A couple of weeks ago, my annual May ski traverse in the Wallowas got put aside by a less than promising weather forecast. A few days before leaving, my ski partner, Nick Pope mentioned that the weather looked better up North in Washington and had a handful of ski tours in mind. With a three day weather window ahead we drove north on I-5 trying to sort out what we wanted to do. Nick mentioned a tour that got my interest. It involved leaving Mt Baker Ski Area to climb the White Salmon Glacier on Mt Shuksan with a descent of the Nooksack Glacier Headwall and a traverse over Icy Peak and Ruth Mountain and out the Hannegan Pass trail. Nick had already skied and climbed quite a few routes on Mt Shuksan, but this route would bring him into some new terrain. With a plan forming we got back on I-5 and headed north to find a place to sleep.
Nooksack Glacier Cirque
Sulphide Glacier Camp
The next morning, not having a car shuttle worked out, we drove as far as we could on the road to the Hannegan Pass Trailhead. Here we stashed some running shoes for the impending walk and hitchhike back to the Mt Baker Ski Area. The traversing descent from the ski area to the valley floor and climb up the White Salmon Glacier went smoothly and pretty soon we were topping out below Winnie’s Slide. After a quick break we decided to push further and try to make camp on the Sulphide Glacier.

A traversing short uphill skin, on the Upper Curtis Glacier, brought us to a quick downhill to Hells Highway, our gateway to the Sulphide. With the help of ski crampons we popped out on the Sulphide and found a flat spot for camp.

The next morning we headed out for Shuksan’s summit. After dropping our overnight gear at the base of the pyramid shaped summit pinnacle we put crampons on and headed for the top. After soaking in the views, we put our skis on and after a few sideslips and jump turns we were skiing off the summit.

A short traverse east across the Crystal Glacier brought us to the top of the Nooksack Glacier. After a little scouting we found a safe entrance and skied some old powder on a bulletproof crust. About ten turns in, we were committed, forced to air a bergschrund that spanned the whole headwall.

Nick skiing summit pyramid of Mt Shuksan
Nick Skiing from Mt Shuksan’s summit
Jagged Ridge from Nooksack Glacier
Once on the glacier we had some fun turns before we hurriedly traversed east, picking a route on between Jagged Ridge above us and a series of icefalls below us. Eventually the plateau gave way to a steep sidehill traverse with smaller crevasses below. The crux came as the runnels got bigger and icier. With help from my whippet in a few places, I followed Nick thru a series of traverses and sideslips that eventually got us back on easy ground.

Forgoing the summit of Icy Peak we traversed high on the southwest side of the peak. From below a rock tower we made turns on late afternoon wet snow to a col between Icy and Mt Ruth.

With stunning views in all directions, we made camp for the second night. As we made dinner, Nick talked about a few of the other climbs and ski trips he had done in this area. The next morning we broke camp early and with the help of ski crampons we traversed around the shadowed south side of Mt Ruth. From the west we joined a spectacular ridge that led north to the summit of Mt Ruth. From the top, like the morning before on Mt Shuksan the view was spectacular. All three days we were out, off to the east, clouds had been building up against the mountains, but the west side had been under blue skies.
Sweet turns on Icy Peak
Mt Ruth from Icy-Ruth Col
The first 500 feet of skiing off the North side of Mt Ruth was still pretty icy, but as we traversed onto an aspect with a little more sun we were treated to some velvety corn. Eventually the corn gave way as we dropped in elevation and we found ourselves in shin deep wet slop. The lower part of the descent had many steep rollovers and funneled into a main gully. By leapfrogging down ski cutting and releasing slow wet slides we made it to the valley floor in short time. As we contoured towards Hannegan Pass the realization that the real work for the day had begun.
A couple of hours later, after nonstop detours over avalanche debris, a couple of creek crossings, we emerged at the Hannegan Pass Trailhead. The devastation in the valley floor we had been travelling through was a humbling reminder of the power and destruction of the avalanche terrain we had encountered. From the trailhead we skied down the road passing many more avalanche paths until the alpine environment gave way to more friendly forest below. About the time we were tired of putting skis on and off, we rounded a corner and found ourselves at our cache. Stashing our packs in the woods and donning running shoes we walked the rest of the way to Higway 542. The second car that passed gave us a ride back to Nick’s van and we scarfed food down as we drove back to pick up our skis and packs.

 

The Nooksack Traverse route we followed was based off of a trip that Sky Sjue, Jason and Josh Hummel, Lowell Skoog, and Sam Avaiusini took in April of 2004. Their trip is documented in the Northwest Mountain Journal Issue 1 (www.mountaineers.org/nwmj) as well as the websites www.cascadecrusades.org, www.skisickness.com, and www.alpenglow.org. Although our trip was later in the season, we felt this year’s snowpack would allow for reasonable conditions. From looking at their pictures and reading their reports, the conditions on the Nooksack Headwall and the traverse under Jagged Ridge probably went a lot smoother in 2004. We encountered quite a bit of avalanche debris below jagged ridge on the traverse line and it became tedious in some places to pick our way through the debris piles. The other detour we made from their original line was to not summit Icy peak and ski the Spillway Glacier. Traversing or climbing the sun ripened southwest facing slopes of Icy after watching a large avalanche obliterate our ski tracks on the Nooksack Glacier, left us feeling like we would be pushing our luck. It turned out also that a large glide avalanche on the Spillway Glacier would have made it difficult to repeat their line off the north side of Icy Peak.
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