Mt Shuksan Fisher Chimneys: Small Mountain, Big Punch
Up high above the White Salmon Glacier on the Fisher Chimneys Route on Mount Shuksan. Photo: Zeb Blais.
For a relatively small mountain, Mount Shuksan (Shuk-san) packs a big punch. Stretching only 9,131’ above sea level, one might easily overlook this gem of the North Cascades. Luckily for Mt Shuksan, mountain climbing is more than just altitude.
Mount Shuksan hosts a huge variety of climbing, from straight-forward glacier romps to committing, technical routes that have found a place in Steck and Roper's 50 Classic Climbs of North America. The routes include the Sulphide Glacier, the North Face, the Price Glacier, the Northwest Couloir and the Fisher Chimneys.
One of our favorite routes on Mt Shuksan is the Fisher Chimneys. This route is pure mountaineering fun, and each section of the climb is engaging, beautiful and exhilarating without exposure to unreasonable hazards. With good movement skills, the route is fairly benign.
The Fisher Chimneys route as shot from Lake Ann. The Upper Curtis and Lower Curtis Glaciers are the glaciers pictured. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The Fisher Chimneys begins, oddly enough, with a descent. From the Lake Ann trailhead, we walk down nearly 1000’ feet to Swift Creek. The hiking is gorgeous and packed with old growth firs, crystal clear streams and sub-alpine meadows. From the creek, we regain that first 1000’ to get to Lake Ann.
Views from Lake Ann are stunning: the Jagged summit of Mount Shuksan comes into view, standing proudly above the hanging ice of the Upper Curtis Glacier. The Lake itself is often so stuffed with snow that it’s hardly more than a flat spot in the basin, but adds its share to the view when it melts out. The hike continues past Shuksan Creek, up a series of switchbacks into the North Cascades National Park.
The real fun begins after we cross into the Park. After some long traversing across snow or dirt trail, we come to a short step of 4th class rock. In early season conditions, snow can often provide a nice bridge to get onto the rock and avoid the slightly awkward climbing there, but it can be dangerous as the warm rock can melt the snowpack from below and weaken the snow bridge to the point of having a significant fall. Above this rock, the trail becomes a mix of exposed 3rd class climbing and dirt trail until we get to the elevation of the base of the Fisher Chimneys, roughly 6,000’.
Climbers ascending the Sulphide Glacier just above Hell's Highway. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The Fisher Chimneys can be hard to find. There are many similar features that are easily mistaken for the Chimneys and if there is no trail through the snow it can be easy to get off track. The trail through the talus is fairly worn in, so once you find the main track, take care not to lose it!
This is the start of the Fisher Chimneys on Mt Shuksan. If you don't see this alcove, you're in the wrong gully! Photo: Blackbird Mtn Guides.
The telltale to finding the entrance to the Fisher Chimneys is an arete that creates an alcove with a flat, gravelly area. This leads to a gully that splits into two short 3rd class climbing gullies. It's possible to ascend either side here, and at the top of the climber's right gully there is a tat anchor slung around a large rock with a rap ring on it. If you don’t see this anchor at the top of the first step, you’re in the wrong gulley! The Chimneys themselves are a series of exposed 2nd and 3rd Class trails with steps of 4th class climbing sprinkled in to keep things interesting. Despite the name Fisher Chimneys, there are no chimneys as one would think of from a rock-climbing perspective, the chimney features are actually broad gullies - no chimney climbing required!
The Entrance to the Fisher Chimneys on Mt Shuksan. After this snow patch (which later melts out to become just a scree field), the route goes right into a gully divided by a rib of rock. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Above the Fisher Chimneys is the start of the White Salmon Glacier. At the very top, it is just snow - I have never seen crevasses open between the top of the chimneys and Winnies Slide. Often the snow here is flat enough and/or soft enough to not need crampons, but they are basically mandatory on the Winnies Slide. Camping is available directly below the Chimeys and sometimes there are a couple of small spots available above.
Water is available from a stream that forms directly at the start of the Upper Curtis Glacier. This is a great flow that fills water bottles fast with a quick and clear flow that most people don’t feel the need to filter or treat.
Above camp at Winnies Slide, the route ascends then traverses the Upper Curtis Glacier to Hell’s Highway. The Upper Curtis is a great warmup for the day, with moderate slopes the lead to Hell’s Highway. This section can vary between having very well bridged crevasses or can pose significant hazard with sagging snow bridges covering cavernous crevasses.
Climbers on the Upper Curtis Glacier approaching Hell's Highway on the Mount Shuksan Fisher Chimneys. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Visually intimidating and imposing, Hell’s Highway is actually a fairly benign, 60m step of steep snow or alpine ice that provides access to the Sulphide Glacier and the summit pyramid. Above the Highway, the Sulphide’s west side often poses significant crevasse hazard, so it’s a good idea to traverse in toward the center of the glacier. The Sulphide continues its moderate flow up to the Summit Pyramid, where two main choices are typially taken.
The most common option to the summit of Mount Shuksan is via 4th Class gullies. This route usually departs the snow and trends climbers left (west) past a large arete that forms the gulley directly below the summit. If you choose this variation, go straight up and trend left to gain the summit in the easiest way.
The second option to gain the summit of Mt Shuksan is the Southeast Ridge. The Southeast ridge is more difficult climbing, clocking in at 5.6, with some fairly exposed sections of climbing compared to the main gulley. Despite sections of harder climbing, most of the ridge is 4th class and it’s fairly low commitment since it is easy to escape the ridge in many places.
The summit itself epitomizes the North Cascades: a small, blocky pinnacle with incredible exposure and position in the range. 360 degree views include a panorama of Mount Baker, Glacier Peak and the jagged ridges of the Pickets, Forbidden and more. The earth falls steeply away from the summit in all directions and the Price, Crystal, and Sulphide Glaciers are all on display.
Climbers rappelling down the south side of Mount Shuksan's summit pyramid. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The descent has a couple of options. Both usually include a series of rappels, but it is certainly reasonable to downclimb from the summit as well if your party is capable. Option 1 is my preferred way and begins from a 3rd class ridge extending south from the summit. Two rappels gets most people to the end of the arete, where the final rappel from the summit pyramid is taken. The second option descends the Southeast ridge to a rappel station that leads climbers back into the gulley, where it connects with the first option. This requires a bit of traversing across the gulley that can cause rockfall for parties below.
Getting back to camp and down the Winnies Slide. This is mostly a matter of retracing your steps back down the Sulphide Glacier and Upper Curtis. The crux for most parties here is desending Hell’s Highway, the Upper Curtis to get back to the White Salmon, and Winnies Slide. Depending on conditions and the skills of yor team, the steep pithes of Hell’s Highway and Winnies Slide can be time consuming or hazardous. Late season both of these slopes can be firm alpine ice and may take some skill with front pointing and high dagger ice axe position. If these sections feel out of your comfort zone, don’t ascend through them without a plan to get out! Many climbers will remove pickets that are left as rappel anchors, so don’t expect to leave a picket there on the ascent and find it there when you get back!
Descending the Fisher Chimneys themselves is best done as a downclimb rather than a series of rappels. Downclimbing is faster and safer for parties that can move appropriately on 4th class terrain, and long rappels in the upper Chimneys really increase the likelihood of rockfall, causing a major hazard for any climbers below. The anchors at the top of the Chimneys are best used only when there is snow in the gulleys which makes downclimbing more dangerous. Typically I find it best to only rappel the lowest 3 4th class steps that have fixed anchors, the rest should be downclimbable for mountaineers who have appropriate skill to be on this route.
The Fisher Chimney are one of the best intermediate mountaineering routes in the North Cascades. With incredible exposure, consistent and fun climbing that doesn’t require expert rock climbing or ice climbing skill, and magnificent views, Mt Shuksans Fisher Chimneys deserves to be high on any Washington climber’s tick list!