North Cascades National Park is an alpine wonderland tucked against Washington state’s border with Canada. The park isn’t known for an iconic postcard-worthy vista…by car. But a bucolic world unlike anything else in Cascadia awaits anyone able to hike a few hours into the wilderness. In August, we arranged for a trip through Timberline Mountain Guides to climb Mount Shuksan (9,131 feet).
Although less prominent than nearby Mount Baker, Shuksan is considered by some to be the most photogenic mountain in the Pacific Northwest. The peak is only accessible through a long approach and is typically climbed over two or three days.
We opted to approach Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier route on the mountain’s south side. On August 9, our team rendezvoused at the ranger station in Sedro Wooley, WA and caravanned to the trailhead near Baker Lake. A slight wildfire haze filled the air, but otherwise the skies remained clear and blue. After a quick gear check, we left our vehicles and headed up into the forest. The trail gradually climbed through old growth trees and switchbacked up Shannon Ridge. After a few hours we started to see Baker and other glaciated North Cascades peaks in the distance.
Once on Shannon Ridge, the terrain opened up with more views as the trail steepened. We eventually reached a snowfield and set up camp at the Sulphide Glacier’s edge in an established site with some wind protection. Epic is an overused word in climbing trip reports. But it’s the only word appropriate to describe the area surrounding our alpine high camp. Shuksan’s summit pyramid dominated the skyline above us, with thousand foot-plus waterfalls across a valley from us, and the elusive Pickett Range in the distance. While dining on Caesar salad mix from a bag (surprisingly excellent after being chilled in a snow refrigerator), tuna-enhanced Indian food, and Irish Whiskey, we solved the world’s problems and planned our ascent for the next day. It’s also worth mentioning we had access to a Forest Service -maintained alpine toilet about 100 feet below our camp.
Even after the sun went down, the temperature stayed surprisingly warm. Most in the team slept under the stars without a tent. We woke up before sunrise, made breakfast, and gathered up our gear. Unlike the first day, we wore crampons and roped up directly from camp as we walked up the Sulphide Glacier in two, two-person teams.
During the night, the wildfire haze dropped to the valley floor below us. As the sun came up, the haze started to rise and filtered the day’s early light. After a few hours climbing up the glacier, we reached Shuksan’s summit pyramid.
The final 600 feet involved rock climbing on belay up to the top. Using caution, our two teams safely found routes up the pyramid with our guides leading the way. We then celebrated on the top, rappelled down the pyramid, and made excellent time on the glacier back to camp. Originally we hoped to spend an extra day before descending, but a rainstorm in the forecast pushed us to return the same day.
The hike out was uneventful as we retraced our steps from day one. By mid-afternoon we were back at the trailhead and on the road to civilization.