The Main (South) Cowlitz Chimney

This is an interesting route in Mount Rainier NP with an interesting but rather long approach. The Cowlitz Chimneys are comprised of four rock pinnacles that are prominent features from many vantage points on or around Mount Rainier's east side. The highest chimney is the Main or South Chimney, standing at 7605 feet. The Middle or Central Chimney is second highest at 7421 feet, followed by the north chimney, the most difficult, which reaches an elevation of 7015 feet. The forth chimney, referred to as the Third Chimney in the Cascade Alpine Guide, is the furthest NE and is 6600+ feet in height. Routes vary from class 2-3 on the Middle chimney to class 5 on the North Chimney. The Main Chimney held the most attraction for me. Not only is it the highest but the class 3-4 scramble route sounded like an interesting route finding problem.  

I wasn't really expecting to find myself heading for  Summerland on the Wonderland Trail for the forth time in less than a month, but there I was. I was hoping to take advantage of a Fred Beckey shortcut to reduce the length of the approach, but the "thick snow bridge" that I hoped to find over Fryingpan Creek at c.2.5 miles wasn't even a thin snow bridge, so I was off to Summerland and Panhandle Gap. The approach continues up the SW slope of Banshee Peak (not labeled on maps). Due to the terrain lower on the south side of Banshee Peak, it is easier to go over or nearly to the top of this easy peak that offers good views of the Main and Central Cowlitz Chimneys and a whole lot more.

Banshee Peak from near Panhandle Gap


Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma from near the summit of Banshee Peak


The Main Cowlitz Chimney from the summit of Banshee Peak

From the summit of Banshee Peak (7400+ feet), descend into the basin (c.6700') between Banshee and the Main Chimney. The idea is to head for the notch south of the chimney. The description in the Cascade Alpine Guide made it seem like the route was going to be confusing and had Fred Beckey not done such a good job of describing the route it probably would have been. The photo below shows all of the key features Beckey described. Follow the description closely!

The lower portion of the route on the Main Cowlitz Chimney

The description says to go to the "spiry solitary fir" then ascend about 100 feet toward the "U" shaped notch to a "horizantal fence of evergreens." The solitary fir and fence of evergreens are obvious. I took a shortcut to the climber left side of the fence via snow and class 3-4 rock, but this is probably more difficult without snow. Beware the moat if you take the shortcut. I was now at the beginning of the moderately exposed 30 foot class 3 traverse. There is a small alcove here that should not be confused with the hidden cave mentioned in the description. After making the traverse and climbing through some small trees I was at the hidden cave. From here, the "short rock slot" leads up about 15 feet to a gully (rappel anchors just above the top of the slot). The rock slot was probably the most difficult section (class 3-4). Once above this obstacle, continue up the gully and work left toward a notch in the ridge. Cross the notch and continue up staying left of the ridge crest for a few hundred feet then traverse left and finish by one of several class 3 and 4 gullies. I found no class 2 gully as described in the guide.

The North Chimney and Tamanos Mountain from the Main Chimney


The Middle Chimney from the summit of the Main Chimney

Down climbing class 3-4 rock in telemark boots is always a joy. Fortunately the rock is solid where you need it to be but is pretty much loose everywhere else. The ski out was okay, but would have been better a week or two ago. Much of Banshee peak is melted out but there is still a lot of good skiing to be found in the area south of Panhandle Gap, particularly above Indian Bar and Ohanapecosh Park...a long way to go. 

Cascade Alpine Guide, Volume 1, Second Edition; Fred Beckey; Pages 130-131
Climbing Washington's Mountains; Jeff Smoot; Pages 317-319