Pickets Range Traverse
Quick Version: Three of us made a 6 day traverse of the Picket Range, blessed by good weather in mid-August. We hiked in via Big Beaver Creek, then bushwhacked up Wiley Ridge to reach a camp at the Challenger Glacier. We climbed Challenger via the standard route, then descended to a camp in Luna Circ. The next day we climbed Mt. Fury via the North Buttress, camping on the summit snow ridge. Time to sleep in! A longer-than-expected day saw us reaching Picket Pass in early evening. We dropped into the circ, then climbed the North Face of Terror, reaching a camp on slabs below the glacier on the south side of the peak in early evening. On the last day, we hiked out via Terror Creek to a car we’d stashed at the trailhead 6 days before.
Saturday, August 7th
Flashback to 2003. Theron and I gorging ourselves on pizza, still covered in dirt from the Ptarmigan Traverse, painful sips of Coke on my sunburned lips. “Let’s go to the Pickets next year and climb Challenger, Fury, and Terror, all via the north faces!” “Yeah right!”
And yet somehow it happened. A year later, along with surprise guest star Aidan Haley, we were standing at the boat dock waiting for our water taxi to the Big Beaver trailhead. What am I doing here, I’m too flabby and timid, I thought! I had been the chief harranger to Travel Light, the Modern Way, and now I felt dubious looking at our too-small packs. A few days before, in the attic of Pro Mountain Sports, I convinced no one but myself that all three of us could fit under the new lightweight Betamid in a rainstorm. “Yes, it’ll work,” I beamed, happy to have shaved a pound from our collective load.
The water taxi ride was awesome! I was grinning the whole time, just real pleased by the speed, and how close we seemed to the water. What a contrast to the slow trudging up the valley we’d soon experience. The boat dropped us off, and we left the dock with some pomp. Theron nearly slipped on a bananna peel I was storing on the dock. What hilarity that would have been!
“Finally on our way!” I began with mock enthusiasm.
“Guys, I’m kinda tired are we almost there?” mewled Aidan.
“I don’t mean to be a downer or anything, but could you guys carry my pack for me?” said Theron in his best “I-don’t-mean-to” voice.
We’d been walking for 5 minutes.
Just as an aside, travelling as a party of three offers some great benefits. For example, 1 full pot on the stove makes enough hot water for each person’s dehydrated dinner. One rope is sufficient for the climbing. One “roomy-for-two/ crowded-for-three” tent should be enough, as the member with the thickest sleeping bag can sleep outside. One rack of climbing gear shared among three packs, and with the right belay device, two followers can climb at once. Finally, in case of an accident, three people have more options to effect a rescue. With four members on the other hand, you may want two ropes for a technical route, two racks of climbing gear, two stoves, and one or two tents. I must say, three is a great combination, maybe a magical number.
The day wore on, clouds gradually lifting to show more of a typical forest valley, which we ached to put behind us. In fact, after a few miles we lost track of the distance travelled. Aidan felt pretty sure that the next broad trunk valley on the left was McMillan Creek. My pace quickened at the idea, but Theron was wary: “I think it just seems that way, it’s better to assume that this valley is a mere unnamed side valley.” Typically, we hadn’t brought a map for this 14 mile section of the trip, because it didn’t have any “complicated stuff.” I rationalized with the fury of a gymnast: “I’ll bet it’s not McMillan Creek too, but if our valley starts turning north soon after it, then I’ll bet it is, and then the pleasure that dare not speak it’s name can be enjoyed soon after: taking off the boots and lying down!”
At the last minute I left my MP3 player at home, one of those savage cut-to-the-bone moves you regret later. But I knew Aidan didn’t have one and I thought he might be lonely if Theron and I zombied along in an electric haze, failing to hear his questions or jokes. Theron did listen to some radio dramas as he walked, but managed to hide his private source of distraction from the endless woods very politely. So we wandered along all day, a great day mostly, full of promise and apprehension. Needless to say, we passed “McMillan Creek” four more times!
We found Beaver Pass a semi-gloomy place. It is entirely wooded, and so broad that it seems more like a plateau. Two men squatted in the low shelter, stove hissing in the damp and chilly evening. Their possesions were strewn in front of the trail. I was inclined to linger when I saw a magazine with a disturbing amount of female flesh. I was saved from a career of deviant woodsmanhood by my friends pressing forward on the trail. Reaching a suitable forest camp, we made dinner and chatted with a party of five next door. I possesed uncanny awareness of their names and mission, thanks to a phone message left by one of their party the day before. Sadly that member cancelled at the last minute, so they remained dubious of my claims. “I know you guys!” The party broke up soon after.
After an amazingly delicious dinner (they would only get better), we went to sleep. Aidan and I had super lightweight sleeping bags, so we sheltered under the Betamid, while Theron slept out comfortably, dreaming of tiny robots and Martian river-boat pilots thanks to his radio dramas.
Sunday, August 8th
We woke to the party of four hiking away, hopefully brushing the dew off the leaves of the entire western slope we had to ascend. They had lost a member during the night, apparently he dropped his climbing helmet on the trail and couldn’t do without it. An hour later we followed, walking back to the shelter and setting off due west into the woods. Twenty minutes of crashing through the schrubs and the ground started to tilt upward. We hiked across fallen logs to stay above the brush, or wended our way through steep forest. There was remarkably little sign of passage for a popular entry to the range. At one point we saw and heard folks above us, so we couldn’t be too lost. The slopes steepened, and we pulled on branches to keep going up. Rocky buttresses dotted the forest and we climbed between them. Suddenly I was attacked by hornets! Sting! Sting! STING! I dropped my pack and slid down the hill, more stings all the while. Aidan and Theron were above, already shaking their heads sympathetically. “Oh Michael, man, that sucks” I remember Aidan saying. I meanwhile, was cursing my head off, and I’m embarassed to say, bellowing like my ears were being pulled off and fried in a sauce of cilantro and paprika before my very eyes! The most hilarious moment for my be-forested audience (including the guys way up the slope, now gone white with fear) was when I said:
“Oh god please don’t let them sting me again!!”
and after a pause:
“OOOOOHHHH LORD NO! NO, NOT AGAIN!!!”
Finally the insectile fury was exhausted, and I could retrieve my pack and hike up to the guys for four Advil. I had at least fourteen stings on my arms, stomach and back. Later one of the shelter squatters with the alluring magazine said I was lucky because I wore gaitors: he was stung many times himself about the ankles.
For the next hours I appreciated the sympathetic remarks from Aidan and Theron, but blanched in fear every time a leaf trembled near my head. And there were a lot of those, because we’d entered the true bushwhacking section of the ridge. We yarded on bushes for a few hundred feet, then scrambled up a short rocky outcrop (where Theron later said he nearly fell. Actually I think he told us right away but my head was throbbing with bee). Abruptly, we’d reached the open heathery alpine country! It’s great to be surprised by an early end to difficulties!
Here we chatted with the party of four, taking some pictures and laughing about the bees, and my blood-curdling screams that may in time make this patch of forest legendary. Maybe I can figure in a ghost story one day.
It was suddenly a magnificant hike in high country, repleat with stunning views of Luna Peak and glimpses of The Mount Fury. Grinning foolishly, we hiked to a sharpened ridge crest and followed a sidehilling trail around on the south. We crossed several basins on scree, talus or heather. Thirst led us down to a beautiful tarn with bubbling stream. We lazed here for over an hour, perhaps too long, because we thought that Eiley Lake was just over the next rise. We descended steeply into another basin and climbed up ingthe other side. Reaching a brushy cliff, we hiked up into a fiasco that seperated us into two groups: me hanging from a cliffside tree, and Aidan and Theron working their way up then down a gully to Eiley Lake. I had found a passable way down to the lake and thought Theron was hiking up to get Aidan and bring him my way, but Theron thought I was just fooling around on a dubious cliff and would eventually join them. “Where are they?” I fumed. “What the hell is he doing?” my friends fumed. Finally I hiked up to catch them, only to end up 400 feet above them, now sitting at the lake. I was on an impressive cliff, and unable to hear the shouted commands (there is a broad gully about 100 feet below the crest of the cliffed-out ridge you can take down). I finally went back to my tree and lowered myself down a steep gully.
I was a pretty crabby apple for the rest of the day. Theron and Aidan were really patient with me. One of my bright ideas was to cross slopes 300 feet below Wiley Lake and reach the Challenger Glacier without having to climb the peak west of Wiley Lake. Sure I was right, I grumbled all the way up to the lake, in some perfect storm of exhaustion and irritation. Once at the lake however, I had to concede how beautiful it was, with icebergs calving in from the unnamed glacier on the west. In the early evening, we crossed the glacier and gained a pass left of the peak. Crossing a steep snowfield on the other side, we emerged on sun-baked rocky slopes 400 feet above the vast Challenger Glacier, relieved to find a straightforward way down to a camp on rock slabs. Like dogs circling three times before lying down, we agonized over the perfect camp spot, finally finding an excellent combination of flat rock with a burbling stream next door. Theron made his bed in the “playpen,” a rock house with square walls. Aidan and I slept in the “foyer.” I gradually recovered my ability to laugh after a rough afternoon. We were excited to leave the packs at camp and finally climb something after two days of rough travel.
Monday, August 9th
Aidan and I didn’t set up the tent, so we shivered in the wee hours. The sun eventually warmed us. Aidan had some tremendous blisters, and they were consuming our duct tape supply. I had one on the fourth toe of each foot, and they healed mid-trip thanks to wrapping the offending toe in duct tape.
The glacier was very easy to climb, and we were soon unroping to scramble across rocks to the base of the summit block. The shelter squatters were rappelling, having really enjoyed the summit. They had a big day left ahead of them, planning to make it back to Beaver Pass by evening. Theron led the short rock pitch to the summit, clipping a few fixed pitons for the solid and fun climb. Aidan and I followed, then we scrambled up the amazingly exposed summit block. Aidan felt kind of nervous, having been away from high exposed mountains for many months. But once securely positioned, we could rave about the outrageous Luna Circ below us, gibbering madly about our proposed route down to Lousy Lake and where we should climb onto the North Buttress of Fury. One rappel got us down, and then just 30 minutes of stomping down the snow saw us cat-napping at camp. Time to pack up and go!
We were excited dropping into Luna Circ. The way mostly seemed pretty obvious. We hiked easily down most of “Challenger Arm,” a broad rock-and-heather buttress, and instinctively began traversing right across unpleasant scree after descending a few hundred feet. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up in a welter of steep brush and waterfalls (to engage in a bit of fantasy history, there is an old mine at about 5400 feet with an entrance in a deep, obvious gorge, cleverly hidden behind a waterfall. Presumably a lower ledge has fallen away because the only access is now from above, and even that might require rappels. Gaspar Peroux, who trapped the upper Big Beaver in the 1880s knew the squatters, describing them as “menonites.”).
Gently descending, and crossing several gullies, we entered a zone of thrumming waterfalls, where careful route choice led us through only one semi-exciting crossing at the base of a fall with a swirling pool. From the opposite bank Aidan and I watched Theron cross, besoaking his left foot on a quick recovery. Now we turned straight down a ramp of scree and brush, making for a lake at the base of a huge moraine coming from Swiss Peak. Once in the morainal debries, we picked our way through huge boulderfields and across sandy slopes, already disappointed that we couldn’t get to the rushing water we heard far under the boulders. We reached a striking flat ancient lakebed that would make a perfect camp. Still hundreds of feet above the other lake, we didn’t want to drop any further, so we dropped our packs here and went searching for water. Theron correctly predicted a walk down the valley 10 minutes would be fruitful, and soon we were drinking our bellyful where cold water finally emerged from a crushing debt of rock.
Thanks to a welter of dead twigs on the lakebed, we were able to build a small warming-fire, for the sun set early below the deep circ walls, and we felt pretty alone below Fury. The grumbling glaciers interrupted our conversations, like parents reminding of unpleasant facts. We’d decided to climb the right side of the buttress in the morning, but there were some obvious danger points that we would have to skirt quickly. “The Mudslide” was one such place, where white snow was stained black-brown by an hourly stream of effluvium from the upper mountain. One scenario predicted an actual crossing of it high up, but whatever we did, we’d probably be closer to its furies of flying rock than we wanted to be. We savored every bite of dinner, it was so delicious. Freeze-dried meals get a bad rap. Something I learned just before this trip is to get dishes with noodles and not rice, because sometimes the rice doesn’t cook enough and tastes unpleasant.
Handy tip: Theron, exasperated with the bulky size of his dehydrated food packets, took a bold step that Aidan and I followed. He threw away the plastic outer package for all but 2 of his meals, instead storing them tightly in ziplock bags. With these meals you let them cook in the outer packaging, and he was able to re-use that each night. This strategy cut the size of our feed bags down considerably, and was perfectly safe.
After dinner we sat by the fire, sipping Tequila Blanco, thinking about the next day. “If we get up this mountain, we’ll have done the hardest climb.” “I just can’t wait to be on top looking down at this valley.”
We made an Offering of Fire to the God of Mount Fury, throwing a shot of Tequila onto the suddenly-blazing fire in a gesture of appeasement. All of us had somehow become very superstitious. If Aidan said “I’ll bet this good weather will hold for the whole trip!” Theron and I would knock on a piece of wood, or our head, then knock on some rock and say “knock on wood, knock on granite.” These knocks had to be done immediately to counter the possibility that the hopeful statement would anger something listening!
Finally the fire died, and we crawled off to bed. The avalanches of rock and ice rumbling above us became part of my dream. In this dream, the three of us were in a spacious house still below the face, filled with classical music and adults debating whether or not they should let us climb. Still determined to climb, I munched on hors d’oeuvres and grew worried looking for Theron and Aidan who always seemed to be in another room. It was getting late…
Tuesday, August 10th
We packed quickly in the cold saying goodbye to our friendly little camp. A short scramble down the moraine got us to frozen snow beneath the face, where we put crampons on and roped up. Crossing a crevasse, we climbed a snow ramp for several hundred feet as the sun touched slopes high above. The ramp ended, and I set off to lead a steep slab pitch. First I tried in my boots, which was too scary so I switched to rock shoes, half-hanging awkwardly from a nut on a sloping ledge. I think I got one more piece of pro, then a full 45 meters with nothing. It was kind of a sobering lead! Theron and Aidan seemed to fly up it so I wondered if my head was just in a bad place. Aidan then led us down a rocky ramp to a better place to turn back up again. Since I had rock shoes on, I set off on a fun, but somewhat mind-bending pitch. “Ah, specimen 4th class” I said, climbing the firm, polished rocks of a watercourse. About halfway up I wished for some protection, but never found any. The angle steepened, and I concentrated on moving very carefully. For the first time we were seeing what it’s like climbing with a 30 pound pack. My toes seemed to bore through the rock shoes. By the top of the face, I was mentally tired, wondering if it would be “free-solo” pitches like this all the way up. I rounded a corner and set a belay in a gully. This was good news, we had seen this gully the day before, and knew it led to a snowfield we could take back left to get on the buttress! Again, Aidan and Theron raced up.
We sat for a while drinking water from a stream. Suddenly there was a reverberating BOOM! and a whirling meteor was suspended in the sky above us. “Oh shit, rock ROCK!” we tried to crab quickly to the right, dropping boots and gear all the way. BAM! The rock shattered near the stream, near where we were sitting. Tiny shrapnel rocks pricked my skin and clattered against my helmet.
Even now, months later, that image of a cannonball whirling high above is vivid.
Any chance to relax was over, we packed up and got our crampons on. Theron set a brutal pace up steep snow. There was no talking, just one goal - to get out of the path of the rockfall and gain the crest. We looked up often, scanning for skittering land mines or showers of radioactivity. At the top of the snowfield, we could look across to the source of the rockfall: a hideous maw which drained the middle and upper mountain. I ventured closer to get some water because we would need it, and then felt pretty safe under an overhang where we would begin climbing to the buttress crest. Setting off in the lead again, I led along corners and ledges for about 4 ropelengths. I remember a difficult move getting over a chockstone in a gully, wildly saying “I think that was 5.10!” I’m sure it was really 5.7 with a heavy pack. Going around a corner, I struggled up a messy moat between rock and ice, nearly freezing my left hand. “I think you guys can go around to the left of the ice field,” I said, not wishing the experience on my friends. Another hundred feet saw me belaying at a tiny saddle, frustratingly close to the buttress crest but not quite. “Can we say WOOO now?” I asked Aidan. Straining to look around the corner he said “no, not quite, we need to climb higher to reach the crest.” “Damn!” said Theron.
Theron now climbed an elegant corner/crack, raving about the great rock. “No fair!” I whined, tired from my battles with protectionless slabs and grunge. “Hee hee!” he responded. Our mood lifted, we knew we were safe from rockfall now. Knock on wood. Knock on granite.
Theron reached a puzzle, and set a belay. Steep rock without ready protection convinced him there must be a better way. We all looked to the left, where by downclimbing 30 feet we could gain a steep watercourse to climb back up. No one was sure, but thanks to my previous watercourse lead I was eyeing the rock above. The difficulties looked short. “Let’s just climb this guys!” “Okay, if you’re sure…BE SAFE!”
It was black, near-vertical, licheny rock, but there were hidden crimper hand holds, and an occasional jam crack. I moved slowly, eventually finding some decent gear placements, which I doubled up. There was an ocean of air below, and two worried faces. “Here I go…” I jammed and liebacked to a higher stance, then moved left for less lichen. Another set of careful moves saw the angle easing, and soon I was scrambling up to a belay. “WOOOO! WOOOO! WOOO!” Even though I wasn’t truly on the crest, it seemed a find time to use the WOOs. Theron and Aidan followed, muttering that the watercourse would have been easier. Humpf. It seems I’ve gotten a reputation for wiley foolishness!
But we really were at the crest (finally), and Aidan led us up stunningly exposed, solid, easy rock for several rope lengths. This was the season of smiles. “I’M GONNA NEED YOU TO COME IN ON SUNDAY TOO, IT’S NOT A HALF-DAY OR ANYTHING!!” I shouted up, one of my favorite lines from “Office Space.” “THANKS DAD, WE’RE FINE!” responded Theron, using a cherished line from “K2.” With good weather, and the difficulties below us, we had earned the fun climbing here, and just relished it. I lay my head against the rock in thanks.
One good thing about climbing with a heavy pack, is that you spend a little longer in any particular place. If travelling light, this section would be a blur, but as it was I remember it as 3-4 distinct pitches. Theron made an exciting lead at one point, deciding to traverse around a tower rather than over the top. “Where did he go?” said Aidan, 20 feet ahead of me on an increasingly delicate traverse. Overhangs appeared above us and a steep drop below meant that Theron had been forced into following one possible path. He found good protection from slings around horns of rock. Finally we emerged from the traversing tunnel, and Aidan nearly choked to death raving about how cool a picture of me would look from his stance. Apparently the overhang above and below, combined with a scene of the tiny lake below and me clinging to a hand traverse with an oversized pack made for a picture of high drama. Did he take a picture then? NO. Theron took one from above, and it came out rather tame.
If you see a good picture, go ahead and take it. Or don’t tell anyone about how great it would have been!
We climbed to a tower which required a rappel. I saw a way to downclimb, then crabbily gave Theron a hard time for setting a rappel where the rope got stuck. Even as I bitched about it, I wondered why I was so irritable. I realized I was pretty stressed out from the scary pitches in the morning. I felt this outsized responsibility for Theron and Aidan and worried that I was recklessly leading them into danger. But when Aidan pointed out what fun we were all having, and how he wasn’t worried about anything, I could get a better perspective on things. This experience of getting stressed out and being short with your partners was (I think!) new to me, and taught me something about my comfort zone, and my natural reaction when it gets stretched a lot. Coming out of that frame of mind was about relinquishing control, recognizing that the kind of complete control I sought over our situation was at best an illusion. This put my head in such a better place, and for the rest of the trip, I could appreciate how much of our success and safety came from our blend of skills and attitudes. I could relax and know that I could coast on my friend’s abilities, trusting that they would lead me safely. It was kind of a spiritual realization for me, and as time went on, this personal struggle becomes a more important result of our trip.
Somewhere in here I cracked Aidan up when Theron was climbing above, and we espied an intriguing ice cave in a glacier below. It was enormous, with a level floor that led into blackness. “If I were a Warlock Aidan, I would live in that cave, and fly out of there every night to terrorize children all over the world!”
“Why do you talk that way Michael? What planet are you from? Only you would say that!” he said.
From then on my apropos comments had to be carefully thought out so as to get such a great reaction. Indeed, all of us were inventing little characters to entertain us in the hours and days ahead. Aidan mimicked a Frenchman, naturally disdainful of Americans. Theron had a grizzled prospector character, refined from last year’s Ptarmigan Traverse, still suspicious of anyone taking his “bottle.” I fleshed out a character Theron invented, a 1955 camp counselor type, full of bluster, smelling of wood-chips and flannel. His dark secret was increasingly ill-hidden, finally bursting forth monstrously as we descended “Stump Hollow.” The comraderie on this trip was the best I’d ever experienced, we almost always had something to smile and laugh about.
Higher on the buttress, I led us slowly up the last section of rock, two low 5th class pitches in shallow gullies and chimneys that gained a rubble field. The sun was baking us and slowing us down. Above this we climbed through a “rabbit’s ears,” and switched into boots for a long walk up boulders to the base of the snow arete. We decided to be extra careful on it, due to tiredness and huge exposure on either side. I led for an easy rope length, then Theron took us up 100 meters of steeper snow and ice, laboriously kicking steps and creating handholds with his ice axe. “Way to go Theron, you are…how shall I say…THE MAN!”
After this, in my excitement, I foolishly climbed straight up a buttress that got hard, then hard to reverse, then I was committed to top out. I untied the rope so Aidan and Theron could find a better way. “Goodbye!” I said dramatically. But soon enough we were back together again, picking our way on the south side of this buttress to reach the final rubble slopes. The sun had already gone down, and we reached the summit at twilight.
“That was a hard won peak” I said to vigorous agreement. “Frickin hard won.” More vigorous agreement. “Wow man, wow” Aidan said to more general agreement by the party. “Yeah I’m tired - wanna make something of it?” said Theron inexplicably! It went on like this for some time. “Damn!” I said, to sum up.
Where to sleep? Nothing looked good. That is, until we saw the level-topped summit snow ridge: a perfect place for the tent! “As long as you don’t mind sleeping inches from a 3000 foot drop down the north face, go for it, I’m going over here instead!” said Theron. While Aidan and I got comfortable in the tent, Theron dropped his gear on a flat slab 50 feet below. He returned and graciously attended the stove while Aidan and I searched for bits of duct tape for his blisters. “I’m so screwed guys” he said, and other comments in a similar vein. The blisters were bad, as they were every night. I offered to wear Aidan’s boots for the rest of the trip, as we had a similar shoe size and my feet were a-ok so far. This ended up helping quite a bit, but painful damage was done, and wouldn’t have a chance to heal until getting home. We really felt for him. At least another delicious hot meal was being delivered, and we could lose ourselves in it. “DAMN THAT’S GOOD!!!”
A shot of Tequila all around, and one for Fury. She showed us her power, but was not unkind to us. What a feeling of satisfaction, what a warm glow in the belly it was to see the stars come out from her summit.
Wednesday, August 11th
Theron was up at dawn snapping pictures as usual. “I’m glad someone’s doing it” was the reaction of the tentbound. Laying in the tent until hot sun warmed us thoroughly was a great luxury. We felt really deserving of a rest day, so we drew out every process. We melted several quarts of water from snow and very gradually changed from people who lie on pads in their socks into booted sentinels, waiting for someone to finish last minute chores. “Okay!”
Wanting to avoid steep ice slopes, we descended a gully leading southwest, then traversed south below walls. When things got steep, we jumped back over the ridge onto the snow, traversing and descending easily. Before long, we found a serious difficulty. A seemingly vertical wall of snow blocked our path, and other choices looked just as bad. We could try descending a rotten, protectionless rock ridge, or go down a glacier to the east for thousands of feet and face a long climb back up to Outrigger Peak, our next goal. We all shuddered at the first choice, and the second might have been palatable, if we could see the whole way. But as it was, it seemed like an icefall might block the way below us.
So I asked Theron for a belay, and set off kicking steps down the steep snow. I had lugged a third tool all the way from home just for this kind of impasse, and felt it was time to use it. We had two ice screws and one picket. The angle was probably 50 degrees, and the slope almost all ice. I saw that we could make it down to a level bench a few hundred feet below.
“Okay here is the plan–”
“You’re crazy!” said Theron.
“Okay here is the plan, I lower you and Aidan from this picket belay. You place one ice screw 100 feet down, then build a belay 200 feet down with the other ice screw. I’ll downclimb with the two tools. We repeat until we reach the bench.”
And by golly it worked! It took three full rope lengths to do it, and the angle never let up all the way down. We did get a region of snow which was easier on the calves, but that ran out after a while. It took a long time, especially as the sun was baking us and we were long out of water. On pitch two Aidan had to lead down with the two tools, nearly freezing his hands because he left his gloves in his pack. Also Theron had a stressful downclimb because Aidan didn’t want to weight the ice screw belay in order to just lower him. I made out best of all, because I was wearing Aidan’s extra stiff boots.
At the bench we drank a lot of water, thankfully there were a lot of streams weeping from the ice. We were a little crestfallen, because we realized we had to keep downclimbing. A low angled ramp to the col with Outrigger Peak had proved to be an illusion. It was the same drill as before. One kind of funny thing happened. I had just downclimbed to Theron and Aidan’s belay, and continued down top-roped for the next pitch. “Stay away from those crevasses Michael,” somebody said. Hmpf, I thought. “I actually like them guys, the lower lip provides a great level place to rest my calves.”
“Anyway guys this tells me where the edge of the–” punch. through. oops. “–crevasses are!” I recovered nicely, but they were chuckling with too much satisfaction to notice. Anyway, a few more hops and I was on mundane terrain below the steep ice and crevasses. When we were all together, I made a traversing path up to Outrigger col where we happily unroped and put crampons away. “If I don’t see another ice face like that in my life I’ll be fine!” said Theron, or something to that effect. Vigorous agreement by party.
I’m really glad we brought a 3rd tool along. I was thinking of just that kind of situation. Of course, from Outrigger Peak we could see that the long trip down and around to the east would have been successful, so it undercuts my point a little bit. But with a 3rd tool an entire party could get up or down something that might otherwise stymie them. Sure, the leader could take another member’s ice axe, but in an environment where belays are somewhat insecure, I wouldn’t want to leave one member without any axe. On this particular trip I was more worried about bergschrunds and moats seperating snow from rock than anything else, and that’s why I brought it. We didn’t use the tool for that, but it came in real handy for this unexpected “ice wall.”
We scrambled to the summit of Outrigger Peak for a great late afternoon view of the area. It had taken most of the day to get here from the summit! We felt we were getting our asses kicked. “There’s always sumtin’!” and “it never ever lets up!” were typical comments. “What do you think we’ll find on the descent to Picket Pass?” I said.
“Rappels, scary downclimbs and cliffs!” said Aidan.
But it was pleasant enough. In fact the scenery was fantastic. For the first time we could walk without extreme care, and look around at the vertigo-inducing walls. The angles were crazy, and the 70 millimeter pano-vision boggled the mind. We did eventually come to a cliff, and a very tattered rappel sling. We left a new sling here, and slid down. No sooner did we put the rope away, but there was a knife-edged ridge to cross. This was easy to climb and a good bit of sport. We continued for another 500 feet on gradually friendlier terrain of boulders, heather and stunted trees to Picket Pass, a broad but narrow divide with tarns and boulder-strewn hillocks.
We were frazzled, wondering how we could possibly muster the energy to climb Mt. Terror the next day. This day was supposed to be mostly a “rest day,” but aside from sleeping in a few extra hours, we’d been on stressful and strenuous terrain the whole time. At least we had fresh water - someone had piled rocks at the base of a snowfield such that it made a little pool where we could fill bottles. In the hour or two before sunset we managed to recoup a surprising amount of energy. Theron reveled in the “Lost World” look of McMillan Creek Cirque. He said “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a brontasaurus raise it’s head in that patch of light green!” I had to agree. It was a wonderful and almost plausible thought.
After some bathing in pools (I just got my feet wet), we ate another amazing dinner. Our freeze-dried food choices had been excellent, every night was a feast of calories and not a drop went to waste. We talked about skipping Mount Terror and climbing out via the Ottohorn-Himmelhorn Col. I was willing to do that because of Aidan’s blisters, and so was Theron. But he said he really did want to climb Terror if it was possible, and I agreed. Aidan was also willing. We also thought it wouldn’t be that much harder (that is, both ways would seem hard!). It was also an open question as to how we’d get down into the cirque. Directly below us were vertical cliffs.
We slept well, although something furry trundled across my hand at one point, waking me up completely. One of the few disadvantages to having a tent without a floor.
Thursday, August 12th
In the morning, we packed quickly and impatiently hiked up a hill to find the way down from the pass. We began stumbling down a natural way. Options began to close off in steep dense brush and trees, sending us further to the right. Eventually we were hanging onto a tree and peering down a cliff. Picking our way down a little further, we threaded the rope around a tree for a rappel. After this, we could carefully scramble into a gully which led us to polished slabs. Unused to Aidan’s stiff boots on slabs, I switched into rock shoes. Theron lowered his pack down a cliff on a rope, and soon enough we were all assembled by a stream. “Well, we made it down that!”
We crossed polished rocky slabs riven with streams, stopping to drink a few times. It was a great feeling to have made it down from the Pass. We could sit and drink water in the sun, looking back at Fury, and casting glances over our shoulder to Terror (The Looming Terror!).
We entered a zone of hard snow and occasional crevasses, stopping to put on crampons and rope up. Gaining the buttress was difficult, because the snow became breakable plates of ice with black holes underneath. I was in the lead, and rather overcautious, stopped to carefully remove crampons once I made it onto a gray slab. While Theron gave me a fixed belay from an ice screw I made low-5th class slab moves that felt much harder due to the black moat under the hanging prongs of hard snow. But after only 15 feet I reached a ledge where I could place some gear and bring my friends up. Aidan was especially chilled, as a draft was whistling down the couloir he waited in. He set off eagerly in the lead, in search of sun. I wore his pack for most of the climb, really noticing the weight difference, thanks, I believe to his heavier, bulkier boots. Maybe he had an extra shirt or something too!
I was really elated at this point, because the two biggest worries I had for the trip were difficulties getting onto the Fury and Terror buttresses. Colin Haley had soloed this route in July and said something like “better hurry before melt-out renders it inaccessable!” Now that these worries were over, we had so much to smile about!
Aidan led us across a waterfall coming from the Kitty snowfield directly above us. We covered hundreds of feet on fun, easy terrain. The rock became very clean and enjoyable once we outflanked the Kitty on the left. It started to remind us of the Dolomites, with few cracks, but solid jointing. Aidan took gear from us and continued for another long simul-climbing pitch. From a belay in mid-face Theron took over and climbed a clean dihedral we rated 5.6. At the next belay he was tempted straight up into dubious terrain. Realizing this, he downclimbed about 50 feet and set off rightward to gain a shallow rib that we thought would get us past steep, concave-looking terrain straight above. Perhaps this is why in various route topos the climbing line makes a gentle curve to the right.
Theron belayed at the rib and I set off upward on suddenly licheny rock. Scritching and crunching the black lichen-flowers, I reveled in the loneliness of our location. So far as we knew, the nearest people were days away. We listened to icefalls in these empty mountains and climbed. My toes were boring holes in my rock shoes again, but I’d finally gotten used to climbing with the overnight pack. It was certainly lighter now too!
Aidan and Theron arrived and I set off again, having to really pay attention as ledges became further apart and the holds got smaller. The shallow rib had become more defined, and at once was too steep to climb directly. I knew I’d have to traverse left into a darkened chimney, but each spot I surveyed reminded me of unhappy endings. So I kept climbing up, hand jamming and generally getting into more strenuous terrain. My gear was running low. I finally made a choice to traverse left where I was rather than risk getting treed like a cat. “Watch me here ye scurvies!” I cried. Flat edges for fingertips provided a way, with feet smearing on blank sections of rock. With 10 more feet to go and no protection since the rib I distinctly felt the possibility of falling. I got very quiet, the blood pulsed in my ears, and sound dropped away. I couldn’t hang here forever.
Moving, because I had to. Quiet, because the mountain demanded it.
A brief glimpse of surety, and I was across in the chimney, all chatty: “Wow that was hard I think that was like, 5.10a!” On the climb up from the belay, Theron didn’t like the look of the traverse, so he climbed a bit higher where, wouldn’t you know it, there was an easier ledge to follow. Aidan came across and down-rated the traverse to 5.8+. “Still!” I beamed.
We were at an awkward stance in the chimney. Aidan led off right above my head for a 60 meter pitch that got back onto the licheny rib. He described the terrain as easy but steep and somewhat loose. Theron and I followed the chimney then gladly climbed out of it back onto the rib. Aidan extricated himself from the belay and took off again, leaving us to glance around at the walls surrounding our precarious ledge. Another long pitch led to gradually rounding terrain, and we came into the sun and more open air. Now we scrambled up a long rib with snow leading up to a local crest.
“Lunchtime!” We hung out here a good while, definitely feeling like we’d finished the hard parts of the climb. The drop down to the Degenhardt Glacier was amazing, it looked incredibly steep and forbidding. Aidan had his eye on some steep cracks right of the crest above us, but I was like “no way man!” Luckily I found a cairn and an improbable path out on the cliff above the Degenhardt to a belay ledge. Theron led off above here, finding as he so often does, a host of sturdy blocks and horns to sling for protection. I led off from a belay right of the crest for a spectacular pitch. “This is awesome, you dog!” I heard Aidan cry below. After leading so many mungy or creepy pitches, I had plucked the golden goose! Solid jamming and stemming in a chimney, good rock that it’s a delight to smear your feet on with hands on solid granite edges. We climbed together for a few hundred feet until we could walk to a point where the ridge steepened again. From a roomy ledge, Aidan belayed me on the final pitch, which looked intimidating but actually was festooned with hidden solid holds on the most knife-edged crest of the trip. I constructed a belay in the full glare of sun, with a new and novel view of south slopes at my feet. It was a false summit.
We scrambled down and happily dropped our packs at a notch. In the race to the true summit I fell behind, but couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Really solid and fun scrambling got us to a pile of big blocks that marked the spot. It must have been late afternoon, say 5:30 pm, when the sun is full on from the southwest. We took pictures and wanted to stay, but a last look at shady McMillan Creek Cirque had to suffice. Suddenly stiff and sore, we reversed our steps to the notch carefully. Easier scrambling for 500 feet led down to a rappel station above a deep notch. I slid down the rope, wondering about the direction to take. We could only go 100 feet, and I couldn’t find a station around. I got out some slings and made an anchor at some stacked blocks, hoping that one more rappel would be enough to reach the snow at the base of the cliff. Despite my nervousness, the rope did just reach a crumbly gully behind a tower, and scrambling brought me to snow. Theron was especially glad to be down from the stacked-block belay!
Hoping to just walk down the gully to the glacier on the south, we were unpleasantly surprised by the unfriendly footing. Any rocks to brace yourself with would go hurtling down, and shelves of pebbles that might hold a foot were merely thin layers over slabs that would rocket away like Tiddily-Winks when relied upon. “There is a whole science to slopes like this” I mused unhelpfully. Sticking together for safety from bounding rocks, we came to an abrupt cliff where a chockstone caused the way to overhang. Digging beneath piles of rocks we found a rappel anchor. Aidan started laughing. Still, we threaded the rope and carefully slid down, wary for sudden shifting blocks waiting to get us. Below this spot, it was a bit easier, and Aidan went ahead to find the best way. Fifteen minutes later we were shouting insults at the unfriendly gully, and posing for pictures where we made obscene gestures at it. But mostly we were happy to be down, and soon selected a campsite on slabs beneath the peak with running water.
As the sun sped towards the horizon, Aidan hilariously submerged his whole body in a pool, appearing to be striken by seizures mid-way. There were many hi-jinks to laugh about, and the delight we took in dinner was almost absurd, groaning and moaning over the tiniest bite! Jeez, we had to get out of here, huh?
“Why don’t we cancel the climb of the Chopping Block?” I said.
“YA THINK?!?” cried Aidan.
“I don’t know guys, let’s see how we feel in the morning” mused Theron.
“Oh no he di’int!” said Aidan, head vigorously rotating about neck.
“Talk to the hand!” was all I had to say thenceforth on the subject.
We stayed up late, looking out at Triumph and Despair, fittingly close together, and began our goodbyes.
Friday, August 13th
In the morning we were slow, tired. It was hard to muster energy to do basic chores like putting my sleeping bag away. We wandered around, getting water, discussing the way ahead, and finally pooling our food together and eating everything that didn’t seem necessary. I think we kept one Power Bar in case of emergency. Finally descending slabs, we got seperated when Theron and I didn’t want to follow a steep slab Aidan scurried down. 30 minutes later we were together again on scree slopes leading to the Chopping Block. A very long mile traversing above the Crescent Creek Basin led to a notch between The Chopping Block and Mount Degenhardt. The Chopping Block looked so close, and after a rest I was a little sad that we weren’t going to climb it. But once I started moving again I realized I was pretty darn tired!
Easily descending the slabs east of the Chopping Block, we were in a neighborhood called “Stump Hollow.” We ventured to the east side to look down the Barrier. It was very steep, and Terror Creek looked and sounded like a faraway equatorial river. We found a trail leading down through heather, brush and forest. It was a very efficient descent, but finally we lost the trail for good, and went for several hundred vertical feet through a region of brush and cliffs that took great effort. We were always traversing east back to the crest of the Barrier. It seemed like we’d drop 100 feet, and then be 300 feet away from the Barrier. I led frustrated companions over logs, through spider webs and thrashing brush into a sweaty, tropical jungle.
Regaining the trail, we grew crafty about finding and keeping it. It was good practice for a mindset that would serve us well on the rest of the descent. The leader would lose the trail, announce it, and one of the followers would pick it up again and lead. Thusly we swarmed down to a level section of the ridge suspiciously marked with flagging. “Want to rest here?” I said.
We dropped our packs and sweated our heads off. “I’m just sitting still!” cried Theron in disgust. Eventually we cooled down, and although the trail continued down the ridge, we decided our altimeters were way off, and we should descent to the east right here thanks to some fairly recent flagging. We were told about a baseball card or photograph taped to a tree, which we never saw. It’s natural to worry at this point, because going the wrong way can lead to troublesome cliffs and steep jungle. Pink flagging tape on trees can be helpful, but we’ve all been led astray by it too.
Happily, the way was good. It was very steep, and the trail was easily lost. But searching always rewarded us. Once we had to spend 15 minutes re-finding the way. Eventually, we wore crampons on steep pine-needle terrain. After an hour and a half, we were overjoyed to reach Terror Creek!
I strode to the creek to see the tail end of a woods drama: Aidan had fallen in, losing his water bottle, and was now clinging to a rock mouth wide open and startled! Theron helped him out, and we felt really lucky. The river was raging, with falls and choking logs all around. As Aidan dried off, we laughed about the water bottle, because the only one we had left now was mine.
The water bottle story: Days ago, on Wiley Ridge Theron lost the nipple to his Camelback water bag. He attempted to use duct tape or other materials to plug the leak, but these all led to frustration. No matter! I had an extra rolled up Platypus 1 quart bottle, which Theron happily used until losing it when it fell into a crevice he couldn’t reach on Mt. Fury. Then he got by on Aidan’s water or my own. Finally, with Aidan’s lost to the raging waters of Terror Creek, mine was the only one left!
I made waterproof booties out of a garbage bag to keep Aidan’s feet dry, and we continued on. Very soon we’d lost the trail in dense thorny brush, and floundered around looking for the way. Eventually giving up, we plunged through the alder, sidehilling awkwardly above the creek. I thought I’d seen a section of trail and complained loudly about not getting the chance to go look for it. At that moment a bee stung me. “RUN!” I nearly shoved Theron off the trail in my panic to escape another bee incident! Finally I tripped and wailed miserably for a moment. “Okay I’ve hit bottom,” I thought.
That done, I could now zombie on for hours, and indeed we did, gamely crossing rib after rib in tiring effort. When we regained the trail I know we all stuck to it like butter! Theron emerged first at the flat spot that marked the end of the Goodell Creek trail, letting out a “WHOOP!”
We walked for a few miles, then Aidan and Theron saw a place to get down to the creek for a bath. I took Theron’s MP3 player and listened to a radio drama about a paroled prisoner who sees pink elephants. I admired a huge landslide on the other side of the river, the apex a few hundred feet up the slope. Then I came upon a tent structure built right by the water. It was draped in ribbons and prayer flags, and in front of the tent was a human of indeterminate sex, lying with eyes closed on a sort of bier! I stared open-mouthed but passed quietly. My puzzlement gradually gave way to excitement because I knew the car was close. Yes!
The gang of two arrived, also dumbfounded by the river site. Aidan said the figure opened it’s eyes and looked at him briefly. They took a wrong turn and stumbled into a campground where several similarly dressed figures explained that they were part of a church group.
Aidan retrieved a dime he’d placed under a rock for good luck. We got in the car and turned up Uli Roth! Then Aidan had some good music to play. At Ross Lake, we arrived just as the party from Beaver Pass was emerging from their adventure. They gave Theron’s car a jump, as the battery was inexplicably dead. We ate a burger with them in Marblemount, then sped away for Mexican Food in Sedro Wooley.
Two days later we had a massive meat grill feast at Theron’s house as the trip of a lifetime became memories.