Tackling Mt. Shuksan

Washington's 9,131-foot Mt. Shuksan, one of the state's 10 non-volcanic summits over 9,000 feet, is the one you can see towering over the chairlifts at Mt. Baker ski area. The fact that Shuksan is rarely skied despite the mountain's proximity to the backcountry mecca of Mt. Baker ski area is testament to the peak's forbidding character. Most of the time, skiers look but don't touch Mt. Shuksan. Guidebook author Fred Beckey says of the view from the ski area, "The oft seen NW face is known for the elegance and beauty of its crevassed steep glaciers and the great surmounting summit rock pyramid."

All of which is to say that when my friend Will and I set out on a recent Saturday to climb and ski Shuskan, we were surprised to see that our skins tracks weren't the first set that morning. As Will and I skinned through the woods toward White Salmon Creek, we wondered whose tracks we were following. It was a group of at least two, but the skin track was tough to decipher. Fat skis for sure, but was there a splitboard, too? Would they drop into our intended line on the White Salmon while we were climbing up?

We finally made it out of the forest and were heading up the creek when we spotted the first of the other party. The stranger was breaking trail on the upper half of the White Salmon Glacier, cutting a winding route through the drooping black chasms of early-winter crevasses. They were at least an hour ahead of us, maybe more.

We continued climbing, gaining the foot of the glacier and heading above the tremendous ice avalanches that start high above at the crumbling ice cliff of Hanging Glacier. By the time we gained another vantage, the other group had vanished behind a ridge, their skin track continuing around the corner onto the Curtis Glacier and toward the higher reaches of the mountain.

By 2:45 p.m., the sun was already nearing the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Peninsula to the west. So, forgoing a summit bid, Will and I decided to drop in, leaving the identity of the mystery group unresolved. We skied a steep line of velvety, consolidated powder down the White Salmon along the skier's right. The sun was now truly setting, and the peaks were donning their happy-hour pinks and oranges, but we took an extra 30 minutes to climb up a small chute above the glacier that we had frequently looked at from the ski area. We often wondered if it was possible to ski, and if so, if it had been done. Perhaps we could be first?

There wasn't enough snow up high, so we skied the bottom 400 feet of the chute, hooting at the ridiculous powder bounty we had discovered. I began to think our cheers were echoing off the towering rock buttresses, but I realized that across the valley the mystery group had just emerged from their run and were jubilating in their success as well. After a meandering descent to the creek bottom, our groups finally convened.

They weren't strangers, but friends: It was pro skiers Molly Baker and Zack Giffin and snowboarder Ben Price, and they'd just ridden the Northwest Couloir, which was first skied by Rene Crawshaw in the spring of 1999 and has been ridden only a handful of times since then. Baker's descent is most likely the first recorded female descent of the line. Price became the first snowboarder to complete the line when he first rode it a number of years ago.

When Will and I pointed out the chute we had partially skied, Price informed us that Crawshaw had skied that line too, and that no, Will and I would not be having any first descents today. Still, we high-fived and then dug headlamps out of our packs for the exit hike.