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Mt. Shuksan (9150')

Fisher Chimneys - July 16-17 '99

summit image
Mt. Shuksan (not yet)

Party: Me, Tracy, Neil Fried, Michelle Engelhart, Della Quimby, Rich Campbell and Richard Chamberlain.

Weather: Despite threats of serious thunder and lightning for the weekend, copiously conveyed to all party members by climb bailer Tom, we had pretty much awesome weather. The hike in on Saturday was warm and sunny. Saturday evening we did have some light showers and heard the occasional clap-o-thunder. Sunday was back to great weather, a mix of low cloud and sun.

The Approach

We hiked in to lake Anne and then proceeded a little further, camping below a clump of trees just after crossing a broad bowl. We had snow from the Ski-area parking lot.

Camp beyond Lake Anne
Neil and I prepare to leave on our Recon trip

On Saturday night, Neil and I went for a recon trip to see if we could make heads or tails of the approach and route through the chimneys. It was definitely a worthwhile endeavor. The entrance to the lower chimney involved a moat negotiation and some tricky scrambling on wet rock followed by a steep exposed snow climb. We got as far as the long traverse to view the upper chimney area. It was unclear to us at the time which was the correct way. We had hunches about the correct entrance point, and in general, it looked a little scary, figuring we would have to ascent the predominant steep snow couloir for a few hundred feet.

Route up Chimneys
The route up the chimneys (pc: GS)

It turns out that our suspicions were correct. Looking beyond the chimneys, the hell's highway area is easy to see and we were pleased to see that the path looked remarkably clear of crevasse action.

Sometime Sunday morning, everyone but Tracy and I were awoken by a thunderous nearby avalanche. Neil says that it sounded and felt like the avalanche was going to come right through our tents. Apparently there were some raised heart-rates. Tracy and I slept through the whole thing!
This event had everyone concerned about the conditions the next morning, but looking around there was no evidence of avalanche activity. The snow was solid. There was no debrie anywhere.

The Climb

The climb was awesome: It challenged me to limits I had not tested. Ascending the chimneys was really a steep snow lead. The upper gulley was at least 45-55 degrees in some sections. I took all the pickets from our two rope teams and lead up the slope, with Tracy and Neil Simul-climbing behind me. I placed one picket per half rope length for three full rope lengths. Neil left the pickets behind for the other team to clip through on their way up. The snow was perfect.... perfect for kicking solid steps, yet solid enough to trust the pickets would hold a substantial fall. At the top of the chimney, I stood on a knife edge of snow. 15 feet below me, I could see the scramble trail coming out of the snow wall.

Neil at top of chimney
Neil on the Knife edge at top of Snow Chimney (pc: GS)

We could not get down to the normal trail, so we continued up a rock gulley. Neil lead this, again more like simul-climbing to the top of the chimneys. We rested and waited a while for the other 4 to catch up with us.

Neil waits at top of Chimney
Neil waits at top of Chimneys - Baker in Background (pc: GS)

From the top of the chimneys, the climb was in great condition, making for an easy glacier slog. Winnies slide was well covered in snow. The entrance onto the upper glacier was steep and icy, but fun.

Up the Curtis Glacier
Neil and Tracy head up the Curtis Glacier (pc: GS)

The traverse over to Hell's gate and Hell's gate itself were in great shape with virtually no crevasses open. And finally, the walk up to the base of the summit pyramid was also no more than a low angle snow slog. At the base of the summit we stopped for another short break and watched the hordes of climbers moving up and down various aspects of the pyramid. more like sprawled all over the place. There was still plenty of snow everywhere, so it was unclear as to which is the standard central gulley. We headed up to what is probably the central gulley and ran into a log jam of people, a couple other parties, deciding whether to go that way or not. Moments earlier some nasty rock fall was sent down the gulley right where we were planning on ascending. At this point, less than 200 feet from the top, there were both people climbing down and people waiting to head up. We decided that it was unsafe to climb the gulley in these crowded, snow-covered conditions and backed off. In the interest of time as well, we knew the crux of the entire climb would be getting back down.

View from Pyramid down Sulphide Glacier
Sulphide Glacier looking South from our highpoint on the summit pyramid (pc: GS)

The Descent

We had come up some pretty steep slopes, and as everyone knows, getting down steep slopes is often more difficult, technical and time consuming than the coming up. Of course that claim is entirely dependent on the confidence of an individual's snow climbing skills. It became clear that my team lacked appropriate snow descent techniques and confidence. This isn't really a big deal, it just means things take more time to get the job done safely. People with extreme snow confidence would ski or glissade quite steep slopes, from there on down the confidence line, one would quickly plunge step prepared for self arrest, then plunge step with self-belay every step, then perhaps down climb facing in with stake-position self belay, and then, at the bottom of the confidence level or physics of steepness one uses anchors, belays and rappels. (Belays may of course be used in any of the methods depending on the consequences of the run-out).
The steep, icy section above Winnies slide, we belayed a Neil down who placed pickets for followers protection. This section would have been much easier if we had left our crampons on, since there were some exposed icy sections, or worse, ice below thin layers of snow. On Winnies slide, I set up an anchor permitting each person a belayed glissade down the slope. This whole process was quite slow, as I had to recover the belay rope after each person and lower each person one at a time. I followed plunge stepping and clipping out of pickets that Richard Cambell placed for me.
The crux of the descent came at the top of the chimneys. When we got there we joined two other parties, one of 4 and one of 2.... thats 13 people at the top of a 45 degree snow slope thinking about getting everyone down safely. Somehow, we agreed to set up rappels sharing ropes all the way down. The first team used our ropes and rappeled down the pitch. Deciding that they couldn't set up an anchor there, they abandonned the rappelling plan and down climbed un-roped (facing in with self-belay). Happy to have had our time wasted with other people using our ropes, I bit my tongue and proceeded as I would have in a normal situation. I rapped down the ropes, set up an anchor (with no problem) and tossed a fixed line down the slope. As each person from my team finished the rap, they down climbed with a prussic on the fixed rope. Another anchor was set up at the end of that line and the process repeated. Being left at the top of each pitch, I had the last person leave a line of pickets and clip my rope through them. Neil belayed me down as I plunge-stepped and removed the protection. I was impressed at my own increasing confidence, but was certain that as the slope reached its steepest point toward the bottom, I would have to face in.... in the end, I remained facing out the entire way... still impressed today, and definitely more confident for future climbs. We probably spent at least 2-3 hours getting down the Chimney!
The rest of the descent was less difficult, though people were getting tired and longing to be finished. We got back to camp around 7PM, after 16 hours above. The team decided that they wanted to head out that night, as some had to work the next day. We packed up camp for an hour and then made our way back to the parking lot in 3 hours. A 21 hour day was enough for me, so Tracy and I crashed in the back of my truck, Neil in his. Amazingly, Della chose to drive everyone else home to Seattle, another 3 hours, to record a 24 hour mini-epic day. That 3 hour drive was still probably the most dangerous event of the weekend.

Tracy and I woke up around 5AM, ate breakfast in Bellingham, and I was at work a little after 9.

I have a lot more to say about this climb.... one of the reasons it has taken me so long to get the report done. It was a great experience. The climbing (down) was challenging, the weather was great, I love mini epics, I improved my skills and gained confidence, I hope and expect everyone else made similar progress. No we did not summit, though I still consider it a great success. Yes, I will have to go back to summit, but most definitely with a smaller team, and probably on an even more exciting route.

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Last updated: Oct 6, 1999 & Feb 17, 2000
Copyright © 1999 Gordon Schryer.