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best of cc.com [TR] Northern Pickets- Old Guys On Vacation 8/3/2005

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Climb: Northern Pickets-Old Guys On Vacation


Date of Climb: 8/3-10/2005


Trip Report:

This TR got a bit long (hey, it was a long trip), so here's the short version for those that aren't interested in the novel below. An old climbing partner and I just got back from 8 days in the Northern Pickets. We went up Little Beaver trail to Whatcom Pass, over Whatcom Peak to Perfect Pass, across the Challenger Glacier and up Challenger, down around into Luna Cirque, up the North Buttress of Fury, down and across to Luna Col, up Luna, and finally down Access Creek to Big Beaver and to Ross Lake. Awesome trip in every respect! We just couldn't have had a better time. Details, nostalgic ramblings and photos follow.


My longtime partner Mike and I did our first climb together, the NR of Stuart, back in '77, when we were 29 and 27, respectively. I'd been climbing for several years by then. It was Mike's first climb. Since then, we've done a ton of alpine climbs together, but somehow never got into the Pickets. In particular, we never got to Fury. I've had the North Buttress on my list for (literally) decades. And even though I plan on climbing for many more years, once you're well into your fifties you have to start to realize that there are some climbs on that tick list that you better get to soon if you're going to get to them at all. Something like the NB of Fury is going to eventually become not only too difficult as a climb, but also just too damn hard to get to!


For various reasons, Mike hadn't done much climbing at all since 1999, but he always stays in shape, his rock skills have stayed intact, and he was up for a big trip into an area he'd never been. We actually went in to do Fury's NB last year, but I took care of that attempt by busting up my ankle on the second day (some details here). The trip immediately got put onto the schedule for this year. We were all set to go in on July 6. I was packed and had driven up to Seattle the day before. But the deteriorating weather forecast finally hit rock bottom, so we bailed. A good thing, since the forecast held and it rained a lot that week. We would have been miserable. Mike's next window was August 3-10, so we rescheduled for then. My original thinking was to schedule 8 days for a trip that should take us about 6 solid climbing days, giving ourselves 2 days to either sit out weather or tackle some extra objectives. Maybe Crooked Thumb, and maybe a traverse to Fury's west summit. Or, we could blow through it in 6 days and come out early. As departure day arrived, though, it was apparent that we would probably not have any bad weather days. We were definitely in shape to make this a 6-day trip but, as Mike reminded me a few times, we were Old Guys on Vacation and should concentrate less on trying to accomplish everything in sight and more on enjoying the adventure. So we decided to ease up our pace, drop any thoughts of adding other peaks, and just take all 8 days to do Whatcom, Challenger, Fury and Luna. Definitely a big enough job in itself. So that's exactly what we did and it turned out to be the right choice. Every day was completely manageable, we never got beat up, we typically started our days late and finished early, slept 8 or 9 hours every night, stayed well hydrated, and had plenty of time to relax and read and just enjoy where we were.


We paid the extra bucks for the boat ride to Little Beaver trail, both to save a few trail miles and because we'd never hiked that trail. We both started the 8 days with packs at just over 40 pounds w/o water. We spent our first night 14 miles in at Twin Rocks camp. The next day started with the grind up to Whatcom Pass, where we headed up the north side of Whatcom. We were only headed as far as Perfect Pass, so we spent an hour or so on top of Whatcom before running the 15 minutes down the snow to the pass.


Challenger Glacier from summit of Whatcom Peak



Baker and Shuksan from our camp at Perfect Pass



The next morning we decided to head up the ridge a ways before getting onto the Challenger Glacier. I was curious about what was up there for future camping possibilities (plenty of flat ground and great views if you can find water) and, while dropping directly onto the glacier from the pass would still go, the lower glacier is getting pretty broken up. We eventually got onto the glacier near 7000' and made a more or less level traverse, with no crevasse issues, to Challenger Arm. We dropped our packs there and ran up to the top, again spending an hour or so on the summit. We eventually headed back down, grabbed our gear, and moved down the eastern end of the glacier and just around the corner to a knoll at 6000' overlooking Luna Cirque. Great camping, water nearby, and wonderful views of Fury. A great place to obsess about the North Buttress and worry about just how bad the lower section would be.


The North Buttress of Fury from the summit of Challenger



The North Buttress of Fury from campsite at 6000' knoll below Challenger Glacier



Day 4 was by far our easiest. Even though I'd read that dropping into the cirque from here was pretty straightforward, you almost have to do it to believe it since it looks incredibly imposing from across the way at Luna Col. It was, in fact, no problem at all, and in under 3 hours at an easy pace we were down at a huge flat sandy area that makes a great campsite. I took a hike over onto the rock-covered glacier and up to the base of the North Buttress, just to get a better idea of what we were up against the next day. Mike found water about 10 minutes away. It was very early in the day, so we headed over to the stream with water containers, books, and all of our sweaty, dirty clothes. We had a very relaxing afternoon, reading, rehydrating, and rinsing out all of our clothes and drying them on the rocks in the sun. Oddly, our shirts still smelled really bad afterwards. Go figure.


The next day was really why we were here. Last year we came in via Access Creek and, before I trashed my ankle, our plan was to do the NB as a day trip from a camp at Luna Lake, then continue across to do Challenger before heading out Wiley Ridge. This year we decided to come in from the north and do the climb with full packs. I was really inspired by the trip last year done by the trio of mvs, Der_Wanderer and highclimb. Definitely one of the most impressive trips I've seen written up on this board (TR here). I had a copy of their photo of their right (west) side approach to the buttress (found here on mvs's website) and we totally adopted their very apt terminology of key points on the route. The Ramp, the Swan, the Mudslide, etc. (my mantra for the scary lower section was that everything will be just fine once we reach New Zealand). Their experience on that approach was very helpful for our routefinding. Thanks guys! [While I'm at it, I know I've PM'd iain, wayne w, colin, mvs and I think a few others for info on this route. Thanks to all for the beta!]


The morning of the Fury climb was the only time we even pretended to get an early start. Although we'd be carrying full packs and were planning on camping on Fury's summit, we still wanted to get underway fairly early. We slept fairly well, even though we were hearing lots of stuff coming down the walls of the cirque. Kinda disconcerting when you're heading up one of those walls the next day. We were up by 5:15 and moving in just under an hour. After grabbing water along the way (we started with 3 liters each and, of course, found we could have tanked up much higher on the route) and gearing up at the base of the route, we were climbing by a bit after 7. We were well rested, well fed, well hydrated, and had that spring in our step that only comes from sporting freshly laundered underwear. With clean clothes, we were lookin' damn spiffy and we knew it!


I just re-read The Trio's TR thread and we clearly had very similar feelings about the lower section you have to climb before reaching the ridge crest. It's scary and has some real objective danger. You just have to hope you aren't in the wrong place when the peak decides to unload a random fusillade of rock or ice. It's enough of a crapshoot to have you asking what level of objective danger you're willing to accept. I'm sure it's safer at other times in other conditions. On our day it wasn't necessarily an easy call, but the risk level seemed acceptable and we felt we could stay out of the firing line most of the way. We followed pretty much the same line The Trio did, with a few changes. There was less snow, so we exited the lower Ramp earlier and climbed more directly up to the base of the next Snowfinger. We climbed easy rock on the left side of the Snowfinger, both because the snow was discontinuous, and because staying farther left kept us farther away from any rockfall from above. It was between the Ramp and the Snowfinger that we witnessed our only bad rockfall, as several volleyball-size missiles sailed past us on the right at a velocity that was absolutely chilling. It was one of those times you realize that, if you're in the wrong place, it wouldn't matter in the slightest that you were wearing a helmet.


We moved up in relative safety, hugging the left side as much as possible, until we were at a last protected nook and had to move out right, much more into the danger zone, and deal with the Mudslide. Again, there was less snow for us than in mvs's photo, so we had to more or less climb a couple hundred feet of the Mudslide itself. The Mudslide is a lovely streak of hard remnant ice that is totally infused with black coarse sand. Maybe 35-40 degrees. Very hard and very dirty and very much exposed to rock and ice from above. After very carefully discussing and analyzing all the variables of rockfall, icefall, temperature, slope gradient, snowcover, etc., we decided that our best option would be to use the next few hundred feet as an opportunity to get a feel for our VO2 Max and probe the limits of our anaerobic threshold. In other words, we felt we should run like hell. So off we went at top speed onto the black grit highway. I could just feel my aluminum pons dulling with every step. We moved as fast as we could and soon arrived, gasping, at a slightly protected spot just left of the top of the highest snow. We just seemed to have black wet sand all over us. We took off our filthy crampons with our filthy hands and stowed our filthy axes. Did I mention we had rinsed out all of our clothes the day before? We weren't looking so spiffy anymore. We quickly moved up and left on fairly easy rock, moving further out of danger, and were soon at New Zealand. As I had been assuring myself, everything was indeed just fine now that we were here. New Zealand is a pair of snow patches that kinda mark the place where you are out of serious danger, above the Mudslide, and ready to actually get on with climbing the buttress proper. I liked New Zealand a lot.


This is on our last clean snow. That dark streak ahead is The Mudslide.



Mike de-cramponing after the sprint up the Mudslide



We kept moving up and left through a fair amount of loose rock and soon arrived at the crest. This was probably exactly where The Trio hit the crest. They reported a 5.8 pitch here. I'd almost be tempted to bump it up to 5.9, but maybe that's my pack and boots talking (we didn't bring rock shoes). Above that we simulclimbed at a pretty good clip until we arrived at a comfortable, sunny flat spot at about 7000', just before you either do a short rap or downclimb to a notch. At this point we were clearly looking great for time and would summit fairly early in the day, so we quit trying to hurry at all. We took a long break here, eating and enjoying the sun and the views. Mike took the lead for a couple pitches, we did a lot more simulclimbing, and we eventually found ourselves at the final snow arete to the summit ridge. What a great way to finish this climb!


Mike coming around a very cool and exposed blind corner pitch about mid-buttress. I remember this same pic from The Trio's slide show.



Mike on the final snow arete below summit of Fury. Pure fun climbing this with the summit now so close.



We arrived at the summit at about 3:30, 9 1/2 hours after leaving camp and about 8 1/2 hours from the bottom of the buttress. Carrying full packs up a big route like this is definitely a chore, but it was great to arrive at such a cool summit, after all that work, and not have to think at all about leaving. A few clouds were moving in and it was definitely cooler than it had been. Nothing threatening. Just some marine stuff moving through to enhance the view a bit. We set up our tent on the highest snow, just a few feet from the summit rocks, melted snow, had dinner and enjoyed a great sunset.


Our camp on Fury's summit. Any middle-of-the-night excursions were done carefully. The fall to the left is a couple hundred feet to rocks. The fall to the right is about 4000 feet down the NE Face to the base of the buttress.



Sunset from Fury with clouds rolling over the Luna Cirque crest. Slesse in the distance.



The next day we got an aggressive alpine start of 11:15 AM and started the trek across to Luna Col, our destination for the day. I had done the SE route before and we had no descent issues. We took our time, as usual drinking tons of water at every opportunity. We found far less snow at Luna Col itself than the last 2 years, but water was only 2 minutes down the west side. We spent the rest of yet another lazy afternoon and evening reading and relaxing and enjoying looking back into the cirque.


The next morning we actually got up early enough to start hiking up Luna at about 6:30 AM. We settled for the false summit, since we had a ways to go today, and since we wanted to continue our very rewarding habit of just doing nothing on the summit for about an hour. We eventually headed back down, packed up, and were headed down by about 10. We had a permit for 39 Mile camp, which gave us about 5 miles of trail to cover once down Access Creek. We again weren't in a big hurry. We'd both been down Access Creek before. All I can say about the trip down is that the upper basin was a nice place to stop and soak our feet before the brushfest, and the huckleberries are great right now. At Big Beaver we didn't take even a second to look for a log, being quite happy to grab another opportunity to get our feet wet. We traded boots for Aquasocks and easily forded the stream. Four miles later we were setting up for our last night at 39 Mile camp. This day was actually a pretty long one, and we were asleep pretty quickly.


The next morning we had only 5 miles to the boat dock and it was a really pleasant cruise with what were by now very light packs. I arrived at the dock with not one ounce of food left and a pack down to 33 pounds. When I was thinking about how this trip would go if everything fell into place, there were 4 moments in particular I was looking forward to and that I knew would be especially satisfying. One was sitting on top of Fury with the NB a done deal and not having to go anywhere right away. Then there was sitting at Luna Col, the Fury descent out of the way, on our last night up high, looking back at most of our recent few days of travel. Third was the pleasure of hitting the Big Beaver trail after getting down Access Creek. And, the last moment I was really looking forward to was this:




Our boat was scheduled for 11:30. We arrived at just after 10 to find 4 hikers from Hannegan trailhead waiting for a boat they said was on its way. We'd been thinking about swimming for too long to miss it, so off went the boots and in went we. We probably only lost the slightest fraction of the accumulated sweat and bug juice and sunscreen, but it felt great and allowed us to drive home feeling something less than totally gross. The boat was there within 10 minutes, had room for us, and since we had prepaid, the other party gave us $15 cash to cover half the fare. The trip was wrapping up just great! We hit the store at Newhalem positively craving some instant ramen and Clif Bars, but somehow walked out with beer and potato chips instead. Signed out at the ranger station, grabbed burgers at Good Food, and hit the road for home.


We felt incredibly lucky to have an 8 day trip into the Pickets turn out so well. The weather was perfect. Every day went just as planned. We accomplished everything we were after. It was hard to not smile all the way from the top of Fury (well, okay, the smile went away for a while coming down Access Creek). It was our first serious climbing adventure together in several years, but all the alpine teamwork clicked like it always had. Taking the extra time allowed us to stay energetic the whole time and to really avoid ever feeling trashed. We covered lots of new terrain for both of us, managed to do a long sought after route on Fury, and simply had fun every day. I didn't even break my ankle this time. It was a really gratifying trip with a great partner and old friend. Good times!


Old guys on vacation.





Gear Notes:

Rack of 11 pieces - A few pieces more than enough. Kinda depends on how often you want to stop and rerack. No ice or snow pro and none needed.


30m single rope - This worked really well for us. I had a 50m that I just wasn't using, so I chopped it to save weight on this trip. Fine for glacier travel, and long enough by at least 20' for the Challenger rappel. On Fury it was fine for the 2-3 short sections that we pitched out, and better than a longer rope for all of the simulclimbing.


Betalight with betabug - Just bringing groundsheets for under the Betalite would have been at least a pound lighter, but bringing the bug insert was worth the extra weight. We spent most nights with just the bug net up, and there were enough flies and mosquitoes that it made it far easier for us to get in our critical 9 hours of slumber each night.


Boots - i.e. no rock shoes. There was only the one 5.8ish pitch early on the crest of Fury where it would have been nice to have rock shoes. For everything else on the route, I was much happier in boots.


Ice Axe - no second tool needed


Crampons - Aluminums worked great for me.


Fuel - We took 2 large MSR canisters for my GigaPower. We boiled about 4 cups each of 7 evenings, and about 3-4 cups for 5 mornings, and melted about 5-6 liters worth on top of Fury. We came out with about 1/2 ounce left in one of the canisters.


Cell phone - I tossed this in after reading about others getting cell reception up high in the Pickets, and I got a good signal a week before from West MacMillan Spire. We checked and got a signal on Challenger, Fury and a great signal on Luna. If we had this last year, Mike would have had to only hike from Luna Lake to Luna summit instead of all the way out to Ross Lake when I got injured. We did use ours to change our boat pickup and to make sure we'd find room at 39 Mile camp.


Ibuprofen - The staff of life.




Approach Notes:

Little Beaver trail had a few easy to follow detours and some minor brush. No complaints at all. The whole area is very dry up there. Water was always somewhere, but I'm sure less available than in normal years. The SE Glacier route on Fury is far drier than it was in late August 2 years ago, as is Luna Col and the route down to Access Creek. The stream at 39 Mile camp which was raging at the end of July last year is now dry.


We saw no one at all from just below Whatcom Pass on the Little Beaver Trail the morning of day 2, until we reached Luna Camp on the Big Beaver Trail the afternoon of day 7.

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As a fellow old guy I can really appreciate this TR! Great suff!


Ibuprofen - The staff of life.

== We call it Vitamin I... the drug of choice

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Great TR and awesome pics!

What a nice read and nice change of pace with your attitudes considering SOME of the other TRs around here! rolleyes.gif

Good job. bigdrink.gifbigdrink.gifbigdrink.gif

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I remember turning the corner onto that final snow arete on NB Fury being a big release, knowing it's a waltz to the top.


Even better is kicking back at Luna Col with both picket ranges at your feet at the end of the day. One of the most powerful places I've been in the NW mountains, in my limited experience. Great report, a nice distraction for the day, thanks. I miss it! For those who have not been to Luna Col, it's a place you need to go at least once in your life.

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Beautiful TR! They just keep getting better. Glad you finally got it finished, and that the ankle stayed intact this time!


The pics are great throughout, but the one at the end, with the two of you grizzled, takes the cake. Looking forward to hearing this one over bigdrink.giffruit.gif

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Dang, awesome TR! Congratulations. Loved seeing the same views(like the blind corner pic! wasn't that awesome?) that we saw a year ago. And glad you were able to use the same landmark terminology on Fury!



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That was a great read. I hope I'm climbing such things 20 years from now like you guys! "Hail fellow Furies" bigdrink.gif Glad our TR was a good help.

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Awesome "vacation" guys! That is definitely an area on my list of places to visit. Thanks for the great TR and pictures. It was a great read.

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Killer report and photos. Thanks for taking the time to post them here. thumbs_up.gif

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Fabulous TR. We didn't do the N.B. of Fury in 2003 -- just the S.E. Glacier of Fury and Luna to the true summit. I remember thinking, while sitting on top of Fury, that it feels like being in the very middle of the Magic Mountain Kingdom. I can't think of a more rewarding summit after 20 years of weekend climbing.


We called Jim Nelson from the summit and gave him grief as his name was not in the register. Then we ordered him a large pizza for delivery to the store, C.O.D. Hah!


Anyway, I very much hope to be climbing like you guys when I reach your seriously old age. I'm only 42!




John Sharp

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Awesome trip, writeup, and photos - reminds me of a song lyric: "Damn, it feels good to be an Old Guy." wink.gif


Extra cred for not taking rock shoes!

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