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[TR] Shuksan, Icy, Ruth - Nooksack Traverse 03/01/2019


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Trip: Shuksan, Icy, Ruth - Nooksack Traverse

Trip Date: 03/01/2019

Trip Report:

Fred and I went and did the Nooksack Traverse over the first three days of March. We had fun, I think. We had probably the worst snow conditions of any ski trip I have ever been on, extremely cold temps for Washington, a crevasse fall, and several equipment issues.

I might not go back... this year anyway.

We parked a car at the Hannegan Pass Road picnic area right at the highway, then drove up to the lower ski lodge. The trip into the White Salmon valley was typical. We traversed in and lost ground to some guys who skied the clearcut, but they didn't have overnight packs.

Skinning up the WSG was a breeze really, excellent snow if you were going downhill. We opted to climb the Hourglass instead of Hells Highway. We found about 20' of hard water ice... surprising. It was tough with a single axe and only two screws. Bring real ice gear and do it though! There was another bigger step above that we skirted on the left and topped out on the Sulphide. I would guess it was WI2.

Fred approaching the Hourglass:


Summiting was easy after dropping our packs at the bottom of the pyramid. We had lost a lot of time in the Hourglass, it's not worth it as a time saver, so we tagged the top and headed down. We skinned down to the flat spot on the Crystal Glacier while the sun set, getting the tent up just at dark. The crossover from the Crystal to the Sulphide was easy, poor light made it seem hard though.

Fred on the summit of Shuksan:


After a long cold night we packed up and headed uphill for a warmup skin and a look into the Price Glacier. The topout looked unlikely with a crack already running completely across the headwall.

We skied down to the entrance to the Nooksack Glacier to check it out, a little trepidatiously we worked our way in, and found bad news. It looked scarry, way scarry. Obviously it's steep, but there is a serac just below the only cornice free entrance, then a crack running completely across the base of the headwall. We balked. We walked the cornice with hopes of rapping over it and downclimbing through a gap in the bergschrund at a minor rib.

The drop in on the Nooksack headwall from further east above the cornices, photo by Fred:


This option didn't really seem safer, so we went for another look. I really wanted to bail at this point; the WSG is a pretty darn good consolation ski, but I also really wanted to do this route, and Fred never bails (jk). We strapped our skis on our backs and Fred began downclimbing on belay. We only had two pickets so it would be a thin running belay at best. When he got to the top of the 'schrund he couldn't see over, so I set a 2 point anchor and began lowering him... Then the lip blew, it collapsed under him and he fell, the picket and axe I had in blew, as did an intermediate picket Fred had in, and I began rolling. I rolled probably 60' down a 50° slope. My first thought was "oh shit, Fred! I blew it as a belayer!" My second thought was "oh shit, ME! This is going to suck." I think I bounced off the far side of the 'schrund, then hit bottom.

We both had the same thought when we hit the ground: "get your head up so you don't suffocate." When I could see again Fred was a few feet away and we were in a 20' deep crevasse. We had fallen about 10' over the lip, then 20' more into the bottom, but we were OK. We both check in with each other, then tried to climb out. The bridge we were on was not the bottom, and it was super hollow, my feet kept punching through into air. I had to take my pack off (with skis on it remember) and use it to push against so I could get my feet up and onto firmer snow. After I got untangled from the rope I climbed the far wall of the crevasse, it wasn't hard, just steep, loose snow. Fred did the same and we were seemingly fine.

We later debriefed and realized that this might actually have been the best case scenario. If the anchor had held and I had lowered Fred he would have been free hanging, then we would have run out of rope before he got to the bottom. My only choice would have been to go Joe Simpson on him and cut the rope.

The slope and 'schrund from below, photo by Fred:


So anyway, we skied down and crossed the Nooksack Glacier without needing to skin. It was close, and there was some shuffling, but we made it through.

Fred hanging out below a big serac:



Looking back across the Nooksack:


After more crappy, technical, icy skinning with crampons, we made the Icy Peak shoulder. My crampon broke about 30' shy of the summit of Icy when I was climbing the icy gully and kicked a rock slab (they were aluminum). But Fred pushed on. We camped between Icy and Ruth for another cold night, making camp just before dark again.

More icy hard skinning led the next morning to Ruth and eventually the skin all the way back to the highway.

Fred nearing Ruth summit:



The East Nooksack from Ruth:



Well, I'm glad we did it. Perhaps it is not the best year, perhaps we are just not good enough skiers for the headwall, who knows. We had fun, kind of. I'm glad we did it, glad we made it out, and glad I don't have to do it again, at least until there is another good weather window!

Gear Notes:
Standard ski mountaineering gear, ski and boot crampons, lots of clothes.

Approach Notes:
Traversed in from chair 8.
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4 hours ago, geosean said:

If the anchor had held and I had lowered Fred he would have been free hanging, then we would have run out of rope before he got to the bottom. My only choice would have been to go Joe Simpson on him and cut the rope.

Thank you for sharing. My take away from this is for the rapeller to bring a prussik system on a blind rappel like that, so maybe they can prusik up the rope if they end up free hanging? Just curious: is there a reason that would not have helped if the anchor had held in this situation?

I'm also curious: did you bury the picket and axe anchor as deadmen? Or straight into the snow?

(Just to be clear: this is not meant as criticism. I'm genuinely hoping this leads to good discussion and insights. Protecting in snow is tricky and I thank you for sharing what happened that we might learn from it). 


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ummmmmmm....wow.  For a near miss of total team death, you seem remarkably sanguine.

And yes, curious as to how the pickets and axe were placed....

Well done at finishing it, and thanks for posting all the gory details.  This has been on my list, but your TR gives me pause.

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Holy moly. Thank you for sharing this. I am impressed at your perseverance! We saw your car left overnight at hannegan picnic area and wondered "I wonder where the heck they are camping?" Little did we know, you guys were on a "memorable" trip.

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Jason, my sanguinity comes only after much reflection and decompressing on the issue. We talked a lot about it that night in the tent. 

It really makes me think about basically every snow anchor I have ever placed and not loaded simply because no one fell.

Both the axe and the picket were buried vertically, clearly this was the critical mistake. I dug down through the powder into what I thought was firm snow, and tested it. I have decided that we need some snow school time to practice these techniques. 

We are pretty experienced snow climbers and I have placed pickets as pro a number of times, though mostly in spring conditions. Everything seemed secure. It was very eye opening to put it mildly. 

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7 hours ago, geosean said:

Both the axe and the picket were buried vertically, clearly this was the critical mistake. I dug down through the powder into what I thought was firm snow, and tested it.

Did you have to pound the pickets or axe to drive them (and they didn't pop through a crust and sink easily)?  I think the consensus is that unless the answer is yes, they won't hold a fall.  Also, top clip or mid-clip?  Mid-clip is typically much stronger.  Wondering if you concur based on your incident...

Here is some technical reading on snow anchor strength if you haven't seen it:   snow anchors

Most importantly, I'm glad you're taking some time to figure out how to improve your systems (and posting here so that others can learn as well).  It isn't often that we get second chances in the hills and I'm glad you've learned a few things without the pain/loss that often accompanies the education. 

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This brings up a question that I have long wondered about. I have been carrying snow "flukes" rather than pickets since I was a teenager climbing with my dad. They are a lot less awkward to carry and, based on intuition, l believe they have greater holding power in a wider variety of snow conditions. I have weighted them when set as an anchor, but never subjected one to a fall-type load. Does anyone have experience or know of any testing that indicates how flukes stack up against pickets?

Found this, but it doesn't really answer the question:


and there's this: 


Edited by bigeo
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  • 2 months later...

Wow, epic TR and glad you were not injured.

Regarding snow pro, totally agree it can be very difficult to place solid snow pro. I have rapped off T-slot pickets but nowadays I will opt to carry both a msr snow fluke and a picket on steep snow routes for this reason of snow variability.

I have bounce tested snow flukes  (run/slid full speed while roped in)  and been pleasantly surprised how well they hold in different snow conditions since they dig deeper into the snow, particularly the newer ones....It took a fair amount of digging/effort to retrieve them after loading...

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