Since the NWMJ lost its host, I grabbed this report and am posting it here for posterity.
|he climb began, as so many do, by looking at a map. Out of all of the USGS maps in the lower 48 states, I find the Mount Challenger quadrangle the coolest. The map displays both the Northern and Southern Picket Ranges. Long, serrated ridges, jagged peaks and shattered glaciers pack that topo like no other. The Pickets boast enormous vertical relief: airy 8000-ft summits soar over valley bottoms below 3000ft that are choked with slide alder and devils club.One of the biggest features in the Pickets, or anywhere in the Cascades, is the SW Ridge of Mount Fury’s West Peak. The USGS topo reveals that it rises 4000ft in about a mile, interrupted repeatedly by deep notches and towering gendarmes. In addition to its size, the SW Ridge is unsurpassed in remoteness in the notoriously remote Picket Range. John Roper, who has systematically bagged nearly every pinnacle in the Pickets, drew the line at the towers of Mount Fury’s SW Ridge. He mused that the final pinnacle on that ridge might be the most inaccessible point in Washington State, calling it “The Pole of Remoteness.” He never considered climbing it.
When Mike Layton and I topped out on the SW Buttress of Spectre Peak (“The Haunted Wall”) in mid-August, we gaped at the much bigger line on Mount Fury, which Mike dubbed the “Mongo Ridge.” We agreed that it was a monster of a grim fantasy, and I even ventured to say that it might never be climbed, for any number of reasons. But the more it held our gaze and speculation, the deeper the hook was set. All the possible approach routes would entail days of strenuous bushwhacking. But one night back home, as I lay in bed between wakefulness and sleep, the solution hit me. Instead of struggling through the jungle of Goodell Creek, why not climb Fury’s East Peak and then descend to the route? Compared to the alternatives, this approach seemed almost reasonable, apart from the fact that climbing a major route would be needed to reach the start of an even bigger one.
Idled at my carpentry job by a concrete strike, I had free time, but after a few days of trying, I couldn’t find a qualified partner. I attended Colin Haley’s slide show about a first ascent in Alaska on August 23 and left fired up. I couldn’t stand being idle any longer. As soon as I got home from the show, I started packing. At 4 a.m. the next morning, I departed alone.
My approach plan was to muscle my 60-pound load to the top of the East Peak of Mount Fury in two brutal days. This would require thrashing through the notorious brush of Access Creek on the first day. As usual, the Picket Range ran me through the gauntlet. After enduring a violent thunderstorm with rain, thick brush, and a bee sting that nearly swelled my left eye shut, I reached the summit of East Fury at the end of the second day (August 25) feeling utterly spent.
Despite my wish that the planet please stop spinning for a few hours, morning was soon upon me. Daylight revealed a fairly easy descent from the East Peak down southwest-facing slopes to the foot of Mongo Ridge. I wrestled with the question of whether or not I could get back to my summit camp in a day. Since a bivy seemed unavoidable, I decided that fast and heavy (45 pounds) would be the most appropriate style. I left my sleeping pad and food for the exit hike on the East Peak, but took everything else with me. As I descended toward the depths of Goodell Creek, my iPod echoed with the sounds of the Talking Heads: “My God! What have I done?”
Gaining the crest of the ridge was my first challenge. I free-soloed the first 400-foot wall, with complicated route finding. I had to take off my pack to pull an overhang at one point. Confident that the moves were doable, I didn’t anchor in. I just pulled the pack up on the rope after a few 5.8 moves. Several pitches later I reached the ridgeline and saw that the lower route had four pinnacles instead of the three I’d picked out in the photos.
A long 4th class ridge led to the summit of the first pinnacle. I made the first of what would ultimately be a dozen rappels along the ridge and continued climbing unroped to the top of the second pinnacle. I kept saying a few mantras to myself. First, every mountain has a way up—I just have to find Fury’s. Second, I’ll just keep going until I can’t go any farther (without knowing what I’d do in that case). And third, if you live through this, seek help. With each succeeding rappel during the long day, retreat became harder to imagine.
My fourth rappel of the day (a long one) brought me to the base of the 400-ft third pinnacle, which would be a major summit if it stood by itself. I traversed right across the face of the tower with thousands of feet of exposure to reach a steep prow. I’d managed to climb unroped to this point, but after a bit of 5.9 climbing, I decided to break out the hardware. I clipped the rope and my pack into the anchors and climbed unburdened up a 5.10 pitch that I hoped was the crux of this enormous route. I rappelled back to retrieve my anchors and pack, ascended the fixed rope, and repeated the process for hundreds of feet until I surmounted the third tower.
Rappelling down the backside of these pinnacles was becoming almost routine, but what a routine! I dangled in space most of the way down the third pinnacle, then contemplated number four, another soaring tower of granite. I resumed climbing unroped, but found the climbing consistently taxing. After a scary leftward traverse, I had to stop and shake out cramps in my hands. My focus was intense, but I was able to appreciate that the rock and the climbing were of fantastic quality, some of the best I had ever experienced.
Reaching the top of the fourth tower, I felt like I had already climbed the Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse, yet I could see that I was only about half way up the route. My concentration ebbed a little, and I was glad I’d brought bivy gear. Time seemed to speed up as the afternoon slipped away. I grappled with a knife-edge horizontal traverse, which I likened to a rooster comb. Like working along a gymnastic apparatus, it required constant attention. I ended the traverse with another double-rope rappel, this one diagonal and awkward.
Evening was approaching as I neared the final obstacle, John Roper’s “Pole of Remoteness.” Roper’s theory about its relative inaccessibility would get no argument from me. Amazingly, The Pole was the only tower on the ridge that allowed me to traverse around it. I was glad to accept this gift, because the direct headwall to the top looked like 5.11 climbing. From the notch behind the tower, its summit was reasonable 5.7 climbing. At the apex, I let out a long, pent-up scream that echoed from the walls around me. Yet somehow I sensed that the The Pole was not finished with me. As I descended from a marginal rappel anchor, a loose rock fell and chopped the rope. Fortunately I still had the second line.
At sunset, during my 13th hour of climbing, I reached a small snowfield on the right side of the upper ridge. The moat at its upper edge offered security and shelter for the night. I melted snow for drinking water, arranged flat rocks to form a bed and sacked out to enjoy the warm night air. Finally I could relax. As I drifted off to sleep, I reflected on the day behind me, grateful to live in a place that could still provide adventure like this.
In the morning, 500ft of much easier 4th class climbing led me to the West Peak of Mount Fury around 10 a.m. I was tired but not about to let down my guard. The journey was far from over. I had forgotten the complexity of getting from one peak of Mount Fury to the next. Ahead of me lay more rappelling and lots of ridge traversing. After reaching Fury’s East Peak, I retraced the glacier and ridge route to Luna Col then collapsed, emotionally spent. I spent my last night there, eating, rehydrating, and crying whenever a sad song came on the music player. On the fifth day, I completed the long walk out to Ross Lake.
The joy and satisfaction I felt on Mount Fury’s Mongo Ridge made this climb the highlight of my climbing life. The qualities of remoteness, climax scenery, and stellar climbing leave no wonder why the Picket Range is so revered. My recent trips to the range have renewed my enjoyment of climbing and my appreciation for truly wild places. Climbing, by its very nature, compels us to stretch higher and to continually improve. Everyone who accepts this challenge in a wild setting, and does it safely, can experience what my friend Erik Wolfe has called, “The trip you never fully come back from.”