Mt. Shuksan Circumnavigation via White Salmon Glacier, May 10, 2006
My time window was small, but Michael had been thinking about doing a trip around Shuksan's summit pyramid for a while now, and the Wednesday before our 7:00 AM Thursday departure to New Orleans looked like a good day for weather. To make sure we got an early start, we drove up to the Mt. Baker Ski Area with our friend Magali on Tuesday evening, with plans to meet Etienne and Fleur at the lodge after dark.
To our consternation, we found that they had locked the gate to the new White Salmon day lodge at 4:00 PM, so we drove up and down the road between the old and new lodges for a bit until we saw Etienne's car and made the French connection around 10:00 PM . . . it didn't take long to settle on a convenient pullout in the road as a camping spot, and we hit the rack (or asphalt, in my case) in bivies.
I had set my watch for 5:30 AM, but at precisely 5:28 AM I was awakened by a low pitched, resonant "whoo . . . whoo" noise. Dragging myself out of the bivy, I looked about 100 feet down the road and saw a pair of birds (Ptarmigan, I think) starting out their day by doing some sort of courtship ritual - the male had fanned out his tail feathers and was producing the loud "whoo-whoo" noise in an attempt to persuade the female to have his offspring. She didn't look convinced.
A few minutes later, a trio of Mt. Baker employees peeled around the turn on their way up to work installing a new chair. Man, those guys start early!
We drove on down to the new day lodge and found the gate already open; pulling into the lot we downloaded the gear and ate some breakfast as the sun rose. An employee gave us directions to the bottom of the White Salmon Glacier via a deeply rutted cat track and warned us that the gate closed around 4:00 PM, so we should park outside if we had any doubts at all about being back by then.
We skinned along the side of the cat track to its terminus, where some new chair towers had been set down, then proceeded to bushwhack through sparse forest to the base of the glacier. At one point the soft corn collapsed under my downhill ski and pitched me headfirst into a tree well, which might have been the extent of my trip if I'd been alone - Etienne had to pull on my pack and one ski to get me out of the thing, but no harm done.
Several chutes adjacent to the lower glacier were jammed with avy debris, making for some pretty slow travel, but once on the glacier proper it went smoothly. Above about 6,800 ft. there was a couple of inches of fresh snow which was the perfect consistency to stick to our skins and make each ski about 5 pounds heavier . . .
At the base of Winnie's Slide, we stopped for a food break, and Magali and Fleur decided to ski down. Etienne was the gentleman and said he would accompany them, so Michael and I pushed ahead up Winnie's by ourselves. About a third of the way up, Michael decided crampons were in order, and stopped to put them on - I actually was thinking the same thing, but mine were well down in my pack so I made do with my Scarpa F1's and axe. I took the opportunity of the flat between the two steep pitches to get them out, though, and was glad I did.
Michael and I skinned up the final ridge of Winnie's Slide and left the skins on to descend to the base of Hell's Highway, then reverted to crampons again on the hard and wind-scoured ridge around the cirque near the top. From then on it was easy skinning and superb views as we crossed over onto the top of the Sulphide Glacier to the base of the summit pyramid.
We decided to pass on the summit this day, in favor of doing the circumnavigation route (I still had to get back to town and pack for our trip to Louisiana) so we headed in the direction of the Nooksack Glacier and Nooksack Cirque, then on to what we thought would take us back to the upper Hanging Glacier.
After making a couple of careful turns around the end of a barely covered crevasse, we stopped and looked at each other.
"This is steeper than I thought it would be," said Michael.
After consulting my watch, I turned to him and said, "Dude, we're heading due north - this is the PRICE Glacier!"
Reluctantly we put the skins back on and backtracked up and over the shoulder to a nice Northwesterly snow field, where we got in a few turns and make out way back to Hell's Highway. A spectacular NW facing couloir which I've not heard people talk about skiing was visible from the top of the summit pyramid - very steep, and possibly requiring a rap or two.
The rest of the ski down was uneventful, with heavy powder interspersed with sun crust on the top. Lower on the White Salmon, the snow turned quite heavy, and turns on Winnie's Slide and a few other steep pitches basically obliterated the snow surface with pinwheels. We caught up to our friends on the bushwhack out, where our track from the morning had been completely covered with a wet snow avalanche with huge corn snowballs in one chute (far left photo, above row).
We slogged out the cat track and made the long march out through the locked gate - car to car was around 10 hours - then lay prostrate in the driveway consuming sausage, cheese, and Cokes. The French know how to live, that's fo' sho'!
At one point a tourist from Vancouver, BC, asked us if he could take our picture - he seemed quite amused that we were lying in the street enjoying our meal. The highpoint of the day was when a crew of new skoolers joined us a few minutes later, complete with REALLY large snow shovels and tripods ("wanna do my driveway, Dude?") and huge pants to match. We didn't ask them for permission, but Fleur snapped a couple of classic pictures of them anyway . . .