Ascent of Mount Shuksan on 2019-06-09

Climber: Tom Mullen

Others in Party:Sergey Lazutin
Date:Sunday, June 9, 2019
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
Peak:Mount Shuksan
    Elevation:8685 ft / 2647 m

Ascent Trip Report

Mt. Shuksan attempt via Fisher Chimneys. Followed the Lake Ann Trail and tracks from a Mountain Madness guided group, which made the route finding easier. Much of the trail was snow-covered, particularly the open areas. Weather was foggy and misting at times, which was slightly contrary to the weather forecast. The Chimneys were alternating wet rock/dry rock/snow. We ran into the MM group descending the long gully (not sure which # chimney it was. They were doing a 3-day trip and had turned around at "Hell's Highway" (though discovering their tracks later we found they had only made it below the Hourglass). We kicked steps up the steep snow up the gully and reached the top where there was a very steep snow slope/ex-cornice between us and the continuing trail. We chose to descend sketchy and exposed heather below the steep snow to then climb back up to the "trail". The remaining was 3rd class scrambling on damp rock up to the notch in the Arm, then a quick hike up to the bivy sites below Winnie's Slide. The bivied there and were treated to a beautiful sunset as the air dried out and clouds broke up. We were able to partly dry out with the evening sun, but not completely.

We left at 3AM the next morning under clear skies, gained Winnie's Slide and made our way up and across the Upper Curtis. There we saw the other teams tracks end below the Hourglass. We continued down and around towards Hell's Highway. Because of the lighting and snow conditions, it was difficult to tell whether it was preferred to keep right up the highway, which appeared steep, versus continue around the rock on the left/east side in hopes of pursuing a longer but gentler course. We were mistaken, as the snow became steeper and steeper as we rounded the rock. In retrospect we should have kept to the right of Hell's Highway, which would have made us confront steep snow earlier but over less distance. After much effort, we finally made it over the nearly corniced edge to views of the Summit Pyramid and Sulphide Glacier. The Pyramid was decorated in snow, with a good snow finger extending nearly all the way to the summit up the "4th class gully." There were already a couple of roped teams making their way to the Pyramid. As we kept going, we noted one of the roped teams attempting the 4th class gully but they subsequently began climbing done. It was not clear exactly why, but we heard that one of the members may have been dealing with frostbite. It was certainly colder than expected and forecasted. At this point, we decided to attempt the gully, but as I was approaching the first switchback to the right of the gully entrance, I began bonking, perhaps from a lack of calories, perhaps from hypothermia. My partner also was experiencing cold toes, an insult to previous injury as he had frostbite from a previous trip to Nepal making his feet more sensitive to temperature. We decided to bail on our approach and instead make our way to a notch in the SE arm where there was some sun shining through and a couple of other parties were waiting and warming. As we made our detour, the groups there began making an attempt on the gully, each person commenting on how horribly cold it was.

In the notch we warmed up, including my partner putting his feet in my armpits (it's ok, I'm a doctor). Thinking about the temperature, the likelihood of a prolonged wait to climb the gully (in the shade and snow), and rappel back down, we decided to bail on our summit bid. Soon we were hiking out away from the Pyramid into the sun. We warmed as we descended. We now came to appreciate our mistake climbing Hell's Highway and chose the mellower, climber's right descent. It was still quite steep and required care and even some back wards down-climbing on my part.

We followed our tracks back to the top of Winnie's slide. Downclimbing this was strenuous; we spent most of the time facing the slope and planting our axes in the self-belay position. We eventually made it down to our bivy site where we relaxed, ate, and dried out of camp gear. After about an hour of this, we were packed and heading down towards the Chimneys. Once at the notch, we confirmed that there was not a rappel anchor set up for the exposed 3rd-4th class system and decided to spare a cordelette to build one. With a 60-m rope this got us almost all the way down to level terrain. Next we walked over to where the steep snow slope/broken cornice patch was. Whereas previously we had elected to climb up and down the heather, this time we were less confident in the safety of this and instead chose to belay one another across this steep snow. I belayed my partner who put in a total of 3 pickets to get across. The snow was quite soft in the morning sun and did not inspire confidence. Halfway through, he climbed up the slope to the top and rode the remaining distance horseback style to the rock outcrop containing a rappel anchor. I followed by doing a direct traverse and was helped by using my axe and a second tool as well as a passing a picket forward for protection. We eventually made it to the rappel anchor. From there we made two rappels from established gear. However, the second rappel only got us halfway down to the base of the gully, still in steep snow and with a very dicey runout. From there I belayed my partner to an intermediate point using a picket as the anchor, and he did the same for me until we arrived at the base of the gully.

From there we followed the route, passing the 4th class down climb were my partner rappelled using the existing rope and I prusiked and down-climbed. There was also one more rappel but short. We exited the Chimney's and traversed the snow slope following our previous tracks, again entering the very last 3rd class portion. This went fine for me until the very last move to get back on the snow; I had difficulty lowering myself down to a good foothold and found myself essentially dangling with my left foot searching for an edge while my right was stuck on a ledge. Not finding purchase for my left foot, I knew I would fall backwards and down into the moat, at least 5 feet of free-fall followed by a tumbling until I wedged between the snow and rock. Luckily, I found some sort of inner-strength to reposition my hands on the damp slopers and was able to shift my weight just enough to get enough strength back in my right leg (which was essentially stuck on a rock at the level of my chest) to raise myself back up to a functional position. I cursed, caught my breath, and examined my foot hold options once again: wet, featureless rock for my left, and a 45-degree right facing slant for my right. I ultimately was able to get my right foot down to the latter, and lower myself enough that, when I did release my hands from the slopers, I only fell about 4 inches to the dirt below. This seems like a trivial move for a climber, but after an exhausting day-and-a-half with an overnight pack, I found it quite the ordeal.

I took a few moments to catch my senses, then proceeded to follow my partner out along the snow slopes, retracing our steps from yesterday as well as those of the MM guided group. The rest of the route was uneventful other than being exhausted and with sore feet. The creeks were running high from the snow melt, so some of the crossings were tricky. My partner and I ultimately decided stepping in water was one of the least of our worries, so we did not waste much time crossing by stepping on the submerged rocks.

The trip ended with us hiking back along the road, as the gate had only opened that day. A few cars passed us, one guy in a Porsche offering a ride, but we declined in favor of sparing him the odor.

Sorry this trip report turned into a story, but it was an interesting climb in mixed conditions. Not sure if I would attempt it again in the early season given the added complexity of snow-to-rock transitions. Also the exposed 3rd-4th class with an overnight pack, especially on the descent, is not trivial. There's enough choss to make you question almost every move and hold.
Summary Total Data
    Weather:Raining, Cold, Partly Cloudy

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