Trip Date: July 7-8, 2018
Distance: ~14 miles roundrip
Elevation Gain: 6750 ft
Fees/Permits: North Cascades National Park Backcountry Permit (if camping overnight); National Parks Pass
Permit Location: Glacier Public Service Center
GPX Tracks: Day 1, Day 2
Trip Songs: Whatever Kristen was thinking of at the time in musical form
Beta Summary: Trail to Lake Ann still in partial snow. Plenty of washouts so wear waterproof boots and pants/gaiters. Navigation get a little tricky here so bring a map/GPS. Pass by Lake Ann and continue east towards the chimneys. There was one steep snow section at the base of the chimneys you can climb up to the snow-free trail from. You’ll need crampons and an ice axe for this. Continue up the chimneys (class 3/4 scramble). Continue towards Upper Curtis Glacier and you’ll reach Winnie’s Slide. Campsite at the bottom of Winnie’s slide is snow-free, snow covered at the top. Go up Winnie’s Slide (labeled incorrectly on the USGS map) and you’ll go across Upper Curtis Glacier, climb up Hell’s Highway (the steep section of the switchback before meeting up with Sulphide Glacier – labeled on the USGS incorrectly as The Hourglass) and then meet up with Sulphide Glacier to the summit pyramid. Several rappel stations, a 60m rope will get you down.
A big part of mountaineering for me (and I suspect most other folks in this realm of interest) is my fixation on making it to the summit. I often get tunnel vision and neglect to thoroughly experience the journey of getting there (cliché, blah blah but it’s true). This trip was a much-needed reminder that the adventure of getting to the top is, well, in this case especially, most of the trip – turnarounds, mental breaking points, postholing, inadvertent somersaulting, bruises and all.
I’ve been involved with Peaks of Life for a year now as their social media manager and adventure coordinator (who wouldn’t like that as a title, right?!). It’s a great organization that organizes fundraising climbs in the summer to raise money to go to the uncompensated care fund at Seattle Children’s. This climb up Mount Shuksan via the Fisher Chimneys route was the first of hopefully many I’ve been able to join.
We started off on a dense Seattle-type misty and cloudy morning on Saturday after we had picked up our permits at the ranger station (scored the second to last permits – whoo! – which also meant lots of people – nooo!) towards Lake Ann on a straightforward trail that soon became covered in inconsistent patches of snow. We had maps and a GPS (and, thankfully, a very directionally-oriented Forrest and Eve) to pick our way through the damp heather and snow patches. The route to Lake Ann dipped downhill before picking up on elevation and I plodded on with growing expectations for the climb as I listened to Eve talk about her well-known, unrequited love affair with Shuksan. We passed a group of five descending who were unable to make it to the Chimneys due to the low visibility and so we were crossing our fingers that Sunday’s weather forecast of clear skies would hold up for us!
The first scramble section we arrived at required a very cold, damp climb through a mini waterfall before we hit a snow-covered boothpath up to the chimneys. Getting back on the rock required crossing a snowfinger (talk about trusting your feet!) That made me hesitate before taking the short 3 steps or so to get across. It’s kind of scary when 80% of what’s under your feet is air!
By the time we arrived at the chimneys, the sun was making an attempt to periodically peek through the clouds. There was a steep snow section up the first part of the chimneys followed by a steep rocky trail and then the beginning of the scramble. After assessing the general baseline comfort level of the group, we opted to rope up on this section which made for some slow going. According to Eve, mountaineering boots can edge on anything…so what better time than this to test it out (she was right, as usual).
We got over the chimneys and onto White Salmon glacier and arrived at our camp at the base of Winnie’s slide just as the clouds were beginning to clear. And bonus points for us…our campsites were pleasantly snow-free! We set up camp, filtered water, enjoyed the warmth of the setting sun, and made dinner. I love having Mountain House meals…but mostly because i get to stick it in my puffy while I wait for it to cook and finally feel warm again. Forrest set up his sweet tent which Eve and I ended up sharing with him (this was when I realized I didn’t need to drag my tent up…oh well an extra 2lbs of training weight wasn’t going to kill me), and we enjoyed a very pleasantly warm night of sleep.
On Sunday morning we woke up (after I ignored several alarms too many times), moseyed around camp for too long, roped up, and finally left our camp around 4:30am for an alpine start to the day. Our first objective of the morning was to climb up Winnie’s Slide a short, steep section to get to the Upper Curtis Glacier. The snow was firm in the morning and we were easily able to get up with crampons and an ice axe. thanks to a very nice bootpath kicked in by the two other SMR climbers we’d run into the day before (my non-warmed up legs thank you). On the Upper Curtis Glacier, there were a few very tiny cracks in the ground but it was otherwise in great shape.
We got up Hell’s Highway and onto Sulphide Glacier where the sun finally hit us and I re-tied my boots for the billionth time (thanks, Eve, for having the same problem so I felt like slightly less of a problem child) and we continued heading towards the summit pyramid.
There were a bunch of people starting up the summit pyramid so we sat down for a bit, expecting to soon go next, but we heard some rock fall followed by a shout – something about being hit on the head. Forrest went up ahead to the woman to assess any potential injury and help out where he could while the rest of us chatted with some other parties, Artemiza napped, and then we watched a ridiculously large team approach the summit via Sulphide (it was reminiscent of the Huns showing up on the horizon in Mulan). After about 1.5-2ish hours the other party got down, the woman was shaken but fine. We roped up for the summit scramble, made it up a very short distance and bailed after realizing it would take way too long, especially considering we still needed to pack up camp and get down the Chimneys.
This was the hardest part for me – seeing that we were so close and that this was where we were stopping. I feel like I’ve had more than my fair share of turnarounds this year and adding yet another one to the list was rough. But maybe I was getting used to it, maybe it was the beautiful view, but it stung less this time than it had the other times and I felt oddly okay about it. We headed back down towards camp, part walking, part glissading, part downclimbing (Forrest is ridiculously fast, it’s like watching a robot). and packed up our gear.
We rappelled down the chimneys (something like 8 rappels i think?), the first of which was a rappel on snow (for some reason I did not understand how to do this) and then proceeded to take a million years rappelling down the other 7. The slog out from the Chimneys to Lake Ann and back to the trailhead was kind of a blur for me. It was hot, my gear was not secure and was just thwacking around on the outside of my pack (huge pet peeve for me), I was annoyed, and why on earth was the hike out uphill?! I postholed too many times to count, one of which pretty much ended in a complete somersault, my knees were screaming at me and I was pretty much battling myself to not totally lose it (thanks team for putting up with my bitter self).
We finally made it back to the trailhead marker at something like 10:25pm and then I realized we still had another 5-10 minutes to go before we would see the cars. Torturous. I’ve never wanted to burst into tears as much as I did when I saw the parking lot. I was dehydrated and out of water. Eve was way more prepared for post-climb needs that I’ll probably ever be and handed me a full nalgene of water she had kept stashed in the car, which I promptly and very gratefully chugged. We piled into the car and headed back towards Seattle, making a pit stop at a McDonalds on the way back (I’ll say this after every climb, but burgers and soda has never tasted so good in my life).
Honestly, I had a ridiculous range of emotions on this climb from elation and gratitude, to exhaustion and irritation, to resentment and then finally acceptance and contentment. It was a beautiful climb with awesome people. It was for the families whose children are at Seattle Children’s, And it was a lesson in appreciation, patience, and enjoying the full experience for me.*
*(But who am I kidding, I still did go back two weekends later via Sulphide to get to the summit.)