Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mt. Shuksan with the Loobster

I love the Loobster. I've climbed with him for thirty years. He's twenty years my senior and while we've been equal partners in the past, I'm finally, maybe, the stronger one. His endurance and energy is inspiring to me. I used to say, "I sure hope I can do what the Loobster does when I'm his age." I'm doing what he did at my current age, but he doesn't seem to be slowing down much and now I'm not sure I even want to do what he's doing when I get to that age. It just seems too hard.

I've done so many climbs with the Loobster that we've been at our limits together. Climbing can be stressful and the Loobster has seen me at my best. And my worst. My love and respect for him is so great that whenever I think of climbing with him I can't, for the life me, forget my bad moments. My short temper. My fear and stress breaking me down into a person I don't want to be. But the past is the past and I now use it for extra motivation to be mindful, to be calm, to caring, to be thoughtful, to be more like the Loobster. It's very encouraging that he stays interested in climbing with me. And, perhaps, I am judging my past behavior too harshly.

Our route
Early in my climbing career I was primarily guided in my goals by the book "Fifty Classic Climbs in North America." I love lists and love checking things off. I'm very goal oriented. In the preface to this book it states that no one person (at the time of printing, 1980 or thereabouts) had yet to even climb half of these routes. That became my goal and now I've done over thirty of them. Of course, many others had the same goal and now there are at least a few people with 48 of them, but no one has yet climbed them all and that is not my goal either.

The goal of the trip was to climb the Fisher Chimneys route on Mt. Shuksan. Shuksan is in the North Cascades National Park and looms over the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Not living in the Northwest, I only became aware of the mountain via “Fifty Classic Climbs in North America.” This book guided most of my early climbing and I’ve done over thirty of the routes. My interest in these climbs has been rekindled. It might be reasonable to get forty of them. I have unfinished business on at least one and new places to go for others. Shuksan is one of those places. The 50CC route is the Price Glacier - complex ice fall on the north face. My interest in the Fisher Chimneys was in learning the descent off of Shuksan for a subsequent attempt on the Price Glacier.
Camp I in the Mt. Baker Ski Area parking lot.
The North Cascades are incredible, striking mountains, looking more Alaskan or Andean or even Himalayan in nature compared to my beloved Colorado Rockies. While they are comparatively low in altitude (none of the non-volcanic peaks are above 10,000 feet), they have numerous glaciers with huge crevasses and terrifying ice falls. The vertical relief is also huge and approaches can be quite arduous. The Fisher Chimneys route has one of the easier approaches, but just getting to the higher bivy spots involves more difficult scrambling than getting to the summits of most Colorado 14ers. Our plan was for me to fly into Seattle at 1 p.m. and for the Loobster to pick me up and then drive the three hours to the trailhead and hike four miles into Lake Ann, where we’d camp, before climbing the peak the next day.

Things didn’t go as planned. That’s okay. We rolled with it. It started to go off the rails with flight problems. From a late plane to air traffic control issues to baggage problems we proceeded to leave the Sea-Tac airport two hours behind schedule. Seattle traffic and a couple of accidents conspired to add another hour. That wouldn’t put us on the trail until nearly 8 p.m. so we decided to sleep at the trailhead and try the climb in a day. After a stop for dinner, we arrived at the trailhead. Loobster wanted to pitch a tent off in some discreet area we knew not where. I convinced him, with some difficulty, to just throw down our bags in a large parking lot just down from the trailhead. He was worried about ranger detection. He worries a lot more than I do.
Looby Dooby Doo
Our second plan went awry when the Loobster called over to me at 2:30 a.m., an hour before our scheduled wake-up time. He told me he hadn’t slept a wink and would not be capable of doing the route in a day on no sleep. He’s had this sleeping problem before when large, stressful outings are imminent. We modified again, this time to turn off the alarm, sleeping until we were rested and just hike into Lake Ann on Saturday and do the climb on Sunday. That eliminated any chance to recce another 50CC mountain, but Slesse isn’t going anywhere. We got up around 6:30 and re-packed for the overnight plan. The Loobster brought me a one-man tent (he had one as well) and a small pad. I brought a tiny sleeping bag and a JetBoil stove.

We weren't hiking until nearly 9:30 a.m. There was no need to rush, as we weren't going very far. Part of me thought we should still just do it in a day, but I knew that would stress the Loobster and kept my mouth shut. We lingered on the packing and ate some breakfast.
Lake Ann at 4600 feet on August 5th. Crazy
The trail into the lake immediately dropped 800 feet. It then followed a Valley for two miles or so without climbing at all. Finally, in the last mile to the lake, we climbed back up to the elevation we started at, about 4700 feet. Seeing Lake Ann was a shock. In August, at 4700 feet, the lake was still almost entirely frozen over and covered in snow. I wondered what percentage of the year was Lake Ann actually a liquid water lake.

We got a good view of Shuksan here, but we'd been able to see it for a lot of the hike and the mountain itself is prominent from the road...if the skies are clear. The weather was great the entire trip, but epice forest fires up in British Columbia had caused the entire North Cascades to be inundated with smoke and, while breathing wasn't an issue, everywhere we looked we saw a brown haze, making everything else appear a bit ghostly.

We didn't even sit down at the lake, but continued on, as we'd heard there were sites just past the lake. The trail dropped again, this time less than a hundred feet and we didn't spot any enticing spots before the trail started climbing again, with a vengeance. The trail narrowed to more of a climber's path and switch-backed up a steep slope.

Hiking in to Camp II
We went long enough where the Loobster was doubting that there were any bivy sites up there. Finally, he dropped his pack and just continued up without it, just in case we'd be turning around. a little higher up we ran into two climbers on their way out. They had summitted that day and told us about some nice sites above the shoulder above us and below the Fisher Chimneys. I gave Loobster my pack and hiked down the hill with the two climbers to get Loobster's pack. After saying goodbye I hiked back up to join the Loobster at the crux of the approach.

We had to inch out on precarious tongue of snow and step across to steep slabby rock. It was only maybe twenty or thirty feet of climbing, but in my mountain boots and with a pack on, I thought it was a bit dicey. The Loobster styled it, though. This guy, at 74-years old, is strong and agile. And confident. Above this crux the terrain stayed steep, but was now just third and second class.
Fisher Chimney from Camp II
After less than ten minutes of climbing we crested the shoulder and immediately found a couple of tent sites. Each site was pretty small and the Loobster occupied the lower site and I was just fifty feet away, a bit further up the slope. The first thing we did after dropping our packs was to take off our boots. We both carried our approach shoes into camp and should have worn them and carried the boots, but our packs were a bit small and we feared we wouldn't have room. We'd both get the boots on the pack on the way out however.

It was still early afternoon and after setting up camp, I couldn't resist and headed off to check out the Fisher Chimneys. I carried a nearly empty pack with me and wore my helmet and brought one axe. We had both carried two axes into basecamp, but after talking to other climbers, decided that one axe would be sufficient. I crossed three easy, small snowfields and started up the Chimneys. The 800-foot climb up the rock wall is a mix of second, third, and fourth class climbing on mostly very solid rock. I ditched my pack and axe early on, but kept the helmet on as a couple of big parties were descending above me. These parties were rappelling a couple of sections, and maybe one section was low 5th, but I don't think so. Excellent terrain for a Minion.

These three photos are all part of the Fisher Chimneys
I buzzed on up to the top of the rock section and stepped onto the White Salmon Glacier. this is a large glacier, but I was nearly at the top of it when I got on it and it was very low angle. And I was on it for about one minute before I hit talus and scampered up to the first of two steep snow/ice sections on the route: Winnie's Slide. This is maybe a 200-foot 45-degree slope that was hard snow with nice steps kicked in it. I didn't venture further as I was just in my running shoes with no traction.

I reversed the route back to camp where the Loobster was trying to catch up on his sleep. Somewhat revived, he went off to scout the route as well. If I had known he was going to do that, I'd have waited. He probably didn't know that either, but he got some rest was feeling good and is generally not one who can sit around in camp. So, off he went. I read my book.

We add a nice dinner from Backpacker's Pantry or something like that and got to bed pretty early. We didn't see any need to move in the dark, so settled on a casual start. We set the alarm for 5 a.m. and after a cup of coffee, we were moving by 5:30 a.m. We carried our mountain boots to the base of Winnie's Slide and then switched into them. A quick jaunt up the slide and a short traverse and we arrived at the upper bivy location, where a couple of teams were packing up to head down.

Loobster on Winnie's Slide
Here we got onto the Upper Curtis Glacier. The Lower Curtis Glacier was 1000 feet lower down, below the rock wall we climbed up. The start of this glacier was the only place we encountered real ice. It wasn't that steep, thankfully, as we had just the one axe. We were careful not to slip or fall here, as a self-arrest was impossible. Soon it was back to snow, though, and we climbed upwards into a magnificent bowl, where the angle eased off. Above us loomed Shuksan, but guarded by very steep rock and a steep snow/ice couloir. We turned hard right and descended about 250 feet to the base of Hell's Highway - the other steep section on the route - which we climbed up to the Sulphide Glacier.

The Sulphide Glacier route is the standard route on the peak and the route the Loobster took on his first time up the peak. It's a low angle glacier walk up to the summit pyramid. When we joined that route, we met a solo climber. I forget his name, but he was a fit dude, doing the peak in a day, after doing a 20-mile Enchantment hike the previous day. He was a dentist from Boise. He gapped us going up the final part of the glacier and we headed over to the far right to climb the ridge instead of the standard route.
Heading up the Upper Curtis Glacier. Shuksan's summit looms above.
At the base of the rock the Loobster and I stashed our boots, crampons, and axes and switched into our scrambling shoes. We had 600 vertical feet of really fun, exposed, low-5th class scrambling up the ridge. We had our 100-foot a rope with us, but never pulled it out of the pack. We got to the summit at 9:30 a.m., taking just four hours from camp.

On the summit we hung out with the dentist and I bragged about my two most impressive climbing partners: the Loobster and Derek. He was suitably impressed with both. He cranked his head around so abruptly when I mentioned Loobster's age that I thought he was going to get whiplash. He said, "You're 74?!" That was the reaction I was looking for.
We don't have this in Colorado!

Descending towards Hell's Highway
After eating our sandwiches and watching a big group take 30 minutes to complete the first rappel down the standard, we started down. The dentist followed us down our route and he told us that he was off to climb the Eiger later that month, doing the same route that Homie and I did in 2013. We parted ways at the bottom because he started up from the standard location. When we got back to our gear stash we found a party of three - a guide and two clients. As we switched back to boots and crampons we watched these two clients, both younger than the Loobster and one of them younger than me, struggle to start up the first ten feet of rock. One of them fell here. Not my partner. Good thing, since we weren't roped. The Loobster's got game.
On the Sulphide Glacier
It was cruise reversing the route back to camp, where we took our time packing up. The Loobster has an interesting routine whenever he packs a backpack. Each item is placed into the backpack is removed at least once. I leaned back against my pack and observed all this and resting up the hike out, which was more tiring than I expected. The last four miles from the lake to the car seemed like six miles. We knew we had to climb 800 feet back to the parking lot, but the trail stubbornly refused to start climbing. We were both a bit pooped by the time we got there.

Heading up the summit pyramid
We changed into more comfortable clothes, threw in the packs, and hit the road, looking for a suitable restaurant to celebrate our success. We found a great Mexican place in a tiny town and gorged ourselves. Later, we continued to a rest stop on I-95, getting there at 10 p.m. I packed for the plane there and then we threw down the backs and slept for four hours before getting up at 2:30 a.m. so that I could be dropped at the airport by 4 a.m.

What a great trip with the redoubtable Loobster. We have more trips in our future. He doesn't appear to be slowing down much. Nor speeding up his packing. But we still mesh pretty well together on climbs. Thanks, Loobster!
Another great summit for us.
It was tempting to return to this peak the very next weekend and do a Minion-style ascent. The conditions were perfect right for a running-shoes-Kahtoola-steel-crampon-light-axe ascent. Carrying nothing but the crampons, an axe, a 3-ounce wind shell, a light pair of gloves, and minimal food and water, I think I could make the summit, from the car, in around five hours. Maybe six. I’d highly recommend this approach to any Minion with the time and interest. Shuksan is a worthy mountain and very complex. Every route involves glacial travel, but very safe conditions exist right now. Go get some.

Looking back at the mountain on the way out. Smokey, but still majestic. The glacier at the bottom is the Lower Curtis Glacier. The hanging glacier above is the Upper Curtis Glacier. We traversed that and when through that prominent gap.

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