Mount Shuksan, Elevation 9,127ft
Fisher Chimneys, 50 degrees
February 2, 2003
Mount Shuksan from near Lake Ann. Part of our climb and ski are in red. We turned around near the blue dot. This photo was taken two weeks before our descent.
If somebody asked me to ski Fisher Chimneys I'd probably laugh and say "good luck." That is, until a few months prior when a failed attempt on the West Face led me to its base. The snow was too icy and coverage was lacking so Josh, Jason and I didn't even bother climbing it. However, my interest was definitely captured so when faced with a free Sunday, I decided to give it another go. Two weeks had passed and a fair amount of snow had fallen at the higher elevations. This did little to quell the Hummels' doubt so when I called Josh that Saturday he laughed and said "good luck."
My plan was similar to our previous trip -- leave Bellingham around midnight and be skinning by 2am. The main difference being my objective but questionable weather and no moon would also have to be taken into account. I wasn't too motivated to go solo so I decided to call Sky and, as always, he was willing and able to join me.
I didn't sleep much that night, fearing that once again, I was setting myself up to fail. Sky showed up a little early and thanks to no harm in trying, we were on the road by midnight. We made good time to the Baker ski resort despite stopping to pull some drunk kids out of the ditch. The temperature dropped below freezing on our way to the upper parking lot. The lower gate was locked adding several miles of painful flats to our approach. We started skinning around 2am under mostly cloudy skies. A mile or so of grooms led us to a short decent. The tracks ended in the flats so I was forced to find and break trail to Lake Ann. The snow was awfully heavy during this stretch but it cooled as we climbed, easing our concerns about avalanches. Powder was norm by the time we reached Lake Ann. We climbed a bit higher towards the Shuksan Arm where we pulled the skins and made a gradual traverse to the lower Curtis Glacier. A short skin led us to a rockband near the base of the chimneys. Switching from skins to foot didn't inspire much confidence. We sunk to our knees and beyond with each step and a snowpit confirmed that the powder was indeed bottomless. We discovered some temperature layers but they appeared to be well bonded. If it were an open slope I would most likely have turned around but the day was young and the assumption that we could hug rocks led us to continue.
Sky negotiating the rockband near the base of the chimneys.
The slope at the base was more open than I had hoped but Sky led with confidence and care.
The first quarter of the chimneys is a 40 to 45-degree chute that looked like an excellent ski. Sky led this section through powder that varied from ankle to armpit deep. I took over where the chimneys turn right through a seemingly impossible chute. Here, the slope steepened to 50 degrees and the width narrowed to less than 3 feet. I managed to claw partway up but an icy base persuaded me to downclimb to a deeper stance where I could put on crampons. The climb was of little concern with crampons but whether or not we could ski it was still a mystery.
The upper chimneys were extremely inviting -- a 40 to 45-degree open slope with nauseous exposure. I stopped near the top beneath a rock to switch leads and take photos. A few breaks in the clouds treated us with spectacular views.
Sky following the upper slope.
Sky leading the upper slope. We climbed to the snowy ridge above his skitips and continued to the Shuksan Arm via the rocky horizon.
By the time we reached the top of the upper slope we had seen enough to give any adrenaline junky an overdose. However, the climb wasn't over and if what remained didn't kill us, it was bound to put us in rehab for many months. We etched our way through rocks with no intentions of skiing, merely hoping to top out. Finally, a break in the horizon where we could actually look down rather than up. We had reached the top of the White Salmon Glacier on the Shuksan Arm. The summit pyramid taunted us through the clouds but I knew it would take many hours to reach. With so much uncertainty below I saw no point in continuing. It was only 10amish so we agreed to go a bit further -- to the top of Winnie's Slide.
We were both growing tired of breaking trail but when you're within minutes of turning around, a few extra ounces of sweat isn't all that bad. However, during our 15-minute break everything short of my skin froze and I made the mistake of taking my gloves off to eat a Starburst and take photos. I could hardly move by the time we started skiing and I wondered how any less of a man could survive. Most discouraging were the clouds, which offered little reward in terms of views.
Sky at our turnaround on top of Winnie's Slide. Notice my gloves and the visibility.
Ok, so maybe it wasn't that bad. The upper Curtis Glacier and Hell's Highway from our turnaround.
Winnie's Slide provided a good warm up for the first crux of the chimneys. Sky had planned to downclimb the rocky section but I dropped in and found decent edging so he followed suite. Coverage was less than ideal but the main problem being that if you fall to the left, you die. I stopped halfway down for a photo of Sky.
Sky cranking a turn at the top of the rocky section.
Sky continued down the main drift on the left but with little snow remaining, I decided to test my luck on the right. This involved a short hop over some rocks which was especially scary because I wasn't sure what I was landing on. It turned out ok and we both made it to the top of the upper slope with little more than a few scratches in our skis. Sky couldn't resist the endless powder-filled steeps so he took off right away. I spent a few minutes waiting for better light but it never came so I took a few photos and joined Sky at the limits of visibility.
The rocky section from the top of the upper slope.
Looking down at Sky on the upper slope.
The snow was surprisingly stable on the upper slope. We had to watch out for the occasional sluff but there were plenty of rocks and ridges to take cover near. I wasn't sure how to handle the narrow section until I stared down it from about 5 feet up. Straightrun or downclimb? The options were clear but it took several minutes to decide. Eventually, I pointed them and found myself 20-30 feet down hipchecking in the chute. Had the snow been anything but bottomless powder the decision to downclimb would have been easy (and quite simple with my new UTBs). However, a continuous ski meant a lot to me and there's no time like the present. Sky saw my explosion from a nearby cliff so he decided to air 5-10 feet and risk landing on rocks. He uncovered a few but nothing his bases and body couldn't handle.
With nearly 1000 vertical feet of steep powder it was back to the basics.
Sky below the narrow crux, which is just out of view on the center left.
Back to the basics.
By the time we reached the flats, visibility had turned to zilch. We had a quick bite to eat and followed our tracks back to Lake Ann. Sky's crampons came undone somewhere along the way so he lost one of the rear pieces that was strapped to his pack. By then we were too miserable for a full-blown search so Sky gave up after a 30-minute backtrack. We weren't terribly tired but most of our clothing was wet and between the miserable weather and a lack of sleep, I was anxious to get it over with.
We considered climbing the Shuksan Arm and skiing down to the lower parking lot but feared that we wouldn't be able to ride the lifts back to the upper parking lot. Why they lock the lower gate to begin with is beyond me.
The skin back was relatively painless and we made it to the upper parking lot around 4pm. Our ice axes, crampons and pickets drew a few stares but most were clueless. I envied their comfort but it was short lived. With a change of clothes and some sleep, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.