Trip: Southern Pickets - McMillan Spires Traverse, E Ridge Inspiration
On July 5th, Mario, Seth, Sandy and I (Keith) headed into the southern Pickets for 6 wonderful days of climbing. Our original objective had been the North Buttress of Mt. Terror, but concerns regarding conditions compelled us to change our destination to Terror Basin. After our usual pre-trip strategy session with Wayne and additional beta from Tom (thanks guys!) we spent a couple of days waiting for the weather to settle. The approach is considered one of the easier ways into the Pickets, but is still associated with the usual treachery.
Here is Sandy crossing a stream which was quite a bit more challenging on the way out after 6 days of warm weather.
We established camp in beautiful Terror Basin. Here is Sandy and Mario relaxing in camp.
Wayne's strongest recommendation was the complete McMillan Spires Traverse, and the next day Seth and I set out for this objective at 5am. Here is a photo of the peaks with an overlay of the route we took, followed by a shot taken from a slightly different perspective.
The route starts with the SW Buttress of Little Mac Spire which we approached in less than 2 hours from camp. We found somewhat loose rock with some decent pitches and difficulties up to 5.8. We reached the summit around noon after climbing 7 pitches. We then scrambled to the west end of the spire and found and improved a rap station and rappelled into the icy col between Little Mac Spire and East Mac.
Here is a shot of Seth still on rappel setting up an anchor while trying to keep the snow out of his rock shoes at the base of East Mac.
From the col, we reached the summit of East Mac in 3 pitches. The final pitch was wonderfully exposed and gained the ridge crest on very clean rock at around 5.7. Here is a shot by Seth of me first climbing that pitch lower down then on the summit ridge.
We gained the summit of East Mac around 3:30 and down climbed 3rd and 4th class terrain. This was pretty sketchy and generally unsavory. We found a significant amount of snow at this col and changed back to boots. Beckey describes awkward climbing north of the gendarme there, and as usual he was right. We had to enter the moat with a snow/ice base of uncertain attachment to the gendarme. This photo shows windows we poked through the snow wall to assess the safety of this situation - the views through these are straight down into McMillan Cirque and were quite spectacular.
Things then got really exciting as I kicked steps across a very exposed 70 degree snow slope followed by long snow traverse, all unprotectable as we had no ice screws or pickets. This shot is looking back as Seth prepares to follow this pitch.
We then tackled the spectacular SE face of West Mac. This starts with a rising traverse on a good ledge system with the entire south face falling away below our feet.
This is a shot by Seth of me leading out on that initial pitch. I'm hard to see, but this photo gives an idea of the tremendous exposure on this part of the route.
Seth drew the final pitch which included an exciting unprotectable 5.7 move around a bulge and steeper climbing leading to the summit, which we reached around 7:30 pm. We scrambled down the the West Mac col, traversed the glacier and arrived at camp just before 10 pm, after 16 hours on the move.
We were welcomed by Sandy and Mario who had done their own climb of West Mac and began rehydrating and gobbling down freeze-drieds. We were soon joined in camp by Ben and Tim who had completed a great climb of the East Ridge of Inspiration including the East Spires in speedy and sporting fashion. It was fun sharing stories and camp with these great guys.
The next day was a rest day.
The following day we planned to climb the West Ridge of Inspiration as a team of 4. Here we are nearing the approach gully, which is a pretty nasty place.
These are 2 shots of Mario following the route which involves very loose terrain on the left side of the snow-filled gully.
Here is Seth leading out, his facial expression conveying the loose,unpleasant nature of this terrain.
We reached the top of the gully and were dismayed to find access to the upper west ridge blocked by steep snow and a huge, fractured, ready-to-fall-and-take-us-all-out globule of snow.
We hemmed and hawed for awhile. I think we could have forced the route if we had brought our axes (we left them at the base of the gully) and had a picket or two, but in the end we bailed and made 4 double-rope rappels down the gully, including a less-than-enjoyable romp through a waterfall. Mindful of that hanging serac, which is certainly gone by now, we moved quickly until we reached the glacier below. Despite missing out on the best part of the West Ridge, it was a beautiful stroll back to camp.
Here is Seth chillin' halfway back to camp at a cool little watering hole.
We sat around camp that night processing our decision to turn around and all agreed it was the right one, but it still did not sit quite right. Seth and I had been discussing the East Ridge and Wayne had emphatically recommended including the East Spires to make it an extension of the McMillan traverse. We were pretty beat and couldn't make up our minds, but around 9 pm we decided we would go for it. Frantic preparation followed.
Seth and I set out again at 5 am. We reached the McMillan-Inspiration col and began simulclimbing around 7:30. The rock was a bit loose, but simulclimbing this 4th and low-5th class terrain was extremely enjoyable and allowed us to move pretty quickly. We traversed along the south side of the 1st tower, still simulclimbing, and dropped into a moat to bypass the second tower on the north. The terrain steepened at the 3rd tower and I led a belayed traversing pitch across the south face.
We built a rappel off the west side and Seth took on the challenging 5th tower which required gaining the summit to get past it. We found a rap station and dropped to the base of the East Ridge proper. After an initial wandering pitch on loose ledges we arrived at the start of the real fun. I drew the set-up pitch with 5.8 lieback moves to a large ledge.
Seth geared up for the final headwall pitch. We were advised to take the left crack which proved to be a glorious splitter 5.9. Seth styled this pitch.
and I followed.
From here, a short pitch took us to the false summit where we resumed simulclimbing to the true summit which we reached at 6:45 pm. We wanted to get back to the glacier before nightfall so our celebration was brief. We had gambled by bringing only one rope, and Wayne and Tom had described 15 single-rope rappels to reach the glacier. Seth, who is something of a mathematician performed a quick calculation and discovered we would need to complete each rappel in 10 minutes in order to beat the sunset. We raced down the west ridge and were actually ahead of schedule before things started to fall apart. After the upper west ridge we debated entering the nasty gully or going straight down the steep south face. We opted for the latter. Rap stations proved hard to locate and some required beefing up. This caused delays and we watched with dismay as the sun got lower and lower. Finally the inevitable happened as I reached the end of the rope on vertical terrain without a rap station in sight. I hunkered under a little overhand, used my nut tool to scrub out a wet, narrow crack, clipped into a single nut and hollered for Seth to join me in the dark. He arrived to find me feebly trying to bash in a piton with a rock. Now it was Seth's turn to rap into the darkness and again found overhanging, rap station-less terrain. He expertly rigged an anchor and a final rappel took us at last to the glacier where we were at last able to relax a little. We roped up for the glacier crossing and found our tracks from the previous day but unfortunately the sketchy crevasse we had crossed the day before had opened up requiring some delicate crampon work as we got down into the crevasse and climbed back out. We staggered down the rest of the basin, arriving in camp at 1 am after 20 hours on the move. We were greeted by our great friends with hot chocolate and Mary Janes dinners. We passed out pretty quickly, anticipating the next day's death march out.
My memories of the hike out are pretty sparse but I recall a fair amount of suffering and staggering. The beer was in the creek when we arrived, and soon so were we. Our trips together to the Pickets with this team have been some of the best times in my life and this was no exception.
On the way out we had talked about feasting on blue cheese burgers at the Marblemount Diner but it was closed by the time we go out, so we ate at the Buffalo Run and gorged ourselves silly.
The Terror Glacier is opening up. We roped up and discussed that it might be wise to bring a picket or two in the event of a crevasse fall. For rock gear, on the McMillan Spires Traverse, gear to 3" with doubles in the .75 to 2" plus nuts. On Inspiration, the final pitch of the East Ridge would be safest with 2 #2 and 2 #3 camelots, and a #4 wouldn't hurt. Bring some bail slings, especially if using only one rope.
According to Mario (and I tend to agree), this itinerary is the best for the Southern Pickets, especially for us older folks. We left mid-day from the Newhalem group campsite and camped 4 miles down at the trail turnoff for Terror Basin. We then had fresh legs for the rest of the way to high camp. We took 7 hours for that part but had a little nap on the way.