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[TR] Poltergeist Pinnacle (Mt. Challenger)- East Face (New Route) 7/4/2004


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Climb: Poltergeist Pinnacle (Mt. Challenger)-East Face (New Route)


Date of Climb: 7/4/2004


Trip Report:


On July 3, Dan Aylward and I hiked to Perfect Pass via Hannegan Pass/Easy Ridge. On the 4th, we traversed around Challenger Arm and climbed a new route on the east face of Poltergeist Pinnacle, one of the most prominent sub-summits on the ridge between Mt. Challenger and Crooked Thumb. We belayed 3 x 60m pitches (5.9+R/X, 5.8, 5.8) and then simulclimbed ~800 feet (up to 5.7 but mostly low 5th). From the summit, we traversed the ridge crest north to the summit of Mt. Challenger (1.5 hours, mid-5th) and descended the standard route back to Perfect Pass (12.5 hours round trip). Hiked out on the 5th.


pickets e. wall with line.jpg


The Long Story

Is a grudge match resolved if you have a successful trip but still don’t climb your original objective? Does it even count as a grudge match if you never actually started the route in the first place? And what is the best approach to the North Pickets, anyways? None of these questions were resolved during our trip.


In 1999, we had hiked into Luna Cirque with 10 days worth of food. Unfortunately, the day after we established ourselves at camp on the rock thumb below “Waiting Tower,” it started to rain and didn’t let up until the day we had to hike out. Typical. During breaks in the weather, we scoped out a promising line on Swiss Peak. We had even reconned the approach through the icefalls. But year after year, weather, family obligations and other factors have prevented a return trip. Finally, we penciled this trip into the calendar almost a year in advance.


Our plan to climb a new route on Swiss Peak in three days round trip didn’t allow a lot of room for delays, but they built up anyways. I think the people who investigate airplane crashes call this the “cascade of failure.” The ranger station in Glacier doesn’t open until 8 and only issues backcountry permits in person, so we weren’t hiking on Saturday morning until 10. The hike went fairly smoothly until fog enveloped us just beyond the Imperfect Impasse, with the result that we hiked up the wrong snow finger and had to descend 800’ before turning back uphill to Perfect Pass. We were quite tired by the time we finally pitched camp at 10 pm; between dinner, water and snaffle-proofing, it was 11:30 before we were horizontal.


This was the death knell for our planned alpine start the next morning. In fact, it was 8:00 before we set out across the Challenger Glacier, following two parties who had gotten up at a more typical hour. After turning the corner of Challenger Arm, we began a long descending traverse across Luna Cirque. We were following what we could remember of our route from five years ago, but it’s never easy finding the best route down a convex slope of crevasses and seracs. At 11 a.m., we reached a dead end in an icefall. No way to get to Swiss peak without going back up and around, at least another hour lost. We were already much later than planned; the build up of delays had caught up to us. Time for plan B.


Along the ridge crest from Mt. Challenger to Crooked Thumb, one spire is particularly distinctive because of a huge shield feature at the base that is streaked by hundreds of dykes that crisscross the face like bolts of lightning. A line on this face would have been our second objective back in 1999 had everything gone according to plan. In keeping with the theme of Ghost and Phantom Peaks, we dubbed this Poltergeist Pinnacle. In addition to the intriguing shield at the base, this face boasts very featured, clean and solid rock. A steep face borders the shield on the left and arches above it to mid-height on the face; above, the angle leans back in a wide trough bordered by jagged buttresses on each side.


22 with line.jpg

Poltergeist Pinnacle from below




Having given up on our first objective, we picked the second on aesthetics: ignoring easier cracks to the left

which would have required a long traverse up higher, we gained the rock just left of the shield. We stepped across the moat below a crisp dihedral. Twenty feet above the snow, Dan left the security of the corner – which blanked out 80 feet higher - and tiptoed rightward across parallel dykes for 40 feet to the very edge of the face. Wild face climbing past an overlap led to more featured climbing along the edge. Dan’s lead was quite bold; the only reason he wasn’t risking a groundfall for the entire first half of the pitch was because the moat was easily a full ropelength deep. Cracks at mid-height finally offered some relief. I’ve never climbed a pitch like this in the mountains, all smearing between dykes, intrusions and shallow depressions, like Lover’s Leap with snow in the background (and no bolts). The pitch ended at an excellent belay alcove 55 meters above the snow.




The second pitch was much more straightforward, a full 60 meters up a clean and easily protected corner system with a small roof at mid-height.




A third full ropelength pitch traversed left after 10 meters, around two corners, to reach a weakness that breaks through to the top of the steep lower face. Somewhat tricky, but not a mind-bender like the first pitch. From an ample ledge, two long pitches of simulclimbing led to the ridge crest. We started in the wide trough in the center of the face, then moved right onto a sharp buttress crest to find more solid rock and less snow. The rock finally changed from solid granite to standard Pickets funk about 100 meters below the summit, but by then the angle had kicked way back and the only trouble we had was a 20 meter section of snow climbing in our rock shoes.




We thought about trying to descend directly to the west, but finally decided that the easiest way down was to go up. We turned north and began simulclimbing towards the summit of Mt. Challenger, which we reached in about an hour and a half. This was generally pretty moderate, and the rock reasonable, though we certainly made no attempt at a true crest traverse. We were interested in speed over purity, and cut below the endless gendarmes wherever possible, including the final tower on Challenger’s main summit which we passed on the west side. We did loop back up the standard route to the true summit (who can resist all those fixed pins?) which we tagged at about 7:45 pm; following the well-trodden track across the glacier, we were back in camp in just over an hour.



Traversing towards challenger, looking south


The hike out on Monday took a bit under 10 hours, memorable only for the blisters. Swiss Peak may have to wait another five years for those memories to fade a bit, but it already feels like unfinished business. So I guess we did answer that question about the grudge match after all.


Approach Notes:

It is approximately 16 miles from the Hannegan Pass TH to Perfect Pass via Easy Ridge, with ~7,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. It is an additional 3 miles of glacier travel, with ~1,500 vertical feet of elevation gain to the base of the route. The route gains about 1,500 vertical feet to the summit of Poltergeist Pinnacle and another 300’ of net gain to the summit of Challenger (with lots of up and down). Finally, the return hike from Perfect Pass involves abound 3,500’ of elevation gain.

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Wow, of all the places in the cascades to have two parties poking around in... smile.gif Did you actually see the two parties, or was it just prior tracks you were following? If the latter, it was perhaps Wayne and I. It's amazing we climbed right over the summit of your object on our way. You may have seen some of the webbing we left...


I am surprised the rock was decent on the face itself. The ridges in the area left quite a bit to desire...


To (not) answer your question, the best approach into Challenger was unresolved for me as well. The way you went is a tad longer in milage than little beaver. I think little beaver would probably be a shade easier if the way was clear, but the numerous brushy sections, washouts, etc. probably makes it the harder approach at this point. I think I would consider a car shuttle at this point so I could enter through hannegan and leave through big beaver myself. Just a thought...

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not so terrifying for me with a top rope! an impressive lead to watch for sure.


josh, we did see the two parties (4 & 2 people respectively) as well as 2 camped in the basin below perfect pass and 4 more who turned back after getting a look at the impasse... i'll bet there were more people in the n. pickets last w/e than the entire rest of the year combined!


to be honest, i didn't think the rock was that bad on the ridge crest, although it was way better on the face. very loose in some places, of course, but fairly solid wherever it was steep.


as for the approach, i think you're right, if the little beaver trail was in good shape, that might be the easiest way... easy ridge has just enough obstacles (unmaintained trail, the impasse) and enough up and down to be kind of a pain, but this was our third time on it, so we figured it would be fastest for us.

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forrest, I just looked at your pics again, and it seems on the one pic that you are traversing the ridge, you are opposite of where we were. The most nasty spot was between crooked thumb and challenger, but closer to challenger as I recall. It was just a shade left (going our way) from the crest. Perhaps we missed a more solid way. All and all, however, I would agree...it certainly wasn't constant death rock or anything.


I would agree about more people this weekend than the entire rest of the year. My guess is because most people spend several days getting in and out of challenger, it's easiest for them to do it on a 3-day weekend. I guess we missed seeing the majority of the people (save Iain's party) since we were a couple of days earlier.


BTW, right on! looks like a great climb!

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Last time we went into Luna Cirque (also the first time for us) was in '99. Four of us (Tim Matsui, Marshall Balick, Forrest and I) hauled huge heavy packs (food for 9 days and a Himalayan Hotel for shelter) up there in late July. There was much more snow then than now, even though it was later in the season - the winter of '99 was a huge snow year.


The weather was beautiful during our entire 3-day approach. However, once we set up camp, we got hammered by rain all week long. The only thing we did was a traverse from the Challenger/Crooked Thumb col (we followed the snow couloir up to the col) toward the summet of Challenger. Simul-climbing as four people on a single rope, we went slowly, and then the rain came once again. Before reaching the summit of Challenger, we rappelled down to the west side and followed the valley back up to the top of the Challenger Glacier, then wrapped back around Challenger Arm to our camp, arriving at about 11:30 at night in the pouring rain.


Halfway through our stay, we transferred camp over to Luna Col by dropping all the way down to Lousy Lake and going back up the other side. On the day we had to leave, the weather once again returned to bomber blue skies! We ran up Luna, and then headed out Access Creek, which was enough of a bushwhack to leave the strong impression that coming in Hannegan Pass was the better way to go. In addition, the trail out Big Beaver was much longer than we expected (somehow, 6 miles was in our minds... we couldn't understand how 6 miles could take us so long!)


It was interesting that our climb last weekend allowed us to finish the traverse that we started in '99... :-)



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5.9 R/X way back there sounds terrifying! way to go!


Jeez, I'd like to appear as if I whipped up the thing without thinking, but that would be pretty far from the truth. tongue.gif


Right at that point where the "runout on dikes" picture is taken, I hemmed and hawed for probably 20 minutes. There was a solid 5.9 move there, sort of a mantle onto a sloping dyke, and it just did not feel secure, and it was very obvious to me that a fall would be bad bad news. On the other hand, I'd already done some moves I didn't want to reverse to get up there. It was a total mind-bender, just like Forrest said. I finally was able to corral my fear and put my creativity in gear... I found another couple features I could use as a handhold and a foothold, and it turned out to not be so hard. Even so, after I pulled the little roof you can see above me, there was still no gear for another 20 feet or so. At least the climbing was a bit easier.


And the rock was super solid and clean and the climbing was sooo fun... if I could concentrate on it instead of deathfall! Definitely one of the more memorable leads I've ever done!



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Having approached via Hannegan/Perfect Pass twice, and exiting via Wiley/Eiley twice, and in and out Access creek once, I would vote for accessing the northern Pickets via Hannegan and exiting via Access (unless you just climb in the Challenger cirque). Wiley/Eiley is pretty long and nasty but quite pretty (I won't go do it a third time, however).


Friends of mine just did a 7 day traverse entering via Little Beaver/Whatcom Pass and out Access creek (I was supposed to be there but house renos took away my annual (almost true) picket trip). They climbed Whatcom, Challenger, Luna and Fury along the way. They said getting around Whatcom was pretty easy. They were at perfect pass in an easy 1 1/2 days from the boat drop off (1/2 day of trail walking - 12 miles to camp before whatcom pass - and then an easy day getting up the pass and then around Whatcom. They had planned on the north ridge, but they were getting hammered by the snow and rain.


So if you want to avoid a long car shuttle and don't mind a boat ride in, Whatcom sounds good as the access point for the Northern Pickets.


With a 8:00 am boat ride and a light pack, one can be at Luna Pass in a day from the boat launch via Access creek, although it is a long day. You can also exit from Luna pass in a day without a boat ride. Makes a 3 day Fury/Luna trip possible.

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after reading Josh's TR about his and Wayne's trip, I wonder how "easy" the approach really was for my friends. Will have to wait for more details, as what I got came from a cell phone call while they were on the summit of Challenger last week and now they are on Formidable.

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