Mt. Shuksan via North Face

August 10 - 11, 2002

Dave Svilar, Matt Alford


Our route from near the bivy site.  It's hard to tell by looking at the picture, but the entire face was climbed on snow and ice.


Another look at the route.  We started at the Mt. Baker ski area, crossed the valley of death, climbed the face and descended the Fischer Chimneys (not shown).  Photo taken from the summit of Ruth Mt.

The Nissan rolled up to the Mt. Baker ski area parking lot around noon.  There were two other groups that were supposed to be doing the seldom climbed north face of Mt. Shucksan and one was in the parking area when we arrived.  We made friendly conversation with the Coloradoans and warned them about North Cascades approaches.  Little did we know that we were about to go through hell.  The Coloradoans and the other group never did make it to the base of the north face.

Matt got in the way of what otherwise would have been a fine picture of the dried-up Mt. Baker ski area with Mt. Shuksan in the background.  Our route forms the left skyline.

There is no decent trail to the base of the climb, just a miserable bushwhack.  They write guidebooks for everything, so when they come out with "Selected Approaches in the North Cascades" I know the north face of Mt. Shuksan will get high praise.  I've made several North Cascades approaches including the Southern Pickets, but I never experienced the level of misery that was about to greet us on the way to Shuksan.

We plowed through a clear-cut and then a tall stand of trees on a steep hillside.  We heard the Coloradoans struggling below us, so we stayed high.  We crossed several sketchy ravines holding onto bushes to keep from falling.  When we reached the valley floor we hit a patch of devil's club and then the worst - slide alder.  My misery index was beginning to max out.  I found a rhythm in the slide alder - unhook my legs, unhook my arms, unhook my pack, unhook my legs, unhook my arms, and so on.  Finally, we emerged in an open area and looked back to check our progress.  It had taken us almost a half an hour to come a few hundred yards through the slide alder.  Our arms and my shorts-covered legs were lacerated with tiny cuts.  My face was sliced under both eyes.  We were at war with the slide alder.  To add insult to injury the slide alder had ripped Matt's sunglasses off his pack.  Even though we'd spend the next day on sun-brightened snow there was no way Matt was going to turn back - this was a committing approach. 

Matt amidst devil's club.  Not only was I miserable, but so was my camera - it refused to focus.

I attempted to remind myself how miserable I had felt in West Africa only a few months before, but soon this psychological trick wore off.  Now I was sweating, swatting flies, and swearing at everything I could think of.  I told Matt there had to be a better way.  I had suggested this ten times before, but this time there really was.  We headed straight up the wooded slope towards the top of the ridge that led to our bivy spot.  Side-hilling through forest brush was a huge relief from the god-forsaken slide alder. 

We reached the top of the ridge and broke out into the open.  Every few feet there were bear droppings, so I kept alert for the inevitable black bear.  I spotted him on the ridge almost a half mile away.  As we neared the bear it was apparent that it was grazing for berries in the exact path we intended to take, not more than a few hundred yards from where we would camp.  We yelled at the bear from afar.  We kept approaching and it still wouldn't move.  After what we had been through in the valley fighting the slide alder the bear was a minor annoyance we weren't about to stop for.  The bear must have sensed our anger and finally fled down the hill. 

We arrived our bivy site beaten and bruised.  Our spirits changed with the weather.  As the clouds parted before sunset our route up the mountain became visible and our thoughts turned from the nightmare approach to the much easier and pleasurable task of climbing the mountain.

The clouds part behind me to reveal a more pleasurable task: climbing the mountain. 


Sunset on the Shuksan Arm and Mt. Baker in the distance.

Our plan was to wake at 1:30 a.m. to make the climb while the snow was still frozen.  We popped out of our bivy sacks at 4:30 a.m. and were on the trail a half hour later.  I was secretly glad for the late start because I didn't want to climb in the dark, but unlike Matt I also had my sunglasses.  The north face is too steep to descend, especially in the soft snow conditions of afternoon, so we had the full weight of our packs for a carry-over.

The north face is 2500 vertical feet of sustained 45-50 degree ice and snow.  Matt used two tools and I found the going easier with one.  We started on the lower hanging glacier and ran into problems at the bergschrund.  We found a very narrow snow bridge and decided it was the best option.  Although the bridge was solid, it was steep and fell off 80+ feet into crevasses on either side, so I put a few ice screws in for good measure.  A narrow snow chute linked the lower to the upper hanging glacier.  We hit some very solid ice, so Matt placed several more screws.

As we neared the top of the face Matt had a sudden emergency.  Diarrhea.  In the middle of you-fall-you-die 50 degree ice Matt found a rock outcrop and desperately ripped off his harness and dropped his drawers.  I dug into the snow and tried to turn away and enjoy the view.  We had long since run out of toilet paper, so my view was soon broken by brown snowballs flying over my head and skidding down the steep face.  Pleasant. 

Matt sinks his tools into the ice with renewed vigor.  He had successfully overcome a bout of diarrhea on steep terrain.

My calves were burning from my poor technique and loose boots, so I was relieved to finally top out.  Now all we had to do was cross over the gentle slopes of the shoulder of the mountain and find the easy way to scramble up the summit pyramid. 

The view looking between my feet and down the steep north face.  Price Lake is a 3500  foot fall and a cold swim below.

We reached the summit pyramid and found it literally crawling with people from other routes.  Matt and I scrambled up the class 3 terrain and were surprised to see groups "pitching it out."  It was a logjam in the gully and we wanted to get out quickly to avoid having a rock kicked down on our heads.  We tagged the summit and hastily scrambled back down the gully and back to the snow.

Matt the master rope coiler, performs his craft with Mt. Baker as a backdrop.


Matt and Dave pose triumphantly on the summit.

We descended the Fischer Chimneys route and were fortunate to have footsteps to follow because neither of us had been on the route previously.  We downclimbed the route without incident and arrived at frozen Lake Ann.  Matt is not known for being bashful, so it was no surprise to me when he inexplicably took off his pants and began hiking in his underwear.  Recalling his diarrhea related difficulties earlier in the day I made sure to stay in front on the four mile trail to the road.  Of course we had come down a different way than we went up, so it was necessary to hitch a ride back to the Nissan.  The first car we thumbed coming from Artist Point stopped.  It's one thing to hike through the woods in your underwear, and another to hop in the backseat of a stranger's car in your dirty underwear.  But Matt wasn't afraid (he rarely is).  The poor strangers from the  Midwest drove two stinky climbers back to the Nissan. 

- written September 2002

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