North Cascades - American Alpine Institute Class - July 2007

Mt. Shuksan - 9,131 ft

Trip theme: Rain Rain Go Away


Low clouds in the morning like this are not a good sign Today we set out for what was planned to be three days on Mt. Shuksan. You may not have heard of this mountain but I guarantee you have seen pictures of it as it is suppose to be one of the most photographed mountains in the world. Our plan was to start at the trail head near Shannon Creek, hike up and camp at the base of the Sulphide glacier, spend a day working on skills, and then summit the last day. Mt. Shuksan is a little different in that it is a snow/glacier climb down low, and then turns into a mixed alpine rock climb at the end. The idea was that it would combine all of the various skills we learned into one climb. One thing I had asked multiple times was if we would be camping on snow. The answer I kept getting over and over was "No".

The day started out with heavy packs on a steep trail with overcast skies. I had expended what seemed like a lot of energy during the first hour on the trail but when I found out we had climbed 1,000 ft in the first mile I was feeling quite a bit better about it. The approach hike was suppose to be quite overgrown and generally unpleasant, but after the first mile it really wasn't that bad. Eventually we gained the ridge and discovered it to be snow covered. It also started to drizzle a little bit at this point. Well that's all fine and dandy for climbing but not if you weren't planning on sleeping on the snow. After a bit we got to a steeper section where we had to go up and over to get over to the next drainage where the Sulphide glacier started. I went ahead first and was practicing kicking steps into the snow. Focused on what I was doing I climbed up most of the way and then looked back. No one was in sight. What the ...?  After a short bit I see Mat coming around the corner. I gestured as to what the hold up was and he gestured back for me to just keep going. It turns out that the hold up was Joel. Not sure what happened to him but from here on out he moved at a snails pace over all terrain. I climbed on up to the saddle and was totally done with lunch by the time they caught up to me. Meanwhile I got to look at where we had to go from here, which was a scary looking traverse. In keeping with my goals for this trip, I was bound and determined to not get psyched out sitting there looking at it and I certainly was not going to let fear control me. Most of the time looking at a scary move is far worse than actually performing it and this case was no exception. In fact the traverse was a cupcake once we got over onto it. I fired on up ahead and around the corner, stopping occasionally to make sure Mat was behind me. The clouds had rolled in about now and the visibility was rapidly reducing to almost nothing along with the drizzle turning into a light rain. Just splendid weather. Mat yelled ahead for me to stop at a rock outcropping and wait for them to catch up. Turns out this is where we were suppose to camp. Here? It's on the side of a slope and its nothing but snow. I was promised a flat snow free camp spot! As we were sitting there mulling our options, the clouds miraculously cleared up and we got to look around. Snow everywhere. I proposed that we head for one of two locations that seemed to have trees and snow free ground but Mat was opposed to travelling that far and wanted to set up camp in the near vicinity. We descended a little bit and found a flatter area on the snow but near some rocks that seemed to be suitable. So now I had to dig a snow platform for the tent. I hadn't ever done this before on a slope and I was really quite inefficient at it. Joel on the other hand looked like a polished, albeit slow, professional digging his platform. I got about 3/4 of the way through mine and just had no energy left whatsoever. Mat helped a little and Joel helped a little while I tried not to pass out from over exertion. Joel had his platform ready to go and while setting up his tent he broke one of the cardinal rules on a snow slope, he set something down unanchored into the snow, namely one of his main tent poles. Whoosh, down the mountain it goes! Joel might have been screwed but Mat down climbed a little and miraculously the pole had caught on a little tuft of snow. Even though the platform wasn't quite big enough, I gave up and had to set up my tarp before the weather got any worse. Setting up a non-free standing tarp in the snow is a little harder but the Tarptent did an admirable job. The height was lower than normal and I had to sleep with my head uphill in the short end but it seemed to be doing just fine in keeping the rain out. I got inside, changed into some dry clothes and then had to deal with the remaining necessities of survival. Staying warm and eating. Eating was readily solved by borrowing some hot water from Joel next door and eating my quick and easy dehydrated meal. Staying warm was the main issue of concern. I only had a 3/4 length 3 season sleeping pad and I was sleeping inside of a Tarptent. I put my pants and some other wet clothes underneath my sleeping pad for extra insulation and then set some stuff sacks full of gear down underneath my feet. I climbed into my sleeping bag (which fortunately is a 15F down bag) wearing my Gore-Tex and hoped for the best. Mat later admitted that the road to the trailhead had experienced a landslide earlier in the season and had only been reopened in the last two weeks. No one had been up on the Sulphide hardly at all this season. Hence the total lack of beta on the snow.

It actually turned out to not be near as bad a night as I was expecting. I stayed surprisingly warm inside the bag and the Tarptent kept the rain out and held up pretty darn well when the winds gusted. Somewhere in the middle of the night I woke up with the Tarptent lying on top of me. It seems that several of the pegs I had buried in the snow to anchor the structure had melted out in the rain and came loose. So I had to get out of the bag, into the rain, and re-anchor all of the pegs in the middle of the night. This happened not once, but twice. Sunrise came to the sound of rain hitting nylon. We had previously discussed going for the summit tonight and doing training the next day, but the weather was just so bad that it seemed better to wait it out and hope for nicer conditions the next day. Around 8AM I hear Mat yelling from down below but I can hardly hear what he is saying over the wind. Annoyed, I climb out of my warm bag and go down to see what the heck he wants. What he wants is for us to get up and do some instruction. Get up? I would have stayed inside my warm bag all day long. So up we got. The weather was engulfed in clouds, cold and rainy. I would have taken more pictures today but it seems that my camera was a casualty of the cold wet weather. I had placed it inside one of the stuff sacks under my feet and it seems condensation took its toll, the CCD on the camera was fried. The instruction was pretty basic and I tried to steer Mat into finding a steeper slope so we could do some real practicing. We found a steepish slope beneath camp and I got to spend a little time working on descent techniques (my biggest concern). When I turned around to climb back up, the slope was quite a bit steeper than I initially thought it was. Good! That means I focused on the task at hand instead of thinking about the steepness of the slope. We climbed back up to camp and the weather just seemed to get funkier. Mat had gotten a weather forecast over the radio and it said there was a low pressure system hanging around for the next couple of days. At this point I suggested to Mat and Joel that we weren't going to go for the summit in these conditions and that we should just bail out now. Mat seemed surprised and Joel seemed reluctant. I was realistic. I didn't want to push my luck and spend another night on the snow, I was pretty sure the weather wasn't going to improve and that Mat would abort our summit attempt any way, and frankly I knew we would have little chance of summiting and getting back to the car at a decent time based on the incredibly slow pace Joel had exhibited the last 24 hours. I can put up with a fair amount of discomfort, but climbing slow is just not something I want to have to endure. Mat said we could do more training, while not as good, off the mountain and that was all it took to convince Joel  that bailing out was the right call. Thank goodness. On the way down the weather got nicer and Mat started to second guess our decision. I didn't wait for him to change his mind and I raced down the trail back down to the parking lot, leaving Joel and Mat far behind. When I got back to the van I found out that we weren't the only ones who bailed, every other group who was on the mountain had bailed as well. Good thing I pushed the issue because I think Mat would have had us stay. The ride out at least served to confirm our decision as the nicer weather down low turned into a torrential down pour. We ate dinner at the Birdsview Brewing Company and commiserated with other climbing groups from Shuksan about how the weather sucked.

That night we headed towards the coast and hopefully a rain shadow at the Deception Pass State Park campground. The rain shadow was in fact present and we were able to dry out most of our things. The plan was to get up the next day, practice some snow skills on the beach, and then do some rock climbing at a nearby crag. The beach turned out to be an interesting idea. Joel wanted to practice crevasse rescue and it turns out the beach is a great place to do it. I had already done this but seeing as we had nothing else to do, practicing it again would be good to consolidate it in my mind. Doing this on the beach was also good in that now I know a way I can practice this at home too. Around 9AM it started to rain on us at the beach. We finished up what we were doing and made a trip over to the crag just in case it wasn't raining over there. It was. Our last day was basically a total wash out. We headed for a coffee shop instead. We spent a little time going over how Mat prepares a climbing plan so as to be able to navigate in a white out, but basically our trip was over by 1PM. Interestingly all of the other AAI groups were piling in at the same time so everyone bailed today as well. I spent an epic 4 hours making the 2 hour drive back to Seattle. Along the way I stopped back in at REI and returned all of the things I had bought.

All in all I was pleased with the instruction I received on my AAI trip. I didn't get to spend as much time working on steep snow slopes as I would have liked, but the weather pretty much dictated that decision. Overall I feel like I accomplished my goals for the trip, gain experience and confidence. The rock climbing portions were quite a bit of fun and it has since led me into pursuing that more back on the east coast. I've climbed a couple of times outdoors here and have found a nice side effect. There is quite a bit of exposure on outdoor rock climbing, and confidence when faced with exposure is exactly what I'm trying to build. I feel like the exposure on the rock climbing is going to translate directly into confidence on the steep snow slopes as the exposure will not be as big a factor. I was a little bummed about not even getting on the Sulphide glacier on Mt. Shuksan, but given the conditions and the slow pace we would have climbed at I don't regret the decision at all. Reading back through the report I'm not sure I've painted Mat in such a good light. Mat gave really good instruction and I'm very appreciative of the knowledge I gained from him. He is a good guy and was very safety conscious. On the flip side, he reverted back to guide mode too easily at times and we definitely had a difference of opinion on certain decisions (i.e. the slab traverse on SEWS, the rappel on Liberty Bell, the campsite on Shuksan). Of course it will come as no surprise to anyone, I'm not so good at taking direction when I think I'm right and you're wrong. Which is also another theme I intend to employ on future trips, perhaps we go unguided or semi-guided.
We hit snow when we got to the first ridge. Also not a good sign
Mat's still smiling. It's better than an office job
Entering the North Cascades National Park
Mt. Baker gives us an idea of what the weather is probably like up high
Uh Mat, exactly how far behind is Joel?
After cresting a saddle, this is the next valley over
You can see our traverse route in the snow. It looked pretty intimidating from here
On the traverse route. It actually wasn't bad at all
Looking back at the saddle
Would you believe Mat is looking for a camp site?
The break in the clouds for this picture and the one above lasted about 30 seconds
The weather really took a turn for the worst as we climbed down to a slightly flatter spot to make camp
What kind of an idiot sets a tarp up on the snow next to a 4 season tent?


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