August 1-3, 1994
It may not sound familiar, but you've seen lots of photos of it in doctor’s offices, homes, on calendars, everywhere. Mt. Shuksan is the largest non-volcanic massif in the Cascades. For the Cascades, it’s truly a non-forgettable giant. Its three-sided summit pyramid inspired the original symbol for Paramount Pictures. You see that image at the beginning of many motion films. Large steep crevassed glaciers, jagged aretes, and many hanging glaciers viewed from the north-west would make most climbers feel intimidated and challenged. When I saw Mt. Shuksan for the first time in 1991, the thought of climbing it nearly scared me to death. At that time, Rick and I attempted the summit, reached the summit pyramid, but retreated due to questionable weather and the fact we were running out of time.
On Sunday evening, July 31, a group, of three left Eugene and drove to Glacier, Washington, arriving there at 3 am Monday. We found a great place to sleep under the stars at the end of a gravel road next to a water tower. The night’s rest was cut short when a construction crew arrived at 6 to begin the task of repainting the tower.
We enjoyed a lazy morning hanging out in Glacier, a one-store mountain community nine miles from the end of a road that ends deep in the North Cascades. After signing in at the Glacier Ranger Station, the party drove to Heather Meadows, through the Mt. Baker ski area, and on to the Lake Ann trailhead. That afternoon found the party being chased for miles by millions of very hungry mosquitoes. The trip to Lake Ann consists of following a well-traveled trail 2½ miles down and 2½ miles up to a beautiful Alpine lake within the boundaries of the North Cascades National Park. Some anxiety crept up and down the body of this climber as I studied the south-west face of the mountain. Here, you look up the Lower Curtis Glacier which is relatively flat into its origins at the base of a 2,000-ft. cliff. At the top of the cliff is the Upper Curtis Glacier, just hanging there, occasionally dropping off house-size chunks of ice onto the Lower Glacier below. As I watched the mountain, I remembered our 1991 visit when we witnessed this occurrence and felt the entire mountain shake and groan with each release. My level of excitement rose and waned that afternoon as I anticipated skirting the south-west face and crossing the Upper Curtis Glacier in the hours to come.
At 4 the next morning, two of the group began the journey with heavy summit packs traversing and winding along the steep sided ridge called Shuksan Arm and arrived at the renowned “Fisher Chimneys” at day break. Here, we proceeded to ascend the long series of steep vertical gullies. This is the place where many climbers have died after being hit by ice falling from above. Also, casualties occur in a narrow passage called “Fat Man’s Misery”. As rock climbing goes, the chimneys are not a real difficult ascent, so many parties travel un-roped here. However, any non-tethered climber who stumbled and fell would plunge hundreds of feet onto the Lower Curtis Glacier below. At 6720 ft. of elevation, the route leaves the chimneys and crests the Shuksan Arm, dropping onto the White Salmon Glacier. After roping up and climbing what’s called “Winnie’s Slide”, we traveled south, crossed back over the very upper reaches of the Shuksan Arm and crossed the Upper Curtis Glacier. To me, this is the top of the world. Although cliffs loom to the left, the knowledge that you are on a narrow shelf glacier literally hanging on the side of the mountain is a real rush. Once across the Upper Curtis, we, wrapped around the “Hell’s Highway”, a steep, wind-swept west-facing cirque. We passed through a large col and crested out onto the large, gentle Sulphide Glacier with the summit pyramid now looming to the north. It was a glorious sunny day and we headed north on the Sulphide to its bergschrunds at the base of the pyramid. Once on the snow-free rock, we un-roped and scrambled on steep jumbled rock for a full hour. We reached the 9127-ft. summit just before noon. During our long lunch break we missed the vistas we had hoped for, thanks to the intense smoke originating from the big range fires near Lake Chelan.
The descent was uneventful and we returned to camp approximately 14 hours after leaving it. We enjoyed a long night’s rest before retracing our steps back to Glacier. Climbers were Rick Peterson and Ken Ball (leader). Camp tender was Patrick Antoine.