August 16-18, 2013: Shuksan – Fischer’s Chimneys

The white buffalo. Shuksan. Fischer Chimneys. I hear Mike Daly had the same problem. Two previous attempt, two perfect windows of weather and snow conditions, two completely kid-free weekends. Le sigh.

Attempt one was a fun, if not short go at it. My partner this time: Tim Blaney, now an accomplished WAC instructor, but at the time about as green as them come. We started off about a mile from the trail head where the road was barricaded due to snow. We walked to the trail head and camped in Tim’s REI half-dome on top of the snow-plow debris. The snow providing a better insulator than concrete with a ½ cm sheet of running water on top.

In the morning we trudged down the 500 feet or so to the bottom of the valley and attempted to make our way back up to Ann Lake. Tim was obviously dogging it, which was surprising after a down-hill since he certainly looks the part: tall, strong, and bikes for miles upon miles. Just as we start to head back up-hill, Tim takes a fall and blows out his knee. As I start going through his gear to see what I can put in my pack to get us back to the car, it quickly becomes apparent that I should have done a gear-check with him at the trail head. Ten pounds of clothes, six liters of water (while we hike next to endless glacier run-off), and food for four days at least. Suddenly the fatigue and injury seem inevitable rather than surprising. His pack must have been 70 pounds. I take the tent, some clothes, dump all but a swallow of water, secretly unwrap a few Power Bars and throw them to the marmots. Now it’s me with the 70 pound pack and this time it’s up-hill. Oh well, live to climb another day. I promise to be back.

Attempt two was also fun. This one with Batman (aka Dave Welles). We take Ann Lake early and continue with our plan to bivy at the top of the chimneys. After about four instances of “hey, this must be the way! I see a rap sling… oh wait, now I know why there’s a rap sling,” we head back and bivy mid-trail with the knowledge that with so many wrong chimneys discovered, we will find the right one easily in the morning.

By mid-day we still hadn’t found the correct chimney, nor had another group we ran into, and we headed back for some burgers and a bed large enough to accommodate my 5’6” frame. Not kidding. Dave and I both love his 2-pound tent, but…

Alright you bitch. I hate losing and Batman doesn’t know how. This time we start a little later and end up head-lamping into camp at Ann Lake. After a stupid error at Rainier earlier in the season, I decided to move to the wisdom of “the best place to keep your extra head-lamp batteries is in your extra head-lamp.” This ended up being a good call. What ended up being a bad call was not taking my extra headlamp with me on summit day. The Chimneys are awesome and apparently not that hard to find (the trick is to start at the lowest one and look for cairns). We top out at the glacier, plow up the steep snow of Winnie’s Slide, avoid a large bergschrund by taking a small cleaver and find ourselves on top of the Upper Curtis Glacier. From there it was a quick, mostly down-hill, climb to Hell’s Highway (which was much shorter than I expected), and then a push across the Sulphide Glacier (much longer than I expected) to the summit pyramid. After the Chimneys, the summit structure was just more of the same and we hit the true summit for some whiskey not too much later than we had planned.

On the way down we ended up missing Hell’s Highway by about a mile and had to back-track. The extra time coupled with the later-than-expected summit had us in a bit of a jam. We used a couple less-than-ideal rappels from the cleaver to reach the top of Fischer’s Chimneys just as dusk was starting to hit. From here the thought was, “fly you fools!” We needed to be down by dark. Dave is not much of a rock guy – he loves his steep snow, ice, and glaciers – and after the long day, a class-4 down climb was not what he was looking for. I, however, love me some rock. Even the sketchy stuff. We brought a short 30m alpine rope and I ended up setting up a rappel for the steep stuff, letting Dave go first, cleaning the rap, passing him on shallower trail, then setting up the next rappel station just as Dave would arrive. It was a nice feeling of usefulness as Batman usually takes twice as much group gear as I do and still out-paces me.

By the last bit of the chimneys it was full-dark and we were attempting to head lamp it. As a kick in the face for our long day, Dave’s headlamp had a short and at best would flicker. Most of the time I was down-climbing a small section, then turning around to shine light for Dave to do his few moves. Good thing I had my extra head-lamp… or… God damn it. We ended up missing a switch-back and going off-trail for a while before eventually accepting down-hill rule and finding the trail again. By the time we were back at our bug-filled camp at Ann Lake, we couldn’t be happier. After some hard-earned sleeping in, we packed up camp and moseyed back to the trail head.

Take that you stupid mountain.

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