Mount Shuksan

Elevation Gain: 2,085m
Distance: 24.46km
Total Time: 11 hours 18 minutes
Date: June 7th, 2022

Up until a week ago, I’d never heard of Mount Shuksan despite it being a coveted objective among mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest. For the uninitiated (like me), it’s a 2784m peak located east of Mount Baker and just south of the Canadian/American border. It’s fame is driven by the aesthetic nature of the mountain and a multitude of challenging route options to gain the summit. In the summer time it can be ascended as a mere class 3/4 rock scramble, while in winter/spring time it offers a steep sustained snow route as the easiest option.

A new climbing friend, Elise, reached out about taking on Mount Shuksan during an upcoming weather window mid week on June 7th. The weather was initially tentative, but by Sunday the trip was confirmed a go and I was all onboard. Elise’s friends Iliya and Mel would be joining along as well. The plan was to leave Vancouver at 10PM on Monday and reach the trail head by around 1AM and start ascending immediately. This way we could take advantage of firm snow conditions from an over night freeze. I had never done an all nighter ascent like this before, but Elise, Mel and Iliya made regular midnight starts so I figured it’s worth trying.

Our route was going to be the standard Sulphide Glacier route which offers an ascent up Shannon Ridge and then a long plod along the Sulphide Glacier before climbing the south face of Shuksan’s summit pyramid. Despite it being June, most of the coastal range was experiencing a spring-like snow pack and so the summit was expected to be a steep snow ascent instead of a scramble.

On the Tuesday, I drove over to our meeting point at Elise’s house for 10PM and we headed towards Surrey to pick up Iliya before driving down to the border. The guard was surprisingly pleasant and we crossed over without any problems. Elise drove us towards the Shannon Ridge trail head from there and we arrived roughly around 1AM. Unfortunately, there was a wash out that prevented us from traveling all the way to the trail head, but we managed to get within 1.6km, so the extra distance was manageable.

By 1:20AM we were geared up and walking along the remainder of the road to the trail head. We continued up to the trail and only had minor wash outs and a bit of flooding to contend with. At around 1000m we reached continuous snow and made the call to transition to snow shoes. From here I lead the way up through steep sections of forest to bypass a long switch back. Everyone hit a good pace and we made up to the ridge and out of the trees about 2 hours after we started. Iliya then lead us up a steep slope to a ridge that guarded access to the Sulphide Glacier.

Getting ready in the dark
Just about to reach continuous snow at 1000m
Traversing through the forest in the dark
Exiting the forest and ascending up to the ridge that guards the base of Sulphide Glacier. Mount Baker now visible in the early morning light
On to that ridge. Looking back at some big terrain further east. We came up from the right side of the low point at the centre of the image
Mel about to start the traverse

From the ridge we had to traverse around another steep slope before finally reaching the base of the glacier. There was evidence of large size 2 wet loose avalanches all around, so I was thankful that we were crossing under firm conditions. Once on the glacier, we began a long foreshortened plod towards the summit pyramid. I didn’t observe any sagging or evidence of crevasses along the route and a high way of foot prints helped guide us safely through the glacier. We brought ropes for the crossing, but didn’t up needing them in the state that we found the glacier.

Starting the traverse to reach the base of Sulphide Glacier
On the glacier
Climbing up a steep section near the beginning
The plod continues
Looking back at Elise on the glacier

Part way up the glacier, the imposing south face of Shuksan’s summit pyramid became visible. From our vantage it looked impossibly steep. I wasn’t even confident that was the route because of how daunting it looked, but GPS confirmed it was indeed. Experience took over though and I remembered that routes often appear worse from afar. We’d get a better idea up close and I had a feeling the route went just fine.

Shuksan’s imposing summit pyramid visible part way up the glacier

After a long plod we finally reached the base of the pyramid; just as the sun was rising. Sure enough it wasn’t as steep as it initially looked, but still no walk in the park. I was stoked to give it a try as it looked like an awesome snow line that exited out of rime channels onto an exposed looking ridge. At the base we found a flattish spot and transitioned to cramp ons and ice tools. I ditched as much gear as possible and then when everyone was about ready, started up the slope.

Still a long ways to go, but the travel was pleasant
Mount Baker about to receive some alpen glow
Trudging up another long steep slope
Getting closer to the base!
The sunrise was welcome
Elise coming up the last prolonged slope with Hourglass peak in the background

The route started out not too steep but we transitioned to front pointing about half way up. The snow was in bomber condition and that made for very secure tool and cramp on placements. I lead the initial ascent, but Mel soon took over and lead us on a traverse climber’s left around a rock band. From there she lead us into a steep runnel until we had traverse further left around another rock outcrop. Now just below the summit there were a few exit options. Climber’s left and right looked the best and a sketchy rime channel in the middle offered a mediocre back up option. Mel initially went to the exit at climber’s right. However, just before cresting the summit ridge she realized the route might traverse directly over a cornice and called out to see if there was an alternative. I was next in lead just below both exits so I made an exploratory traverse to the exit at climber’s left. The slope angle eased gradually until I was on a wide section of the western ridge. I continued up the ridge sticking as close as possible to the south part of the ridge as I wasn’t sure of the cornice situation here either. A few more meters of front pointing and I crested onto the narrow summit without much difficultly.

A look at the route up close
Mel and Iliya starting up the first section
I took over the lead for a bit until Mel quickly outpaced me
Starting to get a bit steeper now
Looking over at Mel, Elise and Iliya coming up just before Mel took over
Mel ahead now, leading the traverse
Mel transitioning into the runnel
Looking back at Elise and Iliya on the lower part of the traverse
Mel and I heading up the runnel
Mel looking down at Elise and I from the exit at climber’s right. I went climber’s left here to find a safer route up

I called out below that the route was in and Mel, Elise and Iliya followed up shortly after. No one was particularly keen on the potential cornice situation, but given its the western part of the ridge it was less likely than on eastern or northern aspects. Once everyone was up, we stayed huddled together near the south part of the narrow summit to avoid any cornices. We hung out for a few minutes at most to grab photos and then started the descent to take advantage of the still firm snow conditions.

Elise ascending up to the summit
Views from the summit
Looking towards the Nooksack Cirque
Group shot on the summit!

Mel lead the way with myself, Elise and then Iliya following down shortly after. Despite my best efforts, Mel’s lead grew as she made a speedy descent down the runnel and back across the traverse. By the time I made it to the traverse Mel was already enjoying a nice break at the bottom. I had to pause a few times to give my legs some rest as my boots weren’t quite stiff enough to give any reprieve on front points. Either that or I just have weak calves. After a few stops I finished the traverse and then sped up the descent as the exposure and risk was diminished. Shortly after I joined Mel at the bottom and waited for the rest of the group. Elise and Iliya followed up a few minutes later and we paused at our gear stash to have some snacks and admire the summit route.

Mel and I starting the down climb
Mel descending down into the main slopes
Mel looking up at me exiting the channel at climber’s left
Mel grabbing a shot of us just before starts the traverse back
Elise on descent with myself and Mel further down
Iliya, Elise and myself just about done the traverse
Hanging out at the gear stash

When everyone was fueled up again we started our descent. Elise and I stuck to cramp ons initially, but we didn’t make it far before post holing on each step. A quick pit stop later and we were back on snow shoes making progress again. However, I didn’t make it too far before a tendon in my knee started firing off in pain. Each step was a hot mess and I eventually had to pause to try and stretch my legs out. I’m not exactly sure what caused the tendon to flair up in pain, but hydration and stretching provided some reprieve and the rest I’d just have to suck up. Thankfully the group was patient and I got back on track after a few minutes.

Looking back at our ascent line

We retraced our steps along the Sulphide glacier and took advantage of a few steep sections to glissade down. The rest of the route was uneventful except for the traverse at the base of the glacier. The snow had deteriorated quite a bit here and my snowhoes aren’t great for side hilling, so I had to take it slow. Careful steps paid off and I made it across with out any event. Iliya and Mel lead the rest of the descent down the ridge and into the forest and we ditched our snowshoes again around 1000m. Then it’s an easy reversal down a well maintained trail all the way back to the car.

Some overhead hazards looking ready to fire off
Finished up the traverse
Descending down onto Shannon Ridge
Some steep forest to contend with
The last stretch of trail back to the car!

I was totally elated to take on an steep aesthetic snow line up a coveted mountain like Shuksan. Best of all with a solid team who kept the stoke high in the early morning hours up until the very end. The all night ascents definitely have something to them, so there could certainly be more in store.

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