Festooned like skeletal spines of bygone mythical Gods, the Picket Range contains the quintessential peaks of the North Cascades. Few places in Washington State infuse more shock and awe. Fewer yet are as humbling as they are rewarding. Regress is difficult, weather is temperamental and travel is complicated. Names such as Fury and Terror are apt descriptors, but so are names like Inspiration and Perfect Pass.
For 8 days Jeff Rich and Carl Simpson would join me for what I consider the test piece of Washington ski traverses, the Picket Traverse, a route that cuts through the heart of the North Cascades from Hannegan Pass to Diablo Lake (or vice versa). Between its first crossing on skis in 1985 by Lowell Skoog and party, to my own winter variation in 2010 with Forest McBrian (The White Heart), there was a 25 year gap between crossings. In more recent years, a handful of parties have succeeded in growing frequency. Altogether, to my knowledge, perhaps 7-10 groups have skied a variation of the route described above. Each has returned with a story to tell, the kind that either makes you want to go or to stay well enough away.
June 16, Day 1 (of 8): Hannegan Pass Trailhead to Mineral Mountain
Back in 1999, I saw Ruth Mountain for the first time. It appeared a few miles before Hannegan Pass, emerging from behind green forests that swept up and down both sides of Ruth Creek Valley. What I never expected to see was the mass of snow on such a minor summit shimmering in the summer sunlight. At the time, I had to stop and stare through the bright oranges and yellows, deep browns and reds of the encompassing slide alder to fully take in Ruth Mountain’s glaciated snows.
Little did I know that Ruth Mountain, like gateway drugs, was a gateway peak. It must’ve felt much the same in the 1890s when two engineers, R. M. Lyle and Banning Austin (for whom Austin Pass is named), climbed to Hannegan pass and into a place they’d spend their lives exploring and prospecting in. It was R. M. Lyle that suggested “Hannegan Pass” as an alternative to Austin’s suggestion the pass be named for Lyle himself. It’s namesake, Tom Hannegan, was the Chairman of the State Board of Road Commissioners and their boss (Jeffcott, 1963, p. 53). Fortunately, this name would be among a decreasing number in the region north of Hannegan (and Ruth Mountain) so-named for a person. Beyond, the Pickets weren’t named for people (other than Degenhardt and McMillan), but for the emotion they struck in one person more than any other, a cartographer named Lage Wernstedt, who pioneered over 77 first ascents that we know of. His mountain achievements were many, but even more impressive were his pioneering photographic and cartographic methods, as well cofounding smoke jumping. Lage (pronounced Loggy) was a man of many talents and thankfully a passion for fine nomenclature was among them!
In 2003 I would follow the Mineral High Route and finally venture into the Picket Range. The adventure wasn’t entirely a success. Along the way I lost my shoes and sunburned my feet. After skiing Mount Challenger and Whatcom Peak, I was forced to walk the entire length of the Chilliwack Trail in ski boots back to the Hannegan Pass Trailhead. As you can imagine, I’ve never again laid out in the sun without first covering my feet and I always make sure my shoes are secured to my pack! It’s why, once we transitioned to ski boots near Hannegan Pass, I asked Jeff or Carl, “Are my shoes on?” Then five minutes later repeated, “Hey guys, are my shoes still on?” I’m surprised they didn’t beat me with my own shoes after the 100th inquiry.
Top left: Carl curses his pack after testing its weight. The rest: Jeff and Carl work their way up the Hannegan Pass Trail
Only a short distance below the summit of Ruth Mountain, we transitioned to skiing. Eventually we’d uncover a theme for the trip. Below a certain altitude, a lack of snow and added shenanigans awaited us. This year has been an unusual year for snowpack. High winds struck often, decimating upper altitude snowpacks (wind is more devastating to snowpack than rain, especially warm wind). Copious amounts of rain struck at lower altitudes, along with unseasonably warm days. This further pinched the snowpack. What remained was a healthy mid-altitude snowpack between 5000 to 7000 feet. Unfortunately, the Pickets Traverse descends beneath that threshold four times, the first of which, when going north to south, is Chilliwack Pass, at ~4000 feet.
Once we bashed our way to Chilliwack Pass, we attempted to decide which way to go. In two previous adventures any reasonable route has escaped me. My best guess is that the couloir at ~3700′ may allow you to get to the top without forest and bushes to contend with, provided there is enough snow, but I’ve learned a lesson and it’s this, “When you know a way goes, even if it is unpleasant, then that’s the way you go.” As such, I clawed my way up 60 to even 70 degree bushy terrain (for short distances) and either cursed my idiocy or whooped in thrill. Which of those emotions ruled depended on my position above or below one challenging section or another.
Eventual relief from the bushwhack was found in a deep-cut 40-50 degree couloir. But, just when we thought we were free of the green wall, we rose into another patch.
At day’s end, I felt like the mountains ate me for an appetizer.
Climbing Mineral Mountain
“So now that the easy parts done…” Mother Nature must have a sense of humor, because what’s beyond Mineral Mountain is the appropriately named Easy Ridge. Only by then, with the day nearly over, we decided to leave further moving for the following day. Good thing, because I plopped down like a one ton bomb. My head was a mess. That morning I’d woken with a sore throat and stuffy nose, the kind that burns all the way to the lungs. I knew I was about to test the, “Just keep going and it’ll go away,” theory, but I feared my powers of deception wouldn’t be able to contend with the full frontal assault the mountains of the North Cascades were going to level on me in the days to come.
Sunset tried to spark a fire on the horizon, but it never quite took. In my bobble-headed stupor, flashes of wisdom resolved one unifying fact: there’s nothing like doing nothing (after doing so much) in the mountains to get the imagination kickstarted. You’re just too tired to get in the way of yourself. The problem with this physically-fueled clarity is staying awake, a battle I couldn’t win. Before there was any existential breakthrough, I was fast asleep.
June 17 and 18: Mineral Mountain to Perfect Pass, Whatcom Peak and Glacier (Mount Challenger)
From our camp midway up Mineral Mountain, its sinewy ridge led us to the summit, just barely linking snow to the top. Once there, Mt. Challenger and Whatcom Peak were revealed, our forecasted end to the day. Challenger, specifically, is one of those anchor peaks in the Cascades. That mass of ice is so distinctive and recognizable from so many vantages in the North Cascades. Henry Custer, a pioneer explorer of the North Cascades, wrote in his journal on August 11, 1859, about Mount Challenger. Of it, he said, “Presently our attention was attracted, by one of the most magnificent sights, I had the good fortune ever to behold. It was this an im[m]ense glacier [the Challenger Glacier] which covered the Mt side on our left [Mt. Challenger 8236’]…”
Custer goes on to write, “This Mt [Mt. Challenger 8236’] which has the Indian [Native American] name Wila-kin-ghaist, is one of the highest and most prominent peaks in this Section of the Cascade Mts…”
Custer is quite taken by the spectacle he sees before him, as he elaborated with, “Nothing ever seen before, could compare, to the matchless grandeur of this feature [the Challenger Glacier] in nature, all the glaciers in the surrounding Mts to the East of us, and there are many of them, vanish before it into insignificance in comparison with this coloss[us] of glaciers. Imagine the Niagara Fall[s] tens of times, magnified in height and size, and this wast [vast] sheet of falling water, instantly cristalized, and rendered permanently solid, and you have a somewhat adequate idea of the im[m]ensity of this nature, phenomena” [Majors, 1984, p. 151].
The register showed just 7 groups, including ours, that had been to the top of Mineral Mountain since 2014, three of which skied the Picket Traverse.
We skied toward Mt. Challenger by way of Easy Ridge. The travel was pleasant and brought us to Imperfect Impasse, a route that continued on exposed 4th class rock. It’s passable when there’s no snow clinging to it and you aren’t carrying a massive load that’s made even more impractical with the addition of skis. To avoid it in 2003, I used a low route and ever since then, I’ve found it easier to bypass any rock climbing by skiing low; although this time our snow ran out, so we walked over boulder fields to a gully (~4100′), after which we transitioned to climbing. In less than 45 minutes, we regained snow at 5000′ and soon reached Perfect Pass (~6300′), where we found dry ground with just enough space to pitch two tents. The first class accommodations with mountain air and valley views were among its finer qualities, not to mention nearby running water and granite slabs (the mountain alternative to couches which are, oddly, just as comfortable).
As the sun went down, the snow that clung to rock slabs above Perfect Pass slid free and thundered onto our ascent route. While we were only in danger for perhaps a half an hour earlier that day, it showed that objective danger is real and omnipresent, a fact we most certainly aren’t blind to. Even so, it goes to show that no matter your tolerances out here, timing isn’t always as you’d expect. Danger can suddenly appear any time of day, such as it did here. These are thoughts that linger long after the ice blocks crumpled into that low altitude mesh of green forest. The resulting boom ricocheted up and down mountainsides and into valley glades far down valley, and quickly dissipated like so much smoke. What followed were bird tweets from nearby Ptarmigan and the constant background noise of streams and rivers near and far. Calm greeted chaos, which out there comes as a matter of course. In the same vein, we watched the sun go down and soon chased it into darkness and blissful sleep.
Our third day was a stay and slay day or at least that was my hope. I left everything I didn’t need and still my pack felt heavy, or at least it did until I put it on. You can’t fool my shoulders. They know the true measure of a packs weight and will go about reminding me of the fact, repeatedly. The days destination was Whatcom Peak and the Whatcom Glacier. A steep north face descended from there and my fingers were crossed that it would go.
A short time later, we stood atop Whatcom Peaks west summit. Spread below and before us, valleys filled with haze like old photographs and peaks rose like unapproachable castles, moats and walls in attendance; ice and water both being thrown asunder into the valleys below, a form of mountain catapults no man wants to accompany or partake in. Somehow skiing is akin to that weaponization mountains have at their disposal. Skiers fly down the mountains at full speed, slicing vertical up in a stampede of turns. Snow thunders below them and is cast from those very same cliffs. Howls rung in the air like battle cries. I imagined folks of a hundred years ago seeing us storming down the slopes. A sight, to be sure, for anyone unfamiliar to our mode of transportation to unravel. Ski warriors we’d be, no doubt about it. My advice to any bygone walker, you’d better not boot the skin track!
The north face of Whatcom was out of condition, blocked by bergschrunds. Jeff and Carl were more interested in skiing to the valley and ascending Mt. Challenger than following me. Given that I wanted to visit the Whatcom Glacier for my Washington Glacier Ski Project, I bid them farewell and turned my skis downslope to look for an alternative way to the glacier, which I expected to find at the 5100′ level, where summer climbers often approach Mt. Challenger by way of the Chilliwack Trail and Whatcom Pass.
My key was accepted and as the valley opened up before me, I rounded the upper cirque to behold the Whatcom Glacier. Nearly a mile was traversed and climbed before I stopped. Waterfalls crashed to the valley. Like mountain summits, I imagined what it would take to reach them. However approachable they may appear, they are very often more difficult to visit than the summits they are cast from. I saw no one or nothing made by man, no track besides my own, no smoke, no nothing. It was hard to leave, but the hang fire above me left no room for dalliances, but what dalliance is safe? I stayed a moment longer and then another. Only when this place took shape in my memory did I move on.
Top Left: Triumph Top Right: Bacon Peak Bottom Right: North Despair and Triumph Bottom: Glacier Peak
My return to Whatcom Peak was slow going. The cold I’d gotten two days before was even worse and it took me several hours to climb what should’ve taken an hour. Additional goals for the day were a descent above cliffs on Whatcom Peak’s cirque and an ascent of Wiley Peak (while tagging the Wiley Glacier). This peak and glacier (and nearby lake) are names I’ve been unsuccessful in uncovering the history of, even after more than a year of research into Washington’s glaciers and their human history, which has involved thousands of source materials, a handful of historians, museums, special collections, etc. Besides these goals, I thought about the remainder of my day and couldn’t think of anything but rest. It is possible for me to push and push myself to a point of discomfort, but there comes a point where going forward just pushes you backward, where happiness in the moment should supersede objectives and goals.
Back at camp I laid on rocks and cast my eyes back to the valleys below, to the forests that shelter wild and remote lands, to where I pictured a cabin in the woods like some bygone ole timer. A life was lived and relived over and again in mere hours. Pretty much, there are few things I enjoy more than resting in heather on a high pass (especially when the bugs aren’t in full reign) and daydreaming about adventures I’d never set out on, but could nonetheless live vicariously through imagination. While there was no Wiley Peak and glacier happening that day, I’d hoped my cold would retreat and allow me to go the following day.
Between naps, Jeff and Carl arrived back at camp after their day skiing around Mt. Challenger. Dinner and talk was limited to grunts and laughs broken up by short conversations. No amount of conversation with the peaks and valleys around us were enough company to keep us awake. Sleep outraced darkness by an hour or more.
June 19: Perfect Pass to Luna Lake (Wiley Peak and Glacier)
Camps as great as ours atop Perfect Pass are difficult to leave behind. One last view was stolen before I boot packed the high route to the Challenger Glacier. Less than half an hour later, when the slope flattened, I put skins on and continued going higher, nearly to the ridge top, at which point I switched to ski mode and let gravity pull me across the massive Challenger Glacier.
Jeff caught me on the other side of the glacier and we descended to rocks (6700′) to escape the wind. Intermittent waves of snow and grapple were falling, and clouds harnessed the summits of nearly every peak in sight, corralling them behind gray skies, all except Mt. Challenger, which against all odds remained mostly sun-bound. Not so much could be said for Wiley Peak and glacier; it was shrouded in fog. With Jeff and Carl sheltered by the rocks, I made a quick detour to tag the Wiley Glacier, the prior days goal I hadn’t been able to muster the energy to complete.
Uncertain whether cliffs on the backside of the peak would be easily passable, I took the safe route and circled Wiley Peak to its northeast. After that I ascended the glacier to a cut in the rocks, which allowed me to circle back to the southwest side of the peak and attain the summit ridge.
With a combination of a Google Earth photo I’d saved to my phone, memory and GPS, I linked snow patches from the top, and managed to blindly ski my way through cliffs to arrive back at the pass. While not a difficult peak, skiing in the fog can get you cliff bound far quicker than you’d like and there’s nothing more fun than climbing around cliffs in the fog (said no one ever).
I gathered water from a carved puddle in a cup of granite, then rejoined Jeff and Carl as they led the way to the highest point on Challenger, where you could still cross the ridge without cliffs (~7300′). This was higher than we needed to go, but what’s more vert to a skier? More skiing that’s what! Sadly, our descent proved short lived. The entire basin was melted out and the only viable route proved to be a climb back up the cirque, over the top of the glacier and a long traverse to the northeast side of the East Glacier of Challenger. This unnamed glacier is one of the larger nameless glaciers in the Cascades. It’s nearly 2.5 miles across! With Phantom Peak so near, the Phantom Glacier would be a fine name, even if its derivative, but so are most glacier names are in this region.
We ended up climbing under that aforementioned glacier and its conjoined icefall, then linked the most continuous snow we could to Lousy Lake. Along the way Jeff had his skins fail in what he called, “…the most fucked up place possible.” Icefall roulette isn’t as fun here as in Vegas. At a moraine, whose mass of loose rock was as fun as a mosquito in the eye, especially with ski boots on. Along our descent, we tried not to reenact Aron Ralston (of 127 hours fame) and his misfortune with a boulder.
When I arrived at the lake, I rounded the shore and saw thick glacier ice covered in rock (giving this glacier a terminus of ~3650 feet). Currently the ice is detached from the upper glacier, but remains viable due to avalanches from the mile high northeast face of Mt. Fury. If your entire existence ever depended upon a meal ticket, then there’s no better spot than here to cash it in.
We figured the safest way to access the Luna Fury Col was to climb above the lake to the top of an old moraine, above a separated stream valley, parallel to the lake (but not linked to it). We found nice mid-sized boulders and soon reached a point above the biggest waterfall where we once again reached snow. From there we chased a narrow couloir with just enough coverage to gain access to the upper slopes. Soon after we reached Luna Lake with time to continue, but this potential camp deserved our attention. With a dress of snow and reflecting waters, cool and refreshing, we couldn’t help but to let the packs slide off our shoulders, tents and sleeping bags from our packs, and backs to the Earth.
June 20-21: Luna Lake to McMillan Cirque, summit of Mt. Fury via SE Face
The 2000 feet, from Luna Lake to the Luna Fury Col, quickly warmed sleeping muscles up. I’d wanted to make a side trip to Luna Peak, but our lack of snow was prevalent everywhere, including on Luna, and no continuous snow remained. As an alternative, we decided on Mount Fury’s SE Glacier and face. So much snow on a southern face is rare, but if there were to be a spot for it, then astride Mt. Fury is where it would be. To one side is the great northern wall of the Southern Pickets, jutting a vertical mile into the air. In between is McMillan Cirque, a valley to which few compare to. While not continuous, there is snow that lances itself into the lower forests, reaching ~2600 feet! The not continuous part we’d partake in later.
Travel from Luna Fury Col, for once, was easy, despite appearances from below. Yet another couloir led us to a hanging snowfield below Luna Peak and the standard Access Creek approach. From there we skinned over a shoulder, gained another 1000 feet, before we descended yet another 1000 feet to the base of the SE Glacier of Mt. Fury. Only instead of continuing on the traverse, this is where we turned our packs inside out to prepare for the side trip to Mt. Fury.
As Jeff took the lead, we quickly boot packed 2500′ to the summit on incredible snow, up beautiful headwalls and all along felt the tug of emotions that screamed, “Hell yeah!” It was what I’d brought good friends so far out here to enjoy–and enjoyment covered our faces like ice cream does a 2 year old.