Literally, we went up into smoke. Late summer seasons in the PNW the past couple years have become equivalent to a blur of gray sky and sticky heat from the constant wildfires. Yearning to be back in the mountains, my friends and I donned on our adventurous spirits and headed up the North Cascades for a quick 2-day jaunt on Mount Shuksan via Fisher Chimneys. We loaded up our phones with beta directions and topological maps. The evening drive up was clear as could be, watching a full view of Shuksan and its golden glow out our windows. The blue sky gave us hopes that it would remain smoke-free for the next 24 hours. We parked the Subaru at the trailhead and reorganized our packs while eating dinner #1 (PB&J yum).
Figuring we needed to hike 4 miles to camp, we turned on our headlamps and started hiking the well-maintained path towards Lake Ann. Downhill we went, into the forest nearing the bottom of the basin. No doubt the dark woods were spooky and I kept on looking behind me for wild creatures, but I was glad to have camaraderie of 3 of my friends. Once we got to the open basin, I could only imagine how beautiful the meadows and alpine flowers must have been at daytime. Although it was night time, the brisk walk quickly turned a warm workout, so once we started the uphill climb below Lake Ann, we could enjoy the light nighttime breeze.
At our campsite, we decided to sleep under the Milky Way after enjoying dinner #2 (Mountain House teriyaki and cheesy mashed potatoes). Sadly, the breeze had not properly dry off the sweat on my clothes, which kept my body cold as I tried to get cozy in my sleeping bag. For what would be a typically warm summer slumber, I tossed and turned in the cold, eventually waking up somewhat drier and warmer at an early alpine start of 4:30am. These early wake ups are always hard until I remind myself that it’s always worth going up a beautiful mountain. By the time we got going, our trail was well lit by the dawn light.
The morning hike consisted of switchback trails leading up to the Lower Curtis Glacier. This was by far the most beautiful glacier I had seen up close.
Getting close to the glacier
Lower Curtis Glacier
To the left of the trail were the Fisher Chimneys, one of which we needed to go up. We kept our eyes peeled as we continued up onto the glacier. According to the beta, the climb should only be class 3/4, with very short sections of class 5. However, every potential route we saw from the glacier looked fairly difficult, though not unattainable. We had a GPS-tracked trail from another group’s climb and a USGS topo map of the Fisher Chimneys climb, which supposedly had wrong markings. So we decided to follow the GPS path rather than the USGS map which would have taken us to a trail that forked off before the glacier.
The first bit of scree wasn’t too bad, but we stayed close to each other to prevent giant rock slides. As we began to attain more elevation, moves started to become more difficult and exposed. Looking down was not much of an option for fear of heights and a bumpy roll down to the glacier and into a crevasse. Definitely did not try taking my camera out at this point. The further up we went, the more protected the chimney walls felt. Below is a picture showing the steep grade of scrambling we did not intend to encounter.
Checking the GPS
We were still on the GPS path, so onwards and upwards into the smoke it was. The first two rappel stations looked like they were recently replaced, but next few we saw were old and worn out, causing a bit of worry. We continued to kick down rocks accidentally and sometimes rocks would just fall from above us. To be safe, we yelled to the top of the chimneys, but there was no response, so we could only assume it was natural loose rocks or perhaps a mountain goat scampering above. At one point a brick-sized rock came tumbling down and I instinctually moved towards wall, straight into the path of the brick. My leg took a beating but at least it was only a bruise.
It was definitely a mental challenge to work our way up the chimney. Our mantra was: think about what you’re doing and not where you are. In the picture below, we were just crossing a narrow path with a 50 foot drop off to one side and somewhat decent handholds on the other. Typically, this would be a fairly easy crossing, but when all you can think about is falling and losing grip, it makes the 30-foot passage treacherous.
About 400 feet up, we started approaching class 5 moves. The chimney made it look fairly easy to free solo, but as we quickly learned after the first climber went up, it was definitely non-trivial. To err on the safe side, we decided to rope up and body belay when no anchor or cracks for trad anchors were in sight.
Roping up with a body belay
All roped up, we felt a tad safer and more confident as we climbed up the chimney. We owed a lot to our free solo-er who barely had any belay, if any, as he climbed above us. It’s all a mental game.
After a few pitches, we saw someone walking on a ledge above us, possibly the actual path, which would explain the previous series of loose fallen rocks. And a couple pitches later, we finally saw the trail, realizing we were a chimney off the whole time. As another guy passed by, we asked him where the trail went. He had just solo mountaineered Shuksan and as he took a look down our route, he exclaimed with a puzzled face: that’s definitely some class 5. Yep, we knew it was class 5 alright.
Our turnaround/decision point was 11am and we had just reached it at the trail. If everything went right subsequently, we could summit in a few more hours and be back home past midnight. Determined to have fun instead of continuing a sufferfest, we took a lunch break overlooking the glacier. On a clear day, we could see Mt. Baker in the distance, but we could barely see Lake Ann through the smoke from our lunch spot.
Turning back around, we easily rappelled down two steep sections and frolicked through the talus and abundant huckleberry hillside. We were pretty stoked to have such an easy hike out and not be forced to down-climb or create replacement anchors had we gone the way we came up. As we approached Lake Ann, we started seeing more day hikers asking for directions. Some were headed towards the glacier and others to visit the chimneys. Although they would ask about the end points of the train, the funny thing was that we would also ask where the trail started. Sometimes we would be disappointed to tell them we did not summit, but inside I was proud that we could safely climb a less used route. We did eventually find the actual fork where we made a mis-turn. Clearly not a wrong turn, just not the path well-traveled by Fisher Chimneys climbers.
After taking a nice afternoon break by the streams, we found the hike back out from Lake Ann to be just as long as it was the night before, but at least we got to see the meadows in daylight. We could see a distinct line separating the smoke cloud from the clear air below, my lungs could tell the difference too. The leisure hike continued to be more pleasant as we snacked on wild huckleberries. And finally, when we took the last switchbacks up to the car we ran up to the trailhead, happy to be back where we started a mere 24 hours prior.
On the car ride, we reflected on our experience. I don’t think I would have done it differently. The trip could have gone up in smoke, but we kept our safety priority high and always had ways of getting back down in case of bailing. We worked as a team and made decisions together so we did not over-exceed anyone’s comfort levels. It was also crucial that we all had proper equipment for the climb; the trad rack truly came in handy. We joked that we made a first ascent up the chimney (since it could have been a rappel-only route before). Also, I can now add alpine rock climbing to a list of mountain activities I’ve done. We may have wanted to cross the upper glaciers and summit Mt. Shuksan, but we had an exciting, unexpected adventure instead. I’m proud that my friends stuck through with me, and I can’t wait till we go on more adventures soon!