Last weekend I led a trip up Mt. Shuksan with the Alpine Club of Canada. The above photo shows Shuksan on the left and Baker on the right.
The traditional name of Mount Shuksan in the Nooksack language is Shéqsan (“high foot”) or Ch’ésqen (“golden eagle”)
Climbing this mountain can be a significant challenge, especially taking the route that we did.
I learned to mountaineer on Mt. Shuksan years ago. This two-week course gave me a great foundation in mountain skills. But they also gave me a taste of a hyper-masculine mountaineering culture where I did not belong.
I hoped I could do things my own way some day. Where more types of people could be their whole selves. Where people could ask for help and be vulnerable. And where we would still climb hard!
It was powerful to return to this same route on this mountain as a leader under my own terms.
A note on the beautiful photography in this post. Unless otherwise noted, all the photos in this post here were taken by Erica Ellefsen. Go follow her on Instagram right now.
Day 1: Lake Ann
We got up early, picked up our parking permits at the ranger station in Glacier and hiked for two hours to Lake Ann.
The trail to Lake Ann was so thoughtfully made. It slowly wound its way up the mountain, making sure we had every chance to take in stunning views of Mt. Baker.
Naturally the lake was full of folks camping for the weekend. The rangers had warned us “all the spots would be taken.” But we had no problem finding a spot on a durable surface despite the fantastic weather.
We didn’t hike any higher as we had not secured a permit to camp in the National Park. Lake Ann is in the National Forest, so no permits for camping are required there.
In retrospect, I wish we had secured a backcountry camping permit and spent the night further up the mountain. (You will see why by the end of this trip report…) Reservations are open for a two week window in March or “first come first serve” the day before your climb.
Day 2: Summit Day
We had heard the glacier cracking, groaning and spitting rocks down all afternoon the day before. So we felt quite inspired for an alpine start. Up at 3:00 am and moving by 4:00.
We got the first hour or so hiking done in the dark.
We started climbing just as the sun started to peak over the horizon.
We all paused to soak in the stunning sunrise, not knowing that later that day we’d unfortunately be taking in the sunset at the very same spot.
Fisher Chimneys is a mix of fourth class climbing and exposed ridge walking. We all climbed without ropes. I think it would be hard to protect with gear, but someone could have scrambled up and belayed from the top if they had wanted to.
After an hour of hiking and two hours of scrambling, we arrived on the glacier.
The first challenge was Winnie’s slide, which is usually a very steep wall of snow. Or this year, mostly ice. Luckily previous climbers had found a path along the rock that was soft enough to kick steps. And up we went.
Some folks consider Winnie’s slide to be the crux.
I was much more worried about the part around the corner. When I was here seven years ago, it was steep ice.
This was the part of the route was what was keeping me up at night. I don’t have that much experience on ice. But luckily, it covered in crunchy snow. Yaaay snow!
The next part was a long march across the glacier to Hell’s Highway.
From a distance, Hell’s Highway looks like an insurmountably steep wall. Having been here before, I knew it would appear more gentle as we approached.
Now for the rather tedious slog up the Sulphide Glacier. It was so hot, so long and rather boring. My mind wandered. My vision was getting blurry. I started wondering if I was dehydrated. Then I realized it was just sunscreen melting into my eyes.
As we got closer to the summit pyramid, I counted more than 20 people waiting to pass through a bottleneck on the standard route. I felt a bit of longing for the empty mountains on Vancouver Island.
To try to save time, I convinced folks to check out the more difficult climbing route instead. After poking around, we decided this route was not in the cards for us that day. We headed back to the standard route. This wasted about an hour, one of my several mistakes.
And a quick side note on mistakes. I am going to talk about mine.
Mountaineering is very dangerous. Good luck is often one of the things that keeps us safe. It’s important to talk about mistakes and learn from them. I am thankful for Cyril Shokoples and Ken Wylie for teaching me this on the courses I have taken with them.
Anyway, back to the climb.
The climbing up the standard route was easier than Fisher Chimneys but scarier. There was quite a lot of loose rock. I was worried about hurting someone below me or having a hold break off.
We reached the summit just as another party was coming down. They were climbing the same route as us as a day trip. They left Vancouver at 3:00 am, the time we had woken up at Lake Ann. I was impressed.
And then we arrived at the summit.
We were officially halfway through with our adventure.
It was time to get down that slushy afternoon snow as quickly and safely as possible.
First, we had to do a million rappels.
My biggest mistake on this trip was only bringing one rope for a party of five. On the glacier, it made sense for us to travel on one rope. But rappelling with one rope was about to eat up the rest of our day.
After arriving at the snow, we zipped down the glacier as fast as we could.
But it was a quite a long way to go.
At this point, we’d been on the go for over 12 hours. I was getting tired. Not really my legs, but my brain. I had been at the front of the rope team, coaching people through tricky climbing and just making all sorts of high consequence decisions since 4:00am.
Getting down Winnie’s Slide is the first time I felt afraid. I approached the down climb at the front of the rope team. I felt my stomach drop into my knees. My mouth went dry.
The snowy edge we had come up was crumbling in the heat of the day. It was a long way down to the rock below if the snow broke off below our feet.
Most of us decided to rappel. Most of were belayed to the rappel station. This was rather good decision making.
We felt relieved to get back to familiar rock climbing and rappelling in Fisher Chimneys.
The relief was short lived as the sun started to set.
It eventually became too dark for us to down climb. And honestly, we were too tired. So we continued with hours of rappels. With one rope. In the dark.
Now we should have never put ourselves in this situation. It was entirely avoidable by making different decisions earlier in the trip.
But considering we now had to get through this, I was so happy with how we handled it. Everyone kept a positive attitude. No complaining. Every rappel was quickly checked by a buddy to keep us safe.
We rolled into camp 20 hours after we started. Erica and I stayed up to watch the Milky Way because we were too hungry and too full of adrenaline to sleep. I ate some raisins out of a bag with a spoon. (Why? I don’t know.) Eventually we passed out.
Day 3: The hangover
Ryan, Chris and Kara headed out early to beat the heat. We slept in.
And we marvelled at what we climbed the day before.
Reflections and gratitude
I also feel so lucky to have had the mentorship to get me to a place where I could lead a trip like this. Thank you to everyone in the Alpine Club of Canada for your ongoing support, especially all the incredible womxn I’ve climbed with and learned from.
I’ll end this with a photo of Brianna, Kara and I on the summit of Mt. Baker two years ago. Mt Shuksan was in the background, foreshadowing this year’s adventure for Kara and I. What’s next now?
Nice trip report. I attempted Shuksan last year but it rained when we camped at Lake Ann and I was not comfortable doing this route when it was wet. Hopefully, I can do it this year.
Great job reflecting on the trip and what did and didn’t go well.
Hi, may I ask what camera did you use for those pics? I’m planning on doing Fisher chimneys/ Challenger this year and about to buy one. Thoroughly impressed by sharpness of the pictures.
For the climbing photos, it is just an iPhone 10. Erica brought her Canon D Mark II to Lake Anne, where we camped.