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[TR] Northern Pickets (Challenger, Luna Cirque, Fury) - 8/6/2013

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Trip: Northern Pickets (Challenger, Luna Cirque, Fury) -


Date: 8/6/2013


Trip Report:

Obsessing over a few extra ounces of climbing gear seems pointless when you’re already carrying fifteen pounds of food on your back. But the meticulously packed food bag (2500 calories per day) would remain inviolate. You see - I had been to the Pickets once before, in 2006. Then, my careless partner had run out of food in Luna Cirque, 3 days from the Ross Lake trailhead. Bushwhacking down Access Creek with an empty stomach and calorie-starved brain was an Abu Ghraib-like experience I will never forget. This time, “light and fast” would just have to mean a 52-pound pack. I wanted to experience the Pickets with a functioning cerebral cortex.


We snagged a water taxi reservation at the last minute, sharing the ride with Jack Kerouac fans making the pilgrimage to Desolation Peak. Divvying up the boat fare among our three groups threatened to devolve into an Occupy Wall Street Spokes Council meeting until John ponied up our full share and let the Dharma Bums figure it out for themselves. We bid them goodbye at Big Beaver landing and began the 14- mile, old growth cedar-filled schlep to Beaver Pass. Dinner was 12 ounces of something-or-other off our backs. Camped at the pass were Mike and Dale, who planned to climb Challenger, and who we’d see intermittently over the next two days.


The rhyming Eiley-Wiley Ridge sounds like an enchanted location from a fable. But it felt less than magical in its steep timbered lower section, where John (46) and I (54) labored to keep up with Pat (29), a pattern that would be repeated over and over again in the days ahead. But once we emerged into the scrub to that first storybook view of Luna Peak, the Pickets held us constantly spellbound – a wilderness reverie that would endure until we crossed the Ross Lake dam one week later. In 2006, I had hiked to Perfect Pass via Little Beaver and over Whatcom Peak – a long straightforward approach. Eiley-Wiley is shorter but, I think, more convoluted and strenuous. We pitched the Megamid on the ridgeline just before Eiley Lake, planning to climb Challenger and descend to Luna Cirque the next day.




In the morning, we bumped into Mike and Dale just before Point 7374 and followed them north on to the glacier. Before long we all thought better of this direction and backtracked to climb through the notch. I foolishly failed to consult the map and headed straight down, only to be cliffed-out. Pat and I wasted 90 minutes scouting a passage down to Challenger camp. By then, Mike and Dale could be seen heading up the Challenger glacier, having taken the correct line (skier’s right directly below the notch). We rested in the awkward shade of boulders, watching to see how they negotiated the bergshrund. A tiny figure (Mike) could be seen heading up a snow bridge on the right. He climbed down, tried again, and then a third time. Before long Mike and Dale were back at Challenger camp reporting a collapsed snow bridge and desperate overhanging snow on the regular route. They’d been skunked. We opted to postpone Challenger until the next day so we’d have more time to scout an alternate route around the bergschrund.




Clouds and steady rain moved in overnight; it looked to be an enforced rest day. But skies cleared midday and we headed up. A ramp on the left lead to a couple of fun mixed pitches followed by steep snow and the summit rocks. I generously offered the “5.7+” (NOT) crux pitch to Pat because I lead it in 2006 and you need to keep your rope gun happy. We admired the summit view, our eyes lingering on Mt. Slesse in the far distance. I added its NE buttress to my bucket list. We rapped the rock sections and were back at camp in no time. Little did we suspect but the “challenge” in Mt. Challenger was about to begin.






The sky pinkened. Clouds engulfed Whatcom Peak. Lightning streaks flashed across the southern horizon. They struck closer. And closer. We measured their steady approach by mentally counting thunderclap intervals. The wind picked up. Flash – one, two, three – BOOM! The Megamid’s corners snapped free from their rock anchors, flapping obscenely skyward. No one breathed a word. We knew if the tarp blew away we’d be fucked. John and I dove for opposite corners, clutching and leaning into them as if in full self-arrest for our lives, while Pat gripped the vibrating center ski poles. We hung on in silence, fingers aching, for an hour. The storm eased. Pat broke the silence. “I thought Terror was in the Southern Pickets.”






Morning sun had us dried out and hiking down Challenger Arm in crampons on bare ice. (The snow line was much higher this year than in Aug. 2006.) Pat turned the corner and began scouting the route that would lead us to the bottom of Luna cirque. We knew what NOT to do. I had descended too early in 2006 and paid for it with a night on a slabby ledge and some sacrificed Stoppers and biners for rap anchors. We knew to traverse high and descend only when the way down is clear. We recognized the “walk-under” waterfall from photos in trip reports. But the water volume was too high to safely reach it. We were trapped on the smooth slabs. I noticed a huge boulder forming a perfect pinch for a rappel anchor on the edge of the waterfall. I gave Pat the thumbs up sign. Game on.






Pat rapped laterally and walked under the waterfall, soaking his pack in the process. I waved for him to move down slope, following the fall line so we could more safely follow with a fireman’s belay. Somehow, we failed to alert John that he was about to rap over an edge into his own personal Niagara. He looked down, hesitated, skeptically looked up at me and mouthed “Here??!!!” before plunging over the edge into the cascade. Pat fought and maneuvered the ropes ends, reeling John in like a hooked tuna. I followed and got equally soaked. We laughed, high-fived and vowed to build a fire in the sandy cirque bottom to dry out. Only a thousand vertical feet of miserable talus and scree stood in our way now. We looked up and noticed that in the hour it took for our waterfall shenanigans, the sky had darkened and another thunderstorm was fast approaching. We erected the Megamid just in time to avoid the deluge, which streamed harmlessly off the sil-nylon into the deep sand of the cirque bottom. A few hours later we were warming and drying ourselves by a spruce twig fire, witnessing the Perseid meteor shower from one of the coolest locations in North America. The Pickets continued to hold us under its wild spell.






The original plan was to climb Mt. Fury’s North Buttress. I was unsure I could do so with a heavy pack and we planned to play things by ear. By now, it was clear that I was incapable of doing so. But the issue turned out to be moot because the route was completely out of shape. The approach slope was studded with huge, ugly gaps that would have required much climbing on wet slabs. Even the snow arête on the upper third of the route looked largely melted-out. We switched to Plan B: the Southeast Glacier route. Back up the far side of the cirque to Luna Col!


I popped over a rise to see John and Pat stretched out in their underwear on the sandy shore of Luna Lake. “Welcome to Shangri-La,” they yelled before plunging headfirst into the icy water. I tried to follow them but my legs seized up and I high-tailed it back to shore before drowning. Above the lake we broke out the rope for Pat to lead some hilarious, sketchy 5th class moves up through pine trees. The heather and wildflower slopes beyond were out of an alpine dream. I wanted to yodel.




At Luna Col, we set up the shelter on an aerie perch with a commanding view of Luna Cirque, the McMillan Spires, and the Cascade Pass area in the far distance. A clear night served up more meteor showers to enjoy. At dawn, a sea of low-lying clouds revealed hundreds of summit islands as we geared up for Mt. Fury. The key to the Southeast Glacier route is the long roller coaster approach. The climb is essentially over once you reach the glacier itself. We simul-climbed a short section and then Pat charged ahead to scout the route through shitty gullies for the rest of the morning. John executed a full-on self-arrest on wet heather as the old guys struggled to keep up on the traverse. Pat’s excellent scouting brought us directly to the glacier entrance at 6700 feet, where we roped up and skirted a few crevasses on the way to the upper mountain. I chose a harder line through a big moat (prudently handing the lead over to Pat) in order to climb a slender snow arête on the right hand skyline. Unfortunately, the summit register was full as of 2006 and we couldn’t sign our names. I did spend some time reading through it, recognizing the names of some of the bold climbers like Wayne Wallace who have made their mark on Mt. Fury and in the Northern Pickets. We raced down the glacier and barely made it back over the convoluted ridge to Luna Col by dark.










We lollygagged around camp throughout the morning, not anxious to leave this alpine wonderland. Hell hath no Fury; but it has an Access Creek –and it stood menacingly between us and the Big Beaver River. I gritted my teeth and lead us side-hilling miserably through alder patches on the north side of the creek before reaching more open timber slopes that descended eventually to the river. Pat crossed first and constructed a nice log jam for John and me to safely maneuver in rock shoes. After stopping for a long dinner break at Luna Camp, we switched to cruise control and hiked until midnight to 39 mile camp. I broke out the Ipod for the first time and listened to some Bach cello concertos. Pat chose The Smashing Pumpkins. John’s foot, leg and back pains lacked a musical score.


In the morning, I handed the car keys to Pat and we each hiked in reverse birth order the few remaining miles to Ross Lake dam. As I climbed above the dam the last few hundred yards to the parking lot, I encountered a couple who had obviously stopped spontaneously to check out the scenery. “Was this trail hard?” the young woman asked uncertainly. “It depends,” I said, “how far you’re going.” I thought a moment and added, “But it gets better and better the farther you go.”





Edited by AOC

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Awesome! Thank you for sharing. What a trip. Thats funny about the Kerouac fans...I wonder how many people go up there for that reason.

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Congratulations from Mike and Dale! Great meeting all three of you. We were bivied about 3 miles away during the electrical storm, but all we saw was some flashing lights and rumbles, and barely a drop of rain. I heard from folks the next day that the storm was incredible down at Ross Lake, and had started a number of fires, but somehow we missed it.


In 97, another friend of mine and I got caught in a similar storm (though this one lasted 3 days) less than 100 feet from the summit of Challenger, on the by-pass route I assume you guys took to the top. A foot of hail in a few minutes made a lasting impression, as did the flashes and booms separated by tenths of a second.


Its always something in the amazing Pickets.......



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