Fischer Chimneys car to car
Class IV/Grade III
28 July 2018
I had just returned, high on life, from a month abroad in Chamonix and Zermatt. This was the most incredible experience. I had learned more in that month than I thought possible. But it was back to reality. Fortunately, that reality is also a bit of a dream. I love it here in Seattle. If you had asked me a year ago I would have told you I was a bit bored of it. I was born and raised here, went to University of Washington and frankly, hadn’t made much progress on climbing. I now understand that it was just a lack of properly directed motivation. There is so much here! The cascades are an endless playground to test your abilities and progress as an alpinist. Pete and Fern opened my eyes to this. I will be eternally grateful for that contribution to my life. Time to send in the PNW!
The guys had their sights set on Shuksan. The actual plan was to do it back to back with Baker. That ended up not happening. Shuksan car to car was big. By the time we reached the trailhead for Baker, we were exhausted and couldn’t roust ourselves from the tents early enough to get it done. I was ok with it. We had an incredible day on Shuksan, albeit one hot as hell.
We rolled into the Lake Ann trail head (late in weekend warrior style) on Friday night. Set up camp, organized gear and hit the sack. The bugs were pretty awful this time of year. I zipped into my sleeping bag already itching from head to toe. Mosquitoes love me… We woke before light and dawned our packs, mercifully light without overnight gear but still bearing the weight of the glacier travel rope and crevasse rescue equipment. I made the mistake of only wearing mountaineering boots. If you do this one I highly recommend approach shoes for everything up to the base of the Fischer Chimneys.
The walk out to Lake Ann was beautiful. The trail initially descends into a gorgeous valley and ascends the other side alongside Swift Creek. As we rounded the bend the early morning light illuminated Mount Baker in a blue-purple glow. Shuksan appeared in front of us at the lake. A behemoth this close. The gravity of a day trip to its summit began to sink in. We admired the complex peak for a few minutes before continuing up to the base of the Chimneys. The trail ascends sharply on the climbers left and traverses under some upper cliffs. There is a class III section early on that was quite wet. It then continues to traverse southeast across a large talus field. We were surprised to be passed by another group at this point. Usually we are the ones doing the passing. Later we discovered that it was Alex Borsuk and crew. Quite the badass posse of trail runner, mountaineer folks. We rolled our eyes with acceptance and concluded that, “Hey, if we’re going to get passed, at least it’s by some of the best athletes in the PNW.”
The Fischer Chimneys start at an obvious break in the cliffs. There was a team roping up here. I’m pretty sure they were guided. If you’re comfortable with sustained class III scrambling this is definitely overkill. We carried on past them and had a lot of fun gaining topo lines on the steep terrain. There was even one section of interesting off kilter slab towards the beginning. The trail is set into the cliff face. We rose above the glacier below, Baker becoming an even more impressive backdrop. The Chimneys end with a transition to snow which switches quickly back to a section of talus. Winnies Slide is the first section of moderate snow. It’s probably only 35 degrees. There were solid footsteps prepared by the many teams that make this ascent over the course of the summer. We went unroped despite the crevasses a hundred meters below. No one was going to fall. The snow continues to the first main camp site and a short transition to scrambly rock before gaining the Upper Curtis Glacier.
Time to rope up. We got everyone set and I led us over the glacier. There was only one dicey snow bridge, otherwise it was smooth sailing. The route goes directly south towards Hell’s Highway. There was evidence of rock fall in the depression just before the steep snow so we moved quickly through this area. Hell’s Highway also is quite moderate, again with large footsteps set into the pack. We left the rope on knowing that we would need to continue in crevassed terrain on the Sulphide Glacier above.
This is where it got hot. I’m a winter guy. The heat saps me. But I guess that’s the norm on a glacier, radiating the summer rays. We curved back northeast, the pyramidal summit block before our eyes. Pete and Fern were itching to go faster but I couldn’t get my legs to move at much more than a crawl in the debilitating heat. Eventually, we reached the base of the summit scramble and the crowds. Holy hell there were a lot of people. The route description calls a class III gully on the south face of the summit block the main route. Another option was to head east to the southeast ridge which is reported to have a few moves of 5.6. Given that we didn’t have any rock pro we opted out of potentially perching ourselves on the ridge.
The gully was a mess. Teams trying to climb up, teams trying to rappel down, most of them seemed to be quite amateur, not that we aren’t, but it was dangerous. Rocks hurtled down the route. Shrapnel threatened to take off our heads. Instead of staying in the gully we moved climbers left. This is why I classified the route as class IV. We had to make moves on a fairly steep face about two-thirds of the way up. There were plenty of holds but it was definitely steeper than class III for quite a while. The decision accomplished our goal of getting out from under the barrage and after thirty minutes we gained the summit.
There was still quite a bit of smoke in the air from the summer fires. We couldn’t see Rainier but Baker was clear as day. To the north the cliffs descended sharply to the Hanging Glacier. Far beyond was Price Glacier and Lake at its base. I love these days when you can hang out on top for a long time. We probably spent an hour up there. We snacked, whiskeyed and chatted with other groups. Most of them planned to rappel down. We clearly needed to follow our same logic on the descent to stay out of their way. Pete, Fern and I signed the summit register and prepared for the journey out.
This down climb was a bit spicy out on the class IV terrain. We made it without incident and adorned our rope and crampons. The travel down Sulphide was much easier and we quickly found ourselves back at the top of Hell’s Highway. A couple groups were trying to carefully down climb this bit, faced into the snow. We had un-roped and I went ahead to try and side step down. A few lackadaisical steps in and I lost my footing. Initially I self-arrested but realized the slide wasn’t so bad and opted to let myself go to the bottom in a steep glissade. I’m no big fan of glissading as a skier, but in this case it made sense. Pretty sure the groups around us thought I was nuts, but it worked so one knocked it. Pete and Fern followed me down in a more controlled fashion and we roped back up.
From here it was more or less just retrace your steps. We went a bit higher on the Upper Curtis Glacier to avoid the sketchy snow bridge. Down climbed Winnies Slide and the Fischer Chimneys, which felt quite long in this direction. By the time we reached Lake Ann we were spent. We found a rock on the north side of the basin, next to the creek and quickly passed out for a thirty minutes power nap under the afternoon sun. Still partially set on climbing Baker the next day we had to get moving and slogged it back out to the car. Man my feet hurt. Stiff high altitude mountaineering boots are not made for hiking miles. Last time I do that.
The bugs were absolutely awful. We packed up and started the drive to the trail head at Coleman-Demming. Already the reality set in that Baker the following day was a huge stretch. Fern was still all for it but Pete and I kept things a bit more real. We set up camp and settled into a deep sleep. As I mentioned we woke up super late and opted not to attempt Baker. We had an awesome day on Shuksan and were all more that satisfied with our effort for the weekend. It was a fifteen hour push. One that the vast majority of people do over the course of two days. Borsuk’s crew the only other team we encountered that day running the same trek. Shuksan is a beautiful, complex mountain. It had a bit of everything that required us to pull out a range of mountaineering skills to successfully reach her summit. I really want to go back and ski some of the uber-classic skimo lines next year. Thanks to Pete and Fern for organizing an incredible and mildly brutal day to welcome me back home.