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[TR] Northern Pickets- The "Savage" Traverse (Whatcom -> Ghost) 6/30/2004


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Climb: Northern Pickets-The "Savage" Traverse (Whatcom -> Ghost)


Date of Climb: 6/30/2004


Trip Report:

Let me start by warning you of the ridiculously lengthy trip report you are about to (or not) read. If you don't feel like wading through my mental dribble, feel free to skip to the bottom where I'll give a brief summary. If you want the full version, read on, and hopefully enjoy the story!



The long story made long:


A month or so ago Wayne approached me with an idea for an extended trip up in to the Northern Pickets. We had chatted before, but had never climbed together. Apparently my reputation for doing stupid shit was enough to convince him that I might be interested in little exploration of this amazing area. wink.gif We both figured that it's good for new partners to do a "trial" climb together, and what better place to do that then the most remote wilderness in the lower 48? laugh.gif


After mouth gaping at the awesome pictures from the southern pickets traverse last year, I was sold. I had never been into the Pickets, north or south, and I was about as excited as a 17 year old with dad's car and a box of condoms on prom night.


Early last week the weather reports were calling for a rather extended high pressure system and some scattered clouds. It sounded like it was time to make this thing happen. The plan was to enter the Northern Pickets via the Little Beaver Drainage and start traversing from Whatcom Peak and to get as far as we could, exiting via Access Creek and Big Beaver Trail. We headed in with no beta aside from the map.


Leaving Tuesday night we arrived at the Ross Lake Resort parking lot and car camped. I reminisced the days of my mom rocking me to sleep as I drifted off to the sweet lullaby of rednecks in big trucks and retirees in RVs struggling to make it up the grade of SR20. After a leisurely packing session and breakfast we made our way down the trail to the Ross Lake Resort boat dock. Despite my veins surging with enthusiasm, I couldn’t quite shake the thought of exactly how much goat ass walking back up this trail was going to suck.


Right on time Brett, the friendly neighborhood boat driver showed up to shuttle us off to the glory, sin, exotic women and designer drugs of the Little Beaver Trailhead. Thirty minutes later we arrived at the boat dock, disappointed to find out that the National Park Service lied and, in fact, there would be no drugs, women, sin or glory. Despite my disappointment we headed off on the Little Beaver Trail. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The sign pointed towards a general area where we just *might* find the trail but wasn’t kind enough to let us know which one of the thirty winding trails would actually take us up the drainage rather than to another campsite, a shitter, or a bear box. I think it was literally thirty minutes before we finally started heading the correct direction. Yes, the Mounties would be proud of our elite navigation and route finding skills.


Seventeen and a half miles laid between us and Whatcom Pass. To pass the time Wayne and I discussed the fact that unlike normal approach distances, seventeen and a half miles was so ridiculous that we couldn’t actually comprehend how far it was. Normally you can think to yourself “ok, six miles, that’s just like doing the Colchuck lake approach and then walking around the lake.” I didn’t quite have anything to compare this approach to, so I simply decided to compare it to something that sucked a lot. Turns out, I was pretty much right on. The Little beaver trail is quite overgrown in places and would make a most excellent place to get mauled by a bear as you are pushing through the easy but head high brush. It’s also a really great place to practice your advanced river crossing techniques, which I believe the 8th edition of “Freedom of the Hills” will cover. If I remember, there were a bunch of your standard stone hops, a nice several hundred foot long boots off, near ball soaking wader and finally, my personal favorite, a several hundred foot BW4 schwack to altogether avoid a giant washout created when the mighty rains of October gave the big “fuck off and get out of here” to the Little Beaver Trail.


I was feeling altogether great until the last 500 or 1000 vertical feet of the climb to Whatcom pass. It was at that point when all seventeen and a half miles and the last mile of super steep trail hit me all at once. Low on sugar and water I crashed when I hit the first bivy spot a few feet above the pass. Fifteen minutes later Wayne shows up, scaring the hell out of me since I had managed to fall asleep on the ground already. Apparently he hit the same wall and decided forward progress needed to be halted all of a hundred feet below me. A bivy spot was selected, water was collected, food was eaten and bugs were swatted. It was just another day in the mountains.


After a leisurely start we made our way up from the pass towards Whatcom Arm. As I said, it was my first time in the area, and I was blown away. The climb up the north ridge of Whatcom is classic, in my opinion. It starts as a beautiful snow ridge, turning into a steepish snow climb and finishing with a short scramble. It is certainly nothing technical or difficult, but a natural line on a great looking mountain in an amazing place.


After summiting Whatcom, we made our way down to the Challenger glacier and roped up for the mega-bake oven crossing. The Challenger Glacier, and Mount Challenger itself again blew me away. The brief (and cool!) 5.7 summit finish found us at the top, with me mouth gaping once more. It was here that we got our first link at the insanity that was about to take place – traversing the alpine ridge of the Luna Creek cirque. The cirque certainly looks big on the map, but I think we were both pretty stunned at just *how* big this place was. Crooked Thumb, the next summit on the agenda looked quite a ways away.


Getting off Challenger was the first obstacle and that proved to be troublesome enough. This was where we encountered the nastiest climbing of the trip; a scary traverse over some of the loosest and most exposed ground I have seen. The footing was nothing better than god awful, consisting of shattered small rocks and high angle loose dirt. Hand holds were provided by loose rocks on the right, and to the left was your consolation prize for fucking up: a big ass fall.


Hours and hours of traversing, rappelling and more traversing got us to the summit of Crooked Thumb peak. It’s hard to explain just *why* the climbing is so difficult, but we think it centers around the fact that there is nothing that actually resembles easy ground on that ridge. Most of it is certainly non technical, consisting of 3rd, 4th or low 5th class, but it makes you always stay on edge. You can’t screw up anywhere. The second issue is that the ridge is just gendarme after gendarme. It’s much more involved than what you can see from a distance, or even lower in the valley. While some of the gendarmes might only be a few feet, it’s simply the fact that there are so damn many of them. More often than not, the choices for getting down were either extremely exposed down climbing or a rappel. At some point just before the summit of Crooked Thumb we hit our first interesting gear issue; we had no more rap webbing. This wasn’t because we didn’t bring enough either. We just found so much ground that had to be rappelled we were burning through webbing like weed at a Jamaican family reunion.


It was at this point that we realized exactly how committed we were. There are virtually *no* bail points from this ridge. It drops steeply off both sides the number of rappels to get off in most locations would make bailing impossible. We figured the first legitimate place we could bail would be the Phantom-Fury Col, and that was a long way off at this point. We certainly weren’t thinking we would bail at this point, but the reality of the situation began to enter our mind. The ground between beyond us, particularly up and over Phantom peak looked very time consuming. Given the rate we had traveled all day, which we both believe was quite respectable, it was reasonable to assume it would take another solid day to get over Phantom. Given the fact that we would have to start bailing off slings, gear, etc. at some point, this prospects looked rather grim.


Hours of more of the same climbing finally found us over Ghost peak and a few hundred feet below its summit with fog blowing in and the light fading. Wayne and I were both wasted. A full day of mentally tiring climbing, four summits and not enough water had taken their toll. In addition the weather looked like it could definitely go downhill at any point at which point the situation was going to get a hell of a lot more interesting. We decided it would be in our best interest to bivy before we made a tired mistake, so we got to work clearing a small ledge and making the best site we could given the location. We had no snow, so we would have to go without cooking and split the last 20 ounces or so of water we had. With the thoughts of deteriorating weather, a completely isolated and remote setting and the seriousness of the situation, sleep was not easy to come by.


At 5:30 we climbed out of our bags to slightly better weather but the presence of plenty of clouds. We knew the weather was a crapshoot at this point. We could get lucky, or we could get rained on. Getting rained on would mean pushing our situation to a whole new level. Moderate ground would become very time consuming and difficult ground way well become impossible. It was time to bail. Several hundred more feet beneath Ghost peak we reached a very narrow and nasty looking snow gully. It didn’t look like a very reasonable bail out option, but I started to consider it. Wayne was about 50 feet ahead of me leading up the other side of the gully when we commented that it was impassable and we’d have to find another way. I reeled him back in and told him I thought we should consider trying the gully. He wasn’t optimistic it would go and, frankly, neither was I. For some reason, however, I held a glimmer of hope and thought we could make it work. The reality was that I thought the option of going up and over Phantom to the Fury-Phantom Col bailout looked even more improbable given the circumstances. With that we decided to give the gully a go.


The gully featured the steepest snow down climbing I have ever experienced. It was narrow, unforgiving and frankly quite nerve racking for me. Our one saving grace was that the gully seemed to experience very little rock fall despite looking like a perfect bowling alley. At the bottom of the first snow finger we encountered a crux to get off the snow and onto a rock ledge which we would rap off. The only way to the rock was by down climbing off the side of the snow finger which was literally overhanging, due to melt out from the surround rock. Thankfully the moves were easily accomplished due to our advanced snow/ice tools: a light axe and a ski pole with the basket removed each. A rappel down the rock step and another long section of snow found us at the top of the glacier.


The glacier itself proved to be another obstacle despite the fact that we thought we were now home free. No less than two wondrous bergshrunds separated us from easier ground. We first rapped off the only picket we had then were forced to rap twice down a rock wall to get around the second bergschrund, burning a pin and a stopper. The glacier was a fairly broken mess, requiring some weaving and retracing of its own. Getting off the damn thing and onto the moraine was even more excitement as slabby bedrock, much of it running with water, was interspersed with small sections of talus. The key was connecting the talus sections by traversing across low angle or flat sections of slabby bedrock. I believe Beckey mentions this part of the cirque as possibly “impassable” and it’s pretty damn close.


The real nerve racking experience of the trip was finally over. It was only physical pain from here on out. We made the climb to Luna Lake where we enjoyed a few hours of sleeping in the sun, a hot lunch, gear drying and endless amounts of water. Luna Lake was a beautiful oasis as far as I am concerned. After our rest we made the climb to Luna Col, which I actually found quite a bit easier than I expected. I think the ability for me to get my mind “off edge” made things seem a lot better.


We ran into a party of seven camped at Luna Col, including Wayne’s friend (Marty, I believe?) and our very own Iain. It was cool to put some faces to names. We of coursed laid the whole sappy story on them, hopefully providing some pre-dinner entertainment. smile.gif We were both dedicated to running up and down Luna since it’s a selected climb and neither one of us had an desire whatsoever to return to the area for a while to climb it. Thankfully it’s a quick summit from Luna Col, especially without packs. As Marty, Iain and crew prepared to make burritos for dinner we quickly departed to find a camp lower in the valley to enjoy some deluxe freeze dried goodness.


We ended up making a bivy on a stunningly beautiful knoll overlooking the lower part of the Access Creek drainage. Luna towered impressively above the valley until the clouds came in and obscured it. We then settled in under the ‘mid for some sleep. I, for one, enjoyed one of the best nights of sleep I have had in a while, a sharp contrast to the night before.


We awoke with only one goal for the day: make it to the Big Beaver boat landing before 6pm, when our boat was schedule to arrive to take us back to the land of beer, cars and TVs. Of course, before we could think of that, we had Access Creek to attend to. I’ve had several people describe it as “not that bad” so I’m thinking we screwed it up. It was pretty bad. After the events of the past three days, neither one of us were in the mood to schwak, but schwak we did. The sight of the Big Beaver Creek was a welcome one. Of course, the Northern Pickets just don’t like to make anything easy so a ford of the very fast moving creek was required, followed by another twenty to thirty minutes of schwacking to find the actual trail. The trail was a blessed site, at least for a mile or two, before I began to curse the trail just like the ridge, the snowy gully, the glacier, the moraine and the schwak before it. The damn think went on forever. I received some joy from the amazing trees along the trail but I mostly just wanted to see Ross lake and the boat dock.


We finally caught sight of the dock after what seemed like a day of walking. In reality we were hiking quite fast given our tired legs simply for the fact that we wanted out ASAP. Jumping into the lake (falling in my case) finished off the trip and was a welcome reward. The Big Beaver dock is quite a busy place, and we enjoyed telling our tales to the various families and couples that came and went. A kind couple gifted us a couple of welcomed beers. Bless their kind hearts!


Right on time our ride back to civilization arrived, complete with the beer and chips care package we had left with Brett three days prior. It was good to be going home. Oh, and yes, the walk up the hill really sucked. smile.gif


In summary, the trip kicked ass. In four days we summated five peaks in the Northern Pickets, two of which I am sure hardly ever get climbed. All five were new summits for me, and all but Challenger were new for Wayne. I can hardly call this a failure. More than anything, however, the experience was worth it. The situation was intense and quite nerve racking at times, but we did what we had to do and we did it well. The Northern Pickets, in my opinion, are just brutally amazing. I have been plenty of remote places in the cascades, and plenty of places where travel is difficult, but nothing like the unexplored parts of the Luna Creek cirque. She doesn’t give you anything easy, and that is just the way it should be. smile.gif




The long story made short:


Wayne and I traverse the Northern Pickets from Whatcom Peak to Ghost Peak. We entered on the Little Beaver trail and Whatcom Pass and left through Big Beaver, via Access creek and the Luna creek cirque. We got off the ridge and down to the Luna Cirque glaciers via a steep and nasty snow gully. We climbed Luna peak on the way out. Peaks summited were Whatcome, Challenger, Crooked Thumb, Ghost and Luna.


Da' Numbers:


43+ miles

17,500+ feet

5 summits

4 sore legs

2 scratched up bodies

and god knows how many rappels.



Gear Notes:

Small alpine rack, a bunch of webbing, a picket, super light bivy gear.


One particularly useful piece of gear was a #2 trango ballnut. I felt that the traverse should be more difficult so I dropped this into oblivion shortly before ghost peak.


Approach Notes:

*The Little Beaver trail is really fucking long and washed out in a bunch of places. It also is quite overgrown (but passable) in many places.


*The Big Beaver trail is also really fucking long, esp. when you are tired.


*The guys driving the boats for Ross Lake Resort are awesome.


*Beer is a wonderful thing.

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OK, here are some pics for y'all!



Mount Challanger, Whatcom Peak and Upper Little Beaver Valley





Whatcom Peak from 1st Night's Bivy






Wayne Climbing Up Whatcom's North Ridge






Mount Challenger From Whatcom Peak's North Ridge





Wayne on Sketchy Traverse. This was the mentioned loose rock and dirt section.






Climbing on the Ridge






Wayne on the Summit of Crooked Thumb Peak






Baker and Shuksan from our Night 2 Bivy on Ghost Peak. The Weather became completely fogged in shortly after this was taken.






Luna Cirque Glacier from Below Glacier. All these nasty slabs and talus beneath the glacier were quite tedious to navigate.






Luna Lake and Cirque from Climb to Luna Col. If you look beneath the lowest section of fog, near the center of the picture you'll see two very very thin lines of snow. The gully on the left also has a second smaller snow line. This was our bail gully.









The Sound of Music



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Nice trip & pics! That Baker/Shuksan picture is especially nice. What do you use for a camera?


Believe it or not, those were shot with a Canon Powershot SD110, which is Canon's ultra mini fixed length snapshot digicam. I didn't bring my SLR since we were trying to go as light as possible. I was *really* impressed with the pics such a tiny camera took. thumbs_up.gif

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Nice work on the TR Josh. You are as fun to read as you are to climb with.

Just to add a couple of footnotes...Of course we were trying the complete traverse, but MAN this thing was way more than I expected . If it is ever completed it will be the burliest thing imaginable. Not in terms of technical difficulty but size and intricateness.(is that a word?) There are other issues too with it I wont go into. It is a bit loose but it is VERY committing in terms of exposure and retreat. It is rare that I was as scared as I was. One of the best calls I have ever seen is when Josh demanded that I consider going down the sick looking snow gully to get down after Ghost. It proved to be our lucky charm in the retreat. To try to pin a grade on the thing, I would have to say , V+-5.8 R, loose. The whole traverse could easily be Grade 7!

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We're just hanging out in one of the more remote areas of the pickets and all of a sudden two guys come over the col from the lake. Who the f- is that?


I was witness to that Luna summit. Sickness. Glad to see you found access creek to be a pain too, otherwise I would think I had gone soft. It is a bitch coming up that thing.

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Wayne: intricacy, my man.


Damn smart scientist people types rolleyes.gifwink.gif


Nice job on the degenhardt too! I'm glad ya got some revenge. I have a profound respect on what you crazy people are willing to drag skis through after my battle with access creek! pitty.gif

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Access was bad, but our 13 hour ordeal with terror creek was worse. Sky and Ross were able to go back and cut it down to a more reasonable 7 hours. Ha, I hate being the weekend schwack bitch instead of the sleek mid-week corn Scythe.


Yeah, skis amplify unpleasent approaches. As much as I bitch about access creek we probably on spent 2 hours in there. I just hate slow travel, that's all.


I remember the differnce between bachelor creek (a fairly mild schwak) with skis and without as being very large.

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A notable Picket Pioneer wrote me a series of interesting questions regarding this trip. Here it is:


1. "Did you guys do most of the intervening pinnacles, or the most prudent high line?

2.Had anyone been up Ghost since our '86 climb?

3.Was this a reconnoiter trip (as you did in the Southerns, Wayne) to be followed by the whole Whatcom to Luna line in one gulp at a later date?

(Except for the arête from Ghost-Phantom col to Phantom, then over "Cub Scout Salute" to the notch before "Apparition" (and Swiss), most of it is known. 4.Adding Challenger V,IV,III, and II to the line would be a nice exercise.)

5.If you ran out of rap webbing before CT, were you cutting the rope for raps, ala Bertulis and Half Zantop on the first S to N Picket traverse?

6.Where was Colin? "


Very good Q's! Here goes the answers to the best of my



2.There was no register on any peak except a bad one on Challenger. There was was some newer webbing in places along the way which we had to snag, also found a slightly rusted cam. These items could have been from Forrest M's party ,I would be interested to hear what he did a while back.

3. No , this was a full blown attempt. We had 6 days food gear etc.The weather was obvy coming in and we were staggered by not only the effort it took to get there. We were devastated by the veiw of what lay ahead! I may just try to finish the last half later.

4. It would be grade 7 without the Chall summits, but we were game for them till we found ourselves tired on just the 1st day.

5. Fortunatly no. I took 40+ feet of half inch aid webbing for rapping and we burned it up way before even the crooked thumb.

6. at his age he should be doing drugs and chasing chicks but.He had just done the Terror rt and he doesnt seem super interested in the N. Traverse. Wayne

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the definition of Grade VII is "a remote (usually big wall) climb requiring at least SEVERAL WEEKS." if you could get as far as you did in several days I don't think the whole traverse could be called Grade VII except in hyperbole....

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Wow . great argument you have started here Dru.

I guess I cant really grade a climb I havent done yet. I havent heard of anyone claiming a 7 yet in N. America either. I have operated on the assumption that a 3 is twice what a 2 is and a 5 is half of a 6 and so on. I dont know what one should rate a climb over 100 pitches but 6 seem inadiquate have done many to compare it to. I guess I can call it what ever I want and the second ascentionist can just down-rate it?

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