I finally found the time to sharpen up my tools and get out and climb. It was a blast and considering this was my first alpine-esque climb it went well. I say alpine-esque because it was more like alpine cragging. It was the first time I’ve had a snow approach, sunk rock pro while ice climbing and had to kick out a stance for a belay and I’m going to call that alpine. Good stuff and I can’t wait to get more.
Oh, about the pictures. We had to bail mid-climb for reasons I’m not going to get into. I took some of the pictures on the rap down but you don’t rap the route.
Mt. Shuksan is one of the most beautiful mountains I have ever laid eyes on. Like most mountains, Shuksan has an easy way up and a myriad of less easy ways up. The Sulphide Glacier is the standard route of the mountain. I cannot attest to the quality of that slog but I imagine it can’t be that bad. Years ago I would have gone up the Sulphide Glacier no questions asked. Back then the summit was more important than the quality of the climb. I wanted a tick next to Shuksan and the easiest way to do that was up the simplest route. But as I have grown as a climber I have found that experiencing the character of a mountain is more important than summiting her.
I have had my eye on the Fisher Chimneys for a while now. In 2008 I was shut down by slopping snow conditions. Things were in that in between state of not being melted out or covered in snow. It was the right decision to back off but it stung because I had flown out from North Carolina to climb and damn it, I wanted to climb.
Now that I have moved to Seattle the North Cascades are actually accessible. The problem was that I had nobody to climb with. It took a while but I eventually met Charlotte on Rainier who graciously took me under her wing. We are both in grad school and have extremely busy schedules so when we found a day that we could escape to the North Cascades it wasn’t a question of do you want to but rather what shall we climb.
The Fisher Chimneys are not typically thought of as a round trip car to car day trip. Since that is all the time we had we were going to make it into one. We figured that this late in the season, October, the approach and Chimneys would be melted out and we could move pretty quickly by following the well trodden climbers trail.
The day before we were scheduled to leave a co-worker of Charlotte’s asked to come along. Wes is an ultramarthoner, a rock climber and from his few modest comments a pretty good ice climber. Almost needless to say he was invited along.
We left the car at 3:30AM. We wanted to get to Lake Anne by 5:30 and start heading up the Fisher Chimneys around first light. Even with the gate closed, which added maybe ¾ of a mile of street hiking, we made it to Lake Ann in two hours. From Lake Ann we followed some cairns and a climbers trail up to a talus field. I’ll skip ahead and tell you that we did what so many parties do and we accidentally dropped on to the Lower Curtis Glacier. This is exactly what you don’t want to do. Towards the end of this TR there are tons of pictures of the correct way to go but pretty much the entrance to the Fisher Chimneys is a lot higher and a lot further left than you think.
We dropped on to the Lower Curtis but didn’t really think much of it at the time. Fred Becky’s drawing didn’t look like anything we were seeing but there were plenty of third class chimneys to climb so we headed up one that we thought would be tame. I’d call this a mistake in retrospect but at the time it was really the only thing we could do.
Well, third class slowly turned into fourth class and then fourth class turned into short sections of low fifth class. The problem was that it was not hard enough to rope up but not easy enough to effortlessly scramble. Of the three of us Wes was the strongest rock climber. He led the way with route finding. Charlotte’s experience with rock climbing was rather limited and required a bit of coaching. That said, she kicked ass, especially considering this was exposed, high consequence climbing in boots. (BTW, I was wearing Trango Alps and they kicked ass)
As we made our way up the chimney it became pretty apparent that we were not on summit pace. I’ll admit that this sucked a bit but it was also a bit of a relief. We could now relax, enjoy our climb and not have to worry about climbing at a breakneck pace. After a few hours of scrambling (yes I said hours) we made it to the top of the Fisher Chimneys.
At the top Wes and I decided to go take a quick peek at Winnie’s Slide while Charlotte stayed behind and enjoyed the Sun and the view from the top of the Chimneys. After a brief snow hike, Wes and I got a good look at Winnies Slide. Since it was October things had melted out pretty intensely. I wish I would have taken pictures but alas I did not. Winnies Slide had melted out to a thin layer of crunchy sugar covering beautiful alpine ice. It was probably 45 degree ice and would have been front points the entire way up. After a few minutes of admiring Shuksan we rejoined Charlotte and headed down.
Getting down wasn’t technically difficult but it was slow. It was a lot of face in down climbing that was pretty exposed. It was slow but the plus side is I got to take quite a few pictures.
I’ll end this trip report with a series of pictures on how to get to the Fisher Chimneys entrance. The pictures were taken on my way out so they are correct. Note: The pictures are the last 10 pictures and conveniently labeled 1-10.
I had every intention of climbing Mt Rainier this Labor Day weekend but absolutely no expectation to summit. I say this because NOAA issued a winter storm morning that called for 1-2 feet of snow to be dumped above 7,000′ and high winds.
With a forecast like that why would I even want to climb Rainier? The simple reason was a friend, Grant, was coming up from Vegas and had been training for months. Now that I am a local I can opt to pass on attempting a climb but when you buy a $300 plane ticket you and train for months you need to at least give it a try.
Knowing the nasty forecast I was justifiably nervous. I pulled out my Sub-Zero puffy, my winter gloves and my incredibly versatile Turtle Fur. I expected white out conditions on the “summit day” so I ran to Home Depot and picked up some bamboo and red duct tape to make a boat load of wands. And preparing for a worst case scenario of hanging out in a tent for a few days I picked up some extra fuel at REI. With my winter gear packed and Grant’s GPS I knew we could get up and down safely no matter the conditions.
On Saturday we hiked to Camp Muir in what started out as rain at Paradise, then turned to fog around Moon Rocks and then finally sleet on the upper snowfield. Visibility was relatively good and navigating the crevasse field on the upper snowfield was easy. IMG had wanded a route through the field but their wands were few and far between. I also saw a guided group wanding another route but they seemed a little lost and I wasn’t filled with confidence by their route finding.
Since I expected a foot or two of the fresh powdery stuff to be hiding the small crevasses on the Muir snowfield I supplemented IMG’s wanding with my own and Grant made sure to set waypoints every 15 minutes or so.
The week prior Camp Muir had been bustling. The weather was gorgeous and it seemed everybody and their brother was up there. This week, in the nasty weather, there was three other independent climbers in the hut. I say independent because IMG decided that they were not going to camp out at Ingraham Flats but were going to shack up at Camp Muir.
I have no problem with people being guided up a mountain. If that is what you want to do, who am I to judge? What I do have a problem with is some of the shenanigans that clients pull due to their inexperience. I think that one of the first things guides teach their clients is headlamp etiquette. If there are nine other headlamps turned on you probably don’t need yours to tie your boots. Or another perpetually funny thing that clients do is to put on their crampons while still inside the hut and then walk around for 20 minutes waking everyone up with their crunching.
On what was supposed to be summit day the IMG guide woke up his clients with a mighty yell at 12:30 for a 2 AM departure. They all huddled around the big thermos of hot water and took ages getting dressed and asking questions like “should I wear my liner gloves?” And of course there were a dozen high-beamed headlamps going the entire time.
At 1:30 AM I took a quick look outside and was surprised to see that I could actually see. I thought for a moment that we just might be able to climb. Grant and I were going to tuck in behind one of the guided parties to take advantage of their boot path and decided we were not going to leave ’til about 3 AM. By the time 3 AM rolled around the weather had blown in and it was pretty clear that we were not going anywhere.
If you’ve never been to Camp Muir you should know that it is on a ridge. As a result when it is windy on Rainier it is really windy at Camp Muir and with wind comes spindrift. Owing to the layout of the camp the spindrift piles up pretty quickly in front of the outhouses which creates the very un-fun task of digging out the toilet. Since it was pretty windy at Camp Muir and spindrift was piling up quickly there was a real possibility of getting stuck in the outhouse. Maybe this is too much info but after only a minute or two inside I had to give the door my best linebacker shoulder plow to be able to squeeze out.
Getting down from Muir promised to be fun because by mid-morning a foot of snow had covered the snowfield and had hidden the crevasses. This was in addition to it being semi-whiteout. I could have said it was epic or gnarly but in actuality it was quite boring. With adequate wanding, regular GPS waypoints and a little common sense it went without a hitch.
Nasty weather is not something I take lightly especially on a big mountain like Rainier. I refuse to become a statistic in Accidents in NA Mountaineering especially by getting killed due to something stupid like hypothermia. With a little forethought and a bit of common sense this little adventure was just a little adventure and not a full on epic.
This trip report may sound unduly harsh but if the saying “good judgment is the result of experience and experience is often the result of bad judgment” then this is a story of developing better judgment. I’ll apologize in advance for the length but even at over 2300 words it still does not encompass the entire trip.
I recently moved to Seattle from North Carolina. One of the toughest things about moving is that you have to develop new climbing partners. I use the word develop because more likely than not the first time you go climbing with someone your styles won’t completely mesh, but given a couple of adventures your styles will start to blend and you develop a partnership that works. This is all based on the assumption that both you and your newfound partner are safe and have good judgment.
This past weekend I took up an offer to climb Rainier with two guys I didn’t know. A guy I met on SummitPost, Josh, was organizing a trip and was looking for a third. I gave him a call and he assured me that he had years of experience on glaciers and was competent with crevasse rescue though he had never done it in real life. I’ll give him credit because he went for full disclosure and said he was young. I have no problem with people being young because I only have four years experience in the mountains so if someone grew up in the mountains who am I to say that their years of experience are any less valuable than mine. In talking to him I came to the understanding that the third person on the rope team would be a very experienced, in shape climber and I would be a team member as opposed to a team leader.
I agreed to go on these assumptions and the next day Josh and I carpooled to Rainier and would meet the third guy at Paradise because he was coming from Portland and we were coming from Seattle. When we got to Paradise Bill, the third guy, was waiting for us and ready to go. I’ll put this out on the table, Bill is deaf. I have absolutely zero problem climbing with someone with a physical limitation but I want to know about it before I agree to tie in so I can make an informed decision about the mountain, the route and the general safety of the team. Since Bill was ready to go and we still had to sort gear he took off and said we would probably catch him on the way up. I was a little miffed that Bill was leaving without us but he is 60 years old and I figured he knew what he was doing. I was also a little miffed that Josh didn’t tell me about Bill’s hearing situation but I kept that to myself.
Since it was late in the season the hike to Camp Muir was not in the greatest shape. Instead of a snow slog all the way up, the route was melted out and from 8500 feet to Muir it was crevassed alpine ice. I wasn’t expecting crevasses or ice this low but I was already prepared with ice screws for higher on the mountain so the ice wasn’t a deal breaker. My first justified misgiving was when I gave Josh an ice screw and he looked bewildered by the need for a screw, why there was a plastic cap on the bottom and what the attached runner was for. I didn’t like this one bit but I gave him a quick run down of how to place an ice screw and off we went.
The first hour or two of the hike was pleasant. Manicured trail, luscious scenery and the foggy mist was keeping me from sweating all that much. It was all around fantastic except for the fact that every time Josh needed water we would have to stop so he could take off his pack and get a water bottle. It was time consuming but we were in no rush. On one of these stops I noticed that he brought an insulated cooler lunch box. This seemed odd to me for an experienced climber but to each his own I thought.
We didn’t hit snow until pretty high on the “snowfield.” I find walking in snow a little easier than walking on broken rock so I was happy that we were finally there but well aware that now that we were on the snowfield we would have to take heed to the warning signs about crevasses. Josh was moving a little quicker than I was and started blazing a trail through unbroken snow even though there was a clear, kicked out trail. At this point I made the decision that he had overstated his experience and I was compelled to say something. An experienced climber would know that you should follow the kicked out trail because it is both less tiresome and safer. Josh was receptive to the advice and things were still moving along ok. I was slightly concerned that we hadn’t caught up to Bill but we were moving at a slow but steady pace and I wasn’t too worried about it.
When we finally cleared the mist it turned into a glorious day. Josh and I were feeling strong and we were making good time. Also with the mist gone we could see how broken up the snowfield was and that from 8500′ up it was going to be wet, broken up ice. When we arrived at the ice I decided that it would be easier to put on my crampons and I suggested to Josh to do the same. They weren’t necessary but it made walking easier and I would hate to find myself in a situation where I need my crampons but it is too nasty to put them on. Josh decided not to put his on and I didn’t think much of it.
The snowfield was pretty broken up and as we continued it required some mild route finding. The widest crevasse was about five feet across and maybe 20 feet until a dirt bottom. Not a man-eater but definitely enough to ruin your day.
Nothing all too exciting happened the rest of the way up but seeing the condition of the snowfield and seeing the condition of the route above I was teetering towards calling Camp Muir our “summit.”
Josh and I got to Camp Muir, set up shop, ate and took a nap. Bill was nowhere to be seen but there were a lot of people there and he could have been nestled up in his bivy sack having a mid-day snooze like I just did.
One of the best things about Camp Muir is that everyone congregates around the hut and just sort of sits around and bullshits. In bullshitting with the other guys and gals I found out that the route was pretty beat up. Instead of the slog to the top that the Disappointment Cleaver normally is, it was as the ranger said “sketch factor 12” and “the wild west up there.” RMI had hauled some ladders up there to cross some wide crevasses but the glaciers kept moving and bending the aluminum ladders. To me that kind of action on a glacier requires confidence in yourself and confidence in your team. The pit of my stomach said no and after figuring out that it was the logical side of my brain and not the fear side saying “no” I told Josh and Bill.
Bill tried to convince me to go just around the corner of the cathedral to check out the rest of the route. I immediately thought this was a bad idea. For one, Bill had left half an hour before Josh and me and arrived two hours after we did. He was not a speed demon and in the few hours at Camp Muir I had heard multiple non-trivial rockslides coming from up above. If you’ve ever climbed the Disappointment Cleaver you know that even under the best conditions the cathedral drops fist-sized rocks down and these were not the best conditions. I would want to turn the corner on the cathedral quickly and I did not see that happening. I also knew that it would be night when we turned the corner and even under a half moon I could not properly evaluate the route above.
I stuck to my guns and Josh and Bill respected my decision. If you two are reading this, thank you. The rest of the evening went fairly smoothly with only little things irking me like Josh asking for half of my last liter of water even though I found out later he had a liter and a half left that he forgot about. Or Bill asking me how to get water and then finding out his lighter didn’t work and his stove was non-functioning. I felt like I was guiding them and that is not what I signed up for.
The next day we headed down. I gathered clean ice and brewed water for Bill and Josh while they packed. We were going to head down the now hard ice together at a safe, leisurely pace with another team of four. After filling their water bottles I started to pack. A little while later I discovered that Bill had decided to leave without us and was now the sole spec moving through the crevasse field. He didn’t tell Josh or me that he was leaving and all I could think was “mother-f**cker, if I have to pull your body from that field I am going to be so pissed.”
Josh and I started down with the party of four as planned. We got to the ice and I told Josh that he should put on his crampons. He said he was fine and I relented. After about 100 feet and a few slips Josh decided to put on his crampons. He sat down, pulled out half his pack on the ice slope because his crampons were towards the bottom of his pack and started putting them on. I stood there and watched patiently while he adjusted their length and tried to strap them on. It was pretty obvious that these weren’t his crampons because they were not sized for his boots and because they were the kind made for boots with heel welts and his hiking boots did not have heel welts.
After a little fiddling with the crampons he made the best of it and we kept moving. Soon enough a crampon popped and he bit it. At this point it was safer to have them off than to stumble with them on so he strapped them to his pack and moved very cautiously down the ice field. As the field got steeper we moved slower and slower eventually to the point that Josh was not going to be able to continue safely.
I thought about numerous scenarios including short roping him but what turned out to be the best solutions was eating my pride and catching up to the party of four and asking if one of them had strap on crampons and would trade with Josh. In that party of four was quite possibly the kindest soul I have ever met. She was willing to trade crampons and hiked back up the ice field, strapped her crampons to Josh Cinderella style and was pleasant the entire time.
Bill was nowhere to be found and I could only assume the worst. Eventually Josh and I caught up to him and after a few small misadventures we made it down safely.
In reading this I realize that I am using harsh words but I want to make sure my message is clear to Bill and Josh. It is extremely easy to get in over your head in the mountains. You need to have the gear, the judgment and the team to tackle a big mountain. It is like the poker saying, if you don’t know who the sucker is at the table it is you. In the mountains if you don’t know what the risks are and what to be worried about then you should reevaluate your plan.
I can’t end this trip report on a critical note so I’ll end it with some unsolicited advice to climbers looking for experience. One) take a climbing course. If you are going to pay a guide service go on one of their skills courses and not on just a summit climb. I took AAI’s Alpinism I course and really liked it. I’m going to take an avy safety course soon because I don’t know enough about avalanches. You can never have too much training. Two) climb “boring” mountains with experienced people. The conversations alone will improve your climbing tremendously. Three) don’t overstate your climbing abilities. Four) check your gear before a climb. Make sure it works properly and is packed correctly. Things like crampons, harness and rope should be at the top of your pack for quick access. Go over your gear with your partner if you’re not confident. Five) know your knots, know your safety system, know your exits to the point where it is not a thinking process it is just a reaction. I have practiced crevasse rescue on my living room floor with an ice ax and rope. I looked ridiculous but I know what I’m doing. Go to a local crag and prussic up a fixed rope. You’ll soon figure out that it is exhausting but can be made easier with practice. Six and final) be patient. Just like medieval battlefields were littered with the bodies of mediocre swordsmen, mountains are littered with the bodies of mediocre climbers. You’ll get there in time so don’t give up.
One of the many perks about living in Seattle is the proximity to big mountains. Last year when I climbed Rainier it was months of training, planning and praying for a good weather window. Now it’s “oh the weather is nice so lets go climb Rainier” and so I am. Yesterday I took someone up on an invite to climb Disappointment Cleaver, today I’m packing and tomorrow I’ll be climbing. Crazy.
Oh, and I went to REI today to pick up some fuel and that place is a zoo with their Labor Day Sale going on. Besides picking up fuel I also picked up my new secret weapon, Hammer Gel. $20 for 26 servings is considerably cheaper than buying the individual packets.