Monday, January 16th, 2017
Seeking Cross-Country Ski Solitude in the Shadow of Mount Shuksan
Todd Elsworth

Our cross-country ski adventure (near Mt. Baker in northwestern Washington State) started from the Shuksan Picnic Area just off the Mt. Baker Highway (SR 542) a quick 12.5 miles past the US Forest Service’s Glacier Public Service Center at milepost exit 46.6 for Hannegan Pass Road. Headlamps were helpful in the dawn’s early light to get our gear together. We had an early start from town, so we could time hitting the trailhead at sunrise.

While excited to get out there, we stopped to watch the sunrise behind Mount Shuksan while the frigid waters of North Fork Nooksack River flow from the hills surrounding the valley that we are about to enter. This upper section is the start of it all. We would be flanked on our left by the Nooksack Ridge spanning the space between Mount Sefrit (7,191′) and Ruth Mountain (7,105′). As we head upstream, the steep walls that make up the foundation of the mighty Mount Shuksan (8,285′) rise to our right.

It is the shade of this mighty mountain that we’d get glimpses of the bluebird day around, as the beams of light lit up the surrounding peaks. On this treed journey we would spend the day in the shade. We started up the popular Hannegan Pass Road, stayed right and headed for the Nooksack Cirque Trailhead.

This trail was all new to me. I hadn’t even been along this trail in the spring/summer when it’s most popular (and most reasonable) to go (take note, please). David B. was the man, with the plan. Sure, I had asked him if he wanted to go out and ski, but this was his “idea of a good time”.

This was obviously going to be one of those kind of outings where you essentially say, “I trust you. You lead. I’ll follow (and do my best to keep up). Let’s go have some FUN!”

On the Green Trails Maps “Mt. Shuksan, WA No. 14” you’ll see a red dot at the end of the road- if you stay to the right, choosing not to go up to Hannegan Pass. The red dot designates a “Difficult Crossing”. There used to be a bridge, long ago, that made it easy to cross the creek. Ruth Creek, I believe!

This was to be the first of many “I’ll follow YOU” moments. As I followed in his steps, a valuable chunk of footing broke loose and I thought my foot had descended into the depths of the flowing water beneath. Fortunately, another log crisscrossed below is where my boots came to rest.
Stay dry=Stay warm.

For those who successfully cross the creek, the reward is the signature trailhead marker, the sign-in book. We stopped to reflect on completing our first challenge of walking on snow/ice covered logs while reviewing the obstacles of our path forward.

We were breaking trail now, making our way along what the map simply refers to as Trail 750. It was a green line on a piece of paper that would be our guide. Oh yea, and years of David’s experience on this trail and his ability to see signs in the woods that confirmed that we were on track.

It was the little things that he’d say, like “see that cut”. He was referring to the evidence of trail work that had been done to clear the trail from fallen trees. Then there were the obvious items, like this small bridge that we walked across with care, relying on the cable handrail for safety line.

Yes, this was my view for most of the day!

We made our way through the forest on our scaled & skinny skis. I had the advantage of metal edges, at least. Crossing the smaller creeks that flowed into the Nooksack below offered challenges that made this out to be much more of an exercise in body movement with some contortionist creativity. We were doing our best to dance through the woods evoking thoughts of Pan playing his pipes! Yes, I often break out into song, to help me move along.

The undisturbed wild, covered in a thick icy blanket, created funky formations atop the surfaces of old dead trees. These mushroomesque formations sprouted throughout the forest floor. The blue hue of the low light in the photo below makes it look as cold as it actually was (low teens).

We were keeping track of how much daylight we had by counting it out on our fingers. The magic number was 9. Starting at 7:30 am, we had 9 hours to complete our round trip journey by 4:30 pm. One hand (including the thumb) represented the 5 hours we’d plan for the trek in to our destination. The other hand represented the 4 hours we’d reserve for the return trip.

Along the way, we’d do our time checks and check-ins with each other to see if we were still on track. BTW- Yes, we did have headlamps “just in case”. When we descended from the hillside, ready to make our transition out into the open air, we only had 4 fingers up. Right on time!

Below, David finds a large fallen log to cross from the river banks out into the snow and ice covered river bed. We had been doing this sort of balancing act for the past 4 hours, so this was a good time to stop for a quick snapshot. We were about to walk upriver with Ruth Mountain as our way point!!

We agreed, “Let’s get up to that bend to see up into the valley”. The skiing was much easier now. It was flat and wide open, but still a bit spooky when the layers of snow compact and crunch below, causing a uptick in your heartbeat as you wonder just what is, underneath?!

As we enjoyed our freedom to roam, we came around the bend. Now, both Ruth Mountain (7,105′) and Icy Peak (7,060′) were visible in the sunlit background. This would be our lunch spot.

We enjoyed hot homemade chicken noodle soup, cookies, candy and hot tea in short order. Fully layered up, we explored the Wild Nearby looking closely at the crystals that formed through the forces of nature. While we tried, I was unable to capture the beauty of the ice formations via the camera lens. (D.B.- we need a bigger light source next time 😉

Fortunately the PHD* camera that I have does have a solid zoom. I focused the lens on the distant bulbous outcropping that is the summit of aforementioned Ruth Mountain. Here’s the perspective looking up from the valley below.

Scanning to the right is the no-so-creatively named Icy Peak (below). Both peaks are within the bounds of North Cascades National Park and the Stephen Mather Wilderness.

“The Stephen Mather Wilderness is at the heart of over two million acres of some of the wildest lands remaining (map 2.9MB jpg), a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man….” Untrammeled (meaning “free of restraint,” “unconfined”) captures the essence of wilderness: a place where the natural processes of the land prevail, and the developments of modern technological society are substantially unnoticeable. Here, we are visitors, but we also come home—to our natural heritage. It is a place to experience our past, and a place to find future respite. This is the enduring legacy of wilderness. -Wilderness Act, 1964.” NPS.gov

Bundled up and ready to count down the other 4 fingers to measure our day-lighted return, David found another fallen timber bridge to exit the riverbed and return to the woods. Aloha Nooksack Cirque Valley!

We looped around and found the tracks that we had laid coming in. It was easy to determine if they were ours, or not. Yes, definitely ours, since we were the only ones OUT THERE! Yet, that is what we went seeking: playing it safe; quality time together; completely alone; and honing our multi-disciplinary ski skills, in the wilderness.

When we arrived back at the road junction where the fork heads up to Hannegan Pass, a telltale that we were getting close, David stopped and asked if I had anything to offer. I simply and honestly replied, “Thank you sir, may I have another”.

If you’re into “the numbers” here’s what Strava says of our journey: 15 miles traveled (Mr. B is a mathematician and he said we could round 14.9 up in this case); 5:28 hours of moving time; with 1,114 ft of elevation gain.

Our intent was to go in, not up. In as deep as we could get (and out) in a day. We did it. Yes, it took all 9 digits to count the time span on our hands. Oddly, the light on the backside of Shuksan was about the same on the way in as it was out. We were there for both the sunrise and sunset. This is our way of having fun outdoors. We remarked that what may be “Fun4US” is “Not4Everybody”.

Get OUT THERE!

You can do it. You don’t have to follow in our tracks! Check out x-c skiing and snowshoeing on the Hannegan Pass Road if you’re interested in this area. Do your homework, understand the terrain and choose your friends wisely.

* PHD = Push Here Dummy. I am not a photographer, just a point and shoot hack that is in the right place at the right time, sometimes. Explains why some of these photos are a bit blurry!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:

As the Executive Director of Recreation Northwest and the founder of the Bellingham Traverse and co-founder of Kulshan Quest Adventure Race, Todd promotes outdoor recreation and brings people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where we play. He enjoys biking, hiking, paddling, skiing and will try anything twice. Get connected at RecreationNorthwest.org.