I headed up to Mount Shuksan (9,127′) with Doug, a fellow Potomac Mountain Club member, to climb the Mount Shuksan Fisher Chimneys route. Both of us are originally from the Pacific Northwest but now live inside the DC Beltway… I must say it was so great to be back in the Cascades! I’ve had thoughts of Mount Shuksan and hoped to climb it ever since I laid eyes on it from the summit of Mount Baker. And what better way than the classic Fisher Chimneys route?
It’s a spectacular looking peak, supposedly the most-photographed mountain in the US, and the Fisher Chimneys route throws a little bit of everything at you except for ice climbing—longish approach, third and fourth class scrambling with heavy packs on, glacier travel, steep snow, moderate rock climbing on the summit pyramid, a few rappels, and lots of down climbing.
It’s most definitely an all-encompassing mountaineering experience! Here are a few details of our successful summit climb of Mount Shuksan Fisher Chimneys.
Heading North to Mount Shuksan
We left Tacoma Friday afternoon at about 2:30 pm for the long drive up north… The drive was made even worse by the hordes of people ditching out of work early (it’s a gorgeous Friday in August in the Pacific Northwest, what do you expect?).
The drive between Tacoma and Everett took about three hours (twice as long as it should have), and then we had to drive way off route into Marblemount to pick up a Park Service backcountry permit—the Park Service offices in Sedro Wooley and Glacier both closed at 4:30 pm that day and didn’t open until 7:45 am on Saturday. So that detour added an additional 70+ miles to our journey, but we got all the necessary passes and paperwork in order.
Austin Pass Picnic Area
We finally pulled up into the Austin Pass Picnic Area up near the Mount Baker Ski Area sometime around 11 pm. A heavy fog was rolling off the adjacent snowbanks and made seeing the road pretty difficult so we just decided to bivy there instead of at the Lake Ann Trailhead. I threw my sleeping pad and bag in the bed of my truck and Doug ventured off into the woods nearby.
I had a good night’s sleep, but at some point in the middle of the night I woke up to find my sleeping bag alarmingly wet… The moisture blowing off the snow had soaked the exterior of my bag. I kept assuring myself that my warm 15-degree bag would still have plenty of loft for the following night up on the mountain, but after fretting for awhile I dug into my pack and at least added my bivy sack to limit further moisture accumulation.
I woke up at about 8 am to find big honkin’ mosquitoes hovering over my face and was glad the bivy sack had bug netting… Doug and I headed down to a sunny overlook where we could dry out our sleeping bags and coordinate our group gear. I left my rack behind, he took a light rack, I grabbed a picket and the rope, and otherwise, we were pretty much all set after some breakfast and coffee at the vista.
Lake Ann Trailhead
We hit the Lake Ann Trailhead by 9 am and started the long approach to Mount Shuksan. Right off the bat you start descending and lose nearly 800 feet that you are just going to need to regain to reach Lake Ann… The hike to Lake Ann is 4 miles and took us an even two hours. From there you cross a few snowfields and a couple of moats before you arrive at the start of the scrambling.
In a total “It’s a Small World” moment, I actually ran into a climbing buddy Matt on the trail up to Fisher Chimneys… He was part of a team of three from Portland that we stumbled across while they were topping off water bottles. Earlier this year, Matt, his friend Jason, and I had put in an attempt on Mount Hood but were turned back by weather.
The scrambling through the Chimneys was all pretty straightforward, with some easy third and fourth class terrain; however, it does feel a little precarious at times when you have the heavy pack on your back (mine weighed in at 42 lbs that morning with two liters of water), and you have to deal with sketchy and loose rock, dirt, and debris.
There are also a few sections that were more like rock climbing with a couple of short moves and bigger exposure. We encountered no significant route finding challenges thankfully and were able to make pretty good work of the Chimneys, ultimately reaching the top about two hours from the base.
We never felt the need to rope up through the Chimneys, though others may want to for a few parts. At the top of the Chimneys, you pass through a few short sections of snow and rock that eventually leads to the base of a steeper 45-degree section known as Winnie’s Slide.
Camping at Winnie’s Slide
The area above Winnie’s Slide was where we’d be camping that evening… There was dry ground and a few small, flat bivy sites scattered about, as well as running meltwater adjacent to the camp. It took us about six hours to get from trailhead to camp.
At this point, we just hung out, relaxed, snacked, and hydrated. Matt and the rest of the Portland crew soon joined us and we each staked out our respective bivy sites. The view from camp was pretty phenomenal–you could see the summit of Shuksan, the jumbled mess of the Upper Curtis Glacier, and from the upper rock band you could see Mount Baker and all the peaks off to the northwest.
We spent the late afternoon setting up our summit packs, gear, and pre-rigging the rope for glacier travel. Sometime during the early evening–maybe around 5 o’clock–we saw a puzzling sight as eight climbers began congregating atop the steep slope above Hell’s Highway on a very late descent…
We cooked up dinner and spent a long while just watching them rappel down the slope, someone down climb, and just slowly making their way across the glacier, while we hypothesized about how on earth they were descending this late in the day… Injured? Route finding challenges? Carrying over from the Price Glacier?
It was another couple hours before they made it to our camp–turns out it was a big crew of Mazamas (a Portland climbing club) that had set out from Lake Ann at 4 am that morning… they turned around shy of the summit and were just moving slow, I suppose, because of their group size.
It was just before sunset by now, so they restocked on water and continued below Winnie’s Slide where they planned to bivy for the night. They were carrying sleeping pads and, I assume based on pack-size, sleeping bags. That’s quite a big day!
We went up and hung out with Matt and the Portland crew at their bivy location to catch the sunset, socialize, and to stagger our departure times for the morning. Soon after the sunset, I was in my sleeping bag and drifting off to sleep…
Summit Day on Mount Shuksan Fisher Chimneys
My alarm didn’t go off at 3 am as I had intended (set for 3 pm instead–oops) but I came to when I heard Doug rustling through his gear. I choked down a couple of breakfast bars and a cup of coffee… and I stacked a couple of rocks on my bivy sack so it wouldn’t blow off the mountain while we were gone.
We were on the move by 4 am, we scrambled up the adjacent rock band unroped so we could avoid a short pitch of water ice (maybe WI1) that led out of camp. A short step across the moat and we roped up for the slog across the Upper Curtis Glacier. You begin by ascending toward the summit pyramid and the Hour Glass and then drop back down into a saddle in the glacier.
There were a few big cracks and some broken areas to avoid along this initial part of the glacier. Hiking across the saddle takes you to the base of Hell’s Highway–a steeper 45-50 degree snow slope that provides access to the Sulphide Glacier. The snow was pretty firm and conditions were good so we didn’t feel the need to pitch it out.
We were on the Sulphide Glacier just as the sun was starting to rise–and it was here that we noticed the conga line heading toward the summit pyramid. I counted at least 10 people ahead of us on the glacier… We took a brief snack and hydration break before continuing the slog up to the rock band.
From camp to the base of the summit pyramid took two and a half hours. There was a traffic jam at the bottleneck to access the standard gully climb up the pyramid–which we decided to avoid since Doug brought along his light rack.
Instead, we continued along to the Southeast Corner variation which is a fourth class climb along a more prominent ridgeline, rather than the heavily trafficked gully prone to rockfall. Fred Beckey calls the Southeast Corner “a more sporting but not difficult alternative on the summit section”.
We stashed some of our glacier gear at the base of the rock route and rearranged the rope for rock–Doug brought along a 60 meter half rope which we then doubled over for the rock. Doug led all the pitches up the summit pyramid and did a great job for his first alpine rock lead. He offered to swing leads but as a new leader I knew I would slow us down–plus I wasn’t totally confident in my ability to climb the rock in big boots (Nepal EVOs).
We pitched out the whole route, which wasn’t always necessary but was certainly the more prudent choice since we were both unfamiliar with the route. There were a few legitimate sections of mid-fifth class climbing and a number of exciting, airy moves. It took us three and a half hours on the summit pyramid–reaching the top at 10 am.
The views of Mount Baker and the surrounding peaks are absolutely incredible… We were soon joined by a few more parties that had come up the Central Gully. The weather was outstanding so we hung out at the top for 20 minutes or so, taking photos, taking in the view, and snacking.
Descending Mount Shuksan Fisher Chimneys
The descent involves a mix of down climbing and a number of rappels down the gully before you reach the base. We hiked around to pick up our stashed gear and then re-rigged the rope for glacier travel for the slog down the Sulphide.
Descending Hell’s Highway looked a little sketchy so we buried a picket at the top and Doug belayed me for the downclimb. I pounded in a picket at the halfway point for him and then belayed him down to me–from there it was smooth sailing back to camp, which we reached shortly after 1 pm, or approximately 9 hours after we set out that morning.
We broke camp and packed up all our gear, replenished our water supply and took a short break before the long march back to the car… We left camp sometime after 2 pm, down climbed Winnie’s Slide and then made our way back to the Chimneys.
Down climbing the Fisher Chimneys was certainly more sketchy than going up and there were a number of parts that were somewhat nerve-wracking… Particularly when you are tired after a long day climbing the upper reaches of the mountain. I did more down climbing this weekend than I’ve done throughout my entire climbing life!
We made two rappels during the course of the descent and after the last rappel when you finally return to the more well-worn trail and less precarious terrain I was just ready to be back to my truck! Unfortunately, we still had 5 miles or so to go before that would happen… Time to just put one foot in front of the other.
The hike out is never much fun–all the excitement of the climb and the summit and the more technical terrain has worn off, and now you’re just tired and thinking about that hamburger once you’re back in town. This hike just kept going on and on. Past Lake Ann, four miles to go… Descending back into the valley, another 800 vertical feet to go… Switchback after switchback after switchback, you keep asking if this is the last one.
We finally emerged in the parking lot at about 8:30 pm–16 and ½ hours after setting out that morning. What a long day! Granted we were slowed down because we pitched out the summit pyramid, we protected the descent on Hell’s Highway, and we took a few longer breaks throughout our descent.
We grabbed dinner and caffeine at Graham’s in Deming and then set off on the next part of our long journey–driving back to Tacoma to drop Doug off and then continuing on to Bremerton. I finally made it back home at 2 am–a full 23 hours from when I woke up that morning!
All-in-all Shuksan is one of the most outstanding climbs I’ve done to date–and the Fisher Chimneys route is incredibly varied, interesting, and amazingly aesthetic. I’m glad I was finally able to make Fisher Chimneys happen and couldn’t have asked for a better climbing partner for the weekend.
La Sportiva Nepal EVOs: I picked up a new pair of boots literally the day before heading up to Shuksan and wore them straight out of the box on this climb, which obviously wasn’t the smartest move… But I wanted a pair of single boots on this route.
My feet are pretty adaptable, I think, but there was a slight heel lift that rubbed the back of my heels raw. It became quite painful by the end of the trip–I think I need at least a half size smaller. Other than that the boots are awesome–warm, kept my feet dry, climb well, quite nimble for a boot of its weight. UPDATE: I soon after this climb returned the boots to REI and replaced them with the Trangos.
Mountain Laurel Designs eVent Soul Bivy: Finally got to actually use my MLD bivy. Great initial impression… Lightweight (12 oz), made with Cuben Fiber and eVent. I also got a full-strength runner added in by custom order. Obviously wasn’t used in any extreme conditions this time but the bug netting kept mosquitoes away, and the added layer between my sleeping pad and the rocks provided some peace of mind that I wouldn’t puncture anything.
Pack Weight: Setting off at the trailhead at 42lbs (with two liters of water) was too heavy for a route like this. I should have worked harder to pare down my gear… I had a number of items I didn’t use: second ice tool, tool leash, balaclava, heavy beanie, water treatment tablets, heavier gloves, etc. My 15-degree sleeping bag was overkill for a route of this nature and for summer in the Cascades. My 60L CiloGear Worksack is, once again, too large for a weekend jaunt.
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