An anticipated climb
We slumped into camp, exhausted. Our climb morphed from an expected eight hours over moderate rock and snow and turned into a fifteen hour ordeal. The adventure was over, we were safe back in camp, but, physically depleted, we were in no mood to celebrate the climb.
The mountain was Mt. Shuksan (9127’) of the North Cascades. I had climbed the peak in 2010 with Mountain Madness, ascending via the Sulphide Glacier route as part of their Glacier Mountaineering Course. I returned this summer in late June, intending to use an ascent of the Fisher Chimneys to warm up for a subsequent attempt on Rainier. The plan was simple: I would meet my partner in Seattle on Monday morning, we’d hike the approach on Tuesday to Lake Ann, and then launch our summit attempt early Wednesday morning if conditions looked good.
The Fisher Chimneys are rated as a grade III route, involving a third class rock scramble up the side of the mountain to the Upper Curtis Glacier which then leads to Hell’s Highway and the top of the Sulphide Glacier. From there, you approach the summit pyramid and pick your line of ascent. For us, this would be the Central Gulley. Everything I had heard of the route had a common theme though: don’t attempt if snow remains on the route. Reading previous trip reports from that time of year and listening to friends and partners, I knew to expect exactly that: a snow covered climb. Having just come from two snow climbs in Colorado, I felt like advice be damned, we would push on as planned.
The climb begins
I met up with my partner, Ashley G., in Seattle as planned. Ashley is a strong climber, an extreme athlete that regularly participates in 50k trail runs and other long distance events. While she had some altitude exposure under her belt after accompanying a Himalayan expedition to over 20k feet, this would be her first true mountaineering climb. I had no misgivings though, having had her whip my butt on several training sessions. With nearly a dozen ascents on my record, I felt my knowledge coupled with her strength would make for a great match, and boy was I right.
We parked the car at the lower lot at the Mount Baker Ski Resort, as access to the Lake Anne lot was closed because the resort was still clearing snow from the roads. We blazed a quick trail, moving along the semi-plowed road to the still-snow covered parking lot. From there, you hike down into a wide, flat valley that follows the Shuksan arm all the way to Lake Anne. While hiking through the snow-covered valley, there were abundant red flags: there were debris fields on both sides of the valley, scaring the otherwise pristine snow. Avalanches must have been consistently cutting loose all spring and early summer, destroying pine trees and grinding them down to a fine saw dust. Careful to keep an eye on our position in relation to potential loose slopes, we made our way effortlessly to Lake Anne. On the way, we bumped into a group on their way out.
They had hiked in four days earlier, intending to ascend Fisher Chimenys, but weather was not on their side: they had four days of rain, which had softened the snow and weighted it down, dramatically increasing the snow’s instability. After ascending a third of the way up the Chimneys, they had bivyed, staying there for three days before hiking out, sick of their tents and the non-stop rain.
And we wait....
We arrived at Lake Anne shortly after 2 pm, having made it from the lot in just about three hours, a great time for a hike that is normally five hours. We immediately set about establishing camp, picking a location up above the lake that was sheltered by a few pines. The whole hike in, the ridges around the valley were covered by low clouds and fog banks, with a slight rain falling. From our camp, we could see the Lower Curtis Glacier and the many gullies along the Shuksan arm, one of which makes up the Chimney. With the fog though, we were struggling to identify the route. However, I had a quality topo and was confident that I'd be able to find our way. And, as expected, such hubris got us into trouble.
The climb begins, for real
2AM, Ashley's iPhone goes off to wake us. She rustles first, "Gavin, did the weather clear?"
I worm my way partially out of my sleeping bag, feeling the harsh rush of the cool night mountain air against my now-exposed base layer. I sit up in the tent, and begin to unzip the tent's door. Before I was even halfway done, I knew: "Ashley, I see stars. Let's go."
The weather had indeed lifted, and our early AM wake up was breathtaking. The mountain was wrapped in a cloak of the brilliant, dark night sky, so deep in its depths but so bright, painted with millions of tiny pinpricks that are the stars of other worlds. Shuksan was resplendent, the stars providing just enough illumination to coat the mountain in every shade of black, grey, white, and blue.
We hustled, knowing an early start was crucial to our safety. Oatmeal, packing, and melting water (a tragic oversight on our part, forgetting to melt water before bed), all done to the tune of the silent confidence of climbers about to start a day and the hiss of our stove.
Ashley had one picket, I had two and the rope. Ready, we left camp with our crampons on and our headlamps blazing.
Things begin to go wrong
We began the traverse from Lake Anne towards the Lower Curtis Glacier (LCG). The route is supposed to involve a gentle gain up towards a couloir on Shuksan's Arm as the traverse makes its way towards the LCG, but as went on, I saw no appropriate path. The group that had walked out the day before had left clear tracks, and for the most part I followed these as they took us along the upper portions of the LCG. Knowing that the route is supposed to involve primarily rock, I was watching for easy-looking rock bands that would get us up to Winnie's Slide. What we found at the end of the traverse, almost all the way under the Upper Curtis Glacier (UCG), was what appeared to be 100 feet of near vertical rock. Knowing the our ultimate goal was Winnie's slide, I could see this rock would get us up towards to snow slopes that are right below the slide, so, not knowing what else we could be looking for, we began the climb up the rock.
The rock was not overly steep, mostly around 60 degrees to start, pretty moderate slab with plenty of features to grab and edge on. Honestly, it didn't seem harder than 3rd class at the start even if it was more like 4th. We discovered as we climbed, with our crampons still on, that the rock was divided into three bands, each with a well-sized ledge between them. We moved through the first band without talking, making easy work of the rock. As we made it to the second pitch, standing on the ledge below, I had my first doubts: at this point, the rock became more vertical and clearly more technically difficult.
To get off the ledge, there was a 15 foot long chimney filled with moss and mud that then opened up into some muddy and moss covered face climbing. I made the first moves, using the front points to find edges that provided me some stability on the muddy rock, while my hands used a variety of stems and underclings to keep me balanced in the chimney. There was no time to think, only to climb.
I made it through that portion and knew we were off route. Ashley joined me after fighting her way through the climb, a very serious look in her eyes, and said simpley, "That was not 3rd class. Maybe 5.8?" My reply was just as simple, "I think 5.6, but I'm taller."
We had no rock protection, had just free soloed 5.6 in boots and crampons with packs, and still had at least one pitch to go. In short, I was exhausted. I stopped, pulled out my Snickers, and ate it, watching as the sun's first rays caught Mt Baker fully.
Me and my Snickers, taking a break.
We could not retreat, but the next pitch looked even harder. I decided I would investigate alternatives, traversing around the ledge and looking for alternative routes. As I made some dangerous moves out right, I quickly gained a larger ledge that wrapped around the band, taking me to a snow chute that followed the slope of the top of the rock band down towards LCG. The sun was already starting to hit portions of the Shuksan arm near us, and soon I feared it would strike the Upper Curtis Glacier, destabilizing further the seracs hung above the snow chute I was now observing. Worse, the chute had clearly experienced a number of significant avalanches, evidenced by the channels carved into the snow by the heavy loads of snow, rock, and ice regularly shooting down the couloir. Knowing the weather of the previous few days, I would not want to be in the chute for long, but I knew it would be safer to be on that snow than to stay on that rock.
I called Ashley over, who agreed that we had to accept the serac risk and the extreme avalanche risk and move quickly up the mild-looking snow chute.
Snow turns to Ice
First light on Baker (taken during traverse)
If the setting wasn't so beautiful, this struggle against life and death would be unjustifiable.
Well into the snow chute now, new problems were arising, threatening our survival: the snow was gaining in steepness, there were numerous small crevasses scattered across the chute, and, all of the sudden, we were facing a small section of exposed vertical glacier ice, requiring a dangerous traverse across the very steep snow and ice with a crevasse below to the left and one above to the right.
A fall would be fatal or at least life-threatening. Rope was out of the question: with only pickets and such steep snow, we'd only be able to protect the traverse from below the first crevasse, ensuring that any fall would result in a pendulum swing down into the crevasse, which did at least appear to be shallow. Unwilling to take the time for no clear advantage in safety, I used my two technical tools to make my way across and then up to well above the second crevasse. Ashley, using her piolet and a trekking pole, managed the same feet while I watched on. The slip of one front point, of the sharp pick at the bottom of the pole, would spell doom. It wasn't until she was safely past that I realized I had held my breath.
There is always a jug somewhere...
Now we moved on the more moderate snow slopes of Winnie's slide that would lead us to the traverse along the UCG. Finally out of the chute and relatively safe, I had a moment to reflect on the climbing thus far, and the memories of those difficult sections made me nauseous with the knowledge that we had done it unroped, without any protection. Taking stock of our situation, I approached Ashley.
"It's now just past 7, we are way behind schedule. We cannot go down the way we came up, so we need to add time to find a route down. Do you wish to continue up or should we pick our way down?"
Without hesitation, she replied, "Let's keep going."
So we continued along the Upper Curtis, approaching Hell's Highway.
Hell's Highway is the steep snow slope facing left towards the rock.
Hell's Highway was steep, the snow getting softer as the warm sun thawed the heavy, wet snow. From Hell's Highway, we rose onto the top of the Sulphide Glacier, with the summit pyramid in view and the most amazing natural surroundings.
The Central Gulley route is that clear line going up the center.
We moved, slowly, exhausted, towards the summit pyramid. Steep snow, again with evidence of recent avalanche activity, coated the Central Gulley, but we went on. With a new burst of energy, we dispatched the central gulley to confront an ice headwall protecting the summit proper. Thankful again for my two tools, I moved through the eight foot ice wall without too much difficulty. And then, we were on the summit.
It had taken us 7 hours to reach the summit. Now 10:30 AM, we needed to make our way back, down climbing steep snow slopes after the sun had been warming and loosening them all morning.
We made rapid progress, getting back to Winnie's Slide with little effort. Swinging out wide right as we descended, we came to a clear rock ridge at the foot of the slide to take a rest, immediately noticing that there were cairns perched around the ridge. I realized we had found the bivy site atop Fisher Chimney's, that we were on-route! We safely followed the bare rock trail for about 100 feet before it became buried, but down below, working its way down the slope, we could see portions of the trail visible on areas where the snow had receded. We begun the down climb, thrilled to be on route and on such mild terrain.
What followed was an 8 hour ordeal.
Things go from bad to worse
3rd Class rock, during summer, maybe. During late June, though, we found steep snow mixed with sections of wet, muddy rock. With the snow heavy from the days of rain and soft from the morning of sun, every step on exposed slopes triggered minor avalanches. Again, with snow too soft to hold pickets, we had to go without our rope.
While I could recount every stressful and harsh moment of the 8 hour descent, two stories convey it fully.
The first involved a tricky rappel. Stuck above a particularly steep and wet down climb on rock, I decided to pull out the rope and use a flake to rappel down and to the side, onto a steep snow ramp that would take us down to another section of exposed trail. After searching, I found a small, loose flake that I dug the top out of a bit, enough to just slot the rope behind the flake. A few harsh pulls and the rock would shake, but not pull out. Going first, I eased myself into the rappel and lowered myself the 35 feet. Ashley followed without difficulty. But as I went to pull the rope, it did not come. After trying a variety of pull tricks, I realized it was helplessly wedged behind the flake, and that I'd have to climb up to retrieve it. Climbing the snow ramp, I used the rappel rope to swing back over to the rock band from the snow, holding my breath as I exerted the force on the weak flake.
Now at the rope, I pulled it out from behind the flake and attempted to pad the top of the flake so that the rope wouldn't cinch down and get stuck again, but could not get it to work. Resting the rope just barely into the crack , I lowered onto the snow slope as gently as possible before climbing above the flake and pulling the rope up towards me. Two tugs, and the rope popped free. I dropped it to slide down to Ashley, who was holding the coiled end below. I down climbed and we continued.
Later, we were out of the steep couloirs and were simply working our way down to the traverse, the home stretch. We again moved onto rock for the descent, down climbing mild 3rd class rock that had one section of some harder 4th class slab, made harder by a water trickle and mud. I was below Ashley, about twenty feet down and ten feet to the right of her, as she down climbed the slab that I had just navigated. At the base, where it was its hardest, she knocked loose a volleyball-sized rock that I had noticed sitting there, just waiting for a nudge. Like a guided rocket, it dropped, fifteen feet, hit a slop, and went straight at my face. Standing with hands and legs on rocks that served essentially like a peg ladder and a crevasse below me, I could do nothing to get out of the way. I turned my shoulder towards the projectile and tucked my chin towards my opposing shoulder, hoping to use my helmet and pack to take the worse of the impact. Not a moment later, the rock slammed into the top right of my pack, just above my shoulder, providing a glancing blow that only left me mentally shaken. Exhausted, we continued without a word to each other.
The climb took a total of 15 hours. One two occasions, I honestly believe that we could have died as easily as we lived, had we slipped, had that rock been an inch higher or me a second slower. Those 15 hours left us barely able to finish the walk into camp, both of us dehydrated, and me with extensive superficial frostbite to both feet.
Instead of the Grade III, 3rd class rock route we expected, we found 5.6 rock, WI-1, very steep snow, and a very long, full day. This seasonal variation, using the snow gulley for scent from LCG to Winnie's Slide, we named "The Wrong Way," unsure if it was an established route.
The Wrong Way, Grade IV (5.6, WI-1), difficulty of D (on IFAS scale)
I cannot end this trip report without a strong, explicit thank you to Ashley for her strength and attitude. Clearly off-route, in dangerous territory, she kept an unbelievable calm and confidence about her, knowing that action was needed to keep us alive. I've only ever had one other partner with whom I've had to talk so little, with whom making decisions has not been about weighing choices but clearly evident. I think it the greatest compliment to her to say that the one other partner is no other than Parofes.
Make decisions quickly. Evaluate risk, and act accordingly.
When off-route, stop when safe and evaluate options. Don't press on blindly.
Remain calm and focused, and do not get bogged down.
Understand the route, and how conditions, as they exist and could be, affect it. Ensure both team members are capable of navigating the route. Bring equipment for what you expect and what you may find. Also, my layering sucks.
“Alpine climbing is hard. The fear up there is more intense than anything short of a driveby down here.
It's not beautiful. It's fucking war.
The struggle is glorious in its own way, but beauty is for the ground, for postcards and for glowing prose written long after the fact.”
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