Story captured by Kristen Connolly
On July 7-8, a team of five climbers headed up the Fisher Chimneys route on Mount Shuksan in the North Cascades. Artemiza, Amber, and Kristen were led by Forrest and Eve on one of the most beautiful mountains and climbs in the Pacific Northwest. According to Fred Beckey:
Mt. Shuksan epitomizes the jagged alpine peak like no other massif in the North Cascades.
Standing at 9,131 feet, Mt. Shuksan has it all: rock (greenschist to be exact!), hanging glaciers, snow, and ice. With four faces and five ridges, there's a variety of routes to explore on Shuksan. It's also the only non-volcanic peak whose summit is >3,000 feet above timberline!
The Fisher Chimneys route was perfect for the first-time alpine climbers on the route (Amber, Artemiza, and Kristen). The route is described by Fred Beckey as:
A series of complex gullies, rock chimneys, ramps, and ledges on the S flank of Shuksan Arm, then crosses to the upper edge of White Salmon Glacier before continuing to Upper Curtis Glacier, then to Sulphide Glacier. It is a clever and tortuous route, not technically difficult, yet involving stimulating route finding.
I think most members of the team would agree with the 'stimulating' affect of this peak. The following photo shows a beautiful outline of the glaciers en route to the summit:
Of important note, there are discrepancies in various maps representing the Fisher Chimneys route. As Eve describes in her blog:
Many of the sections on this route are labeled incorrectly on the USGS map. And caltopo. Interestingly, the GAIA app seems to have it right. Here’s a link to a caltopo route of Fisher Chimneys (the northern route, the southern one is Sulphide) with labeled sections. Winnie’s Slide is southwest, you hit it right after a short walk along the White Salmon glacier after topping out of the chimneys. The Hourglass (not labeled) is the first snow ramp up to the first dip just southwest of the summit pyramid, it will not be continuous snow besides early season. Hell’s Highway is the obvious ramp that connects to the Sulphide at the south end of the Upper Curtis.
Nitty gritty route descriptions aside, it's time to climb! Our Peaks of Life team met at 8AM on Saturday morning to snag permits from the Glacier Public Service Center. There, we found out there were 17 other climbers already on the route. We hoped today's rainy/misty weather would keep some of the crowds away, but 17 people sounded like misery on a route where rockfall is frequent. Regardless, we headed to the Lake Ann trailhead and geared up for the climb.
There was snow at the trailhead, and not many views to start. The trail almost immediately lost elevation and led us to a section strewn with rivers and swamps, lending to some challenging navigation.
En route to Lake Ann, we waved goodbye to a group of five climbers heading back to the parking lot due to weather. (Our hopes and dreams were coming true! 12 people on the route now!)
At 12PM, we dropped our packs for a snack above Lake Ann, after gaining back most of our lost elevation from the start of the trail. We bumped into friends from Seattle Mountain Rescue friends from Seattle whom we played leapfrog with until the chimneys. We were met dramatic views of low-hanging clouds, jagged rocks, and the Lower Curtis Glacier.
Here, Forrest marveled at the potential for a more technical route, and made fart noises at the clouds in effort to get grandeur views.
Our team continued the trail on a talus field mostly filled with snow until meeting the first scrambled up a class 4, mossy, waterfall section of rock. Eve stood beneath the falls, getting water up her goretex sleeves, and Kristen leaned across the rock in the perfect position to soak her feet and put her camera at risk. Amber and Artemiza accepted a belay up the rock after Eve found the first rap station. Our Seattle Mountain Rescue friends scurried ahead of us, and we "rapped up" our first belay at 2PM.
Once across a snow field below the Shuksan Arm and White Salmon Glacier, we were at the base of the Fisher Chimneys. This included a slow walk up a questionable snow finger.
Then the real class 3-4 scrambling began! As there are rap stations set up throughout the chimneys, we set up multiple belays to add comfort to the steep, exposed 4th-class rock. We shimmied past "Fat Man's Misery" on the catwalk, and
scrambled climbed our way to the top of the Shuksan Arm. With rappel stations available above each section of 4th-class rock, it was easy to set up belay stations with 30m rope (thanks to Eve and Forrest!).
We climbed a bit of steeper snow in the chimneys (above), walked across more rock, and then climbed the last bit of White Salmon Glacier to camp (below). We made it up the last climb to camp at the base of Winnie's Slide at 5:30PM, with enough time to set up tents on perfectly melted spots. Our team seamlessly split into camp tasks, and everyone was enjoying backcountry meals and tea by 6:45PM, then tucked into bed by 7:30PM.
We awoke at 3:30AM to clear skies, as we prepped our packs, donned our crampons, and tied into our rope teams: Eve & Amber on one; Forrest, Artemiza, and Kristen on the other. We were on the move by 4:30AM (later than our 4AM plan).
With a magnificent sunrise and alpenglow on Mt. Baker, we climbed on the upper edge of White Salmon Glacier, to the steepest portion of Winnie's Slide -- a snow climb of about 40 degrees, which already had a staircase stomped into it. We flattened onto the rock rib at the end of Shuksan Arm, to the western edge of Upper Curtis Glacier.
We crossed eastward on the south edge of Upper Curtis Glacier. Forrest set up a picket for a running belay up Hell's Highway for mental health, as our teams climbed onto Sulphide Glacier.
As we approached the summit block, we heard a woman yell from below, and thought we heard her exclaim a rock hit her in the head. As it turns out, the warnings are true: Rockfall is frequent on the summit block and careful steps are required. A woman was startled, but not physically harmed, by the rockfall, and therefore the team ahead of us had to descend. Forrest ran up to see if he could help the guided team. The rest of us waited about 90 minutes below the summit scramble as our shaded area turned to sun, and we socialized with other climbers. A large group of Russian climbers were below us, and we warned them to halt to allow for a smooth descent.
Once the guided team was safely down, we pressed on toward the summit block. Our team made it up the summit scramble about 60 feet with one belay until we realized we'd be running too late if we continued to the summit. It was already noon, and we had to be back in Seattle that night. No complaints from our group, except for the fact that we all realized we'd have to come back another time for the summit. It's hard to see this as a downside when views like this surround you:
So began the long trek back to camp and our cars. We glissaded down Hell's Highway (doffing our crampons, of course), and down climbed Winnie's Slide (with impressive speed from Forrest) back to camp to pack up. There, we snapped a quick photo with the Peaks of Life banner, and were moving at 3:30PM (where does time go?) back toward the chimneys.
We used two 30m ropes down the snow (two rappel stations: one involving an awkward shimmy over the snow to start, second at a possible bail anchor that Forrest used), then coasted from there at each rappel station above 4th-class chimney sections. Our team got increasingly fast with the rappels, as Eve and Forrest took turns setting up rappel stations. Each person would show up to the rappel, prusik in a backup to the rope (using classic and klemheist knots) while one person was descending, then loop the rope through the belay device once the descender was off rappel. With a total of four rappels after the snow and another sketchy meeting with the snow finger, we were back on the trail.
Our team cruised past Lake Ann and met back up with the official trail, marveling at all the wildflowers and swirly greenschist rocks on our path as the sun began to set.
We finished the trail in the dark (good thing we made our headlamps accessible at camp!), and were back to the car at 10:30PM.
These long two days were successful in more ways than a summit could ever be successful. Three people climbed their first alpine route, the skies opened for pristine views, and we raised money for children's healthcare. What could be better?
Here's to Climbing for More Than A Summit!
Want to read more personal perspectives? Check out the personal accounts of the climb written by Eve "Have Tent" Jakubowski, Amber "Snowbrained" Chang, and Kristen "Wanderlust" Connolly. Thank you, as always, for your support!