As we stood in one of the most beautiful locations I had ever been, the pain and discomfort were already starting to fade. To the West stood Mt Baker, impossible to avoid in its beautiful white glaciated skirt stretching from summit to foothills. To the South the massive Sulphide Glacier unfurled out thousands of feet below, displaying its massive depth through the gapping crevasses that our approach route circuitously skirted. A stone’s throw North (11.6 miles to be exact) amidst increasingly tooth like peaks sat an imaginary line indicating the separation of the United States from Canada. And to the East stretched the glaciated peaks of North Cascades National park, including the incredibly rugged and iconic terrain of the mighty Picket Range.
It was calm. Eerily calm. Even the most subtle of sounds were loud and clear as we used our few minutes on the summit to eat a bite of food, reconfigure the rope, and snap a couple photos before starting the second half of our journey; getting down.
I have jokingly referred to myself as a fair weather mountaineer, a product of our proximity to the mountains more than any sort of discontent with the oftentimes finicky weather of the alpine environment. When you have world class climbing situated in your extended backyard, you are able to plan your trips into the mountains around anticipated weather and a quick drive places you at any of the thousands of trail heads sprinkled in the Cascade Mountain Range.
It was Wednesday when Rob called me to chat about a mountain meet up with him that had tentatively been penciled months ago when over a beer he said “ I will be back in Seattle for the weekend of August 1st and we should climb Mt Baker.” As the weekend approached with impeccable weather in the forecast, I realized that we had reserved a decommissioned fire lookout in the Central Cascades for Sunday evening leaving us only Saturday and early Sunday morning to squeeze in a summit. I sheepishly questioned whether it was wise to try for a summit in our small time frame and Rob enthusiastically recommended we shift our focus to one of Mt Baker’s closest neighbors, Mt. Shuksan. He said it was a slightly shorter route and seemed intent on introducing us to a place we had never been and he had spent many years exploring, the North Cascades. I hung up the phone and immediately began running logistics on what was clearly an overly ambitious plan for a 3 day weekend.
Leave Yakima at 6:30 am on Saturday. Pick Rob up in Fall City at 9 am. Arrive at the North Cascades Ranger station for our permit at noon. Be on the trail to high camp by 1:30. Have camp set up around 6000’ by 6 pm. Early to bed, early to rise Sunday Morning. Summit around 8 am. Descend all 6600’, picking up camp on the way. Be leaving the trail head by 1:00pm on Sunday. Drive the 3.5 hours south to the ever green mountain lookout trail head, picking up the reserved key at the Skykomish ranger station on the way. Hike back up 1500’ to the look out with enough food and beverage to celebrate a [hopefully] successful Mt Shuksan summit, Rob’s recent completion of the bar exam and Samantha’s upcoming Birthday. Enjoy the Sunday evening sunset and Monday morning sunrise from the look out before making our way back to the car, dropping Rob back off in Fall City and driving back to Yakima.
Yea, that timeline should work out perfectly; said no one ever.
All went according to plan until Step 3: obtain an overnight permit at the ranger station. After driving 5.5 hours North we were informed that the last of the first come first serve permits had been claimed the evening before and a few worried glances turned to chatter about secondary options in the area. Because the high camp was situated in the National Park it required an overnight back country group permit, only 6 of which are issued for each night. A couple hours and over a thousand feet lower however, sat the boundary between North Cascades National Park and the National Forest land where one can camp without a permit. We opted for this option knowing it would make the strenuous summit day even longer and continued on our way to the trail head.
We hauled our packs up onto Shannon ridge and set up “camp” a few hundred feet from the National Park boundary, with the sun setting next to Mt Baker to the West and illuminating the northern reaches of the picket range to the East.
I awoke to my alarm at 2:50 am and we were on trail within the hour. We reached the toe of the glacier as the ambient morning light became bright enough to make headlamps unnecessary. We put on our harness’s, crampons, helmets and roped up before beginning the long approach to the summit pyramid on the Sulphide glacier who’s surface frequently yawned open thanks to a weak winter snowpack and an unusually warm summer. The sun rose in the first hour on Glacier, bringing the anticipated energy boost as well as worries of exceedingly high temperatures that I had not experienced in the mountains before.
At the base of the summit pyramid we switched or focus to rock and slowly picked a route through the last 600’ of elevation before topping out around 10 am. For those of you keeping track that’s a few hours behind our mythical “schedule,” and after a short summit break we repelled back down onto the glacier for the long slushy hike back down to camp. The high temperatures were amplified by the reflective nature of the glacier and we might as well have been walking across a white sand desert. A few hours of glacial slush followed by a few more of dusty trail placed as at the car at 5:45 pm.
With 3+ hours of driving to the next trail head left plus another 1500 vertical foot hike to the lookout, it was clear that not only would we miss the sunset but we would be hiking in the dark once again. We grabbed our key from the lockbox at the ranger station and drove for over an hour on dirt forest roads until they dead ended at the trailhead. We decided it was too late to make the nice dinner we had planned for and left those supplies behind making sure to fit the breakfast + mimosa supplies into our bags before departing the trailhead. With my view confined to the spread of my headlamp and muscles screaming, we made a b-line for the highest point while consuming our last ounces of energy. We arrived at the dark, vacant lookout at 12:30 AM, promptly popped a celebratory bottle of champagne and shortly thereafter lulled ourselves to sleep by reading past lookout journal entries out loud.
The morning revealed all that had not been seen the previous evening and the pace of our weekend finally relaxed to a crawl as we took in our second 360 degree mountain view, this time from our tiny glass room in the sky.
Mountaineering may be hard to understand from the perspective of someone who doesn’t do it. “Why go through an immense amount of pain and discomfort for such a tiny amount of satisfaction when you finally reach the summit, only to turn around and go back down?” one might inquire. They are right about the pain and discomfort, ohhhh are they so right. But where that sentiment proves wrong, for ourselves anyway, is when satisfaction is only associated with the brief summit visit. To assume that the only objective is to physically reach the top, is to disregard the intense physiological journey that is a part of most trips into the wildness. We have a deep appreciation for problem solving and team camaraderie. We have an appreciation for plan and logistics execution yet an ability to adapt and find interest in exploring what it means to be “comfortable”. There is a yearning to step away from society into a more simple existence where sometimes life is reduced to the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other. When one dramatically reduces their pace and spends time amidst the natural environment a deeper appreciation, respect and perspective of all things is achieved.
The intangible lessons derived from, and the memories recalled from these adventures are our fondest “positions” and provide personal happiness, inspiration and drive on a daily basis, lasting far beyond any particular summit objective.
It is when we are most vulnerable that we learn the most.