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© Bob Moulder

Posted 11 Sept 2000 (See Bob's Photos from this trip)

Before my memories get too fuzzy I suppose I should write a report on the Mt. Shuksan segment of my trip to the Cascades. In my intro to the Glacier Peak report I alluded to a couple of reservations I had about the Shuksan climb, relating to guided climbing in general and to the inadequate rest period--one day, bad planning on my part!--between a couple of rather demanding (for me) climbs. Another deficiency in my preparation was not having done some rock work in plastic boots to gain at least a little bit of familiarity with that aspect of alpine climbing. A day at the Gunks doing some 5.6 toproping in plastic would have been perfect practice for the 5.0 of Shuksan Summit Pyramid. Altitude and fatigue are rude boys that always get their way.

Admittedly, I was tired after Glacier Peak. Really tired. I had kept pace every step of the way (except that last short stretch along White Chuck Creek to the van, where JT smoked me), but by the end I realized I was closer to my physical limits than I wanted to be, considering that I would soon be tackling another not-so-easy climb. Another stress-inducing factor was a rather significant blister I had developed on my left foot on the hike out, while wearing my supposedly more comfortable light hiking boots. For that reason I became a "strictly plastic" man for Shuksan.

After an evening gorging on pizza and beer with JT, I spread out my gear around the hotel room to make sure there would be absolutely no residual moisture. Then I crawled into bed and slept until about 8:30 the next morning. I usually get up at 5:30 a.m., and rarely later than 6:30, so there's no doubt I was thoroughly knackered. I washed clothes in a little laundry room at the hotel, ate and then ate some more, and spent the day resisting the urge to drain the blister on my left foot. I know from experience that the fluid greatly hastens recovery, but it was difficult to resist the throbbing sting. At least it encouraged me to rest, which was exactly what I needed. The high point of the day was picking up the rental car at Bellingham International Airport.

Next morning, Tim Jumonville arrived a bit late at AAI due to a scheduling misunderstanding, after blasting down from Vancouver, BC where he was visiting with friends. Having already done the obligatory pack dump before Glacier, I was spared that exercise this time. We were on the road quickly for the relatively short ride north and east to the Mt. Baker Ski Area parking lot.

The hike to Lake Ann was a relatively easy 4.7 miles. Not far from the parking lot the trail took us past some local kids who were shredding in giant baggies and T-shirts with their boom box blaring a choice selection of Nine-Inch Nails. Snowboarding at 70 degrees--go figure! The trail dropped about 800 ft. into the valley below Shuksan Arm and then climbed up about 900 ft. to Lake Ann. Compared to the Glacier approach, a veritable piece of pie. My still-undrained blister had quieted down quite miraculously, and the perfect fit of my plastic boots made the walk a lot easier than I had expected. That was fortunate, for I was still quite fried.

Tim was also a bit toasted, having had only one day of rest after co-leading a 12-day instructional course and climb of Mt. Baker. But that course is relatively easy for Tim, who is without a doubt one of the most supremely fit human beings presently occupying planet Earth. Lean, mean, efficient, super strack, snappy, high energy... extensive rock and alpine palmares... 2-pack-a-day smoker... you know the type. So it wasn't like I was going to have a fellow sufferpuppy to commiserate with.

And to be honest, that's where it all started. For the first time for as far back as I can remember, I rested while someone else scouted the area to find a good place to camp. There was a ridge above Lake Ann--part of Shuksan Arm--that Tim checked out before circling back toward the lake and spotting a small, dry crescent near some trees a short distance below the lake. There were some people camped on the ridge, and although there were some more campsites nearby Tim thought, and I agreed, that having the little crescent to ourselves was the way to go.

After setting up camp and eating some lunch, we headed over to the base of Fisher Chimneys to get a look at our approach the next morning, and to get an idea about how long it would take us to feel our way over there by headlamp. The approach took 45 minutes, and as I waited and rested again, Tim scampered up the lower part of the Chimneys like a monkey with a pantload of fireworks. For all I know, he might've made it all the way up to White Salmon Glacier, but he was gracious enough not to admit it if he did. On the way back to camp I slipped on a little moat between a snow field and a rock, and could've banged myself up pretty badly had Tim not anticipated my clumsy move and caught me, literally.

Next morning we were up at 3:30 and advancing toward the Chimneys by 4:10. The clear sky was barely starting to brighten, so we switched off our headlamps as we got to the base of the Chimneys, which are basically upper-end third class with a relatively easy switchback trail about one third of the way up. Not easy, yet not all that hard, either. But unmistakably, seriously up, as well.

After gaining the White Salmon Glacier, we took another short break and roped up. Apparently we were moving pretty quickly, because when we arrived the 3-member team that had camped on the ridge, which had left about 40 minutes before we did, were just finishing roping up. So I didn't feel like such a whipped gumby. Not yet, anyway. Here, we stayed to the very stable edge of the glacier, scrambling over several rock outcrops and a couple of dicey moats. Toward the upper White Salmon we crossed a couple of snow-bridged crevasses, and we caught up with the other team as they were traversing around a huge moat wall. Tim would have none of that, so we headed straight up the wall, kicking steps (well, Tim did!) and plunging our ice axes front-and-center for self belay. Tim was practically running straight up this monstrous thing, and my gumby ticker was red-lining as I barely managed to keep up, even with steps already kicked!

I am probably one of the few people who were thankful to arrive at the start of the Highway to Hell, otherwise known as the Upper Curtis Glacier. As mind-numbing as the slog to the corner of the Sulphide Glacier can be, I was grateful and more than a little relieved not to be a hair's breadth away from an aneurism. After surmounting another, less-huge moat at the corner we were finally on the home stretch to the Summit Pyramid, whose normal route is placed rather inconveniently on the east side, around yet another ridge of the pyramid. There's a reason it's called the Highway to Hell.

Just as we arrived at the steep rock gully, we received a grim reminder that this 5-pitch, 5.0 scramble is not a gimmee, despite the fact that nearly all seasoned mountaineers third-class this piece. A climber with a dislocated shoulder was grimacing in pain as his mates discussed how to restore the normal ball-and-socket configuration. Tim offered his assistance, well versed as he is in the latest techniques for handling this situation, but we didn't tarry long because one of their party was an EMT who can handle things. Cool. We're headed up, Tim ascending the gully as if it were the well worn staircase of an old Roman cathedral, belaying me up like a sick, wobbly poodle on a leash. Oh well, at least I wouldn't finish my trip with a hospital visit and many weeks of physical therapy. As a matter of fact, I got comfortable with the climbing rather quickly and going up was fairly easy, down a little less so.

It was somewhat crowded in the summit pyramid area as the groups coming up via various routes converged near the top. A couple of parties were descending as we were going up, so there were clattering stones to be dodged every now and then. A bowling ball-sized rock whiz-spun about six inches from my helmet, clattered around the gully some more and glanced off the lumbar area of a guy below me, who happened to be in the party we had passed earlier. He was not hurt badly and was able to summit, though he probably popped a few Advil's that evening.

If the manner of the climb was not so gratifying, the atmosphere on the summit certainly was. Great views in every direction and just enough room for us and the 3-member team we were playing leapfrog with. Eat, drink, gawk, photos and back down.

I could've third-classed it down, but I can understand Tim's (and his boss') insistence on a belay. Okay, but the down climbing wasn't that hard. Kinda fun, really. Thankfully the separated-shoulder party were able to self evacuate, and we practically ran down the Sulphide and White Salmon Glaciers.

But not far from the Chimneys we crossed paths with a NOLS group with a young woman who had somehow dislocated her knee. She was giddy with a Percodan high, and although the NOLS leader had managed to relocate the knee after about a half-hour of effort she was not ambulatory, Percodan or not. As luck would have it, Tim was close friends with several people at the Whidbey Island rescue unit, so he and the NOLS leader were able to arrange a way (NOLS team runners--no cellphones) to get her choppered out without involving the feds or the sheriff's office, thus circumventing the resultant overwrought, full-scale, SAR-hero operations typical of those organizations. The NOLS guy's first instinct (commendably) was to self evacuate, but that would've meant a grueling, 3-day operation no matter what route they took. They were even considering the Chimneys, but Tim convinced them that would be a bloody freakin' nightmare. So, at the dawn of the 21st Century, a helicopter extraction was deemed ethically permissible.

After about 45 minutes, we were able to finish the last section of the glacier and begin picking our way down the Chimneys.

It was at this point that I experienced a couple of aural hallucinations. I was hearing things--like a mother talking to a child--and although I quickly realized what was happening it was no less unsettling because it indicated how exhausted I was. With concentration compromised, I would have to be very careful in the Chimneys. I thought of the counsel I've often given to others: when the going gets tough, slow down.

I don't know what was going through Tim's mind, but a couple of hours later we were back at camp. I munched some wheat thins crackers, pepperjack cheese and beef jerky, and was more than happy to call that dinner. Passed out in the bag around 6 p.m. and didn't wake up until about 6:15 the next morning.

We were packed and on the trail a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. Keeping up a brisk pace, we were back at the parking lot at 9:41. A little after 10 a.m., just a stone's throw past Picture Lake, I caught a tiny glint of light from the main rotor blades of the Whidbey Island rescue chopper as it circled around the Summit Pyramid.

I hope to go back to Shuksan in the next few years and do a self-guided climb with friends. Thanks to this trip--and last year's alpine course and climb of Mt. Baker--I feel that I could do it safely. Although I didn't feel the same satisfaction I get from our regular group's self-guided excursions, I have come to accept that this is just the nature of guided climbing. While it may be necessary from time to time, I it doesn't fit my temperament. I'll probably do more guided climbs and instructional courses, with the goal of gaining the experience and expertise to do them on my own.

-- Bob

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