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Finding Gold on Mount Shuksan

This July I ventured into Washington’s North Cascades for a spontaneous summer funk pond-skimming contest. With my mind bankrupt of skiing memories and far-flung into the warmth of summer, my first glimpse of Mt. Shuksan bombarded my core.  I have so often traveled highway 542, followed this length of winding mountainous road, to find Mt. Shuksan—my pot of gold, the place that has filled my heart with boundless wealth. As I looked at the mountain, one clear memory flooded my soul.

Above Photo:  Mt. Shuksan, WA
Shot By: Re Wikstrom

ReWikstrom_100402-0129It was the last day of December. A new year was only one long day of skinning and skiing away. I was on a 15-hour mission in Washington’s North Cascades, accompanied by Backcountry athlete Ian Provo and two of Mt. Baker’s favorite locals, Zach Giffin and Ben Price. We ventured into the living room of a Cascade mansion. But you won’t find celebrities inhabiting this mansion; 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 always a refuge for their constant search for challenge and self-conquest, this mountain is pure gold.

Photo Credit: Re Wikstrom

We stepped into our dancing shoes and started skinning under a full moon basked in a purple horizon that faded into a sea of pink. We shared 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 with good snow stability in the alpine ahead of us. Zack and Ben had wished for this day for ten years. I felt undeserving. How can I just walk up this mountain like any other day? I hadn’t paid my dues, as they say. My time chasing this rainbow had been short.

With legs on autopilot and minds in a constant state of assessment, we made our way up to the foot of the glacier and rested while we watched the sun slowly creep above the horizon. To the west sat the moon as the east introduced the sun. It was like being a figurine in a school science-fair project, positioned just perfectly between the beautiful wonders of our world.

By the time the sun was overhead, we were 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 seemingly scorching sun. Eyes squinted and faces covered in a Zinc mask, we marched toward the 50-degree face that would lead us to the summit.

We made it to the top (only Zack officially as Ben and I stopped just 30 feet below), and as Zack made the final scramble to the summit, Ben and I began putting on our gear. A few pockets of snow that concerned us were below, but so was a ride 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.

Backcountry athlete Neil Provo, although one of the most enthusiastic snow-loving freaks of us all, had injured his shoulder days before the adventure and had volunteered to get another scenic look at Mt. Shuksan from a helicopter with local Bellingham friend and pilot, Tarek Housevold. Not long after making the turns from the summit, we heard the helicopter, with Neil in it, circling above us.

ReWikstrom_100327-0420Molly Baker skiing Mount Shuksan, WA. Photo Credit: Re Wikstrom

One at a time, we rode the last 5,000 feet to another valley bottom. Stable, consistent, and ridiculously fun turns on a face that has only been descended a handful of times. If someone offered $1 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, out of our mountain heaven, out of Mt. Shuksan’s reach, and back to reality. The New Year came and went. More snow and different mountains came into my life, but it doesn’t matter where I go or where I ski. I am always dreaming, my mind singing, “Somewhere over the rainbow…” I am always thinking wistfully about a place that means the world to me.

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