For maybe a month before this trip, I had been pestering my parents and Angie with the same question: it was guided, and it was four days long. I had totally the wrong attitude. I wanted a quick trip that would push my physical limits, but here we were looking at four days. To do a route that people I know did in a day, sometimes two. What the hell were we going to do for four days?! Angie reassured me. “It’ll just be super chill, don’t worry, we’ll just be casual, it’s your vacation, we’ll just be hanging out on a glacier!” Okay, okay, I’ll shut up. Grumble.
So what did we do with those four days? Well, on one (spoiler?) we summitted, on another we hiked back to the trailhead, and on the other two… we sat in a tent. Because of the rain, and the 30ft visibility, and the down-synthetic-blend lump that my belongings melded into after day 1. And I didn’t even have it the worst of the three of us. Let’s start from the beginning.
- Distance: 15 miles round trip
- Elevation: ~6000ft gain (9127 highest point)
- Weather: Ha! 40’s and rainy to 50’s and sunny and everything in between
- Commute from Seattle: 2:30 without traffic
- Did I Trip: Gotta think about this one. Yes. I slipped on the way down. Count it!
After eating as much as I possibly could in tacos and Thai food (separate meals, not together) on Thursday, we woke up early on Friday to meet our guide at the ranger station in Sedro-Wooley. So it was already a hilarious trip, because that’s a hilarious name for a town. No one else had registered for our trip, so we basically had a private climb. Yay! Less bitching on my end. Angie’s in great shape, has more experience than I do, and naturally we could assume the guide would kick our asses. I was already feeling better. This meant I’d be the newbie. That’s awesome. It means freedom to pose stupid questions, ask “why?” every time the guide does anything.
Our guide turned out to be Jonathan Schrock, who, as we assumed (and later confirmed) had some killer climbs in his pocket. Awesome. We got group gear sorted out, I insisted on my two sleeping pads and two puffy layers, and we drove over to the trailhead and got started. I wore my trail runners for the approach, for once. I forgot what it’s like to not feel like you’re clomping all over the place killing flowers and moss and insect civilizations like mountain godzilla.
Weather deteriorated quickly. I had done an admittedly shitty job of packing my bag, but at least the essentials were protected (puffy, sleeping bag… food… phone… ipod… okay, not essentials) so I wasn’t worried yet. Plus all of the forecasts I had read called for sunny weather Sunday, so what would two days of rain be in return for a summit day? Meh.
Well, by the time we got to the top of the ridge, it was Stephen King “Mist” level fog. Minus the tendrils. For now. Jonathan decided that it might be better to camp low and hope to move higher in the morning. Angie agreed immediately, I was about to whine in my head (the usual) but realizing just how wet and generally soggy I was, I admitted temporary defeat. Okay, let’s set up the tent. Tent conditions: small swamp.
You know what’s great about having a guide? I didn’t expect it, but Jonathan told us to chill inside while he guyed out the tent. Ha, okay! I can do that. I’m really good at that. Sitting. I’m good at other things too, like snacking. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing so hot at drying off, which is tough when it’s 100% humidity. Resigned to our fates, we hopped in sleeping bags and literally sat and slept for the next 24 hours. And ate. We took a break at one point to move the mid (intended to be the food tent) over Jonathan’s tent, which was letting in more rain than it was keeping out. But we pretty much only left for bathroom breaks. Like bees on cleansing flights in winter.
Jonathan apologized for the dinner we had the first night (the only meal that didn’t require water for cooking, since we were nowhere near a water source). We were eating in our tent, and as soon as he passed it through the door, my face lit up. Spinach dal! Angie’s family and my family always got Indian food together on Friday nights! IT’S FRIDAY! Tradition continues! Dal is delicious. I was pretty content. Angie’s hilarious, we can entertain ourselves pretty easily.
I tossed a garbage bag over my feet as a last ditch attempt to get some sort of warmth into my toes, which were already stuffed into my mittens. Bedtime. Jonathan radioed the IMG HQ or whoever it is he talks to and mentioned the gross weather, and they asked “how the clients were doing.” The response? “Well, they’re giggling, so… pretty well?” Tent conditions: medium swamp.
I woke up around 5 the next morning and dozed on and off until 8, when my bladder demanded attention. I’m not generally jealous of guys, but really, you can basically roll over and pee out the door. I don’t have that luxury. Maybe with practice. Anyway, I dragged my ass out and was officially awake. I always expect the world beyond the tent to look different the next morning, and I opened it up to the exact same wall of fog that I shut out when I went to sleep the previous night. What do you even do on a morning like that? You can’t sit outside and enjoy the views, so… back into the wet, stuffy tent. Yuck. Tent conditions: medium swamp, going strong.
Angie woke up about when I did, and shortly afterwards, we heard Jonathan from a few feet away. “How’d you sleep? And just how damp and wet are you?” “Not… bad…” we answered. It was true. I mean my sleeping bag was just about soaked through, but besides some uncomfortably cold toes, I was fine. Thanks to my two synthetic puffy layers. And the extra sleeping pad that kept most of me out of the standing water in our tent. Nailed it. “How’s your tent holding up?” we asked.
“Yeah… I’m going to have to run to the trailhead and swap out every piece of gear I brought up.” I think we both burst out laughing. Shit. That sucks. Jonathan’s tent conditions: Extreme Swamp. Okay, we’ll hang tight here, and thanks for giving us the good tent. Jonathan offered to take our trail runners (mine literally had puddles of mud inside of them) back down. I mentioned I had the Nemo Tenshi, a four season two person tent sitting in my trunk. I brought it in case we needed it – IMG supplies group gear like tents, but I don’t know, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have it. It’s a heavy tent, but if conditions stay shitty, and especially if wind picks up, it’d be nice to have since Jonathan’s backup tent was a lightweight backpacking tent. So, I handed over my keys, Jonathan took all of his gear back to the trailhead, swapped it out, and came back up. In the meantime, Angie and I made tea and sat in the tent.
For hours. Once in a while, we’d hear voices, and I’d step outside to investigate. “What’s the tendril situation?” Angie would ask. Sometimes we saw climbers, sometimes we didn’t. Never any tendrils, so we were safe from Stephen King’s world, at least for the time being. Jonathan got back to the tent and we decided to pack everything up and aim for high camp, which wasn’t actually too far away. Luckily, Jonathan had brought an umbrella to shield himself from rain, which kept me 100% amused all the way to high camp. You follow the trail to the Notch, which turned out to be a dip in the ridgeline. At the notch, you drop down east of the ridge and traverse north until you hit the glacier, which was sitting above a bunch of “tidepools” in slabs of rock. Conditions never cleared up, and I didn’t know we were at camp until we were literally standing on top of it. We did not rope up on the lower section of snow before high camp. Jonathan guyed out the tents (fuck yessss) while we organized our soaked belongings as best we could. My once-fluffy down sleeping bag was about the thickness of a hefty garbage bag and probably just made me colder. Good thing I had mittens for my feet. Tent conditions: Large swamp.
The best part of high camp? A toilet. A human waste composting toilet. Nestled high up on a ridge. From shitting in a bag like a pleb to sitting atop a throne fit for kings. The cherry on top? The throne looked straight at Mt. Baker, which I discovered the following morning as dawn lit up the sky before we left for the summit. So my first real scenery and jaw-dropping view of Baker was from a human composting toilet. Angie had the most hilarious line that day: “I’m going to go to the bathroom. I hope it’s not foggy.” Out of context, it’s perfect.
I sipped my earl grey, watching the sky turn orange beyond the Pickets, and soon enough we got started. And you know what? We moved at the perfect pace. For the first time, I wasn’t wearing one (or both) of my puffy layers while climbing. I was warm, but not sweating. It was amazing. I didn’t know it was possible. Guys, it’s possible, and you should all aim for it.
The route out of camp swung farther to the left than usual to avoid some open crevasses. Given the weather this year, that wasn’t surprising. So we hugged the rocks before traversing east, zigzagging around a few smaller cracks before reaching the plateau before the summit pyramid. Honestly, this all went fairly quickly, being much more straightforward than Baker and Rainier the weeks before. I just kept drinking in the views. Screw Baker, that’s a slog up snow for far less beauty compared to this. And why deal with the objective hazards and crowds on DC when this is so much more beautiful? Talk about bang-for-your-buck. Actually don’t, because then everyone will want to climb Shuksan.
Just below the base of the summit pyramid, we stashed our unnecessary gear, and Jonathan said we’d climb the SE ridge instead of the central gully. The gully is a class 4 scramble, the SE ridge is a low class 5 rock climb. Literally the first step of the “climb” part stumped me. Jonathan edged up a mostly flat section, Angie went up a gully of sorts, and I flopped around on the rope like a fish before realizing Angie’s way was definitely easier than trying to follow a professional rock climber on what was really only my second real rock climb.
And that’s pretty much how it went. Jonathan glided, Angie scrambled, and I flopped. There was one 5.8 move that he made look easy, Angie had a bit of trouble, and I got up to it and stared and thought “well, shit.” I managed, but it took a minute of clinging to some small downsloping edges with one foot and one hand and one knee (not recommended, now bruised) while my other hand grasped for anything and my other foot poked around looking for edges. Finally found an edge and clambered over the ledge. From there, it was all relatively clear sailing.
Anthony and Ben joked on Baker that Shuksan is a cheaper guided climb because it’s basically an advertisement for Baker. It’s true. You look at Baker the whole time, and it looks amazing the whole time. With Rainier, you’re ON the big majestic thing. With the Coleman-Deming route up Baker, you’re on it until you can finally see things like Twin Sisters, and Shuksan, but those don’t appear until you’re near the top. With Shuksan, you’re staring at Baker, Blum, the Pickets, Glacier, Rainier, THE WHOLE TIME. You get to the top (or the ridge) and you have Icy and Ruth and American Border Peak and Canadian Border Peak and it’s just ridiculous. You’re in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by jagged, rocky peaks, and it doesn’t even matter what direction you look. On baker I only wanted to look west. On Rainier I only wanted to look at the crevasses and seracs around me. On Shuksan, I could spin around and around and never get bored (though I might puke).
No summit register, but there was a quilt! With a piece of paper, upon which I wrote my name, because fuck it I’m petty and like to feel like I marked it somehow. After a lengthy summit break, we alternated between being lowered by Jonathan and downclimbing the central gully. It took me several tries to successfully be pushing off the wall while being lowered instead of (again) flopping against it. Turns out you want your body to be 90 degrees to the rope, which feels like you’re lying down. Which makes sense, now that I think about it. I was trying to sit too much, which just resulted in awkward dangling. Whatever, we’ve established how uncoordinated I am. it’s a work in progress.
We took another break back where we stashed our stuff, and a second mini-break to grab some water running down the rocks just above high camp (melting snow takes FOREVER and uses so much fuel, so avoid it if possible). Clouds were writhing over camp, but they didn’t look too threatening. We got back and immediately emptied our tents and lay everything along the rocks hoping it would dry. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, drying things out (almost), and eventually, watching one of the best sunsets I’ve seen in my life. The clouds around Baker cleared up just enough to let the sun through, and lit up pink and yellow like cotton candy. Eventually there was a cloud just above our ridge, making it look like nighttime over Shuksan and sunset over Baker. We took probably hundreds of panoramas in what Jonathan deemed “panoramextravaganza.” Diagonal panoramas, vertical panoramas, a whole new world of panoramas, which resulted in the best picture of Angie Diana that the world has ever known.
Sunset means bedtime when I’m on mountains, so that’s exactly what I did. My bag was now only damp and had regained some of its fluff, and I was almost comfortable the entire night. The following morning had equally incredible weather, and we had a pleasant one-push hike out, minus a break to de-layer at out old campsite from day one and make fun of Jonathan’s back-up base layer, which was a long sleeved shirt that (due to some run ins with trees) was now missing an entire sleeve.
It was incredible seeing what views we had been missing the entire time. The approach is a gorgeous hike in itself, and our tent was right in front of a panorama of Baker that we didn’t know existed because of the fog. I had been measuring visibility in trees during those foggy days. One tree visibility was maybe 30ft. Two trees meant I could see the slightly further away tree, so ~50ft. Going back down, hundred-thousand-tree-visibility!
This is a climb I can’t wait to repeat, and I never say that. I hate repeating peaks. Even doing DC again earlier this year I was hesitant, but thank god I did that one. I doubt I’ll go back up Coleman-Deming, but who knows. Shuksan… oh man. I hope I get another chance to go up before the approach is too long in snow. And a chance to try the Fisher Chimneys route, and the north face, which I hear is just lots of steep snow (and a bitch of an approach). Shuksan is just spectacular. I climb for views, and Shuksan delivered on all accounts. If you ignore the first two days spent in a 6’x3′ tent in a wet down sleeping bag with garbage bags and mittens on my feet and water dripping on me every time I touched the walls of the tent.
Oh also I took a panorama selfie during panoramextravaganza. I am a woman of many talents. Haven’t decided whether to be proud or ashamed.