Trip: Crooked Thumb to Challenger, Phantom, Middle Challenger - Various Trip Date: 07/20/2023 Trip Report:
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This thought arose as I was headlamp hiking in my underwear back to the trailhead to wrap up 4 days in the N pickets that were amazing, exhausting, and occasionally nerve wracking. I don’t intend to endorse solo itineraries such as this one, but I’ll share a few notes. Sorry I don’t know how to be more succinct Will add some photos later.
Day 1 Hannegan Pass TH to Perfect pass. Got to the ranger station before 8am to try to get in and out as quickly as possible given the distance. Pretty smooth sailing except for leaving my pole at the Chilliwack and having to return for it (1/2 hour penalty). There are two logs across so it’s not necessary to wade, but I didn’t notice this until my return trip. That said the crossing is not difficult. The trail is faint near the creek but overall hardly any shwacking required. I found crossing the impass on ledges a bit higher than what I’ve seen in beta to be trivial, so didn’t pay close enough attention, and this would haunt me 3 days later. Got to the pass before dark, and found just enough snowmelt to get by. A new moon sliced its way into the dusk. Nightfall was clear and beautiful and the location outstanding.
Day 2 Ascended Challenger glacier in the morning. No surprise if you’ve been out and about, it’s already late summer conditions out there. A somewhat direct SE line towards Middle and West was still feasible though. Once on the upper glacier I detoured E to scope out a possible descent in the Challenger 2 vicinity (I think that’s the name of the one just to the W of the main summit). It looked involved but plausible. Steep snow, two crevasses, good snow to rock transitions above and below, and rock that looked ok for scrambling.
I then headed back towards Middle and scrambled fun clean rock to the top and back. I wrapped around to Solar pass and glacier and tried to find an easy way down to the bowl SW of Challenger. The way I took ended up having some spicy slabs. On my return on day 4 I would find an easier way that starts at a lower elevation than my crossing this day.
Once in this bowl I saw that the glacier leading up to Crooked Thumb was quite gnarly with snow barely continuous on the presumably normal climber’s right. I made camp on rocks at about 7400’. My only complaint was having to descend 1-200 ft to find running water. I got a little too relaxed and didn’t head towards Phantom until 2pm. Easy snow travel led to lovely ledge/boulder/stream zones. When I passed SW of Ghost I took out binoculars and stared for too long at Ghost. In CAG Beckey succinctly describes a W face route involving gullies. From a distance the first half seemed possible but then seemed to run into roofs and cliffs. @SeanO commended Ghost to Challenger in his mind blowing/ nauseating northern pickets traverse trip report, so I was interested in trying that on day 3. But after much deliberation I decided I didn’t like what I saw and that I’d probably leave Ghost out. This was cemented later in the day after my troubles on Phantom. I would end up in no mood for any extra wandering up gullies.
I got to Phantom arm and took heather and blocks upwards. I understood the SW route to be a scramble, and entered a decent looking gully at about 6800’ on the SW flank. The terrain didn’t align well with the few photos I had screenshots of, but I didn’t worry too much about it. I ditched my pole here (guess where this is going) and headed up. The SW to SE aspect of this mountain turns out to have quite a few gullies that prove to be difficult to cross between. I hit trouble in the 7400-7500’ range. Things were getting steep and I seemed to be blocked from traversing over a rib to try a different way. Upwards seemed like the best option at hand but got more and more tenuous. The sunk cost fallacy had me foolishly exceeding my comfort level for downclimbing, so I got pretty committed. There was an intense section of exposed traversing on edges. Maybe 5.6-5.7, I don’t know. Some scramble. I finally got through it and back on easy terrain. At the summit I saw that the register is open, with the lid or base (don’t remember which) down in some crack. I believe this was the original, so that’s too bad.
For the descent I headed back to the false summit then S on nice staircase ledges reminiscent of Mix-up’s, then a SE aspect towards the main gully separating Phantom from Spectre, and got on snow. This was much easier than what I had climbed but is a S/SE route. I don’t know, didn’t have a lot of beta for this one. The snow passed 500’ below where I had ditched my pole so I got another half hour pole retrieval penalty.
Heading back towards camp I had some regrets for not camping nearer Phantom. Spectre to Crooked thumb jut up ahead, Picket creek plunges steeply below and Baker and Shuksan flank the far end side by side. But it would be an impractical launch pad for my other plans so I had to make do with my 7400’ camp. I arrived after dark, mentally and physically taxed.
Day 3 - Days 1, 2, 4 had clear and calm weather but today, on the climax, the height of my adventure, I’d be treated to some light drama. Very localized weather blew in around the Pickets, providing a thin and constantly shifting layer of clouds pensively twisting around the towers. This made me nervous but it never got menacing. It just made things a little cooler and more exciting.
Having decided not to start from Ghost I instead began with Crooked Thumb via its NW couloir. The snow was totally melted out, but luckily this couloir turns out to be just fine without it. Plenty of loose rock but I’ve seen much worse. Near the top of the gully I veered S to climb the N ridge. There was one notably rotten section on my route but it was just a few moves. Near the summit, blocks and ledges led to cliffs guarding it. But there is a key SE facing low angle wall with useful edges, barely 5th class, that leads back to the ridge and bypasses the cliffs. The rock on top is an amusing feature. I was leaning on it to take photos then thought better not. Saw about 10 parties in the register in the past decade, including Sean’s crazy traverse. I downclimbed the way I came, got a free lesson 10 feet from the gully. From there I headed N.
Other than the rock being fun/good and one possible diversion to the W, from Sean’s report I didn’t know what to expect. At first things went smoothly, with some TFT-style sidewalks. But complex pinnacles soon returned and route finding was generally not easy. I never did make much of a W diversion, though this may have made life more difficult. On the N end of Crooked Thumb I did go W slightly but I recall this ending with a sketchy squirm down a backpack shredding chimney. Not ideal.
In my gpx you can identify route finding episodes where the line goes from straight to scribbles. There are about 10 of those between Crooked Thumb and the true summit of Challenger. I agree with Sean’s description of generally fun and good rock (though in a traverse of that length there’s bound to be a ton of loose stuff and it’s hard to be appropriately paranoid every single time) but I would add that the route finding is far from trivial. Not heinous but I had to think a lot.
When bypasses seemed prudent, they tended to be on the W side of the ridge. I don’t know how many points I went up and over, but there were a lot. These keep the true summit blocked from view most of the time. It was a little demoralizing to so frequently surmount a point and realize I was still so far away. In this light I still can’t wrap my head around Sean’s traverse. Not just the distance but the diligence and patience to handle so much loose rock and route finding uncertainty. It took me nearly 4 hours to get between Crooked Thumb’s and Challenger’s summits, which are less than a mile apart from the air. Not exactly easy.
At what seemed like the final false summit, I considered tackling it head on. It was narrow and very exposed but juggy and mostly solid. But 10’ below it’s crest I hit a crux where there was no feet. After playing with it I decided it was crazy (at least 5.8?) which was too bad because it would have been an awesome way to go. Instead I delicately traversed on the W side to some dirty loose blocks that I gingerly scaled. This was dubious but less exposed.
The summit’s lack of prominence from the S is kind of funny. I saw a slung block and thought I guess this must be it right? Yeah I guess I don’t see anything taller. Downclimbed the summit block (rap line, harness, and rock shoes were just sweet sweet training weight I guess; well that and some peace of mind), bootied a cam that looked somewhat fresh (lmk if it’s yours) and headed down dirt and rock to the glacier where I scored some water from a pool cradled between it and the ridge.
Because I was returning to my bivy near crooked thumb, not perfect pass, I didn’t explore to see if the standard route was blocked by schrund, though I heard a rumor that’s the case. I traversed on rock, passing below Challenger 2 to the area I scoped out the day prior. Exposed face in downclimbing with my light tool and a pointy rock ensued. The snow was in good shape for this, not too slick or punchy. The rock turned out to harbor one little crux at the bottom but it was all right. Good snow bridge got me back on the glacier.
Since I found the solar pass descent harder than expected the day before I decided to try the Middle-West descent. There are slung blocks but the angle looked mellow and there seemed to be plenty of holds. Stemming and smearing worked well (but would have been hard in boots) until it deteriorated to dirt for the last 10-12 feet. Crap, I bet this part is often covered in snow. I got through it one way or another, but learned that I wouldn’t want to ascend this way due to the dirt.
The route I had taken to camp the day before seemed like it may have given its last gasp, at least for a soloist without a lot of gear. The snow was still continuous on the left side, but was steep and passes above cliffs and crevasses. There were also still hidden cracks starting to materialize in the flattish section leading to the left side. For these reasons the right side would be much more preferred (more direct, shorter duration of exposure) but didn’t look so viable anymore. So I carefully went up and around the left side.
This was the most adventurous day of the trip but at <10 hours the shortest and least physically difficult. I relaxed at camp and for some reason didn’t do the math for how long of a day awaited me.
Day 4 - a funny thing about this bivy spot is the W aspect, with tall cliffs above it. Sun didn’t reach me till 8:15 and it was pretty cold before then. I was in no hurry, took a while to pack everything up and didn’t leave till close to 10. This was pretty dumb, I should have started much earlier. And part of the route was still in shade even at 10am, so waiting didn’t help. The snow was pretty frozen and I was glad to have a tool and my steps from the day before stamped in the snow. It was an hour of tedious face-in diagonal downclimbing, swinging my tool and kicking feet for most of that time, to cover 1/4-1/3 of a mile.
When I bottomed out I tried the Solar pass strategy again, but started lower, finding really nice and fun granite. I wrapped around that ridge and followed it a little too high. Because a portion of the glacier between me and the pass had melted down to ice, I had to a slight ascent, traverse W, and descent to access the pass.
On Challenger glacier I had my tracks from 2 days prior for reference, but things seemed significantly different. Probably some combination of noonish instead of morning, down instead of up, and 2 extra days of melting. It was stressful and I regretted being there, could not wait to get off of it. It was quite apparent that the crevasses were deep and wide and snow between them was not confidence inspiring. One of the sketchier looking parts was on the edge of the glacier, only 100 feet from reentry to rock.
I didn’t notice on my way up to perfect pass how non-obvious the route is. Steep and weaving. At the impass I made a nominal effort to locate where I had crossed but got lured too high up the face. From there a horizontal traverse seemed possible but what would it look like on the other side? I had endured so many tenuous traverses in the past few days. Instead i downclimbed and reassessed from below. I tried again, finding an easy ledge but still ended up crossing too high. This ended with a short but slick and featureless slab at the bottom of the chute on the W side of the crest. Not fun!
Rubble on the way to Easy peak was easier on the ascent than it had been coming in. I got to the old lookout, digging the views and checked the time - 5:30. Wait didn’t it take 8 hours to get here on the hike in? Crap!
I ate caffeinated jelly beans and became a reluctant participant in mountain running, slow jogging down easy ridge. Great spot for it. Knees took a beating but handled it surprisingly well. I reached Chilliwack before dark, crossed on logs this time and tried to get stoked for the hike back. I had perfectly natural and reasonable feelings like this sucks and why I am doing this, but I was able to dispel these with counter arguments like hey it’s just walking, walking is no big deal. Maybe this is fun. This worked well until Hannegan pass when I couldn’t ignore that every part of my body ached. I reached the car at 1230, so far all that ass busting it was only an hour faster than on the way in, so maybe not worth it.
Approach shoes, steel strap-on crampons, light tool Approach Notes: