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North Face of Shuksan

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The White Salmon Glacier Paradise seems right now to be anything but – I can feel a collection of pine needles gathering on the back of my neck, and I have a hunch I might be losing the battle that has been waging for the last hour between me and the green growing things here in paradise.

“That’s odd,” you’re thinking, “Why did she stick the word ‘paradise’ to a piece of the Mt. Shuksan landscape?”

Why, indeed?  

In certain Swiss valleys, where certain distinguished, sharp and pointy rock peaks loom overhead, visitors will find the maps describing the area to be riddled with the word.  There is the Rothorn Paradise.  The Sunegga Paradise.  The Schwarzee Paradise.  And of course, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise.  The summer/winter maps of the valley show them all, wedged peak to peak in one valley.  

As we looked across the valley at the North Face of Mt. Shuksan, Mihai mentioned it first:  “There it is – the White Salmon Glacier Paradise”.  We chuckled.  Mihai has been to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, and has seen the network of lifts and trails that connect peaks and valleys there.  So I was quite certain he was being ironic, given the lack of any infrastructure to bring us through the valley to the base of the climb.  

Even though we are in the Cascades, not the Alps, from our vantage point the mountain certainly looks worthy of the term.  The north face of Shuksan rises up from Price Arm to the summit plateau, flanked by cliffs, hanging icefields, and the steep slopes of the White Salmon glacier.  There is deep green on the arm, the still-snow-covered white of the glacier, and the blue of the sky catching the blue of the glacier hanging above the White Salmon basin.  And there isn’t a person to be seen.

Six hours of bushwhacking and snow field climbing later, we rested in the afternoon light on the Price Arm, the north face of Shuksan rising above us.  Mihai broke the silence.  

“Which would be best to access the White Salmon Glacier Paradise, a train or a tram?”  After some discussion, we decide on a train.

It seemed almost sacrilege – how dare we dream of a cush European mountain train weaving through the Cascade wilderness?  But dream we did.  As the evening light deepened, we planned the base area, the mid-station (it would need to travel into the mountain, tunneling up to come out on the summit plateau, with a window-stop part way up for viewing the hanging ice fields) – and debated if the summit should hold the restaurant, or just an observatory.  

After the hours of bushwhacking, this was perhaps our coping mechanism for the suffering we had experienced in the White Salmon basin.

As the sun set, we allowed the train jokes to fade from our conversation, and watched the sky darken as we settled into our bivy spots.  The warm temperatures of the day cooled a bit but there wasn’t a freeze in sight.  When my alarm went off at 2:30 am the stars were still going strong, but by the time we were walking up the first slopes of the north face it was already light.  Do they have these long summer days in the other Paradise?

In spite of the high freezing levels the climb was in excellent shape – snow paved the way up the steep and exposed slopes and across the big crevasse before the snow couloir.  It never did freeze, but the sloppy snow was never worse than ankle deep, and there was even some firm snow on the upper shaded slopes.  But by the time we reached the Upper Curtis Glacier Paradise at 8100 feet, the sun was strong and warm…and it was only 7:30 am.  We paused for a break and another round of breakfast (was the oatmeal at 3:00 am a late night snack or an early morning feed?).  Perched at the top of the climb, we were treated to a view of all the peaks to the north:  the Cascadian Glacier Paradise.  In every aspect, the north face of Shuksan has a wild feel to it  – the access cross-country, the climb itself, and the views it offers are all rugged and beautiful.  

We decided the train should definitely stop there for a view.  

In order to reach the summit of Shuksan, we wrapped around the mountain to the east, leaving gear at the base of the summit pyramid to scamper up the rock.  Suddenly we had company – lots of it – in the form of groups from two to ten people, crawling up and down the last 400 feet to the top.  It was a sunny Saturday, after all.  As we wove amongst them I debated internally whether they would appreciate our euro train jokes – but I didn’t try any out.

The way out from the summit of Shuksan is a long one.  By the time you have passed across the Sulphide Glacier Paradise, down Hell’s Highway to the Upper Curtis Glacier Paradise, then down the upper slopes of the White Salmon Glacier Paradise you have descended over 2000 feet, but there are miles still ahead.  From the top of the White Salmon we descended the Fisher Chimneys, a section of 4th class rock scrambling that leads down to the trail leading to Lake Ann and, eventually, the parking lot.  The chimneys were free of snow, but the way from their base out to civilization was not.  By the time we arrived at the road near Mt. Baker ski area, we had been forced to once again travel cross country, and even do a bit of light bushwhacking, as the trail appeared and disappeared under the snow.  

Could this, too, be a scenic train ride?

Tired and hungry, we hitched a ride back to Mihai’s car with some picnicking about-to-be newlyweds.  Our full circuit of the Mt. Shuksan Glacier Paradise – highlighted by the north face route -  was complete.  And no train or tram had helped us make our way through the rugged terrain.  It was, in the words of Martin, the full Cascadian experience.   



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