NOLS/Mount Shuksan Ascent - Days 1-6

Day One:  Tent Buddies

We spent most of our day going over all of the supplies we packed.  Then, going through the checklist of purchases and repairs before being in the field.  Finally, the last call before departure.  It would be our first night camping in the dramatic cascades after 3000ft + 4 mi gained, so we had start in a good state.

I would also get to know my tent mates.

Reuben:  Did the NOLS backpacking course 5 years ago.  Small framed film student who has created a couple of shorts.  Fan of absurdist humor.  Kung Fu black belt and practiced Krav Maga.  His family is Polish and they intend to take a trip back to his family’s city of origin.   He was really pleased by this.  For 130lb frame, he carries 60 really well.

Bryan:  Software engineer going back to school for CS after getting married recently.  160lbs, cooks at home, and has some particular interests/opinions.  He’s very decisive, willing to take point on doing group things like cooking, etc.  Methodical, analytical about his intention.  Strong for his size.

Day 2:  Welcome to the Glacier

I made this almond brown sugar butter granola concoction for breakfast with WAYYYY too much brown sugar and butter.  It was so rich, we did not finish eating it until before dinner.  The sun was a scorcher.  We ascended 1100ft, but the .3 mile trip became closer to 1.5 miles after contouring around the glacier until our final ascent.  We topped out on a glacier and moved across a snowfield to camp out.  We are now at the second day of snow camping, and this camp will serve us for two days.  Everyone is wearing glacier glasses now, and also drained from the rays of the “Death Star”.  Apparently, snow blindness can begin in as little as fifteen minutes of exposure.  Last random bit:  we now know the knots for our glacial travel rigging.

I was on point on the way up the glacier, and I can say with certainty kicking steps into the snow is easily three times the work of those following.  Learning this skill, simple as it is, is great for not sliding down a mountain while wearing a 75lb pack.   Mount Baker looms in the distance, and our camp a perfect viewing point for it.  On the opposite side—Mount Shuksan’s spire towers above us. 

Day 3:  Falling!

Learning today was full of self-arrests on the snow field.  The heights we climbed grew more and more and the falls longer and longer.  Right side down, head side down, belly and back.  The ice axe turned and stopped me every time.  We then strapped into our glacier “rig”, which is rigged as follows:

The Prusiks allow for belay and self-rescue.  The pack leash allows for one to disconnect while dangling in a crevasse and come up before reeling in pack later.  We played a game at the end of the day where as a rope team, we traversed a snow field randomly running from our team and yelling, “Falling!” to test their skills at arresting falls.  It was fun.  The real thing, I suspect, will not be.  

Day 4:  Glacial Camping

The designated leader for the day took us in our glacier rigs up a huge vertical climb to get to the top of a glacier.  After hearing of an incoming storm mix of rain/snow, we needed to scout out an alternative location for our camp.  We had planned for a ridge line location, but its unfortunate position in relation to the glacial bowl put us squarely in the wind tunnel of the glacial valley.  After scouting an alternative ridge line protected by rocks, we opted for the glacier floor.  The ridge line was covered in "watermelon snow" (a pink-colored snow algae which, if consumed, causes severe stomach issues), and the only rock for cooking on was a cliff.  Returning our rope team to the others, we informed them and we proceeded to probe the glacier for crevasses.  This took roughly two hours, carving out tent pads on the snow and cooking took another two, and creating a latrine pit and setting up tents using snow anchors for another two.  We were ready for whatever storm we encounter.  We watched climbing teams all the while heading toward the sheer rock summit and back down.

Day 5:  Cold

The latrine pit:  two hours I spent carving it out, and I spent another thirty minutes using it for the first time.  Wiping with snowballs is cold.  Most of the morning was spent in the tent reading about mountaineering and waking up from naps after passing out reading about mountaineering, sometimes sweating because a break in the cloud we are in lets the Death Star beat down on us (let’s think about that—sweating…in a tent…set on snow) and half the time waking up cold and snuggling beneath the sleeping bag to read some more.  Glacier, snow and ice protection, and snow anchor classes were next, at which point sustained 20mph wind blew a cloud through and chilled us to the bone.  Working in the snow helped…for a bit.  Time spent sitting in front of a pot filled with snow, melting it into water, for hours was another activity.  So I am prepping for tomorrow, when we will make our summit bid on Shuksan.

Day 6:  Summit Day - Mount Shuksan

Doing these things in a climbing gym is one thing—doing them at 9100ft is another entirely, especially in mountaineering boots.

Making our way to Mount Shuksan summit pyramid was easier than anticipated—the crevasses were few and far between, making it to the top of the summit pyramid was a different story.  The rock scramble had serious exposure, making some moves quite committed.  Doing these things in a climbing gym is one thing—doing them at 9100ft is another entirely, especially in mountaineering boots.  

The day started at 6am, and ended at midnight, for everybody but me.  I’m melting snow for water.  It is 30 degrees and breezy, and the clear night sky is filled with an uncountable number of stars.  I only have a stove in front of me, steadily making water for tomorrow’s 6am rise.  We summited.  All of us, together.  Then we came back down.  

I always tell my children, “Don’t climb something you can’t climb down.” Today was not a day they should’ve followed my example.

I always tell my children, “Don’t climb something you can’t climb down.”  Today was not a day they should’ve followed my example.  Down climbing is hard, and when my footholds were blind, my fear of heights set in…hard.  Luckily our instructors were far more competent climbers, and were amazing at setting up great protection.  Our navigation of it less superior—while being lowered, Amber, the Korean American, always-joyful soul who lent me her couch when I arrived in Seattle, fell sideways into a rock jutting out and hitting her back squarely.  It debilitated her.  Every step from there was agony, slowing our party’s descent to a crawl.  Summit day would not be easily remembered by her as one of pleasure.  The rest of us rallied around her, encouraging her to soldier on, and she did.  So now, as one of tomorrow’s two designated leaders, I have options.  Largely, however, they will depend on her, and the medicines our instructors administer. For now, though…water.