VIDEO: BD athlete Zack Giffin and friends make an epic descent on Washington's Mount Shuksan
Black Diamond athlete Zack Giffin is always prowling around the Pacific Northwest backcountry for prime lines, and the adventure featured in this video and report is absolutely prime. Big, steep, committing and sweet—this epic line on Mount Shuksan was for sure one of the highlights of Zack’s spring ski season.
The springtime around Mt. Baker, Washington is when things fall apart. The deep maritime snow pack, with its many layers compressed by rain, warming, and the sheer weight of the creping snow, begins to loosen. Layers that were bonded all winter start to relax and you can feel the sun-soaked faces loosing their grip and shedding their icing. Every year it seems to happen at the very moment that all the skiers are trying to “get in on that one face they always wanted” or trying to make up for the missed opportunities of the winter. Every year I tell myself that I won’t be a part of it. That I’m going to get it all out early and be chill this year, and then something happens…
It doesn’t seem to matter how great my winter has been, how many goals I’ve reached, or how bad the slide danger is, when I start to feel winter coming to an end, my plans and better judgment sometimes go out the window. That is why the other day I felt very proud of myself for backing away from a line on Mt. Shuksan that I’ve been eyeing for some time. Unlike much of the skiing in the area, the likely unskied 1000-foot ramp looker’s right, above the famous blue ice serac called the Hanging Glacier, has no benches. A true fall line never dropping under 35 degree slope with the top and mid sections closer to 45, some would say even 50 degree. Full exposure the entire way, with big cornice and ice fall potential throughout. Two choked exits spill out onto the toes of the White Salmon Glacier as the run takes you all the way down the drainage over 4000 feet.
The mission started out as usual. A little sketched about the weather, a little sketched about the snow pack, but a general good feeling that got better as we progressed up the mountain. By the time we had worked our way into position to look down this face, the layers we had seen at lower elevations were gone, the sun was shining, temps were cooler than expected, and the full potential epicness of what we were attempting became apparent. As we all took turns carefully stepping out to the edge, each member of the group let out a bit of a shutter. The top 50 feet was all we could see before a convex roll cut off our sight all the way down to the edge of glacier. With a bit of rearranging we were able to see more of the line and get a bit better feeling about it. In the end, the combination of fresh snow, exposure, and a large group was too much and we opted to go around the upper face to ski through the crevassed, but mellow, upper section of the Hanging Glacier instead.
When I made my first turn I realized that the snow was going to be even better than I had hoped—pure glory. The vast crevasses that make the face so intimidating were as filled as I’ve ever seen them and worry of thin snow bridges was tepid. I was able to carve GS blower turns around the obvious and substantial holes. We skied the run in three parts and regrouped before the lower crux where the ski trail splits. One line heading out a hidden chute to the White Salmon and the other cutting under the overhanging chunks of blue ice. Molly and I headed out the hidden chute and Ben, Josh, and Matt cut under the glacier. Cautious of lingering pepper and ice I skied the chute rather timidly, not opening up until after the pinch at the bottom.
Bailing out on the upper section of the line took away so many of my concerns that I felt very relaxed and comfortable on the descent. With a small feeling of disappointment from the missed opportunity, it was not until I returned to the lodge that I began to fully recognize the accomplishments of the day. Speaking with people who were unaware of our ski being a Plan B, who felt real fear while witnessing our descent, and real joy at our safety. So many people came to me and expressed how they had there spirits raised that day by seeing us ski that line, that it was impossible to feel anything but totally successful.
Yesterday, as I was beginning to write out this story, I saw a Facebook post by extreme bad-ass and friend Drew Tabke. He, along with mission master Dan Halmsteader, put their mark down the very face I had passed up merely two weeks earlier. The unskied is now skied. Yet the draw I feel to that face is undiminished and the respect I have for Drew and Dan is that much greater, my motivation stronger. If I ever make it back on top of that face with conditions as good as they were, I may not be as proud of my restraint.