Route: North Face (snowy late spring conditions)

TR #: 141

Category: Washington (SR 542)       Summit Elev: 9,127 ft       Rock Type: Greenschist

Partners: Dan Aylward, Chad Kellogg

A blitzkrieg climb of the dramatic North Face.

I have wanted to climb the North Face of Mt. Shuksan for a long while. Finally, on the weekend before final exams, the magic combination of good weather+good conditions+weekend+partners lined up. Study or climb Shuksan, hmm.....well, how about both? The weekend is 2 days, right?

The following page gives a detailed trip report of a blitzkrieg 14-hour climb of the North Face of Shuksan, with Dan Aylward and Chad Kellogg. What a great day! 


On June 6 (three days before our climb), I joined pilot/aerial photographer John Scurlock to do some aerial photography of a recent landslide at the toe of the Deming Glacier on Mount Baker. Before heading back down to the ground, we did a loop around Mt. Shuksan. I took some close-up photos of the North Face route, shown below. The route looked to be in great shape*, boding well for our plans to climb it a few days later. *Every year is different, the route may be in great shape or quite dangerous in late spring, depending on conditions.

NF on left.
NF closeup 1.
NF closeup 2.
NF closeup 3.
NF closeup 4.
NF closeup 5.


The North Face of Shuksan encaptures the essence of North Cascades climbing. Here is an excerpt from Nelson and Potterfield's Selected Climbs in the Cascades:

[The North Face of Mt. Shuksan] is a serious snow-and-ice route of moderate steepness on one of the most beautiful mountains in the Cascades. No route on Mount Shuksan is more dramatic than the seldom-done North Face, which ascends the snow- and glacier-clad shoulder dividing the White Salmon cirque from the Price Glacier cirque. The North Face route offers the classic Mount Shuksan challenges: approach difficulties through a valley choked with slide alder, problems with routefinding on the complex peak, and the physical demands resulting from the sheer size of the mountain. But it is a rewarding and direct route to the summit with a satisfying feeling of openness and exposure, a sublime setting, and a view down to Price Lake, milky with glacier slit. The climbing is 40- to 50- degree snow and ice. As with all such routes, snow conditios can be a major variable. Good snow (cold and hard) makes for a pleasant and enjoyable climb, while soft snow can make for a terrifying and possibly dangerous experience. Any climb of Mount Shuksan can be considered strenuous.


Here are some route overlays on the aerial photos I'd taken 3 days before the climb. I've also included a couple of (links to) images which show route overlays for the North Face and other nearby routes on Shuksan's NW and N sides.

North Face ascent route
Ascent and descent routes.
(ski) Routes on NW side, overlay by Lowell Skoog (links to Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project webpage)
(ski) Routes on N side, overlay by Lowell Skoog (links to Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project webpage)


Below is a map showing our route. The route lines are generated from a GPS recorder which was logging a point every 10 seconds throughout the entire day. According to the GPS track, we traveled 13 miles and accumulated about 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss.


The adventure took just under 14 hours car-to-car.  We had planned on starting hiking around 11pm and arriving at the base of the North Face just as it got light, but as we were loading up our backpacks at the trailhead we realized that due to a miscommunication we did not have a rope with us. So we drove back to Bellingham, picked up a rope at my house, and drove back to the trailhead. The ironic twist to the story is that the rope stayed in Dan's pack the entire climb!

10:30 PM - 3,650 ft - Arrive at White Salmon Lodge parking lot 
11:00 PM70 ft - Realize we've forgotten the rope. Drive back to Bellingham to get it
1:50 AM 3,650 ft - Arrive at White Salmon Lodge parking lot for the second time
2:00 AM 3,650 ft - Start hiking up road
4:30 AM 3,300 ft - Exit schwacky area of approach, get onto open slopes
5:03 AM - Sunrise
6:15 AM - 5,500 ft - Base of North Face
8:55 AM 8,400 ft - North shoulder col
10:18 AM9,127 ft - Summit
10:55 AM 9,127 ft - Leave summit, begin descent
12:11 PM 6,600 ft - Top of White Salmon Glacier 
3:43 PM 3,650 ft - Arrive back at car
11:00 PM 70 ft - Fall to sleep at computer processing photos, after being awake just over 40 hours.


Here is a video clip I took climbing the North Face. For the most part the snow was about 40° and perfect for boot-stepping, besides for a few areas of snice (snow+ice) where the grade steepened to 50° or so.


Now even climbers wander around in the mountains glued to their iPhones. Since we were doing the approach in the dark, Dan had loaded an estimated route line into his phone, and we were able to use a GPS signal to figure out where we were in relation to that line. But that didn't mean we were able to avoid the notorious brush of the White Salmon Valley approach. "Siri, how do I get out of this slide alder...?"
Just as it was getting bright enough to turn off our headlights, we emerged from the timber and brush and reached the head of the White Salmon Valley. From here, we headed toward the 5,500 ft saddle to the left of the profile of the NF in the photo. The photo also shows a dirty avalanche track generated by snow and ice falling off the Hanging Glacier.
Chad and Dan traversing left across the base of the North Face. Let the fun begin!
Heading up the North Face. We were surprised to find the entire face lit in the morning sun (we had expected it to be in the shade due to its northern aspect), but since it was still early in the day the snow was firm, and the runnels made for great ascent lines. We progressed up unroped, and never did find ourselves in need of the rope.
We skirted these opening cracks on the right side.
Looking down the lower North Face. Softened by the rays of the early morning sun, the snow had become ideal for kick stepping. 
Dan on the North Face. The face is somewhat steep, 40-50°. But the snow was good enough to allow a comfortable unroped ascent. In a couple of more hours it would transition from ideal to dangerous, so we were glad for the early start and encouraged to move quickly. It took us just over two hours to ascend the face from its base to the North Shoulder.
Here we are at the broad North Shoulder. The summit pyramid is enveloped in clouds. We wrapped around the summit pyramid on the left (east).
A glimpse of the Crystal Glacier as we wrapped around the east side of the summit pyramid.
Aesthetic terrain on the upper reaches of Shuksan.
Heading towards the summit pyramid.
Looking up the central ascent gully on the south side of the summit pyramid. This is part of the popular Sulphide Glacier route (I think we spotted 20-30 people on this route!) so there was a staircase of boot prints up the gully.
On the summit: Steph, Chad, Dan. It took us 8 hours from the car.
Billy and the edible summit register.
Descending the upper Sulphide Glacier. Our plan was to wrap around and descend the White Salmon Glacier back into White Salmon Valley.
Traversing across the head of the Upper Curtis Glacier.
Descending Winnies Slide toward the head of the White Salmon Glacier. The popular Fisher Chimney's route continues to the left.
Chad looking down the White Salmon Glacier, which was pretty much a plunge-stepping snow highway (being careful to scope for cracks of course). Chad and Dan were probably bemoaning the fact they had done this climb with a non-skier such as myself. We had brought snowshoes and used them on the White Salmon Valley deapproach a bit, but we could have easily done the approach/deapproach without them. Skis, though, could have taken our 14 hour rt time down to 10 hours.
For the way back to the car, we decided to try heading up some snow ramps and traversing high on snowfields before making the final descent to the White Salmon Lodge. This ended up being a great way to avoid brush and we were back at the car in a couple of hours from the head of the White Salmon Valley. This is a great early season alternative to the valley schwack when there is enough snow on the slopes.
Back at the car, just under 14 hours since we started! We were pretty tired by now, having all been awake for nearly 40 hours. The most dangerous part of the whole trip was definitely the drive home. You know it's been a great climb when the drivers are on 30-minute-drive-30-minute-nap rotations all the way home.


Found: iPhone, buried in the snow on the slopes below Chair 8. It was wet and would not turn on, but when I got home and dried it out, I charged it and it seems to work fine. It is password protected so I have no idea whose phone it is. The background photo on the welcome screen is a pair of birds. If anyone knows someone who lost an iPhone on Mt. Baker Ski Area somewhere on the slopes below Chair 8, email me!

An interesting question came to mind as I was trying out various passcodes to get into the phone to determine its owner. How long would it take me to crack the passcode, if I did nothing else but enter numbers into the iPhone until I had entered the correct one? There are 4 digits, each with 10 choices, so there are 10,000 possible passcodes (0000, 0001, ..., 9999). Assuming one passcode attempt per second, it takes 3 seconds to try 3 passcodes, before the phone is disabled for 5 minutes. So on average it takes 101 seconds to try 1 incorrect passcode.  So to try all 10,000 possible passcodes, it would take 1,010,000 seconds, or 11.7 days. This is a maximum bound on how long it wold take, since assuming I started at 0000 and just worked my way up (0000, 0001, 0002, ...), I would likely encounter the correct passcode sometime before getting to 9999 (for instance, there's a 40% probability I would encounter the correct passcode in 0000 to 3999, and so on). (After doing this analysis, I was ready to brew a pot of coffee and surround myself with 11.7 days worth of rations and get to number punching. But 10 minutes and 6 seconds into my passcode quest, the phone told me it was disabled for 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes and 3 seconds later, and the phone is now claiming to be disabled for 30 minutes. So as I waited I did some calculations. Let's now assume a doubling wait time between every three unsuccessful attempts, and also that the phone is not set to erase all of its contents after a predetermined number of incorrect passcodes. It turns out that around the time of my 90th birthday, I will be punching in passcode 0071. I think I need more rations.)