuksan – Sulphide Glacier

We hit a grocery store at 7am and by 9am we were at the North Cascade’s Ranger Station where we picked up our backcountry permit. By 11am – 12 hours after arriving at the Anchorage airport – we hefted our packs and began the 6.5 mile / 4500′ hump to high camp on the Sulphide Glacier of Mt. Shuksan. Our lack of sleep, coupled with the pre-flight drinks and post-flight coffee(s) along with 70 degree sun on snow hit us like a ton of bricks and we dropped out heads and plodded uphill.

Virgin forest on the way to high camp.

Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas).

The brochure said this was a rain forest but we never saw any rain so I don’t buy it.

The trail to the south side of Mt. Shuksan starts on an old logging road and winds uphill eventually transitioning to nice trail through virgin forest before gaining an upper ridge with beautiful views of Mt. Baker. At mile 5 / 5000′ we crossed the boundary from Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest into North Cascades National Park. From there we gained a ridge and traversed onto snow before finally gaining the Sulphide Glacier around mile 6 / 6000′. Another half mile of post-holing in soft snow and we collapsed at the 6500′ high camp in abysmally heat. Dinner and finally we were in our sleeping bags after 36 hours on the go with 45 minutes of fitful plane sleep.

Around mile 5 / 5000′ (North Cascades National Park boundary).

Jake with Mt. Baker in the background. (As you can see Jake struggled with rope management on his sexy hyperlite pack.)

View looking East from high camp.

View looking South from high camp.

Photo of the Boulder Glacier debris flows on the East face of Mt. Baker. This debris flow goes every few years – more pix here.

High camp. Looking North at the Sulphide glacier and summit pyramid.

The alarm sounded at 2am and by 3:30 we were plodding uphill. The temperature had never dropped below freezing and we had chatted with climbers yesterday who warned of falling ice on the summit pyramid – thus we were a tad paranoid and approached the summit pyramid roped and apprehensive of soft snow and avalanche conditions.

Photo included b/c in the btm left corner you will notice the picket. I was a 1/4 mile out of camp when I realized the picket was still attached to the tent.

Sunrise on the Sulphide Glacier. Summit pyramid in upper left corner.

Sunrise on the Sulphide Glacier.

Sunrise found us on the upper glacier and by 7am we were at the base of the summit pyramid where we cached our extra water bottles, strapped on crampons, pulled the butterfly knots out of our glacier rope and transitioned to pitched climbing.

Mt. Baker sunrise.

Skiers approaching the summit pyramid. These guys left the trailhead a few minutes prior to us, skied to the upper glacier, dropped down the SW. side, bivied and then climbed a route on the W face and summited shortly after us via the SE ridge.

At the base of the summit pyramid.

Jake starting up pitch 2.

The tracks from attempts the previous day only went a few hundred feet or so and I was soon stomping out past the boot pack in soft snow. A soft bergschrund crossing and an exposed wallow across a soft snow slope lead to a 50-degree snow gully with solid rock gear placements on climber’s right. 60m out I reached the first anchor and hauled Jake in. Jake took the next pitch of steep soft snow with minimal gear and I took the final pitch, which required a chest deep grovel through near bottomless slush to reach the summit ridge. Once on the ridge travel was easy and we were lounging on the summit by 9am.

On the rocky ridge just below the summit.

Jake on the summit of Shuksan!

Me on the summit. I am wearing my puffy because I forgot my jacket in the tent. D’oh!

3.5 raps later, some down-climbing, and an unintentional bergschrund plunge found us back on the glacier where we ditched crampons and jackets and began the plod back to high camp. At 11am we were back at high camp and packing up, and then 3 hours later back at the car with AC cranked and wet boots in the rear window baking in the 85-degree sun.

Heading down.

Shuksan is a great introduction to the North Cascades: a mellow trail and an easy route to the summit with amazing views in all directions. Glacier travel on the Sulphide Glacier was completely straightforward in the early June snowpack. We roped up but never saw signs of crevasses (well… aside from the bergschrund I fell into) and saw others climbing and skiing unroped. I imagine by mid/late summer the glacier starts to open up a little and route finding becomes a little more challenging. Covered in soft snow the 3rd class route up the summit pyramid required some careful step kicking – but there are good rock gear placements next to the gully and nice anchors every 40 meters or so. By mid summer the gully apparently melts out completely and the route becomes a straightforward choss scramble. The perfect route for climbing after a tiring red eye flight!

Soggy soft snow. At this point I would have sold my soul for a pair of skis.

Mt. Baker – North Ridge

A plate of pizza, glass of beer and solid night of sleep and we were once again packed and plodding uphill. This time we were after our main goal for this trip: the North Ridge of Mt. Baker. Every guiding outfit in Washington calls this route “iconic” and every climber in the Pacific Northwest has a [detailed] [blog] entry (Steph Abegg’s write-up being the best) on the route so there isn’t much to add in terms of route details.

Why you don’t climb in the Cascades on the weekends. 9 person traffic jam at the ice cap on the North Ridge (left skyline)!

6pm view from Gargoyle Camp.

10pm view from Gargoyle Camp.

We cruised to high camp in 3 hours where we chose to set up our tent on the Gargoyle ridge to avoid the afternoon heat. We spent the afternoon snapping photos and attempting to find shade and avoid sunburn. In bed by 8pm and then awake at 1am and finally moving by 2am.

2am alpine start.

The North Ridge has it all! It begins with meander through a heavily crevassed zone, and a traverse through a serac fall zone to the base of a gully guarded by a bergschrund. Over the ‘schrund, then 500′ up a 50-degree snow gully to a moderate 30 degree slope perched above icefall on all sides. Up the slope to the ice cap, 3 pitches of alpine ice up to 70-degrees, then 500’ of 50-degree snice to a final traverse under dripping seracs and finally a plod to the summit. Cap it off with a mellow descent route and you can see why the route is so popular.

At the base of the snow gully (8000′).

Mid way up the snow ramp (8500′).

Approaching the ice cap (9000′).

Our 2am meander through the crevasse zone was made easier by a boot track from climbers who had ascended the previous day and we progressed quickly up the route and we were at the base of the ice cap and anchored into ice screws by 6am.

We chose to climb the ramp at the very base of the ice camp and Jake, who actually ice climbed this winter, took the first lead out and around the ramp to a hanging belay 100′ up. A total of 8 screws (2 for each belay and 4 for climbing) and steep ice made us wary of pushing further than 100′ per pitch so the ice cap was broken into a total of 3 pitches. At the top of the first pitch I tried to weasel out of my lead duties by pulling the “I didn’t ice climb this year” card – but Jake, who wasn’t too keen on leading all the runout soft glacier ice, called by bluff and said “Well – good thing we came here so you could lead some ice this year.”

AAI guide Richard Riquelme leading the first pitch. We traded step kicking duties with Richard and his client Yale Lewis all day – it was nice to get to watch a professional in action.

Jake leading the awkward 3rd pitch.

I took the next pitch and climbed straight up 30′ of 70-degree ice and then followed a sloping traverse climbers left towards a ramp which took me into an ice chimney. The ramp turned out to be a weak snow bridge over a gaping crevasse and I gingerly picked my way up with tools sunk into blue ice on the edge and feet sprawled apart to keep from falling through. 100′ later I sunk 2 ice screws into deep blue glacier ice, tentatively stomped a platform and brought Jake up.

Jake following the funky second pitch.

Jake took the final pitch, which turned out to be an awkward chimney with strenuous foot and tool placements (especially strenuous at 9000′ if you live at sea level). At the top of the chimney he set an anchor and when I followed I traversed 5 feet climbers right where I jumped into a shin deep boot track in perfect snice.

We belayed 3 full 70m pitches with pickets and an occasional screw and once the angle eased off and the snice transitioned to snow we reeled in the rope and began simul climbing.

Transition point from ice to snice. Jake is looking pretty jazzzed after his nice lead.

The exit from the North Ridge was guarded by a steep traverse under a dripping serac. The route used to traverse climbers left via mellow slopes but recent serac fall had destroyed the easy exit so we were forced to traverse 50 degree slopes under an overhanding serac and above a gaping bergschrund in soft snow with questionable pickets.

Mid way up the snice slope ramp (9500′).

9500′ selfie.

Enroute to the dripping serac exit.

Approaching the serac traverse pitches.

Excavating 3′ of snow for picket placements.

Richard & Yale starting the traverse.

Richard & Yale exiting the North Ridge.

And finally we were on the summit plateau where we joined the boot pack highway for the short hike to the summit. From camp to summit had taken us 10 hours and after a couple photos we dropped down out of the wind where we ate and drank the rest of our food and water.

Jake on the summit.

Me on the summit (I remembered my picket & jacket this time). The sharp peak to my right is Mt. Shuksan.

Down we went. 3 miles / 3000′ plod in knee deep slush. There wasn’t a lick of wind and the heat was opressive! Camp was reached, the tent was packed up and then then we were dropping another 3 miles / 3000′ back to the car.

Dropping off the summit plateau. Puget Sound in the distance.

Down the Coleman Deming.

Colefax icefall.

This was a wonderful route with moderate objective danger! There is tons of info online and the only thing I’ll add is that early season ice can be steep. Carry at least 8 screws and 4 pickets (since you’ll often use 2 screws or 1 picket for each anchor on the upper pitches), and consider either some real ice climbing crampons or a hybrid of sorts like the Petzl Sarken. We carried ice tools which were great for the ice pitches but sucked for the steep snow. The guides all carry a pair of hybrid tools (like the Petzl Sum-Tec or BD Venom). And finally.. if you’re not used to the heat consider investing in a mythical lightweight white hooded fleece. Patagonia used to make one… someone somewhere makes one I’m sure – I just haven’t found it. Whatever you do – don’t show up with a black jacket and black pants!

A relaxing day eating burgers and drinking beer in Leavenworth, a beautiful campsite next to Icicle creek, a 5 pitch 5.6 before finally driving back to Seattle and catching an evening flight back to Anchorage. A wonderful introduction to the Cascades!

Icicle Creek sunset.

R&D (5 pitches / 5.6) Leavenworth WA.