I have such mixed feelings about this climb. To quote from Dickens, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” This was the first peak I had climbed that had such a variety of climbing involved along the way — rock climbing, glacier plodding and ice climbing. The Fisher Chimneys route is a really fantastic route for exactly that reason, and except for one screw-up on my part, it would have been the best climb I had ever done. Instead, well, it still is in many ways the best climb I have ever done, but my mistake still really bugs me. Probably most climbers who read this will not think that what I did was really that big of a deal overall, but I guess I am a perfectionist when it comes to climbing, and I do not like making mistakes. We left Eugene (where I was living at the time) early in the morning, my former girlfriend Bethany, myself, and a young climber named Justin, and headed north on the ubiquitous Interstate-Five. We would be driving all the way to Bellingham, Washington, then we would head east to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. It was a pretty wet day almost the entire drive north, which took something close to nine hours to complete, and the weather had me worried. It was still socked in when we arrived at the trailhead, but I just crossed my fingers as we set out. The hike to Lake Ann is interesting in the sense that you actually start out descending, and for quite a ways, before reaching the valley bottom, a reversal of most approaches to the mountains. At the end, there is a gentle rise before reaching Lake Ann, and we arrived at the crowded backcountry camp in the afternoon. All the good tent sites were taken, so we had to make do with a mediocre space beside the lake, nestled between boulders. We met up with the leader of this hike, a guy named Kevin whom I liked almost immediately. This was an Obsidian’s climb, and there were quite a few of us going, around nine as I recall. In any case, we had a brief discussion of the plan for the morning, then went back to our respective tents after agreeing to meet at 5 a.m. I was worried from the beginning, as Bethany would be alone while we were climbing, and she was not an experienced backcountry traveler. My worry, which was not really justified, considering where we were and the number of people around, would later be my undoing.
The weather began to clear by that evening, and I went to sleep feeling hopeful. When I woke in the morning, it was to a beautiful, starlit sky, with not a single cloud anywhere in the sky. The weather was perfect. We ate, got geared up and met with Kevin and the rest of the crew, and soon we were threading our way through rock gardens and then onto the switchbacks that begin to take you up the side of what is known as the Shuksan Arm. As the sun rose, beautiful Mt. Baker, just across the valley, began to take on a heavenly red color:
Soon we were heading through a huge talus field that later would cause us some grief, but in the morning it was easy walking. After an hour or so we came to the chimneys, the first section of easy scrambling, and I ended up leading part of our group up the wrong gully, not a big mistake, but we had an awkward traverse getting back on track. Then we scrambled up the last steep section and topped out on the Shuksan Arm and stepped onto the White Salmon Glacier. A short distance away was a small rock outcrop where we would put on our harnesses and break out the ice-axes and crampons.
After getting geared up, I yanked on my water-bladder to get a drink, and in my impatience, I pulled the mouthpiece off, which promptly fell into the depths of the rock outcropping and disappeared. Oops. This would prove to be a pivotal moment. I was no longer able to get adequate water since sucking on the tube was almost impossible, and I was losing water from that point on. By the end of the climb, when everyone else probably had consumed 4 or 5 liters of water, I had drank 1 at best. Well, there was nothing for it. We tied in as rope teams, and started cramponing up the slope to the base of Winnie’s Slide, a 50 degree ice pitch that is the first serious obstacle of the route. A group was in front of us, so we waited patiently while they methodically made their way up and over the bulge. When it was our turn, Kevin led, and each of us got up the somewhat steep ice with the well known technique called struggling. It was fun, though. We kept to the moat between rock and ice, using our right legs to brace on the rock, while our left leg, and our arms dealt with the ice. I had never climbed something that steep before, but I really enjoyed it. Once we topped out, it was a short walk to a small barrier of rock that separated the White Salmon from the Upper Curtis Glaciers, and we took off our crampons to make the scramble up the rock. A few moments later we had to put our crampons back on.
At this point, Kevin told me he wanted me to lead, and I was a little surprised by this move. I asked him what to do about the crevasses we were sure to encounter, and he said something like “you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, figure it out.” It was a tremendous confidence boost for me, and so I led out onto the glacier, which, while crevassed, was still in early-season shape, so none of the gaps in the ice were too big, usually about five or six feet across with solid snowbridges. It was great fun to walk across the bridges, with eighty foot chasms on either side.
Soon we were at the base of Hell’s Highway, a steep, curving ramp that is the dividing point between the Upper Curtis Glacier and the Sulphide Glacier above it. We were lucky to find it in such smooth, unbroken conditions, since virtually every picture I have ever seen before shows it as massively crevassed:
Once we were on the Sulphide Glacier, the outstanding summit pyramid came into view. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t snap off some pictures of it, but I supposed I was pretty fixated on climbing. Here is what it looks like though:
We were soon at its base (it was significantly less snowy than the picture above), and began the steep scramble up to the summit.
After a very short time — fifteen or twenty minutes at most — the summit came into view, and even though I was the first person to get up there, I did what I normally do, and allowed everyone else to reach the true apex before me. I don’t know why I do that, although I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I had a very old father when I was born and he raised me to be a gentleman. In any case, all nine of us made it, and it had taken around six hours to get there, not bad for such a large party without a ton of experienced climbers.
We stayed for half an hour, but considering how much varied terrain we still had to cover to get back to Lake Ann, we packed up and began establishing a rappel point to get off the summit pyramid. Back then, I had a real phobia about rappelling, but I also knew that downclimbing is generally much faster, so I told Kevin I would wait for them at the base of the summit, and he was glad to have one less person to have to get set up on rappel. I ended up waiting about fifteen minutes for the first person to catch up, and while I waited, I snapped a few pictures of the Sulphide glacier, which is more of an icefield, it is so large.
We roped back up before stepping onto the glacier, and then began the initial, gentle plod towards Hell’s Highway.
As we descended towards the Upper Curtis Glacier again, a guy in my climbing team, who was also from Eugene and I had met on a couple of occasions, kept being dramatic and insisting that if any of us slipped, it would surely mean the death of us all. As it was, nobody fell and we reached the glacier unharmed.
When we got to the top of Winnie’s Slide, Kevin, the climb leader, took me aside and whispered: “If this had just been you and I, we would have been down hours ago.” It had taken us quite a while to return to this spot, and now we had to set up another rappel. I was pleased by his compliment, but I would unfortunately be letting the whole team down soon.
I was the first to rappel the slide, and after several of us were gathered together, we decided (with Kevin’s blessing, as I recall) to descend to the rock outcrop on the White Salmon Glacier, take off our crampons and harnesses and then wait for the rest of the crew to catch up before beginning the treacherous scramble back down to the trail. This is where I screwed up.
At this point we had been on the mountain for well over thirteen hours, and I had told Bethany that I would be down much sooner. Worried about her being alone, I told the other climbers I was going to start down ahead of them. I should have stayed.
I descended too far. I had forgotten that at a certain point, you have to traverse across some narrow ledges to stay on course, and I soon realized that I had dropped down about 100 feet further than I should have. Unfortunately, climbing back up meant I now had to do some 5th class rock climbing moves, and I was so worn out and dehydrated that I was incapable of doing it. Complicating matters even further was the brush beside this steep rock, which was so dense that I couldn’t scramble up that way either.
I was exhausted, and I began to wail and curse and make an ass out of myself. After about half an hour, my climbing team caught up to me, heard my caterwauling, and began asking what they could do to assist me. Eventually they threw a rope down and hauled my pack up, but I found to my horror that I still couldn’t climb back up. Finally, Kevin yelled down “Either climb the fucking thing or we’re leaving you out here!”
I climbed it, needless to say. When I reached my team, I hung my head in shame and apologized to every person there, and they were all kind and forgiving. Unfortunately, I had cost us about forty-five minutes, and the sun was sinking fast. We hustled off the chimneys, and got to the talus field as the sun set. Now, however, the trail through the half-mile section of rocks became nearly impossible to follow, and we kept going the wrong way. In my search for the right path, one of my fellow climbers lost sight of me and started cursing at me, even though I wasn’t far away. When he realized how hard I was searching for the right path, he apologized.
Eventually we found the trail and returned to camp, nineteen hours after we had set out. I got in my sleeping bag and bawled. Not manly, I know, but I have always been an emotional guy, and knowing how badly I had screwed up really tore at me. Plus, I was dehydrated, exhausted and hungry.
When I talked to Kevin about it the next day, he reassured me that it wasn’t the end of the world and also told me he wouldn’t be putting my mistake into the Obsidian’s trip report. We all make mistakes, he told me.
We stayed one more day at Lake Ann, then hiked back out and drove back to Eugene. I would never forget that climb, nor my mistake. It has always bothered me, but it has also motivated me not to screw up again like that. I am just glad it didn’t cost us too much.