North Cascades - Desperate Country: Seven Days On The FenceDate:
To see this same trip report with a bunch of great photos, check out Always Upwards
Warm air rushed through the windows as my beater Subaru huffed and puffed towards Newhalem. In the trunk was kit for the mission. The stereo pumped out slamming techno and I gorged on pastries from the Sultan Bakery. Psyche was high. The following day, with Chad Kellogg, the gun went off and our dash through the Pickets began.
On July seventh at 3:30 AM we left the car with 35 pound packs stuffed with climbing gear, seven (to ten if you really pushed it!) days of food, a light jacket or two, sleeping bags, fuel, a stove, and a sill nylon tarp. We sweated buckets climbing out of Goodell Creek, but the way was clear and easy. Arriving in Terror Basin we re-hydrated and made good time on easy snow slopes to the base of the McMillan Spires. With knowledge from my 2011 Pickets enchainment and fresh bodies, we raced over all three summits and arrived at our bivy 12 hours after leaving the car. I felt really good about our day and enjoyed resting through the afternoon.
Day two started with a taxing traverse of some small towers in between our bivy and Inspiration Peak. In 2011, Sol had navigated this section with relative ease, but I still struggled to find the way. When I did find the path I idiotically chose to make a long simul-climbing traverse with all 80 meters of our rope out. A bunch of drag later and some sketchy 5.10 moves in my boots and I finally arrived at the base of Inspiration's East Ridge. With a clean hand crack ahead we soared up and over both summits, descended, shot up the fantastic East Face of Pyramid, and scrambled Deganhardt to end our day. Tom Sjolseth spotted us on the ridge from his bivy in the Crescent Creek Basin and ascended to our camp to chat and take pictures of the beautiful sunset. It was great to have this unexpected encounter with a friend in such a spectacular place. After Tom began his descent, Chad and I settled in for a brisk night.
Since we had failed to stick our plan on day two (we had hoped to make the summit of the Rake), we began early on day three. To regain our pace, we put the hammer down and climbed the East Ridge of Terror, The Rake, wound through numerous smaller towers, cranked out the 5.10 on East Twin Needle, scrambled terrifying rock on West Twin Needle, and then completed the technical crux our journey, monkeying up the mighty blade that is the Himmelhorn. By the time we rapped into the Ottohorn-Himmelhorn Col we had been on the move for 17 hours. I was astounded at how long we took to complete this section even though we were climbing well and I had traveled the terrain before. It was 1:00 AM before we curled up in the dirt. Dehydration dried out my tongue and torqued on my muscles. We were afraid to burn excess amounts of fuel to rehydrate properly at the windy and exposed col. In hindsight, we did have enough fuel to rehydrate here and it was this crucial mistake that cost us the final two summits in the southern portion of our enchainment. A cold and windy dawn had us struggling to stay warm in the early hours of day four and with a primal focus on getting more water in our systems, we descended the Mustard Glacier via a snow couloir on the col's north side and arrived at Picket Pass where we sat by a tarn and drank to our heart's content. The past three days of leading had me a bit frazzled and fried. A few times I questioned my sanity. Was I really putting myself in this position again? Why yes, yes I was.
We left Picket Pass intend on using the latter half of day four to transition into the northern section of our journey. We hoped to climb Outrigger Peak, East Fury, and West Fury before lying down for the night. We ran into Tom and his partner Matt on top of Outrigger and enjoyed a social session on the summit. After a refreshing break, all four of us descended and then climbed to the summit of East Fury together in a thick fog that made navigation difficult. Never the less, we employed good beta from Tom and worked our way through worsening weather to a very cold and windy bivy below the summit of West Fury. The night passed somewhat excruciatingly as tough winds and moisture-laden clouds swept over the peak. The morning of day five brought some clearing, but rime ice lingered on the rock, as temps were slow to raise enough to melt the slippery nuisance. Finally, at 11 AM, we left the summit of West Fury and began moving down heads up terrain towards Swiss Peak. We both felt the loose down climbing and committing rappels in this section demanded much respect. The weather continued to be cold and unsettled. Chad had to encourage me through building doubt about our position. Our clothing was very minimal. If it started to rain or snow, hypothermia would come quickly on the exposed ridge. As on any grand adventure we were toeing the line of control.
The remainder of day five was spent climbing around many pointy spires, summiting Swiss Peak, and climbing up and over Spectre Peak. Again, like on West Fury, getting off of Spectre was a dangerous exercise in uber-choss down climbing. We also made one rappel in this section. This terrain, though technically easy, was the most serious I've ever encountered in the Cascades. In very cold, windy, and foggy weather we climbed up towards the summit of Phantom Peak until we hit our wall for the day. Our camp that night was an exposed perch overhanging Phantom's north face. It was hard to keep our minds off the weather, but we managed to make it through another cold and hungry bivy.
The next morning (day 6), like robots, we stuffed our sleeping bags and got down to business. Some morning clearing showed the long ridge ahead. Unfortunately, we knew the improved weather wouldn't last for long as a hazy ring cradled the sun and wispy clouds floated in the west. Knowing we had between 12 and 24 hours before the weather tanked, we climbed out of our bivy with focused determination. By the time we had summited Phantom and connected the ridge-line to Ghost Peak, clouds were bearing down on us. We were so intent on getting off the ridge that we chose to not scramble 20 feet of third class to the summit of Ghost. We just kept moving towards salvation.
Finally, as I was leading the last two pitches to the summit of Challenger, snow flakes started to fall. In the 10 minutes it took us to high five on the summit, make a short rap and walk over to our glacier descent, the weather gave out. We tried to make our way down the Challenger Glacier but were unable to see anything. A gentle ski run with easily passable cracks in good weather, we only found ourselves strung out over giant schrunds in a blowing mist. Our thin jackets began to get wet. I could feel my survival instinct telling me to abandon our descent before we were hopelessly lost and climb back to the rocks near the summit. Sure enough, just under the top of Challenger, Chad found a cave. It was a damn uncomfortable spot, but it was a key find for us. We huddled sleeplessly though the night, staying warm by fighting off the snafflehound from hell.
Day seven dawned beautifully, the breaking storm amplifying the magnificence of the sunrise. We quickly left our cave and descended down the glacier and onto Wiley Ridge. It felt wonderful to sit in the heather and not be exposed to the weather and other dangers that had mad the previous days so intense. All that remained between us and a bag of potato chips was a long, long walk home.
We spent the rest of day seven slogging out to Ross Lake Boat Camp. Even though only seven flat miles remained to our car, we had to stop. We shivered in the 70 degree weather and my stomach was twisted in pain. It had all caught up with us. I felt like I had predicted I would at this point. Utterly worked. Mosquitoes pestered us through our night in the dirt, but we were too exhausted to care. On the morning of day eight, after a couple hours of hiking, we stepped onto Highway 20.Chad and I are absolutely stoked about or enchainment despite not summiting three of the peaks we had hoped to. We climbed nearly all day, every day, for seven days through demanding and serious terrain. We had minimal equipment, no cache, and no support. With the cold and unsettled weather in the latter half of the trip, it was a true challenge to keep the mind at bay (and get any sleep!). Looking back I see many mistakes and have learned many lessons that I hope to take with me to future objectives. As always, the path of growth continues. There is no crowning moment or pinnacle of achievement in this sport, but rather the continuing evolution of skills and consciousness.
I am so grateful for Chad as a partner. Only interested in the most outlandish ideas, I appreciate that our drive is to focus on objectives where success seems improbable. We always hope to travel the hardest, least traveled road we are able to.
I am also grateful to my incredible friends Sol Wertkin and Dan Hilden for our 2011 Pickets adventure. The beautiful moments from our enchainment have not been belittled in my mind. What a fantastic part of this journey! Dan's recent Alpinist article about our 2011 effort features more poignant thoughts about adventuring in the Pickets than I am able to come up with at the moment. It is a must read for sure!
And of course, a huge thanks to Wayne Wallace for not only being ok with me taking over his obsession with this objective, but encouraging me along the way. Thx Wayne!!!
Jens HolstenGear Notes:
Light as we felt was prudent...and even a bit lighter!Approach Notes:
In via Goodell Creek, out via Wiley Ridge