Trip: Mt. Shuksan - Price Glacier
Trip Date: 08/04/2018
I am finally getting to posting this trip report after putting it off for too long. Hopefully others will find it useful, as we used a lot of other trip reports to help inform our plans for the ascent of the Price.
This was our second attempt at the Price Glacier, our first was in June 2017 when we were weathered out. This year we felt more poised to succeed. We knew the approach and had a good sense for the weather.
During the first night we slept in our rental van, right next to Ruth Creek and the Nooksack Cirque trailhead. We woke up at comfortably at 5:00am and took our time getting ready. With ritualistic care, we calmly taped our heels with heavy cotton bandages, layered on the socks, then, once our assembled trotters were fully protected, inserted them into the snug, dry interior of our boots. Being back outside, geared up in alpine armor, filled us with enthusiasm. And as soon as we started hiking, all our boyish enthusiasm was immediately drained. Almost immediately, we had to repeat the process...
It had been a rainy spring, and when we walked to the edge of Ruth Creek, we discovered a series of log bridges had been destroyed. So without much hesitation, but a little cursing, we took off our boots, socks and liners, jacked up our pants and walked through the ice cold water. We repeated our foot preparation ritual on the other side, and were finally off on our journey.
We were worried about finding the climber’s trail, since last year we had so much trouble with it. After crossing a log bridge and a few dried out irrigation runoffs, we saw a pink tag in the woods near where we should have dropped a GPS pin last year. Worried still that we would struggle to reach the log, we reluctantly proceeded to walk along a path of fallen trees. Surprisingly, it took us right to Nooksack creek where to our left, we spotted more pink tags tied to the tree branches.
After moving up the creek toward more pink tags, we arrived at the famous log crossing that separated the landmass the Price occupied from the one accessible by foot paths.
After the log crossing it was fairly easy going with new pink tags that some other hikers or climbers left behind. The path still requires a lot of bush-wacking, but we were mentally prepared for this.
After getting close to the Price Lake, we took a water break and my climber partner realized he had dropped his sunglasses somewhere between the log cross and where we currently were. We both knew there was no way to complete the climb without sunglasses, so we dropped our packs and slowly retraced our steps to look for the sunglasses. Luckily we did find them, by some miracle, but we had descended 800 feet and now had to go back up to our packs again.
We continued the approach through rock fields and finally gaining the ridge on wet alpine vegitation. Slipping down and using handfuls of roots to pull ourselves up 45 degree inclines of dirt, push our way through thick brush but finally making it to the rock field that connected to the lower glacial bedrock.
By this time it was about noon and we had about another hour to our planned campsite. We opted not to carry a tent for this climb since the weather looked clear, figuring that we would be happier going lighter. This was true, however now we did not have any shelter from the sun. Another turn of luck, we found a perfect two-person "nap cave" that we could hang out in, watch the conditions on the route, and rest until moving on later in the day.
We spent a lot of time debating which part of the glacier looked like the best way to go. We opted to go for the snow and ice chute on the right side of the glacier. While this would have us pass under a large serac, it looked like the most straightforward way up the route.
Around 5pm, we hiked up to the upper campsite where we would begin the climb early the next morning. While trying to sleep, we started to get a very light rain shower. With down sleeping bags and no cover, we dumped the gear and retreated to nap cave, running down before the dark creeped in. Part of nap cave was not completely covered, so we made the most expensive homemade rainfly with my arcteryx shell to keep out the rain.
We finally settled down for some rest, setting the alarm for 1am. At 1am, we looked outside and the skys were clear again. We both knew our best chances of climbing something this year was to get an early start, especially since we left our gear behind, but neither of us wanted to move yet. But we moved anyway and headed back up to the gear at our previous campsite. From there we had a quick bite to eat, packed, and roped up for the climb.
The first stage to the saddle under Nooksack tower was very simple glacier navigation. However, to gain the saddle, we had to cross a twenty foot section of rock where to snow and ice had melted away.
Once on the saddle, we had a great view of the route. Mostly, at this point, we were concerned with stream we were about to cross. In the warmer months, a stream forms on the right side of the saddle and this creates a considerable rock fall hazard. We knew we had to move fast through here, but the challenge was the ground was all dirty ice - slick enough to prevent running, but dirty enough to make kicking less effective. As rocks zinged down the hill and exploded into dust or tumbled down toward Price lake, we decided we would go one at a time.
From here, we simulclimbed rock solid blue glacier ice around to the base of the snow and ice chute. Overall the conditions were very solid, with mostly hardpack snow or ice.
After four to five pitches, we came up on our first major impediment. We stood on the junction of several building sized blocks of ice, the flat part which we were on spanned about the size of a queen bed. We were surrounded by ice cliffs, and connecting our platform to the next section of the route was a thin strip, no wider than a privacy fence, that connected us to the next block which would be about 20 feet of vertical ice climbing. At the connection point still lie an eight foot displacement where our platform sat at a depression. With a suddenness that barely accommodated a head turn, we heard an extraordinary crack. An ice chunk the size of an oven on our right side was coming down and we were in its path. With instinct, we jumped the opposite way, grabbing our packs in the process, avoiding the direct impact. Was more to come down? It wasn’t clear. We had leaped so fast, we didn’t realize that our legs dangled in a crevasse, and my ice axe lay planted with its leash fully extended. But just when everything seemed okay and we could allow a whisper of relief pass through us, I looked down and saw that the ring finger on my left hand was crooked and ran lateral to the direction of others. It was dislocated at best. With no other option, and using the adrenaline from the falling ice, I snapped it back into place. Things were complicated now, I did not know how well I could climb with a busted finger, and I asked my partner to lead the remaining pitches.
Trying to move forward, the snow strip in front of us looked questionable, but it was the only plausible way out. While on a proper belay, my partner made an attempt, gingerly walking across the fence edge. He gave it soft kicks at first, to test its stability. His foot just withdrew chunks of snow from its foundation. Gaining the base of the next block, the ice here was much softer and did not hold as well. He fell three times attempting to make it up this pitch. Winded and needing a break, I decided I would have a go at it, dislocated finger or not. We needed to keep moving. I decided to give it a shot with an aid piece, using an ice screw with a cordelette tied off with footholds to help get past the softer, more delicate snow/ice section. With a couple more swings of the axes, I was on top of the ice block.
The next problem arose quickly... we had been so hyper focused on getting out, we forgot to transfer the rack. My partner had the rest of the ice screws. I had a picket, but that wouldn’t work with ice. The only option was to use my ice axes as anchors for my partner. I was able to put my partner on belay and used a short redirect and a tibloc that allowed to create a pulley system to assist my partner over the more difficult parts of the pitch. With a few heaves, we we up and out, with the worst of our problems behind us.
The glacier felt forgiving at this point, because we had a more contiguous line to follow. That is until we neared the end of the lower broken section. We reached a stopping point where a large void separated us from the glacier above. From our position, there seemed like two ways forward, and neither were appealing. The first was right in front of us - another ice fence to more vertical climbing. This one was even more terrifying though, because the crevasses on each side were deeper, wider, and the ice the fence led to looked precarious. A solid kick seemed like it would throw it off its balance, and with us on it, down into the cold darkness below. The other option was off to our right. There was a large trashcan sized ice block wedged between the section on which we stood and the one we tried to gain. From our position it seemed like we would need to climb out on the crevasse edge to reach it, then down climb a bit to reach the block, then climb more vertical ice to reach our destination. As we weren’t too keen on another ice fence fiasco. I moved over to examine the second option, but quickly determined it impassible. Great. So here we were about to repeat our experience below, except this time in a more delicate position. We also discovered that we had lost two ice screws, which meant we were down to five. We needed at least one to make an anchor on the other side and at least one to protect the leader in case the ice fence collapsed or they took a lead fall. Since my partner had lead the past few pitches, I bucked up and took the lead with my busted finger. On belay and moving out, I felt reassured that the snow and ice was more solid than the one we experienced before. Besides the terrifying exposure to the crevasses on every side it felt, the ice was solid.
From here we climbed higher and the slopes got steeper. Soon we were climbing snow instead of ice. The crevasses got deeper too and wider. Our movements changed from hammer swings to fist punches and we choked up on our axes and punched them into the snow. The terrain required that we follow the lines dictated by crevasses, weaving back and forth along the direction the glacier required we go.
The final obstacle was the bergschrund. We were fortunate the find the upper and lower parts were still connected on the left side. From here was was solid 60 degree snow climbing all the way up to the top of the Price. Once out of the Price proper, we felt like the worst of our problems were behind us. They were, we walked around to the base of the summit pyramid and took the traditional route up.
By the time we descended down the summit pyramid it was 7pm. We were both thoroughly exhausted and decided to sleep on a small section of rocks set away from the summit pyramid (and any potential rockfall). The sunset and view of Mt. Baker in the distance was once of the best I've seen.
The following day we exited via the Fischer Chimmey's and thumbed a ride back to our van.
In the following days I went to the emergency room to get an ex-ray of my finger. It was also broken, with some bone at the knuckle chipped off, but otherwise it was set correctly as all I had to do was wear a splint. Separately, during the climb I thought I was dehydrated with some throat irritation, but when a doctor looked at it closely I had somehow got tonsillitis on the climb as well.
In summary, and as my partner put it: If you like navigational challenges, thirsting for precarious snow climbing on tilted sidewalks weaving around deep crevasses, enjoy searching for creative paths between disjoint sections of variable-angle glacier ice, and want an entire day of mental engagement, then go ahead and roll the dice, make an attempt at the Price.
seven ice screws, four pickets, three tri-cams, two chocks, two cams. Used everything but the rock gear.
From Nooksack Cirque Trailhead. Pink tags showed where the log crossing was and lead up to the rock field. From there, there are no tags - just gain the tree-lined ridge and walk until you can descend toward the lower glacier. We bivyed near the saddle. Depending on the conditions, the difficulty can vary greatly. Plan for three long days if you're exiting from Lake Ann trailhead. In the summer, the ice is rock hard, and the glacier is heavily fractured.