Trip: Northern Pickets - Mt. Challenger Middle Peak & FA of SW Ridge of Challenger 5 (Peak 7,696) Trip Date: 08/18/2021 Trip Report:
Northern Pickets, image pulled from publicly accessible Google Book Preview of Cascade Alpine Guide, Vol. 3. The SW Ridge of Peak 7,696 is the righthand skyline. Fair use intended.
TL;DR: Climbing partners Joe Manning (manninjo) and Joseph Montange ventured up the wild and rugged Baker River valley in mid-August 2021, seeking a shortcut into the Northern Pickets. After several days of travel, we climbed a very fun, new, five pitch, 750', 5.7 route on the Mount Challenger massif, the Southwest Ridge of Peak 7,696 (aka Challenger 5).
Mandatory wading on day 1 starts several miles upriver
Time to go to the beach! It’ll be fun: miles of sandbars and loads of deep blue swimming holes. Wading up the river in tennies. Getting to curl our toes in the sand. Sounds promising as a way to approach the remote and reasonably inaccessible Picket Range. Relaxing, beachy-type vacations are not my norm, so the Baker River seemed like the best of both worlds. Get the summertime water fix AND have an adventure scoping out the “direct” route into the Northern Pickets.
The approach, documented in the 1968 Tabor and Crowder guide, has no record of folks actually going all the way in that way in the last 50 years. I’m sure some folks have, only to be swallowed by brush and never seen again. Mike Layton wrote in 2006 that John Roper “thoroughly sandbagged” him and Wayne Wallace on their approach to Spectre Peak by suggesting the Baker River.
Following “six hours to travel a mile and a half along the Baker River we bailed. Ahead were three more miles of rain, brush, and swift water followed by a 5000-ft climb to the ridge… after our eight-hour false start, we dragged our soggy asses and 25-lb packs to the Hannegan Pass parking lot to restart the trip.”
Pioneer Ridge (center-right) and the confluence of Bald Eagle Creek and Baker River
For our part, we wanted to push beyond the Pioneer Ridge version of the Baker River approach and continue up the river, to the confluence of Picket and Mineral Creeks. From here, a spur ascending all the way to the Mt. Challenger massif would provide an escalator into the alpine. In fact, after all the beach time, we’d probably need to burn off some of those beach-induced calories.
In all seriousness, there’s really no easy way into the western side of Northern Pickets. For a fit and competent party, stocked with full climbing kit and several days of food, Easy Ridge, Whatcom Pass and Peak, Eiley Wiley, even carrying over Fury all take at least two days. Sometimes fast and light parties get to Perfect Pass in a day for a two-night blitz of Mt. Challenger. But if you want to do something on the west side of Spectre, Phantom, Ghost, Crooked Thumb, anything on the south side of Challenger, it's two days just to get there (and two more to hike out).
It was with this knowledge that we set off up the Baker River, hoping to find the equivalent of the Northwest Passage into the Northern Pickets. While we may not have found quite that, we did get to spend several days in one of the most rugged, wild, untrammeled and primeval wilderness areas this side of Alaska. The fact that access started less than a 90-minute drive from home was remarkable.
The sheer quantity and apparent quality of the granite cliffs spilling off the sides of Pioneer and Mineral Ridges is mind boggling. It’s a beautiful looking mix of Index town walls, Squamish, Darrington, Yosemite, name any notable granite bigwall area. Were it not for a lack of trails and fixed anchor ban in the park, this zone would be a serious destination. As it exists today, it's worth admiring the incredible views every step of the way in. Just don’t forget to watch your step along the way.
For folks who find off-trail travel “not so bad,” the stats are compelling. It's less than half the distance of any other way into the range, and less than half the elevation gain. There is no penalizing elevation loss. The approach lacks the objective hazards (e.g. icefall traversing around Whatcom Peak) and subjective hazards (e.g. exposed, loose scrambling over Whatcom or across the Imperfect Impasse) one would find coming in from other directions.
The Baker River is a late season approach - the river needs to be low enough to regularly ford and wade. Most of the river walking we did was shin to knee deep. A pair of low top mesh approach shoes worked perfectly to hike in and out of the river. We got waist deep in the river once or twice, though that may have been avoidable. Make sure you line your pack with a garbage bag or other waterproofing.
Sections of mandatory bushwhacking punctuate the river walking
There is unavoidable brush, including some that registers as “BW5” on the Cascade Brush and Bushwhack scale. As with most off-trail approaches, the bushwhacking was far worse going in than coming out. Only a handful of times did patience grow thin and tempers flare due to frustrating travel conditions. Another dead end in the brush led Joseph to remark that “it wouldn’t be an adventure if there were no doubts.”
At this point, with the hour growing late on the first day, we were having some serious doubts about the viability of the approach. After a breather and channeling the power of positive thinking, we made it through the worst of the brush and found ourselves a mossy camp in open forest next to a brook and several large boulders.
With full packs loaded for climbing out of a base camp, it took about the same amount of time to go in this way compared to past experience with the more-frequently documented approaches. The crux of the approach, encountered on day two for us, was the wooded spur above the confluence of Mineral Creek/Baker River and Picket Creek.
The wooded spur with approximate line and color showing slope angle
It starts out innocuously enough. Low angle, brush-free walking past ancient cedars the size of skyscrapers, some well over 15 feet in diameter, soon gives way to steeper and steeper hillside. In what could be the toughest 2,000 feet of elevation gain anywhere, you’ll fight insanely thick brush, mostly saplings and huckleberries, all at a gradient of over 30 degrees, while dodging cliffs including a significant band at about 4,000 feet elevation. Helmets and dirt-ponning may feel necessary to descend safely.
Typical brush thickness on the wooded spur
Several cliff bands are hidden in the brush of the wooded spur
Perhaps the effort overall is greater going off trail, though that is going to vary individual to individual. Climbers with their brushmaster degrees, good route finding skills and smaller, lighter packs could conceivably make it to the Challenger 4/5 col or Phantom alp slope camp (or pretty close) in a single big day via Baker River.
We broke out of treeline on the afternoon of our second day, hiking into a thickening misty fog. Wonderful camping exists there on grass patches among the heather fields next to perfect 250 gallon tarns. Bring a water filter for the tarn water.
Camping on a natural grass tent pad next to water around 4,900 ft
Our third day, we woke up to driving rain - not the forecast we hiked in with. It broke into a light drizzle by midmorning and up the alp slope ridge we went, reconning for a higher camp. By midday, an updated forecast gave us a limited window to climb the next day only, August 18th. Chance of showers returned the afternoon of the following day, August 19th. Being well provisioned for several days of rock climbing, the change in weather was disappointing but we’d have to make due.
Resigned to the revised forecast; Mineral Mt. in background
As I’ve learned in the Pickets, 20 or 30% chance of showers is pretty much 100% chance of rain and low-to-no visibility.
We ended up moving camp on day three just a half mile further up the ridge, to a larger patch of grass with an even deeper little tarn and mystifying views of Whatcom Peak, Mineral, Shuksan, Baker/Kulshan and numerous other mountains. We elected to leave base camp there on the ridge around 5,200 ft and go light above.
Camp 2 on the ridge, Whatcom Peak in the mist and Perfect Pass at center right
We had big (for us) ambitions for our week, yet somehow even the best-laid plans seemed to get waylaid by weather and slowed down by river crossings, vine maple, cliffs, huckleberry, and route finding.
Southwest Ridge of Challenger 5 (Peak 7,696), 5.7, 5 Pitches, 750’, Grade II
Rock climbing can be just plain Type I fun. You’re outside, with good company, in good weather, using your brain and body to briefly overcome gravity, dancing with the minerals, having a jolly ‘ol time. For whatever reason, granite especially lends itself to this kind of climbing.
Joseph contemplating existence on the summit of Mt. Challenger's Middle Peak
After scrambling Mt. Challenger’s Middle Peak on day four, Wednesday morning, August 18th, and considering different options for more climbing, we circled back to the south face of Challenger 5 to scope out some pretty neat looking rock. The granite was white to dark with a golden burnt orange in places, peppered with blocks, flakes, and large chicken heads.
Fun scrambling to contour back west under Challenger 5's south face
Anywhere else these cliffs would be stacked with moderate trad lines. We contoured all the way around the south face until there was nowhere left to go. The southwest ridge dropped off down the imposing west face. Above, a distinct ridgeline ambled up towards the summit.
Belay at start of route
The route started from a broad, jumbled, and blocky ledge system roughly where the seasonal snow line of the SW ridge ends and the more black, lichen-stained rock begins. If you were hiking directly up the ridge from below, it might be possible to add another pitch for fun, but we cast off from the highest “scramble accessible” point.
Climbing on pitch 1
The first pitch went up slabs, followed by a left-facing corner with a laughably fun 5.6 hand crack. Above the corner, a good stance on a ledge set up a short finger crack to another ledge. The rock was exceptionally solid and remarkably splitter, with bomber gear exactly where you might want it.
Topping out pitch 1
Starting pitch 2; camp, approach ridge, and Baker River all lower left
The climbing went for four more pitches like this, ledgy yet exposed ridge climbing punctuated by fun crack segments. Every roughly 40 - 45m pitch ended at a spacious belay ledge with a slingable horn or solid crack for gear. Views and position on the peak were something to behold.
Climbing on pitch 2
Pitch four was the standout, with an improbable and slightly intimidating step right onto the exposed face after a short offwidth pillar. A horizontal traverse with a few hundred feet of exposure led to a straight up crack system culminating in another perfect hand crack, which started at red camalot and ended with a good little stretch of near-vertical number 3 jamming. A final mantel ended on a flat ledge big enough to park a bus on.
Awesome exposure and jamming on pitch 4
Huge belay ledge at top of pitch 4
The final 60m pitch cut hard left, off the ridge and onto the west face via an unmissable ledge system. A blocky and slightly loose gully led directly to the summit, with the headwaters of the Baker River 4,000 feet below nipping at our heels and Shuksan and Kulshan swirling in the clouds to the west.
Final climbing to the summit
As soon as it came in, our weather window was on the way out. Within 15 minutes of arriving on top we were getting engulfed in the mist. We’d left our axes and crampons at the base of the route, and not knowing there was a scramble route off the peak, we elected to rap the south face from the summit and contour back to our gear.
In hindsight, had we carried glacier travel gear, we could have descended to the north and potentially gotten back on the glacier, climbed back up to the col, and returned that way. In any case, two raps with two ropes got us off the steep terrain. We retrieved our gear from the base and headed back down the ridge to our 5,200 ft camp, arriving just in time for an incredible sunset as the clouds broke once again.
A view of our route from the approach ridge
Descending on the approach ridge
Back at camp
With the chance of showers in the forecast, we felt good about two summits, a new route, and three nights camped out on an incredible ridge. Now all that was left to do was to reverse miles of steep, trailless wilderness back to civilization.
40 degree huckleberries on the descent
Finding the "secret passage" through a major cliff band; we were prepared to rappel, yet managed to avoid it on the way down
We camped at the beach for our final evening, near the confluence of Bald Eagle Creek and the Baker River. There was enough sand to walk around barefoot and relax, taking in views of Scramble Creek falls and the North Ridge of Mt. Blum. Surprisingly, someone had camped there in the days we were up high and had left a fire pit, complete with charred logs.
One might think the novelty of wading down a river would wear off by the last day of the trip, but surprisingly it didn’t. Out the way out, we knocked over a handful of cairns we made for ourselves on the way in. The only other sign of people we saw was the fire scar and some fishing line at the final campsite, which we packed out. It'd be great to keep it that way for the future. My opinion is this approach is destined to remain in obscurity when “easier” approaches exist, but it is a truly direct and viable way in to the Pickets. Having the right attitude about brush would help immensely.
Walking in the river beat the heck out of the alternative
Take only pictures, leave only footprints
In the days since, I’ve been dreaming about the walls back there, packrafting part of the deproach, scheming about another trip back into the wilderness of the great nearby. It’s adventures like these that, for me, climbing in the Cascades are all about. Many thanks to Joseph for the great company, partnership, use of photos, and willingness to try something different.
Extra shoes for wading, rock climbing gear to #3 camalot, crampons/ice axe for glacier travel Approach Notes:
Starts from the Baker River Trailhead. See Tabor and Crowder's "Routes and Rocks in the Mt. Challenger Quadrangle" and Beckey's "Cascade Alpine Guide, Vol. 3" for more approach details.