September 4, 2012
The reality of alpine weather conditions is that not every summit climb will present you with perfect blue-bird conditions. However, sometimes this is part of the exciting experience of being in the mountains and pushing through the challenges that nature brings to you. We had a such an experience on Mount Shuskan this summer, but with a little perseverence, we were greatly rewarded in the end!
The summer is back in full glory now, meaning an extended season here in the Cascades for alpine climbs for custom or scheduled trips; check out options here. Otherwise, read on for tales on high on Shuksan.
The stunning Mount Shuksan. Ian Nicholson photo
After meeting our group at Second Ascent in the morning, doing introductions and a gear check our team was headed north toward Mt. Shuksan, arguably the most photographed peak in North America.
The group at the trailhead. Ian Nicholson photo
Mt. Shuksan is a classic mountain in North Cascade National Park featuring hanging glaciers and a striking summit rock pyramid that jets out of the Sulphide Glacier. Despite the poor weather forecast, we began hiking under low clouds but rarely felt more than a drop. Thunder showers were forecasted for the following few days so we decided to camp low at the “Col Camp” because it is protected from the wind and hopefully from the forecasted thunder showers. We cooked dinner and went to bed early with the alarms set for 3am. Unfortunately Tino and I awoke around 1 am with the sound of rain and some thunder in the distance. When are alarms finally went off at 3 am it was raining hard, so we told the group to hang tight and try to go back to bed and Tino and I set our alarm to go off every half hour to unzip the tent door and reassess the weather. By around 7am we got out of the tent to make breakfast, the clouds were still quite threatening but it was only lightly spitting rain. At around 7:30am we went on a gut feeling to go for it, and the group was hiking by 8am in the clouds with 5 feet of visibility.
All in good spirits despite the stormy weather. Ian Nicholson photo
About an hour into the hike, the clouds opened up with heavy rain, hail and thunder but we decided to just hike a little farther hoping that anything that came on that fast would leave just as quick. And quick it was! Not 10 minutes later, it not only stopped raining but the clouds also started to lift. By 11 am we were approaching the summit pyramid and it was down right hot on the glacier, everyone stripped down to base layers, and we couldn’t believe our fortune!
Resting above the marine layer. Ian Nicholson photo
However Tino and I kept reassessing the weather. Never had we been so happy to see a marine layer, we could see the marine layer push out the thunder clouds, which we could see were about 25 miles to our east. We could hear them too.
Taking the last steps to the top. Ian Nicholson photo
The marine layer had fully socked us in, but we couldn’t have been more happy, at least it wasn’t raining and the thunder cloud systems was being kept far away. The group worked our way up the summit climbing steep snow, followed by mixed climbing, ascending steep rock and snow with crampons on. Near the summit though the rock was snow-free enough to remove crampons and the group relished the whole experience.
Dan with his daughters Abbie and Hayley on the summit! Ian Nicholson photo
Once on top, the clouds briefly parted and we could even see Mt. Baker. While a fairly late summit of 4pm, we had still made it despite the weather. We worked our way back down the summit pyramid and hustled down the glacier making from the base of the pyramid to camp in only and hour and a half. The group was elated! We never knew if we were going to make it or not, with the poor weather early in the morning and the threat of thunder showers. However this challenge only added to the experience. Once back in camp, we ate some dinner and looked to our south to see lightning on the horizon. What a beautiful sight to behold.
The next morning we celebrated with a breakfast of French toast and descended happily back to the cars to re-enter civilization! Congratulations to our team for pushing through the tough conditions and making it happen!
~ MM Guide Ian Nicholson