Winter has been great, but it felt like the time to push into bigger terrain. The season’s first major ‘window of opportunity’ appeared and I had one mountain on my mind: Shuksan. Monday dumped 1.5 feet of fresh snow up north and low winds and high pressured seemed to linger Tuesday through Saturday. It seemed appropriate to go and give some of the bigger lines on Shuksan a try!
Over the past few years, I’ve made ‘attempts’ (if you can count not actually getting into the line) at the Northwest Couloir (NWC) on Shuksan. The first time I backed off due to icy conditions on the traverse; the second, due to wind slabs on the traverse. Porter similarly has had multiple ‘no-gos’ on the NWC, so we both were stoked to try and give it a go.
I had ambition to try and link up another big line on Shuksan with NWC in a day, making it a romp on the upper mountain. It’d mean 10k’+ of vert and skiing on tired legs at the end of a day on a big line…but I felt it could be done. My ‘dream’ was to ski NWC + North Face in a day. Porter and I left the door open to the idea by starting sufficiently early and bringing a lot of food. We figured we’d let the day dictate what would be appropriate.
Our friends Andrew and Will joined us for the climb up the White Salmon; they were going to put some laps on the WSG to enjoy good pow. We met up in the parking lot at 7:30 AM and started out…but not before a tongue lashing from Baker Patrol about how we weren’t allowed to skin on the cat track to the descent into the valley.
After talking it through with patrol, we skinned outside the rope line and descended into the White Salmon drainage. The descent was smooth and within 30 minutes we were starting our climb. We were delightfully surprised that there was a group ahead of us breaking trail! We couldn’t see any tracks on the WSG, so we figured they were heading up just a ways above us. We ended up catching them just before Winnie’s Slide, a group of 5. We chatted with them; their plans sounded like a line on the Hanging Glacier.
Porter and I continued up onto the Upper Curtis, where winds were stronger than we expected. The snow wasn’t a ‘red flag’, but it wasn’t a screaming ‘green light’ either. Kind of in-between, where there are wind slabs but they are resistant planar and leave you second guessing. A lovely (NOT) feeling when you’re headed into big terrain. We continued on, however, after discussing opportunities to ski the roll-over above the line and see how the snow felt.
We were efficient and smooth to the top of the Upper Curtis just below the North Summit. I went to transition but realized my heel gap had backed off on my adjustment plates. Lovely! I spent 10-15 minutes faffing before we were ready to drop.
Porter cautiously made some wide turns on the roll-over down to the start of NWC, testing the snow surface. We didn’t see any major cracking or whoompfing, just some dry sluff above spongy snow below. I followed suit, skiing more directly above the line to see if I could get any reaction. Nothing. Hmm…that’s a good sign?
Well, here we were again…right on top of NWC. We both looked at one another, similarly cautious. Well, who wants to go first? Porter volunteered and sheepishly I didn’t resist. My ego took a hit not being on the sharp end, but I was at peace letting him open the line. Part of me really wanted to…part of me didn’t. Such is backcountry skiing at times.
We had radios and Porter radioed back that the snow was good and the traverse over the cliffs was smooth. No ice, no BS. WOW…the crux of the line seemed simple enough. I followed suit down the initial couloir, making jump turns in good ‘glue-like’ spring pow. The traverse was wide, soft, and very simple in these good conditions! After exiting the traverse, we looked at one another and realized we were gonna do it this time! STOKED!
We peered down at the line, plotting our turns and strategy. The upper pitch after the traverse is steep and has a super cool feeling of vertical relief above the White Salmon valley. I took out my camera and told Porter to ski on the skyline, seeing the pictures to shoot. He had earned the right to get first tracks, taking the traverse first. Porter smoothly made turns down the first pitch, managing slough that ran by taking turns that progressively inched to skier’s right. The top 3-4 inches sloughed pretty readily, but everything below felt great.
WOW…it was damn fun. Great snow for steep skiing…just needed to take it cautiously to manage slough (or freeride the whole line). We leapfrogged the rest of the couloir; I met up with Porter at the rock mid-way down where you have to trend skier’s right. From there, I skied the rest down to the bottom, able to open it up a bit more. WOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Super fun.
Once we got to the bottom, we were over the moon. Years of waiting had paid off, getting the line in great conditions with no tracks. We skied back down to the skin track and asked ourselves, “well…what next?”
We had plans for another big day tomorrow, but nothing is guaranteed. Porter and I felt that given the conditions we’d seen on the mountain, it was worth pushing today and seeing if we could link up the North Face. It’d mean a big day today and little-to-no recovery for our big day tomorrow, but with objective skiing I feel like you need to go out and get what you want first…then worry about the rest later.
The skinner was in and we floated back up towards Winnie’s Slide. We sighted the other group skiing down the Hanging Glacier (east variation); we looked back at one another and remarked, ‘wow, that’s cool!’. But at the moment, we didn’t think that much of it (more on this later).
We continued past Winnie’s Slide towards the Upper Curtis, where our skin track had been filled back in by winds on the upper mountain. A sign that snow was definitely being transported. We noted that we could at least go look at the North Face entrance; worst case was we could ski safely back to the White Salmon.
We transitioned just below the North Summit and skied over towards the North Face entrance…which was just as ‘skiing off the edge of the world’ feeling as I’ve read about in reports. It truly does roll-over to infinity. The upper roll was hard windboard and rime-chickenhead ice. It was a pretty easy ‘no’ from both of us. We had 10k’ in our legs and didn’t feel the need to ‘fuck around and find out’ on a line like that in subpar conditions.
Now came the biggest decision for the day: ski back to the White Salmon, the guaranteed way down…or Hanging Glacier (east variation)? For years, I’ve always held a hard line of not skiing under seracs. It’s been my ‘line in the sand’ with objective hazard. It’s seemingly random to me and unpredictable.
However, today I lapsed my ‘line in the sand’. There were a few factors that went into it…
- We saw that 4 skiers had made it down through. We figured following tracks would make travel efficient and quick.
- It was cold and the Hanging Glacier was no longer getting sun. We hadn’t heard any calving throughout the day. I know that seracfall can happen at any time, regardless of sun…but still.
- I won’t lie, there was ego and ambition driving for skiing Hanging Glacier. It’s a cool line and the fact that it had been skied made us feel more comfortable with it.
After Porter proposed it, I agreed on one condition: we move QUICKLY. No cameras, no faffing (hopefully). We had sighted ~most~ of the line from the WSG on our climb up and had seen the skiers descending. We figured it was ~mostly~ a known quantity.
The upper pitch down to the dogleg skier’s right was very chill, low angle skiing amongst the upper Hanging Glacier. The snow was much less wind affected than the Upper Curtis and skied great. Once we began to dogleg skier’s right, the pitch steepened and became more fall-line. There was a good saddle for us to stop and re-group where the east variant and west variant fork.
*No more photos from this point on…sorry 🙁 Time to focus.*
From the saddle, we spotted the choke point/crux of the line. It seemed that the group ahead had sidestepped a 50′ section over a rock bulge. It looked completely manageable, but the overhead hazard was severe: a giant serac overhanging. Lovely…the slowest and most heads up section also involved the biggest overhead hazard. I got my axe out and told Porter I’d go first. I skied down to the sidesteps and began making my way down cautiously.
At the choke, there were 2 conflicting strategies at play:
- Move as quickly as possible and get out from under the serac.
- Take the steep section cautiously and avoid falling.
The 50′ section was steep and narrow, but wasn’t death-defying steep. It just required care. There was a small section of ice and a rock bulge to manage. The run-out wouldn’t have been ‘death’, but it wasn’t a section you wanted to run through either. I opted to side step and plunge my axe in, knowing that if I took my time I’d be fine and able to get through it.
As I stepped through the narrowest part of the choke, a slough ran off the serac above me. Thankfully, I was out of the fall-line of the slough and completely unharmed. But I won’t lie, the exact scenario I had been dreading ran through my mind as snow dumped just feet away from me. This was why I had drawn that line in the sand. And I had stepped over it. I got away with it this time.
It took me a while, but I managed through the choke without incident. I radioed to Porter that it was icy in a few spots but that he’d manage fine (he’s better on icy stuff like this). I told him I’d ski out to the bottom and get eyes, since there weren’t any good ‘safe zones’ beneath the Hanging Glacier.
I skied out to the bottom and finally had a moment to take a deep breath. I looked back up at Porter, snapped some photos, and for a moment had an opportunity to absorb what had just happened. Man…that was too close for comfort.
Porter re-grouped with me at the bottom and we regaled at the two lines we’d skied. A fun day in the mountains for sure! Lots to think about as well. But definitely a memorable day. We skied down to the high traverse exit and fought our way through the creeks back to the cat track to the parking lot.
Overall, I’m stoked on what we did…but also have a feeling of guilt for exceeding my risk tolerance with unmanageable objective hazard. None of the skiing on the line was out of our comfort zone/abilities. But the skiing beneath serac fall was a little too close for my taste.