Minutes are just the tick of a clock, all-encompassing and then gone forever. The accumulation of these moments defines our lives and who we are; they are the ingredients that make up our story.
Wherever I stand in the world, from the streets of Berlin to the peaks of New Zealand or with the Indian Ocean washing upon my feet on a beach in Indonesia, my time on Mt. Shuksan will forever shape my perception of grandeur in this world. My standards on beauty and awe, and a deeply-felt sense of spending each day of your life like it’s your last, exist because of that mountain.
I have so often traveled Highway 542, following the best length of winding, mountainous road in America, to reach Mt. Shuksan – my pot of gold, the place that has filled my heart with boundless wealth. I am shocked – every single time – by its majesty and the realization that I actually have skied from the mountain…multiple times. While my life will pass, as will the countless other lives inspired by Shuksan’s presence, the mountain will always be there; it is the kind of gold that is eternal.
Snowstorms often shroud Mt. Shuksan, obscuring the view of the 9,131-foot summit. My first two weeks in Washington, I knew it only as a place on the map. Where the mountain was supposed to be, there was only a vacuous ocean of clouds. Now, it’s the only mountain I can vividly picture in my mind and day after day and year after year the image serves as inspiration for what is possible and just how beautiful life can be.
As I look at the mountain, one clear memory always floods my soul – a 15-hour mission in Washington’s North Cascades in late December of 2013. Accompanied by Salt Lake City, Utah resident, skier, and photographer, Ian Provo, and two of Mt. Baker’s favorite locals, Zack Giffin and Ben Price, we ventured into the living room of this Cascade mansion. We were two locals, a visitor, and one girl who was striving to make this place, the North Cascades, her home. You won’t find celebrities inhabiting this manor, it’s locals and lifers, people who know every line on the peak better than family members’ birthdays. It’s a place that is the priority in their life. Demanding respect, patience, and care, and yet always offering a refuge in their constant search for challenge and self-conquest.
Moments of Truth
It was the last day of December. A new year was only one long day of skinning and skiing away. Stepping into our dancing shoes, we started slogging uphill under a full moon basking on a purple horizon shrouded in a sea of pink. We share moonlit turns down to the valley bottom, hooting and hollering and recognizing this might never happen again – full moon, perfect powder, pillows, and a day promising good snow stability in the alpine ahead of us. This was one of those moments. Zack and Ben had wished for this day for ten years. Their accumulated years of second-hand spaghetti dinners and cold nights camped out in cold, moldy vans in the Mt. Baker parking lot had led inexorably to this magical evening. They had sacrificed and waited.
I felt undeserving. How can I just walk up this mountain like any other ski day? I hadn’t paid my dues. Only a few years in the area bravely following these kooks around and now I was here. My time chasing this rainbow had been short.
With the legs on autopilot and the mind in a constant state of assessment, we make our way up to the foot of the glacier, a resting place to watch as the sun slowly creeps above the horizon. I’d been in this place before. The Mt. Shuksan breakfast table, a safe zone to savor a snack and moisten the back of your throat with water already partially frozen in the early winter cold. It’s the place where you realize that you’re doing it: You’re going into the Shuksan Zone. For a moment both sun and moon occupied the sky.
Here at the Whale’s Back, as we’ve so often called the spot, we watch small slough avalanches pour from a serac, so close you felt like you could cup your hand and catch some of the falling snow. Mt. Shuksan may be here forever, but its glaciers won’t. We saw more ice falling from the grand mountain, the glacier slowly crumbling, bearing the brunt of human ignorance and accelerating climate change.
It feels a little like we’re watching the mountain die, shedding the layers it can no longer support. The mountain feeds our insatiable thirst for adventure and exploration. Actually, we probably depend more on the snow and ice than the mountain itself. Even without its glaciers, the mountain will survive, but our skiing adventures won’t. Humans and our expectations in life are much more frail.
The Sacred Dance
Leaving behind the safety of our resting spot we begin the arduous switchback parade up the White Salmon Glacier, carefully evaluating where and when to climb and turn. Connected to all of the others in the team via rope, walking on a glacier is like a group dance. One person off-beat and the whole song and dance looses its pizzazz. As the only girl, I am accustomed to making sure that I am not the weak link. Zack happily puts me up front, a place where I can quietly lead while secretly looking for approval from each of their faces. Is this pace appropriate? Are my kick turns in the right place? After all, these guys are my mentors, the reason I am here. I would have never danced up this mountain on my own.
As the ski lifts start to turn down below at the Mt. Baker Ski Area we reach a place where we can stare into the depths of the Curtis Glacier. In a place not many humans have stood, we pause in reverence – skiers, snowboarders, and lovers of the mountain life fully utilizing this sunny, winter day in the Cascades. We all stare in amazement down at the Curtis Glacier and point out lines that only super humans might survive. These mountain friends are always pushing their imaginations into the world of the impossible. They live in a world that others don’t see.
The group splits. Some of us head towards Hell’s Highway, vying for the summit as our friends venture towards the Northwest Couloir. Years ago Ben, Zack, and I had shared that line together on a similar day in December. Amidst the alpenglow we had rode the line one at a time in ideal conditions. I remember screaming and nearly crying in excitement at the bottom. I am ready to feel that again. To experience life in its purest form: The happiness you feel after surviving a rewarding day in elements much more powerful than you’ll ever quite understand.
By the time the sun is overhead, we are just a few short hours away from the summit. Having traveled safely among crevasses and steep faces possibly just waiting to shed their skin, we now had to make our most critical decisions under the intensity of the scorching sun. We marched toward the 50-degree face that would lead us to the summit, while Ian decided to remain on the flat expanses of the Sulphide Glacier where he can take photos.
Finally we made it to the top (only Zack officially as Ben and I were just 30 feet below). As Zack made the final scramble to the summit, sending a cascade of small rocks and ice our way, Ben and I began putting on our gear. A few pockets of snow that concerned us were below, but so was a ride that we’d never forget. One at a time, we rode the steep, variable 1,000 feet to the apron. And this is where our enjoyment really began.
One at a time we rode the last 5,000 feet to another valley bottom. Stable, consistent, and ecstatic turns (on a face that has only been descended a handful of times) were our payoff. If I was offered a dollar for every foot we descended, I’d gladly take the turns. Money can’t buy that kind of satisfaction – not now, not next year, never. It’s the kind of gold people spend their whole lives chasing.
Once in the valley we still had another six hours of skinning and skiing with headlamps to get back to reality, out of our mountain heaven, out of Shuksan’s reach. The New Year came and went. More snow and different mountains came into our lives, but it doesn’t matter where I go or where I ski, I am always thinking wistfully about a place that means the world to me.
Molly Baker is a skier by trade, writer by heart, dancing freak, and pastry aficionado that lives from a suitcase. Her ongoing agenda is to lead an interesting life and then write about it. Molly’s wild snow stories can be found at ESPN Freeskiing, The Ski Journal, National Geographic Adventure blog, Backcountry Magazine,and more
Portions of this story appeared previously on Backcountry.com