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.
At the summit I looked down the NE Face, a line I’d skied in 2003. While the snow I saw was perfect, the corner a few hundred feet from the top was melted out and offered sketchy prospects. Even so, the nostalgia unbalanced my legs and sent my heart racing. What a line! Two other parties have managed to ski the route in the 18 years since, one from the top and another from just below. Hat’s off to you guys (and gal).
We found the snow too good to stop on. Reckless speed it may have appeared to the uninitiated, but in reality the sort of snow that allowed us to turn up the dial and rock and roll down the mountain like the earlier ski-warriors I spoke of. More battle cries and then, before we’d even begun, it was over. Mouths hung open and some drool went unrecognized or ignored. “You wanna go again?” Sadly, we had no time.
What fun we’d had was about to transition to search mode. The route below us was melted out and again, a descent that would take minutes, ended up taking much, much longer. That night a few hours were wasted as we searched for an efficient route. After all that effort, we realized that the best way was to re-climb to the toe of the glacier and descend a ledge. By the time that was realized, all remaining daylight had been squandered, so we dug our home from the snow and blissfully fell asleep.
The sixth morning, we re-climbed to the toe of the SE Fury Glacier and descended that wide, easy ledge. From there, we returned to mostly disjointed snow that we were able to link together. On one particularly perilous move, above a waterfall and an open stream, my binding failed on me. As a safety measure I’d carried an extra toe piece for the group, but not an extra heel piece (heavy!), which is what came apart on me. The brand of bindings I have been using have a different personality in each of the six pair I use and that’s not what I want in a binding.
Mouthing the words to Itsy bitsy little spider went down the water spout while we transitioned from snow to down climbing a 700 foot waterfall, seemed darkly appropriate. Good thing I didn’t eject from my skis any worse than I had, because it took three rappels, each separated by an equal amount of climbing between stations, to reach the bottom. There I could fully appreciate the waterfall we’d descended. Its defining characteristic was that there were multiple waterfalls, each set against reddish bedrock and scattered dwarf alpine firs. The multiple rivulets dashed against cliff sides and coalesced into the larger cataract. From there all the water was swallowed bodily and sent thundering below the snows that covered the base of the falls. Only at the green valley floor, 1500 vertical feet lower, would the waters again reemerge. Take away the high glaciers and peaks and I’d think I was in some tropical wonderland half a world away. What a spot!
With snow, we would’ve missed out on this waterfall madness, this wondrous fare I’d add to the memory banks to consume again and again whenever serendipity brings my non-corporeal thoughts back to this place. Otherwise, as to the hours of added time spent, I quickly forgot about that portion of the adventure. Unless you, too, want to have a self flagellating mind wipe as well, my advice is to go earlier, no later than the first of June and realistically between April and May.
My broken binding held together for the descent, but in the terminal avalanche debris I pinched a nerve in my back for the first time in my life. Frustration never is a winning strategy and I paid for it.
The fresh, cool and crisp waters we’d chased from summit to valley were too good to not swim in. The frigid water exploded our every discernible thought like a bomb blast. Muscle aches and injuries were washed away as if this were some secret source of the Spring of Life.
After drying and packing, we continued to the confluence with McMillan Creek. A convenient log offered easy passage to the opposite side. As we turned upslope, small filter creeks allowed comparatively easy travel upstream; although wet feet was the price for such convenience. The surrounding slide alder hinted at the possible alternative, so there were no complaints. In fact, I felt like we got away with a hat trick as this portion of the trip could’ve been much more bothersome.
At a point behind a massive boulder whose protection and somewhat flat appearance seemed to be our best best, we stopped for the day. My plan was to use the remaining hours to climb to the Degenhardt and Mustard Glaciers. While we had extra food for another day, Jeff and Carl needed to get home. With this being my only window of opportunity, I quickly dumped my extra gear, packed food and water, and set off for the higher mountains once more.
As I climbed back to snow, I felt a growing uncertainty. At some point, I just looked up at the mountain and down its lower slopes. They were melted out. In front of me water bulged between snow patches and waterfalls, slide alder licked the shores and added shenanigans were par for a course I couldn’t compete in, not in my or the snowpacks present condition. Again, what would’ve been easy travel a week earlier, wasn’t so much then. Still, I wanted to go, as this place is special and I wanted to see what it had to offer, but I added up my troubles: the pinched nerve, being sick and a broken binding. It wasn’t easy when I admitted it wasn’t my day. Moreover, Degenhardt was a proud glacier that deserved more attention than a quick dusk tag and bag. She wanted to be courted and a courtship wasn’t just one or two trips (as this wasn’t my first attempt). Perhaps three will be my number, but that’s to be decided at some future point. At that moment, I had to turn my back, something I rarely do, but with age comes acceptance of limitations.
Since I could scout the way ahead the next day, I turned toward two couloirs to see what difficulties they’d present. What I found was melted out waterfalls and gaping bergschrunds. I was no longer surprised, and we still had a few options for escape. My bet was on a high traverse of the cirque through the icefall. While not ideal, we had the benefit of being in position for an early start on top of being well rested.
Back at camp, I enjoyed the remainder of the evening in one of the most wild and remote places in the Cascade Mountains. When I am stopped and not moving, it’s easy to forget where I am; it could almost be anywhere, but somehow the sounds reminded me of my place. I rested between cliff and glacier, towers of rock and clashing waterfalls, moving boulders and an unchanged landscape for thousands of years. It was easy to sleep knowing that this place was so guarded and protected from outliers, beast and person alike.
June 22-23: McMillan Cirque to Torrent Creek, then out Diablo Lake
While heavy packs weighed us down, it was easier to weigh our options for an ascent of McMillan Cirque. On one hand, we had the bushwhack next to the aforementioned melted out couloirs or we had the 99 percent snow covered route that crossed the upper McMillan Creek Glaciers. Between the two, it was quickly decided that we’d rather be on snow. The risk of this route was the overhanging icefalls and residual snow atop cliffs. To mitigate our time in the shooting gallery, we hauled butt between safe zones.
At the biggest icefall, we felt like we were in high school football practice. Between us and the goal was Beefcake, the 450 pound linebacker, who picks his teeth with bones of his opponents. What we had on our side was speed.
“Run chicken legs, run!”
After we were above the icefall, we felt better. Using the same method we used on the Challenger Glacier, we climbed several hundred feet higher than needed and switched to skis. With copious amounts of side stepping, we crossed more than a mile of glacier to a point a thousand vertical feet below the pass.
That instant we climbed to the other side of the Picket Range is a moment for celebration. A look forward to the valley we’d eventually descend into, then a look backward into the valleys and peaks we’d crossed. It’s a feeling I never tire of. You’ll know what I mean if you ever find yourself there.
Far below were the deep blue waters of Diablo Lake. Between us lay a long traverse around Elephant Butte. Along the way, a few cliffs managed to surprise us and in order to negotiate them, we passed packs from one person to another to get back to snow.
Two hours later, as we neared Torrent Creek, would managed to cliff out again. This time there was a series of them and it took a little bit of exploring to find a way around. Snow is often a golden path and when it’s gone the routes not as easy to make out. When it ran dry, we grunted and cursed as we down climbed steep blueberry fields and stream beds to snow once more. No skier likes to take their skis off if they can help it!
At the pass east of Elephant Butte, we pitched camp for the final night. Our shuttle ride wasn’t showing up until 6 PM the following day, so we had no need to push until dark.
On the final miles the following day, travel was easier than it’d been at any one point on the trip thus far. A high route kept us along the ridge top with expansive views to take our minds from the effort. While logistically we didn’t need to be in a hurry, mentally we wanted to be sitting on the soft grass at Diablo Lake not having to worry about toting our worldly possessions around anymore.
Our last climb brought us above Jeanita Lake where we traversed across a mix of dirt and snow to our final high point, just below Sourdough Mountain.
A final ski sent us rocketing toward the Sourdough Trail. A quick ski carry to the end of the snow patches and then boots were switched to shoes for the 4000 foot descent to Diablo Lake. Jeff and Carl took off like they were still skiing and skidded out of sight, dust flying as they rounded the first corner. With their mountain musk, hopefully hikers wouldn’t confuse them for Sasquatches!
Some hour or two later, I arrived at the trailhead at last. Carl and Jeff warned me to “Jump in the river before you warm up.” Like a walrus, I rolled into the water and soon understood what they meant. It was like father winter had stopped in for a cold drink, then I came along and jumped between his bobbing ice cubes!
A few hikers saw us and began leaving gifts. First we received a few beers, then another couple dropped off two bottles of wine and finally a local recognized a few of us and we were invited into their place for chips and watermelon vodka drinks! To say I was sloshed is an understatement. I’m a cheap date and a single drink usually leaves me tipsy.
Before we jumped into our shuttle rig Jeff, Carl and I raised our ragtag drinks into the air and cheered to a trip I’d sold to them as something “…everyone has to do once.” Unlike other ski adventures in the Cascades, the Pickets aren’t tamed by any amount of pre-knowledge. Their difficulties are diverse and unavoidable. And as I said in the introduction, the Picket Range contains the quintessential peaks of the North Cascades. Like our drinks they will leave your head spinning, center of gravity unbalanced, and your entire body buzzed from every emotion possible. Just as the peaks and their meanings foretold there will be some fury, even more perfection and inspiration, and more challenge than you can handle in a single shot.
Because there was more alcohol left Jeff, Carl and I made another toast. “Until next time,” I hollered. They laughed and polished off their wine. They knew I had them hooked for a return to ski Degenhardt and the Mustard Glaciers, whether they wanted to admit it yet or not. Once the Pickets have you, they never let you go.
Thanks for reading.