Mt. Shuksan, The North Face + total solar eclipse


Technical climbing info:

  • Mountain: Mount Shuksan
  • Elevation: 9,172ft
  • Route: North Face via Fisher Chimneys
  • Length: 5,500ft
  • Grade: IV, AI4

Schedule:

  • Day 1: Approach, climb the Fisher Chimneys, circumnavigate to the base of the North Face
  • Day 2: Climb the North Face, circumnavigate to the base of the summit pyramid, climb to the summit, descend to the top of the Fisher Chimneys
  • Day 3: Descend the Fisher Chimneys, hike out

Background

By the beginning of August, my summer had been filled with climbs back to back to back.  Since the end of May, I had climbed 7 considerable peaks, making for my most successful climbing season to date.  I was finally back in Seattle and felt the end of an awesome climbing season rapidly approaching.  With the summer heat still on the rise, combined with the forest fire ash cover coming from all over the west coast, the glaciers seemed unlikely to stay in a climbable state until the end of the month.

Chad and I just had a very successful climb of Mont Baker’s Coleman Headwall, and I knew that I wanted to squeeze in just one more peak before the season wrapped up. The North Face of Shuksan was the target in my mind. It’s a classic yet somewhat obscure route, and I had still been yet to climb Shuksan by any route. A new mountain and a cool objective would be the perfect last big hoorah for the season.  After a week of rest back home, allowing my (first ever) heel blisters to recover a little bit, I sent a message to Chad to see what his schedule looked like. With his season wrapping up as well, he had a bit of weekend availability.  Perfect.

Somewhere on the internet I read that people could climb Shuksan’s North Face in a long day.  I knew that would probably be a bit extreme, so I figured 2 days would be optimal.  I sent Chad a message with my timeline and he said he would really prefer to do it in 3.  In fact, he would truly prefer to do it in 4.  In hindsight, 4 would have been nice.

Day 1

“This is where we start!”

We spent a good amount of time winding up and down roads, mostly paved for the local area ski resort.  The whole time, Mount Shuksan sat beautifully across the other side of the valley.  Close enough for us to see the features of the glacier, but far enough for it to still be part of the background.  Eventually, the road abruptly stopped at a parking lot. What? I looked over at Chad thinking we had taken the wrong way and hit a dead end. “This is where we start!”, he said.

It turns out, Mount Shuksan is super far away from the closest parking lot and trailhead. Now looking at it, I was surprised that we were attempting to climb this thing is 3 days, 4 days looked pretty attractive now.

The unpopular options

Mount Shuksan’s North Face route can be climbed one of two ways. Both ways are about equally as popular, because neither way is really popular at all.

The first option would be to start by the roadside towards the north of the mountain and bushwhack through a good deal of very unfriendly and wild terrain.  Climb from the bottom of the mountain to the base of the summit pyramid.  Then finally wrap around to the south side to finish off the climb of the pyramid.  Descending the route is possible, but challenging, so most would choose to descend one of the standard routes.  Finally, you’d have to make your way to your car all the way on the other side of the mountain. I think bushwacking is a royal pain, and I didn’t feel like trying to hitch a ride, so we forwent this option.

The second option is to begin towards the south of the mountain, climb a good chunk of the Fisher Chimneys route, descend and wrap around to the north side, climb the face, wrap back around to the south side to climb the summit pyramid, and then descend back down the Fisher Chimneys. This would be our route of choice.

It could be said that either of these options is a little contrived, and I wouldn’t have much of a good counter argument to that.

A long hike

The parking lot and trail that we were beginning on is actually super popular being that it leads to Lake Ann.  On our way up, we were mostly accompanied by Western Washington students and families going up to the lake to camp out for the solar eclipse. It was a fun energy, and it was nice to not be the only ones carrying big packs. In fact, we weren’t even carrying the biggest packs. We were, however, going the longest way.

As we walked further and further down the trail, the crowd thinned out considerably. Finally, the only person left on the trail was a man who was visiting from China who asked us how far he could go without it getting dangerous. “Not much further”, we replied. He happily spun around, and we were the last ones up there.

Chad and I had the plan to eventually stash some of our hiking gear in garbage bags in the bushes. The base of the Fisher Chimneys was closing in on us, so we sat down and pulled off our trail runners and swapped them for mountain boots. I decided to leave my poles behind as well.

Fisher Chimneys

We began making our way up the rocky sections of the route. I didn’t have as much experience rock climbing in my mountain boots as I’d like, so this was a good refresher. I’m still not sure if I’ll ever find smearing on slabs comfortable with mountain boots, but a boy can dream. The next hour or so was mostly just me grunting and groaning, complaining (in my head) about the large pack and clunky boots. This was a pretty far from climbing that I find enjoyable.

As soon as I started to see a bit of snow I began getting excited. I can always tell when I am about to enter glacial terrain just by the presence of plant life, or lack thereof. Soon we were topping out of the official “Fisher Chimneys” section of the Fisher Chimneys Route. I guess it could be a classic if one was into those sort of things.

We ran into another party camping on the glacier. They had already spent a few days on the mountain, hoping to eventually climb. I didn’t quite understand what was preventing them to climb because the weather had been good over the past few days. We chatted with them for a bit and Chad gave them a little bit of route information. They would be climbing the rest of the Fisher Chimneys route.

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Traverse to the North

Chad and I now had to make the long circumnavigation and descent to the base of the North Face. Looking down the west flank of the mountain, we could see that it was completely untouched. Just like our climb of the Coleman Headwall a few days prior, this is the kind of route that usually gets an internet tick or trip report when somebody completes it. We didn’t hear of anything, so it was no surprise to not find a bootpack.  I was beginning to start feeling the mountain in my legs a little bit. A more standard mountain schedule would have us setting our camp down right here. Normally being tired on steep unknown glacial terrain would have me popping a packet of Gu.  However, we’d be trying to sleep as soon as we set up camp, and I knew that caffeine would not be supportive of that. I had a couple PB&J oatmeal bars instead. This was indeed a long route.

We began moving down and around the west aspect of the mountain. The slopes were a little more “blank” than we felt comfortable with. We knew that there were probably crevasses looming under or feet, with only a visual hint of one here and there. It was already pretty late in the day and the snow was turning into slush. After a bit of time, a ridge finally came into view and Chad pointed to it, “That’s where we should set up camp.” I pointed back to the one I could see, “That one?” “No, the one behind that”, said Chad. Uggg, more slog.

Camp #1

We finally reached the ridge and we could see some signs that human life has been here, from what looked like, a month or two before. A couple flat areas were cleared, and somebody had unsuccessfully tried to light a fire with a few twigs. There were no trees around, so that fire was doomed from the start. We choose the flattest spot for our tent and pitched it. Water was very nearby too, so we kept the stove going while we got fully rehydrated. I like carried a few packs of instant ramen with me while doing multi-day climbs for situations just like this. The North Face sat almost directly above us and glowed purple as the sun set. (I was too busy eating to snap a photo of it.)

Chad and I were doing an up-and-over climb of this face, meaning that after we left this campsite, we would carry all of our gear up to the summit, and then descend down to the other side. That made for much heavier packs than what would normally be carried on a summit push. To offset that, we were going with as little gear as possible. Our tent was a tiny Direkt2, and with it being such a beautiful night, we opted to sleep with the door mostly open.

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Day 2

The North Face

At 1am, our alarm rang and it was time to get moving. One thing that I really liked about climbing with Chad is that he isn’t super rushed on summit mornings. He isn’t slow by any means, but he isn’t also putting on his boots while going to the bathroom while eating his breakfast. I know for myself that if I take that extra 20 minutes in the morning to really have all my systems in check, it will save me at least triple that on the climb.

We humped on our packs and left the now completely empty campsite behind us. The base of the climbing route was very close by, and before we were even fully awake, we were swinging our tools.  Climbing the face itself was a whole lot of honest to goodness fun climbing.  Just pitch after pitch of steep snow, with a little bit of a mixed section here and there to keep things interesting.  The snow quality was great underfoot, and even with our heavy packs, we moved fast.

A novel feature of Shuksan is having almost full cell reception on the entirety of the North Face. There is a ski resort close buy, so apparently the cell towers keep these higher parts of the mountain covered. At around 9am I looked down at my phone, 3 bars – with LTE!  That is better than in my condo in downtown Seattle.  I knew that my family would be awake, and I know that they often get worried when I am climbing.  The more contact I have with them, the safer the climb feels to them.  I’ve tried to explain to them in the past that if my inReach dies, that doesn’t mean that I died. On the other hand, if I did indeed die, my inReach would probably continue ticking. Technology: can’t live with or without it, I guess.  I did snap some photos and livestream a little bit of video to them though.  They were pretty psyched, so I kept them coming.  It made me think that if all mountains had reception on them, the whole sport would probably be very different.

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The solar eclipse peaking  above the North Face

Solar Eclipse

One of the cool things we were looking forward to on this climb was getting to see the solar eclipse.  It was supposed to happen at 10:20am.  The total eclipse would be seen for around Portland, OR.  On a global scale, we were pretty close.  Neither Chad nor I had brought eclipse glasses, and I wondered how my glacier glasses would fare against the full power of the sun.

As 10am came around, the sun was just peaking up behind the edge of the face, and things began to get a little darker.  More dramatically though, the face began to get colder.  It made sense, but I didn’t expect it.  Chad was mid-pitch as 10:15 rolled around.  He was on a mixed section, and I was hoping he would get to a stable section where I could pull out my camera and take a photo in the next few minutes.  The sun still seemed like it was in full effect though.  10:20 rolled around, and it did get a little darker.  I couldn’t look directly into the sun with my glacier glasses, so I couldn’t really tell what was going on.  I snapped a few photos.  10:30 came, and things brightened up a bit and got warmer.  Was that the solar eclipse?  Chad and I both anticipated climbing a big northern face under a solar eclipse would to be a more dramatic experience.

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The summit wrap

A few more pitches, and we began to top out from the route. We could see the summit pyramid dead ahead of us now.  I pulled out my phone to snap a photo to send to my family.  No reception.  Dammit, now they are going to think I am dead.

The last “contrived” aspect about climbing the North Face of Mount Shuksan is that once you’ve wrapped around the lower slopes of the mountain to climb the face, you then have to wrap back to the original side to climb the summit pyramid. At least wrapping around the top of a mountain is faster than wrapping around the bottom of a mountain. Or so we thought.

As we began to make our way around the summit pyramid, we encountered one hell of a broken glacier up top. We navigated for a few hours, moving forward, back tracking, going another way, trying again, over and over and over. At some point, we began to believe that there was no way through.  We finally decided that we would push through one of the largest bergshurns I had ever encountered.  Oddly enough, when they get so big and filled with debris, the climbing is actually easier.  A huge block almost fell on Chad, dropping just a few feet beside him. We looked at each other and both laughed awkwardly, “Hmm, that was close”. We got the hell out of there.

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F************inggggg summit!!

We finally made our way back onto the standard beaten track of the mountain.  For almost the entirety of the last couple hours, we could hear distinct moaning and yelling coming from somewhere on the rock line of the summit pyramid.  At first we were worried that somebody was injured, but the sounds didn’t sound like they were made out of pain.  It was weird.  Now looking up, we could see that the group we had run into the previous day was seriously struggling on rock sections above. The leader would make a move, pause, then yell “F**************************k thisssssssssss climbbbbbbbbb”. For literal hours he did this.

We, on the other hand, did not have that epic of a time getting up the low 5th class rock pitches. However, I was glad that Chad was here to lead these, because climbing the steep rock in my boots had me feeling a little less stable that I would have liked. There were anchors all the way up that we could rappel off of, so coming down would be a breeze. After about 45 minutes or so, we popped up onto the tiny summit block. So many of the climbs I do in the Cascades are on volcanos, so a nice airy summit like this is always appreciated.  We high fived and snapped a few photos.

As we began to leave, the yelling party finally pulled their way up.  They clearly had an epic time getting here.  As he pulled up, the leader asked, “This climb’s gotta be at least a Grade V, huh?” Neither Chad nor I had the heart to tell him that in actuality it was a Grade III.

The randkluft

We began to make our way down the well broken in Fisher Chimneys route.  We moved pretty fast until getting a little off route and had to downclimb a pitch. With the sun baking that aspect of the mountain, this was the first time that I had felt unstable so far.  I moved diligently.

Reading the title of this section probably left you wondering what a “randkluft” is. To be honest, I didn’t know the term until I got home after this climb and looked it up. A randkluft is a big crevasse like area made by when a glacier pulls away from rock.

We finally got to a large randkluft, and Chad told me that we should continue to head into it. I stopped, thinking that there was no way that I heard him right. “Did you say you want to go inside??”, I yelled back to him. He yelled forward, “Yeah, inside!”. I needed to double check, “Inside? You mean literally inside?”. “Yeah, you’ll see what I mean in there!” I went inside.

I didn’t see what he meant once I got in. Chad didn’t find what he was looking for either. Chad was looking for the fixed anchors inside the randkluft, supposedly running all the way down the void between the rock and the glacier to the lower snow field.  We could see some way above us, but unfortunately out of reach.  My best guess is that by mid-August, what would normally be a set of nice rappel stations, turns into a cave of rope-snag doom.  Rappelling through this messy terrain would be a pain, but climbing up and out would be a bigger pain.  We would have to just be careful with the ropes and not break off any leg-severing ice chunks.

We finally got down to the lower snow field.  It had been a long day and it was almost dark.  We had been awake for about 17 hours.

Camp #2

Chad pitched our tent while I went off to collect some ice to boil.  The sun had fully set by the time we started eating dinner.  Looking back up at the route, we were surprised to still see the other party’s headlamps still high on the route.  As they came lower down, we could hear their yelling once again.  “F**********************k this placcccccce.”  We could see them working their way into the same randkluft that we did, also attracted by the promise of rappel anchors.  For the next hour and a half, they spent their way trying to navigate through this. “F******************** this crevassssssssssse!!!!”, echoed out form inside.  They almost made their way out, but couldn’t see the lip they had to get over in the dark.  We yelled and flashed our headlamps to no avail.  Eventually they made their way out through a totally different spot.  Their rope was frozen in place by the time they got out.  It would be donated to the mountain.

They were obviously exhausted by the time they made it to our camp.  They said that they had been moving for more than 20 hours.  (All of that yelling must have expended some energy too.)  We offered them some water but they said their camp was just down below.  We congratulated them and they continued.

About 45 minutes later, they showed up back at our camp.  “I’m too damn delirious to find our camp site!”  They sat down.  The leader mentioned that he once was featured in a newspaper article couple decades ago called “The Bird Eater”, where him and his friends got stranded on Rainer and had to eat a bird. This guy must just really love having epics.  Chad knew the route well, so he volunteered to take them where we had seen them camping the previous day.  Chad was back in 20 minutes.

Once things were finally chill, we got into our tent and into our sleeping bags.  It was a beautiful night again, so we opted to leave the door open with our heads sticking out.  I was exhausted.  As I was falling asleep, Chad looked over at me, “Hey man, do you see that green in the sky over there or is it just me? I think my head might be off.”  Nope, Chad’s head was fine.  The northern lights were up above the North Cascades.

Now I can say that I’ve fallen asleep under the northern lights.

Day 3

We didn’t set an alarm for the next day, but we woke up pretty early anyways.  Getting down the rest of the route was pretty uneventful.  There were rappel anchors down the whole thing, so it was just a matter of mechanics.  We got back down to our stashed trail runners and pulled off our mountain boots.  We had officially climbed Mount Shuksan.

The rest of the way down was filled with the same happy hikers as before.  College students, runners, old folks, kids. It was a nice energy.  We grabbed all the wild blueberries we could on our way down, trying to squeeze every last bit of hydration and energy out of them.

Epilogue

This was definitely a fun climb with a nice feel of adventure.  The technical climbing was never too challenging.  However, I do believe that calling any of the rock on this mountain 4th class is sandbagging the routes in a dangerous way.  The party we ran into was proof of that.  If I were to lead it, I would have brought rock shoes and some rock protection.  Even for how much fun it was, I will probably put this route down as a once-in-my-life experience, just due to how long it is.  The Fischer Chimneys seemed like a more classically enjoyable way to get up the mountain.

This was my last major route of very full summer climbing season. Coming off this climb, I went into overdrive season at work. This post was written based on my climbing notes quite a bit after the real events.

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