7 climbers. 4 guides. 4 days. 16 miles. 6,500 feet of elevation gain. 1 toilet with arguably the best view in Washington State.
There were many firsts for an enthusiastic group of climbers who raised more than $15,000 for the North Cascades National Park through Washinton’s National Park Fund and enjoyed the climb of a lifetime.
It was an 85 degree weekend in Seattle, and an even hotter scene awaited us on the snowy slopes of Mount Shuksan’s Sulphide Glacier, but the clear skies and low winds only meant one thing: our summit success was in our hands.
A climb of the Sulphide Glacier route of Mount Shuksan with International Mountain Guides starts at the Sedro-Woolley North Cascades information center at 8am on Day One. We shyly say hi to the guides and head to an ample parking lot for more introductions and gear check.
Roxanne, Adam, Stan, Juan, Federico and I had already climbed Mount Rainier and Shuksan was a great next step. For Phil, Shuksan was going to be his first ticket to the high mountains of Washington State.
With personal and group gear our packs weighted between 40 and 48 pounds, which was less than expected because of how light in clothing we packed. Some of us brought camera and other nonessential gear so our packs could have been smaller. There are some pleasures that are worth carrying a few extra pounds.
The approach hike was hot, hot, hot. It was actually a very nice trail that started in the forest and gradually transitioned to open ridges, steep switchbacks, talus crossings and snow at the end. It took us five and a half hours with three breaks. The guides said that it had been one of the fastest times they had seen. I think that they just wanted us to feel awesome.
Speaking about guides. They are super humans. One of a kind. If you are an IMG guide you have to want to be one, there is no room for maybes. They lead the way, they cook for you, they tell stories of faraway mountains, they make you laugh, and most important of all, they make you feel safe at all times. It is not easy, but Eric, Peter, Cedric and Jonathan showed us how fabulous it is to love your job and spread the passion to others.
Once our packs were on the snow at camp, the rest of the trip felt more like glamping. We claimed a big rock as our dining room and stayed there until the sun set over the northwest horizon.
Here’s the funny part. Blue bags are famous for alpine trips where no toilets are available. As annoying as they are, their use is key for the Leave No Trace commitment of every good mountain explorer. What we didn’t know was that a composting toilet was waiting for us a short walk from our camp. We’re talking about a sturdy and fancy toilet with a magnificent view across the southeast valley. The downside is that those lying like lizards on our dining room rock have an equally magnificent view of the toilet. Lesson learned: there is no privacy in the mountains.
The night was warm. So warm that you could sleep with a t-shirt and no socks and still sweat inside a 15-degree sleeping bag.
Day Two was all about training; a day of leisure, pasta and lots of falling and self-arresting.
View of our camp:
I did not wait for the sun to set this time, but the excitement of the summit bid kept me awake most of the night. Oh well, there would be time to sleep when I got back home.
Day Three. We dragged our heavy boots to get a hot oatmeal breakfast as we saw the sun start to rise and several groups of climbers already on route to the summit. Off we went at 4:30 am in three groups of three and one group of two.
In just two hours we reached the summit pyramid. Federico, Stan, Phil and Adam headed up the main gully which is a steep snow climb with some sections of class 4 rock. Roxanne, Juan and I took the southeast ridge, which is a low 5th class rock climb.
It all seems a piece of cake with our guides leading the routes, but at times when you look down and see the sheer cliffs below life gets a new meaning. This trip is definitely not recommended for people afraid of heights.
We shared the summit with about 10 other people, most belonging to The Mountaineers, who we passed on the way up.
The way down is the ultimate test of trust when you’re being guided, because your life hangs from a rope that you don’t control. By taking advantage of existing anchors our guides lowered us down several pitches to the base of the pyramid. Being lowered is similar to rappelling. The difference lies in who controls the drop. When being lowered the speed at which you drop is entirely managed by the guide, you just have to lean back and glide your way down which feels completely foreign the first time you do it.
Back at camp, the afternoon was strange. It had been very hot anywhere you were, but I didn’t feel tired or hungry. My mind and body were devoid of any feeling or thought. Something akin to a zen state.
The guides cooked Pad Thai for our last dinner. An evening of celebration.
Everyone agreed that an early start the next morning would be ideal to beat the heat, so we got up at 5am.
We were back at the trailhead at 10am. On our way back to Sedro-Woolley we stopped by a lakeside state park where the incredible happened: I jumped into a lake. I’d never had the courage to do this before. That day was the exception and I felt some weight being lifted off my shoulders. Thanks to Ashley from WNPF for jumping with me! This is our official group photo:
The day after is always the hardest, because I miss all the fun. We’ve been a bit sore, and I personally have been eating more, but I won’t gain the four pounds I lost on the trip. Those were the result of a lazy winter and must be gone forever.
The mountain fever is here to stay.