We got up well before dawn. It was the fourth day since setting out from the Shannon Ridge trailhead, and today was to be our attempt on the summit. We wanted a nice early alpine start to ensure we got to the top well before noon.
We climbed up over the Sulphide Glacier in the dim pre-dawn twilight, avoiding the heavier crevassed areas we chose to visit as a training exercise the day before. Instead, we angled up higher, heading for a snow crest that marked the boundary between the Sulphide and Crystal Glaciers. This snow divide would then lead us up to the southeastern ridgeline of the summit pyramid and the final climb up to the summit.
Early Morning on the Sulphide
Dawn in the North Cascades
We reached the snow crest right at sunrise, and were treated to some pretty spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, both near and far. The sun shining onto a large cornice along the crest-line was particularly beautiful.
We turned our attention upwards, to Shuksan's summit pyramid. It was now quite close, perhaps only half a kilometer away. The snow apron above the top end of the Sulphide continued a little farther upward, but then abruptly ended. At that point, the dry rock of the southeastern ridgeline (also known as the southeast corner) led upwards for a few hundred feet to the summit. From this perspective it definitely looked less foreboding and steep than it had from down at high camp, but was still steep-looking enough.
Looking down to High Camp
We make our way towards the summit pyramid (and in particular, the base of the southeast corner of it). We angle slightly left to stay on the snow to avoid the lowest-angled initial rock on the ridge. Tom lets me lead the rope team all the way up to the base of the rock.
The Upper Sulphide
We take a bit of time to reconfigure ourselves for alpine rock climbing. Tom takes over the point position at the head of our little 3-person rope team (which I am totally ok with, since this terrain will be beyond my level of comfort). He will lead the alpine rock section, and also give us a little bit of running instruction along the way. Although the rock is clean and dry and we could have reasonably brought rock climbing shoes along with us, the spirit of the course and of the climb is alpine mountaineering, and in general it is better to learn to do this sort of thing in our mountaineering boots.
Tom starts off on the first of two or three pitches up to the top of the summit pyramid. As he is often wont to do, he does the ascent in 'simul-climb' mode, where he does not set up formal belay stations. Tom has often been a proponent of this style, claiming it offers the right balance (on moderately technical terrain like this) between safety and speed.
We are grateful for the once-again clear and calm sunny day, for it means we can focus on the terrain and the climbing and not be bothered by the weather. The ridge is composed of some sort of wavy metamorphic rock, and it is clean and grippy. Although it is a bit slabby in places, there are enough hand and footholds to keep us reasonably reassured. It is airy, though, and we are glad we have Tom up above us, placing protection and giving us good belays.
Tom Leads the Rock
I'd say that the climbing difficulty is mostly about a 5.2 or a 5.3 on the YDS scale. It would have been very straightforward in full climbing shoes, and it is a bit more challenging in mountaineering boots. But Brian and I have no mishaps or missteps, although there is perhaps one downsloping corner that Brian and I are both a little unsure of (ultimately we are fine). Tom has put Brian in the middle of the rope and me at the lower end, so I have a touch more work to do, extracting out and racking away the protection as we climb up.
Brian's unhappy corner
In all, I'd say it took us an hour or two to climb the 2 or 3 pitches to Shuksan's summit via the Northeast Corner route. I wouldn't say I was at a level of comfort where I'd be happy leading such a thing myself, but I was happy that both Brian and I were ultimately able to successfully make the climb with no slips or hangs on the rope. It meant that from a purely technical perspective we were able to climb such things, and that was good to know.
The summit area at the top of Shuksan is fairly small - perhaps 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, and drops off fairly steeply on all sides. It's quite an amazing and airy perch, with a magnificent swath of the North Cascades, southern BC, and Mount Baker, all immediately visible. For the first twenty or so minutes at the top, we had perfectly clear conditions, but then a bank of clouds right around the 9000-foot level drifted in, obscuring views of everything save the nearly 11,000 foot high tip of nearby Mount Baker.
After a fairly leisurely stay on top, we re-organized to head down. We weren't downclimbing the Southeast corner route, but rather were taking the easiest descent line, which is down a steeply sloping south-facing couloir. Only the first little bit was on rock, and the rest on steep but quite reasonable snow, with no particularly dangerous runout. Once again, we did the descent as a simul-climb, not bothering to do formal belays (I'm not even sure we put in any protection on this descent route, given its relative lack of exposure and low level of difficulty).
The descent down the southern couloir went quite rapidly, and soon we were back on the smooth snowy slopes of the upper Sulphide Glacier. The bank of clouds had mostly cleared away, and we had a fairly clear and straightforward walk back down to our high camp, where Brian and I were pretty happy about the successful climb (we had been slightly nervous about it over the last few days, what with that imposing-looking summit pyramid always staring down at us).
I can't remember if we packed up camp that same day or whether we stayed one more night and then headed down the next morning (I don't have any pictures or specific recollection).
Relaxing back at high camp