Trip: Southern Pickets partial traverse -
Ed and I had climbed the Direct East Ridge of Forbidden together in a narrow window between early fall storms, and it had been a magical experience traversing a knife edge above two glaciers, napping on granite slabs in the moonlight, and racing across the Northeast ledges just before sunset. We sought to replicate that experience in an even more grand and remote setting.
The East Ridge of Inspiration seemed to fit the bill. It had a knife-edge ridge with wild exposure, no climbing harder than 5.9, and a fantastic wilderness setting. The problem was that the usual Terror glacier approach would require navigating a maze of tottering seracs. That left few options, until I stumbled on a report from Colin, Mark, and Wayne, local heroes who still seemed mortal to me then. Finding their trip report was the first time I’d ever used the internet to search for climbing information and my first introduction to cc.com. Alas, this insidious website has since vaporized many hours of my life.
Traverse the ridge. It was a simple idea. We’d ascend a snowfield that looked to be crevasse-free, climb up and over and around five photogenic, unnamed towers to get to Inspiration, ascend the East Ridge of Inspiration, descend the West Ridge, and head on toward Pyramid and Degenhardt if possible.
If light is right then lighter must be righter, right? We would soon find out. Where some would trade tents for sleeping bags and bivy sacks we would bring only one space blanket apiece. We had one iceax between us and a single 60m rope. Our lack of gear and minimal glacier experience, combined with late season conditions, meant that retreat across the Terror glacier would be impossible. Once we started, the only way off the ridge would be forward or backward.
Ours was the only car at the trailhead. We got a lazy start. After four miles of overgrown logging road and easy conversation in the afternoon sunshine, we encountered a dilemma:
Thirst and ethics began a dialog. This had either been stashed by climbers to reward their own masochistic adventures or else a group of social scientists were hiding in the bushes to film their carefully designed experiment. This quaffing quandary was quickly resolved. First, to steal another’s victory stash might unleash karmic forces we knew we’d need on our side. Second, we had not yet earned any victory beers as our own quest had barely begun. So we topped off our water bottles, took an altimeter reading, and pressed on.
Just before the overgrown road ended a small trail took off up the mountainside in the true spirit of a climber’s trail: straight up. Blueberries, moss, and singing birds softened the pain of the ascent. The weather was good. The world was fresh and new, and civilization and responsibilities were quickly fading behind us.
The descent to the camping area presented the first unexpected challenge: five hundred vertical feet of packed dirt, sand, and rotten rock. Every step and handhold involved crumbling rock and impossibly hard dirt. I crimped tiny solid edges and tested the limits of my flexibility between distant toe-holds in solid dirt. The Pickets gods were mocking us. Where else can one be humbled by a third class slope on the approach?
The campsite flats looked barren from a distance, but when we got there the afternoon light cast its glow on a perfect bonsai garden of moss, tiny flowering plants, and a myriad of flowing rivulets.
We ate cold Thai food, drank the cool waters, and tried to relax.
But we couldn’t take our eyes off the jagged line of peaks that loomed before us. The Southern Pickets in full glory. This was why we'd come.
We scampered across the slabs past a frozen lake as twilight set in about us. We planned to bivy at the notch at the West end of West MacMillan Spire. We started up the snow slopes as darkness enveloped us. Ice worms emerged to feed and mingle, and they attracted a host of birds and spiders intent on consuming them. We were visitors in a strange land indeed. I stabbed my nut tool into the steepening snow.
We plodded along until soft snow gave way to crumbing rock. At last we reached the notch. Now we’d see if we could sleep. The winds picked up. We found a semi-sheltered area of rocks and tried to settle down, Ed on the rope and packs and me on my sleeping pad. We wore all of our clothes and climbed under our space blankets. Time passed slowly until dawn.
Morning light and clouds don't need explanation
But the ceiling was coming down.
Even the insects were hunkering down for bad weather,
But we began traversing the towers in the mist.
We kept the camera bagged due to wet weather, and climbed over, and around the five towers. The East Ridge of Forbidden didn't disappoint, with a very nice 5.8 lieback followed by a fantastic 5.9 hand crack in an unreal setting, which we climbed just as it got dark.
We spent our second cold night perched on top of a large ledge above this crack, with a drop-off on three sides around us.
Periodic gaps in the swirling clouds revealed a myriad of stars during another sleepless night.
Dawn was stunning.
We peered down at the 5.9 crack I’d lead at sunset the night before.
We looked back on the towers we'd traversed.
With impassible (for us) glaciers to the left,
and the right,
we could only continue our traverse.
It's hard to capture on film, but the route to the top of Inspiration includes a stretch with an 18 inch wide ledge that drops over a thousand feet on either side.
We approached the summit.
Rappels off the West ridge of Inspiration were straight-forward and we soon stood at a small notch. We still had no snow to melt or water to drink.
Our enthusiasm for climbing Pyramid was waning in the face of dehydration and sleep deprivation.
We decided to seek water and rest, but the West face gully stood in our way.
Every rock seemed poised to slide, and when dislodged would trigger a cascade of tumbling stones ranging in size from peas to refrigerators.
It was a strange and scary dance to avoid getting crushed. The rope was no help.
After a few hundred feet we were able to scramble up an unprotected rock step to gain a series of sloping heathery benches.
We traversed toward the imposing Barrier.
I now doubted if we could traverse the spine of this beast in our return to civilization.
We continued diagonally upward until we came to a decent patch of snow. Water at last! It had now been 36 hours since we’d filled our bottles and 16 since we’d had a drop to drink. Ed set to work slicing up the snow and I fired up the stove. Over the next several hours we slowly rehydrated and took turns napping in the only sheltered spot available.
Degenhart loomed above us.
This was when we shifted to night mode – with the expectation that it would be easier to nap in the relative warmth of the afternoon – lying out on rocks, sheltered behind the snow remnant – and travel at night when it would be colder. We dreaded the nighttime cold, particularly as our shelter from the elements now consisted of little more than scraps of Mylar. Duct tape could only do so much.
But how could we navigate at night? The digital camera! Late afternoon offered fabulous views of our intended route to the Chopping Block (aka Pinnacle Peak). A few odd-shaped snow remnants would serve as landmarks to guide us to a steep gully leading to the plateau below the Chopping Block. We snapped pics as the clouds parted at sunset and prepared to depart.
Thankfully, our photo-navigation strategy worked: Pass the double diamonds, ascend at the left bull horn, and avoid the crouching cat and laughing turkey.
Our target gully consisted of superhard dirt covered in tiny pebbles, but we gained the ridge and hunkered down to rest in the pre-dawn hours. It was clear and cold.
I was determined to get the most out of the tattered remains of my space blanket.
Both of us lost feeling in our toes that night, but the morning sun brought mercy.
We melted snow for breakfast
And headed up to climb the NE ridge of the Chopping Block.
A lovely little route, with great views. Nice helmet! Note double diamond landmark.
The descent from the barrier started as an amiable amble through blueberries,
And then it got steeper.
Soon, we were rapping through shrubbery in the dark.
At last we reached Terror Creek, utterly spent.
We crossed Terror Creek between sets of waterfalls.
Ed rigged a hand line that I was grateful to have.
After thrashing in the bushes a bit, we found the logging road and our reward.
We stumbled down the trail in the dark to our car.
Pickets baptism complete.
Approach: MacMillan Creek.
Gear: More than we had.