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AOC

[TR] Whatcom, Challenger, Luna Cirque, Luna Peak- 8/4/2006

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Climb: Whatcom, Challenger, Luna Cirque, Luna Peak-

 

Date of Climb: 8/4/2006

 

Trip Report:

This trip report is far too long. But I'm a long-time lurker who suddenly has a lot to say.

 

I’m from upstate New York, and my partner, Henry, is from Chicago. A third partner, Dan, is from New York by way of West Virginia. He recently moved to Burlington, Washington, in part to climb in the North Cascades full-time. We’ve made annual trips to the Cascades in recent years to climb marquee routes on the volcanoes, Mt. Stuart, and in the Cascade Pass and Washington Pass areas. This time, we wanted in deeper. It was time to head into the Northern Pickets.

 

The original six-day plan was to climb Mt. Challenger via the Little Beaver trail and Whatcom Peak, descend into Luna Cirque, climb Fury North Buttress, and finally Luna Peak before hiking out to Ross Lake trailhead. The itinerary was inspired by Donn V’s excellent 2005 trip report, “Old Guys on Vacation.” Donn V. and his partner completed the trip in a relatively leisurely 8 days. I too am an old guy, born during the Eisenhower administration. I could have benefited from a few cushion days built into the schedule. But Henry is considerably younger, has a toddler at home, and at the last minute could only get away for 5 days. As it turned out, we had to skip Fury and it still took us 5 ½ days to complete the circuit.

 

To save nearly $200 in airport-zone car rental surcharges, I grabbed a cab to downtown Seattle, rented a vehicle, made the obligatory stop at the REI Reichstag, and then doubled back to Sea-Tac to pick up Henry, whose flight was 5 hours late. We inched our way north on I-5 to Dan and his wife Michelle’s place in Burlington. Thence began the ritual shucking of gear and supplies until the loads weighed about 35 pounds.

 

Mistake #1. Because we didn’t know when we’d arrive at Ross Lake, we waited until the next morning to call the resort for a water taxi ride to Little Beaver trailhead. The short-range boat was engaged ferrying guests (and their crates and crates of beer) from the dock to the resort. The long-range boat was rumored to be at the far end of the lake. After a considerable wait, the long distance boat materialized, and for the bargain price of $95 (recently raised from $70) we enjoyed the scenic ride to Little Beaver trailhead, with views of the Colonial Glacier peaks, Jack and Hozomeen mountains. We paid $30 more for the return trip via Big Beaver, and confidently told the driver we’d call from a cell phone up high to make arrangements for a pick up (mistake #2).

 

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We settled into a comfortable all-day pace on the nearly level trail, passing through groves of giant cedars, with occasional views of the river and the surrounding lower peaks, before plopping down 14 miles later on a sandy riverbank just shy of Twin Oaks campground. The next morning the views opened up as we gained elevation on the way to Whatcom Pass. The huge waterfalls streaming from the north side of Wiley Ridge were especially impressive. Dan, whose lone regret about moving from New York is the relative inaccessibility of ice climbing in the Pacific Northwest, displayed his extreme desperation by openly contemplating a return trip to these glacier-fed falls in winter, armed with tools.

 

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Half-way up the trail to Whatcom Pass, Dan and Michelle confessed they weren’t feeling up to the mountain route, and would return to Big Beaver via the trail over Beaver Pass. This was probably a wise choice because Michelle started climbing less than a year ago. Although none of the peaks is technically difficult, the long mountain route was guaranteed to inflict the kind of pain normally unassociated with vacationing newlyweds. (Plus, I think Henry and I were beginning to smell by this time.) We said our goodbyes, and (mistake # 3) failed to ask them to cache a little food for us on the way out.

 

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It was hot and, as advertised, Whatcom was loose and exposed, especially the last thousand feet, which was mostly rock with two short snow arête sections. We stopped frequently to tank up – abandoning water treatment now that we were above the fear-inducing “Little Beaver River.” Whatcom has excellent views for an “approach” peak – Mts. Redoubt, Spickard, Shuksan, Baker, Challenger, Luna. And off in the distance – the most alluring one of all . . . Mt. Slesse. After climbing down the ridge a short way, we made quick tracks down snow to Perfect Pass, where we camped for the night.

 

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The next day dawned clear and was, by far, the easiest. We roped-up, traversed the Challenger Glacier, and dropped our packs on some rocks about 2000 vertical feet below the summit. Here we were delayed by lack of water, and had to melt snow – the only time during the trip. The climb to the Challenger summit area is a breeze with a wide crossing of the bergshrund on the right, followed by a short moderately steep snow section. I lugged up rock shoes because Nelson and Potterfield rate the short rock section at 5.7+, and I am only a 5.8 Gunks leader. Courage, fellow lurkers, for 5.7+ it surely is not. More like one move of 5.4. We spent a long time on the summit, admiring the north buttress of Fury, knowing (but not yet openly acknowledging) that we couldn’t get up it in the allotted time. I tried the cell phone (a Tracphone) without success; we rapped 40 feet, and were back at our packs in 45 minutes.

 

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We traveled down Challenger Arm and rehydrated an early dinner from our dwindling food supply. Mistake # 4: We thought we could get away with splitting freeze-dried meals and packed only five. The packages say “makes 2 servings” but that’s true only if you are 4 years-old, or have undergone gastrointestinal bypass surgery. The calorie content is far too low for this level of activity. Unsatisfied by half portions of Kung Pao chicken, we began to pick our way down Luna Cirque, consciously trying to stay to skier’s right. The going was surprisingly clear on snow, scree, and talus. For a while it actually seemed like we were on course. But we soon found ourselves in the scrub on steepening terrain. We tried to push right through the trees but found the way blocked by steep drainages. Archeological finds (e.g., vintage 70’s orange knit cap) confirmed we were not the first suckers to be lured down the major waterfall on the north rim of Luna Cirque. We should have pushed very far right when we were still high on the rim (mistake # 5). We broke out the skinny rope, glad to have the full 60 meters. (I had considered chopping my old rope in half for the trip.)

 

Three raps, two from trees another from nuts, brought us to a broad, gently sloping ledge where we decided to bivy, rather than screw around with tree raps in the dark. We were about 600 feet above the floor of the cirque, directly across from the north buttress of Fury. I couldn’t imagine a better place to spend the night. Although tired, I stayed up late to watch meteors shower over the cirque, and listen to debris crash and rumble down the icefalls.

 

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In the morning (another beautiful day), two down-leads brought us to hikeable terrain. One of them resulted in the only injury of the trip. I thought Henry was down-leading, while he thought I was lowering him down a short section around a corner. When his full weight unexpectedly came on the rope and he swung, whack!, three knuckles on my brake hand smashed against the rock. There was a fair amount of lost skin and bleeding, but otherwise no serious damage. The accident could have been avoided by better communication, or if I had just thought to redirect the belay through the anchor (# 6).

 

It was now the moment of reckoning. It was 8 a.m. on day 4. Even if we managed to summit Fury today, there was no way we could possibly descend the standard route, bushwhack and hike 15 miles by 5 p.m. the next day, when the water taxi stops running. We reluctantly moved on, setting sights on Luna Col as a respectable goal for the day. Next to the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range, Luna Cirque is the wildest and most awe-inspiring place I’ve ever been. Once the decision to skip Fury had been made, we relaxed and just enjoyed being in this stunning amphitheater.

 

The climb to Luna Lake was made easier by a snow ramp on the lower reaches of Fury Glacier, allowing us to bypass horrible scree slopes. Above the ice floe-laden lake, we found the way clear for a while but soon lost track of the route. I thought the path would be well-trodden, but now realize very few people venture into the cirque. We eventually gained the long heather and talus slopes leading to Luna Col by climbing a short, wet 4th class section on the right several hundred feet above the lake.

 

At this point Henry announced that, not counting our one remaining freeze-dried meal, he was down to one Gu packet and a liter of Cytomax. I was a little better off for food. But we’d still have to endure the next day and a half on about 500 calories each (# 7). Luckily, hunger pangs are easier to endure when you are camped at a place like Luna Col, which, along with the summit we casually climbed the following morning, has the best view of any place I’ve been in the Cascades (better even than Sahale). Unluckily, my cell phone didn’t work on Luna Peak either, and without a water taxi pick-up, our reverie was dampened by the thought of 7 additional miles, or a total of 22, back to the car. Just in case, we stowed away our 2 remaining Gu packets to propel our bodies those last 7 miles.

 

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Finding the correct ridge crossing at 6100 feet leading to Access Creek involved about an hour of trial-and-error. We descended too low and should have stayed higher on the southeast flank of Luna (# 8). At one point, the heather slopes got so ridiculously steep we actually put crampons on. (No one was there to laugh at us, so what the hell?). One hour of scree-skiing and talus-hopping brought us down to the creek, where we rested and steeled ourselves for the bushwhack ahead.

 

I’ve always wondered about the fearsome reputation of Cascades bushwhacks. I’ve done a lot of bushwhacking on Adirondack trail-less peaks in New York – where the firs sometimes press so close your feet can leave the ground for 50 yards at a time. Devil’s club? Slide alder? How bad could it really be? Pretty bad it turns out. We thrashed through heavy slide alder close to the creek, mainly on the north side, before the terrain permitted us to move upslope, where the going was always easier. At times, we were funneled back towards the creek, where we invariably got bogged down miserably. Downed tree trunks often provided the only means of forward progress. It took us over 4 hours to complete this 3 ½ mile section.

 

When we finally reached the Big Beaver River, we were in no mood for tedious scouting of the bank for a safe log crossing. Henry charged into swift current before thinking better of the idea and retreating. Downstream, we found a calmer spot, where we waded across in boots. One hundred yards upslope, the trail!! Time to switch to automatic pilot for the 7 miles to 39 Mile Creek campground.

 

Now that I no longer had to think, I became conscious of the pain in my legs and feet. I could tell Henry was suffering too, as he silently marched behind me in the dark. At the campground sign, we found a message from Dan and Michelle, who had been through here a day earlier. It was late and, encroaching on someone else’s site, we threw down the tent, crawled in and went to sleep. As luck would have it, the site we invaded was occupied by a boy scout troop from Cle Elum on a long-distance hiking/canoeing trip around the lake. The leader, a friendly outdoorsman active in the Moutaineers, was carrying a satellite phone, which he graciously let us use later that morning at Big Beaver trailhead dock to call for the boat.

 

Reprieved, we rode the fast boat in a state of pure alpine satisfaction, nearer and nearer to Concrete . . . and Philly cheese-steak sandwiches.

 

 

 

 

 

Gear Notes:

60 m. 8.2 rope

Small rack nuts, med. cams, slings

B.D. Firslight tent

Edited by AOC

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Another Cascade Adventure (TM.)

 

Nothing like a strenuous hike to blow out the pipes. Thanks for the TR and Beta thumbs_up.gif

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Previous experience on other trade route climbs, Lib. Ridge, Stuart North Ridge, etc., when you usually wind up with a bit of extra food doesn’t mean crap when you go into the Pickets. A 45 mile trip through the Pickets will teach a trade route climber many things. For one, Trails are Aid! However I still would not have wanted to carry too much more food given the mileage and our intent to climb Fury N.B.

 

One other thing, I look like a dork in these photos. Oh well, I at least damn well enjoyed this trip and look forward to finishing a north route on Fury or training up for Sleese.

 

Always looking over to that next rise…

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Damn right ! You guys had a good trip for the Pickets and all. Multi-summits are hard and burn massive calories.

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Right on guys! I was hoping to see a post from you guys. Seeing the pics is taking me back to my trip and how much I still DIRELY miss the PNW and NOCA. I will be back next year as well.

 

I know it's not much help now but the best advice DonnV gave me was about the pace and timing of the trip. We specifically took 8 days for an itinerary which could have been done in significantly less time. Neither of us cared. The other thing I did and stuck to my guns on was carrying too much food. I knew the rep of the Pickets and at least wanted to be fat and tired instead of tired and hungry. Note to self: Take something other than Clif Bars for sustainence next time.

 

Anyway, you're out in one piece and the mtns will be there next year (though the glaciers may not). I still hear the calling of N Butt & NE Face of Fury, NF of Terror, the Dagenheart Glacier... Too much to do there... Anyone need a mechanical engineer in Bellingham or Seattle???

 

As Wayne says, "You've been Picketed."

 

Cheers!

Chris

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