NWMJ Northern Pickets Report

Now on Alpenglow
The Northern Pickets Traverse
Part 1, by Wayne Wallace

Oo matter how satisfied a climber feels after reaching a summit, the compulsion to gaze to the next climb is irresistible. We had just completed my dream traverse over all fourteen summits of the Southern Picket Range in the North Cascades National Park. Even before our high-fives met on the summit of Frenzelspitz, our eyes were working out the intricate ridge of peaks to the north. We had scarcely finished consummating our Southern Pickets obsession when the next epic began to take shape.Fred Beckey has described trips into the Picket Range as “expeditions.” The peaks themselves are daunting enough without the long approaches and legendary brush. William Degenhardt and Herbert Strandberg were the first to respond to the call of these summits in 1931, when they climbed the central peak of the southern group, later named after Degenhardt. The next year, with James Martin, they returned to climb Mount Terror, the highest of the Southern Pickets. In 1936, Phil Dickert, Jack Hossack and George McGowan explored the northern end of the range when they made the first ascent of Mount Challenger. The following year, Bill Cox and Will Thompson ventured into the heart of the Pickets, nabbing the first ascents of Luna and East Fury during a trip that also summitted Redoubt and nearly climbed Glacier (later renamed Spickard). In 1940, the teenage Beckey brothers made two trips, one from the north and the other from the south, climbing eight summits, including four first ascents.

Wayne Wallace on 2004 traverse attempt. Photo by Josh Kaplan
Wayne Wallace on 2004 traverse attempt. Photo by Josh Kaplan.Enlarge

This wild place has long had a special attraction to the legendary masochists of Northwest mountaineering. The Firey family made repeated trips into the Pickets. Joan Firey, a member of the 1978 women’s Annapurna expedition, climbed most of the peaks in the Southern Pickets, including the first winter ascent of Terror, before being stopped by cancer, which claimed her life in 1980. Ed Cooper and Mike Swayne, followed later by climbers such as John Roper and Silas Wild, continued this pattern of exploration into the present century.

What is it about this place that brings adventurers here again and again? “It is truly the wildest and most rugged place there is,” says pioneer climber John Roper. “There are still great things to be done here. There are still unexplored corners left, and this assures an adventurous outing.”

I found a new level of both joy and pain on my first trip into the Pickets. The elegant Northeast Buttress of Mount Fury was everything I could ask for in an alpine climb in 1995. The climb became my measuring stick for future ascents. In 2001, I got my first taste of Picket traversing. The mountain was Challenger, and we wanted to see both sides of it. I conceived the idea of sending another team in from the other direction to meet at the summit, exchange car keys, and continue out without backtracking. Traverses soon dominated my thoughts, developing into an obsession when I learned that the Southern Pickets had not seen a Croft-style summit-ridge traverse. My mind locked onto the idea like a vise.

The usual new-route doubts flooded my planning: Could it be done? Could we carry everything necessary? Would it be worth doing? Could I find a capable partner? Colin Haley took to the idea, answering the last question, but to my horror, his enthusiasm led him to attempt the project before I even had a chance at it! He traversed seven of the summits with Mark Bunker before typical Picket weather shut them down. After a couple of failed attempts myself, a stable high pressure system developed in July 2003, but I had no one to go with me. I again approached Colin, only to learn he was already planning another attempt with Mark! I begged and groveled and insisted that now is the time!

 

View of the Pickets Traverse. Photo by Josh Kaplan
View of the Pickets Traverse. Photo by Josh Kaplan. Enlarge

Joining forces, we three Picketeers hiked up Goodell Creek for what would be one of the greatest experiences of our young lives. We soon dispatched the approach and surmounted the first three summits, the MacMillan Spires. The climbing and camaraderie were wonderful as we worked and played our way along the ridge for the next two days. We completed the fourth and final day of the traverse with an overwhelming sense of fun and satisfaction. Four days, 50 pitches, 25 rappels, four FA’s, and countless smiles left us so jacked that we hardly felt tired from our efforts. (See “Walking the Fence” in The American Alpine Journal, 2004.)

As any obsessive-compulsive will do, I was soon fixating on the northern end of the Picket fence. My fellow Southern Picketeers weren’t as hot for the idea. The rock quality wouldn’t be as good, and the traverse would be much longer. The website CascadeClimbers.com introduced me to a character named Josh Kaplan. I could see he had the spirit for the project based upon his discourse on the site. He took to the idea immediately, and we planned it over the phone, eventually meeting in July 2004 on the departure day for our first attempt. A friend of a friend suggested we start the traverse with the North Ridge of Whatcom Peak, an aesthetic start to twelve miles of alpine ridge. This turned out to be bad advice.

We hiked eighteen long miles the first day to Whatcom Pass. The next day we flew up and over Whatcom and across the broad Challenger Glacier to the summit of Mount Challenger. The ridge became nasty immediately after we left the summit. The “grain” of the crest worked against us as we tediously labored along it for slow mile after mile. Short and long rappels burned though all fifty feet of our tat cord, and the deteriorating weather made us doubly nervous. Struggling in a whiteout and desperately tired, we made a camp that we dubbed “Anxiety Bivy” just below the summit of Ghost Peak. It was a thirsty and frightful place as we wondered what the hell we were doing up there. All we could see was fog threatening to turn to rain in the morning. After we decided to bail, we somehow made our way down the huge face below Phantom-Ghost col. With tails firmly between our legs, we trotted over to Luna to call the boat company for an early ride out. I didn’t think I would be back for another attempt.

 

Wayne Wallace on Pickets Traverse. Photo by Josh Kaplan.
Wayne Wallace on Pickets Traverse. Photo by Josh Kaplan.

After our memories of fear and pain began to fade, we started talking about the traverse again. We agreed that starting from Challanger was the wrong direction. Among other lessons, we concluded that we had tried to do too much in our first couple of days. As the next season drew near, I maniacally began planning. I bought weight scales and scrutinized every piece of equipment, paring more ounces. I found that my tent could stand with ski poles instead of tent poles. Remarkably our packs this time started out less than thirty pounds each, and we were ready for seven long days.

On July 11, 2005, Josh and I embarked on our second attempt. The Ross Lake boat ride and Big Beaver Trail led us to Luna Camp, which was also our cache. Leaving tennis shoes and luxury food behind, we made our way up Access Creek the next morning. Our second camp was at the start of the ridge itself. The view from Luna Col is one of the most incredible I have seen. Unfortunately, this 360-degree spectacle was tainted by two things: the weather sucked again and we faced a choice of either bailing due to the unexpected cold weather or somehow managing the trip with just one small canister of fuel. I tried to reassure Josh by offering a revised plan that didn’t include melting snow, hot drinks, or real hot meals. “We can still do this,” I said meekly. Our drinking tubes were to prove their value many times during the traverse, collecting water from trickles.

e started the long alpine section of the traverse on our third day. We felt like two nervous intruders making their way up the East Peak of Fury in thick fog. The “commitment zone” lay ahead. From here, climbing would be difficult and treacherous and bail-out opportunities scarce. West Fury was uneventful, except when we began descending the wrong ridge into the west drainage. Thankfully the clouds lifted just enough for us to see this terrible mistake in the making. We returned to the top and launched into a series of rappels that beggared our imagination. The final rap went down a huge vertical cliff that required the full length of both ropes. We were glad that we never had to face climbing that cliff during our previous attempt. Afterward, we climbed several difficult leads along the ridge before rapping onto a glacier in a col beyond West Fury, where we made a camp on snow in a wind hollow. A rock patio provided some insulation from a freezing night; we dubbed this camp “Ice Station Zebra.”

Camp Ice Station Zebra. Photo © Josh Kaplan
Camp Ice Station Zebra. Photo © Josh Kaplan

We rejoiced at clear skies the next morning. We thought we might actually catch a break, until we saw the first high clouds. “DAMN! We have 12-24 hours,” I screamed to Josh. We didn’t enjoy hurrying over loose and dangerous rock, but we relished even less the idea of being caught up here in rain. Racing over the remaining small peaks and maze of ridges, we reached the Spectre plateau and found an easy route up Swiss Peak. Phantom Peak provided some off-route fun, as we climbed over and back via the “Cub Scout Salute,” a spire that resembles a two-finger salute from the west. The spires of the ridge continued; steep snow traverses brought us to the summit rocks of these remote formations. Approaching our end-point from the previous year, we realized that we would have to bivouac again. We found a beautiful spot in the Phantom-Ghost col, our previous end-point, and camped early, determined not to tire ourselves too much before the last day’s push. I rationalized our shortened day by thinking, “All we need is six good hours to finish the climb.” We got four.

The weather deteriorated on our fifth day. I noticed moisture starting to condense on the rope as we simul-climbed over Ghost Peak. The knife-edge arête of Mount Challenger became desperately slippery as the rain began. The wind gusted up and the rain switched briefly to ice pellets. Our mood turned grim. We knew we were in a risky environment. Josh climbed with his gloves on to combat the cold. We no longer trusted our wet boots on the slick footholds and we relied almost entirely on handholds to grip the rock. We reached the end of the traverse not with a sense of triumph, but with numbed relief. I couldn’t talk or think clearly and I saw the same look in my partner’s face; we had survived. We had pushed ourselves into a zone of commitment and risk that some might criticize, but we had also lived our dream of a most amazing mountain odyssey.

We had no time for celebration on this summit, exposed as we were to the elements. A thirty-hour storm was upon us. Two days would pass before we would feel dry and warm again. Tough-guy Josh had left his rain gear at home, relying only on a down jacket. Facing a wet bivy, we wanted to get as far down Wiley Ridge as possible. We marched along the tortuous ridge as the evening hours slipped away. Not comfortable descending the last three thousand feet to Beaver Pass in darkness and cloud, we stopped in the gloom.

A miserable and long night slowly passed; I dreamt of flooding, swimming, and rescue. The sickly light of sunrise barely penetrated the storm clouds to reach our chilled and aching bodies. We finally began to warm up during the steep plunge downhill into the brush and forest. At the valley bottom, the Big Beaver trail felt like a lifeline drawing us toward home. Warmer air allowed us to relax, and we could finally begin to celebrate our success. What joy we felt after so many days of intense concentration!

Hoping to get home a day early, I took much of the weight and let Josh run ahead to try and catch the boat. Luck was with us when we recovered our cache and snagged an early pick-up after six life-changing days. We had gone over sixty miles, ten of them, from Luna Peak to the glacier by Eiley Lake, fully alpine. We had traversed over the summits of nine remote peaks of the amazing Northern Picket Range.

TRAVERSE SUMMARY
Party
Wayne Wallace
Josh KaplanDates
7/11/2005-7/16/2005Summits (9)

Route
Approach via Ross Lake, Access Creek and Luna Peak. Traverse Northern Pickets, climbing along the ridge surrounding Luna Creek headwaters to Mount Challenger. Descend via Wiley Ridge back to Ross Lake.

Itinerary
July 11, 2005
Boat up Ross Lake
Hike Big Beaver to Luna Camp

July 12, 2005
Hike Access Creek to Luna Col
Luna Peak

July 13, 2005
East Peak Fury
West Peak Fury

July 14, 2005
Numerous small peaks
Swiss Peak
Spectre
Phantom Peak

July 15, 2005
Ghost Peak
Crooked Thumb
Challenger
Descend Wiley Ridge to Big Beaver

July 16, 2005
Hike Big Beaver to Ross Lake Boat

Difficulty
Grade VI, 5.7

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