Friday, November 1, 2013

Pickets Ski Traverse 2013

Dave Neff crossing the Challenger Glacier in 1973. Slesse in upper right.

     It all began in 1973 when my college buddy Dave Neff and I decided to attempt the Pickets Traverse in September, before classes started in the fall. Outfitted with REI Cruiser packs, stiff leather boots (Hanwag Rondoys for me Galibier Super Guides for Dave), wool clothing, ice axe, crampons, 120 foot rope, Stoppers screws, and a week's supply of food, we set out. A route description would have been useful, but someone forgot to bring it.
     Like many of my Picket adventures (135 days spent in the range over 22 trips) it approached epic status: things get difficult, weather hideous, or the unexpected happens. We did have nice weather for our climb of Challenger, but as we descended into Luna Cirque (one of two Pickets crucibles that render alpinists into jelly), wispy clouds began to appear overhead. Our 120 foot rope and four ice screws did not seem sufficient gear to tackle the ice face on Fury's northeast side (these days people ski it) as we tiptoed past.

Dave Neff below summit Mt. Challenger

Dave Neff at Luna Lake, Fury above
     Once out of the cirque we were puzzled as to how to continue the traverse on Fury's backside. Nothing was obvious, although we could look across McMillan Cirque (second crucible) and see the Southern Pickets. The craggy peaks seemed tantalizingly close, but there was a pesky brush-choked valley walled by cliffs in the way.
     Dave peered over the edge and suggested we down climb and rappel into McMillan Cirque, then climb straight up out the other side. Twelve years later Chris Copeland and Josh Lieberman attempted to do that after climbing Fury's North Buttress. In a whiteout they missed the left turn off the glacier leading back to Luna Cirque, and continued down to McMillan Creek. Hemmed in by a tangle of vine maple and slide alders they chose to make for Big Beaver Trail: it took them two days to travel four and half miles.
     I thought it would be the equivalent of stepping into quicksand: horrible wet muck that will be difficult to extricate one's self from. I refused. Dave got mad, hell bent on finishing the traverse as he was. We ended up retracing our route back to Luna Cirque, crossed the Challenger Glacier in a whiteout, and sneaked past tottering seracs on the East Whatcom Glacier.

Alan at Luna Pass 1973
     I made many excursions to the rugged little range reaching summits, or waiting in tents as it rained or snowed: sometimes never seeing the intended objective. But the climbs that added pertinent information in order to ski all the way through were: Fury's North Buttress, a winter attempt on East McMillans North Face, and a south to north traverse in the summertime.
     In September of 1992 Mark Price and I headed into the Northern Pickets for a climb of Mount fury's North Buttress.  We accessed the range from Chilliwack Lake in Canada, and the Chilliwack River Trail. The trail has long been neglected (on purpose due to the unguarded border) by North Cascades National Park. Yes, terrorism and drug trafficking does affect climber's access. That year was the last time I remember the trail being barely passable; now it is a nightmare of giant windfalls and overgrown trail. But it worked for us in 92, and we climbed over the top of Mount Whatcom, crossed the Challenger Glacier, and descended into Luna Cirque to camp at Luna Lake.

Northeast Face and North Buttress Mt. Fury from the air

     Nowadays I probably wouldn't even attempt to climb Fury in the autumn with the weather forecast that we had; one or two good days out of eight, the other six rain and snow. But I wanted to climb the route badly, and we did. Didn't quite make the summit however, and spent a cold night under a slight overhang, as a bushy-tailed woodrat harassed us. With down jackets only and a stove, we at least had hot drinks, but no sleep.
Mark Price on the North Buttress
     The climb itself was good but very long. The late
season made for more rock climbing down low (Beckey
and Davis in July of 1962 climbed a lot of snow to avoid
much of the rock). We didn't. And the days were short,
routefinding tricky, and pro not always where one wanted it.
    All those factors cost us time, the most precious of alpine commodities. Following the grim bivy (it began to rain during the night), we groped our way over the summit in wind, and rain, and got back to our tent at Luna Lake drenched and tired.
     My old and worn out single-wall tent had three inches of standing water on the floor, and pads, bags, and remaining food floated about like the flotsam from a torpedoed ship. We passed a grim three days squeezed together in our remaining dry sleeping bag, as outside a September storm lashed the cirque with wind, and dumped several inches of snow.  
     Nearly out of food and fuel, we decided to exit the Pickets via the cirque, skirt the Challenger Glacier on the northeast, and rappel slabs down into the head of Little Beaver Creek. It did work, and we got back three days later than expected; 7 days became 10.
     In 1996 Dana Hagin and I had a near-perfect non-epic trip into the range when we put up a new route on the Northeast Buttress of Inspiration Peak (see my blog about it on this website). Four years later with Carl Skoog, I climbed The Pyramid and normal route on East McMillan Spire. Both trips had great weather, went according to plan, and finished on time. But when that occurs in the Pickets you feel as though you are treading on thin ice; at any moment (probably the next visit) one is likely to plunge headfirst into the murky, wet, terror the serrated peaks are so famous for.

     Seven years later Dana and I attempted to climb the North Face of East McMillan Spire in winter (its still awaiting a first winter ascent), and it was one of the hardest trips I've done into those remote peaks. Our packs were super heavy, loaded with ten days food and fuel, plus climbing and camping gear for winter. And as is so often the case in the Cascades, timing with the weather was everything.

North Face of McMillan Spires in winter
     On the approach to East McMillan the weather was perfect (and had been for ten days or so creating good conditions), but as we got to the base and bivied, it changed. We got about a quarter of the way up the face on some of the best mixed climbing I've ever done; styrofoam hard snow coating steep corners and ramps. But the temperature warmed up dramatically while we were climbing, and the good conditions deteriorated. It was frustrating, but did add much to my knowledge of the Pickets in winter, and especially the entrance into McMillan Cirque.

Dana Hagin on the North Face of East McMillan Spire in February

     In 2008 I was finally able to completer the traverse of the Pickets from south to north with Shawn Olson. During the third week of July we started the trip up Goodell Creek, crossed Terror Creek, and climbed steeply up onto the Barrier. On day two the sky remained clear as we traversed into Crescent Creek Basin, and kicked steps up steep snow to the Himmlehorn/Ottohorn Col. Dark clouds materialized from nowhere (as is often the case in the Piglets), as I prepared anchors for us to rappel to  the Mustard Glacier below. Shawn was not excited at the prospect of dropping into the unknown.
     Once down and onto a small rock island, we made camp and watched it rain and snow for two days. Late on the second day it seemed to be clearing a bit, and we quickly packed up, and traversed to Picket Pass just before dark.
     It was tight making it to a good campsite in
Shawn Olson near Picket Pass
time but the shreds of evening mist floating by, and the jagged Crescent Creek Spires in the background made up for it. 
     Perfectly flat grassy benches surrounded by heather and stunted Mountain Hemlocks dotted the pass. If not for having to finish the traverse, we might have never left that idyllic spot in the high mountains.
     We lingered over morning coffee, shot photos, and dried out damp socks in the warm morning sun. In the distance the entire Southern Pickets created a stone fence that punctuated the blue sky.

Shawn Olson st Picket Pass in the morning

     Day five began clear, but increasing clouds developed into a downpour. As we neared Luna Pass it was getting late, and every flat spot was filled with water. We opted for a large slightly sloping boulder to pitch the single wall tent on, in the hopes the rain would at least drain away. No chance of getting up Luna Peak in that storm. everything was soaked, and in the morning I sponged several cups of water out of the bottom of the tent.

Shawn Olson crosses outlet of Luna Lake
    Under overcast skies we threaded our way down to Luna Lake between narrow cliffs, crossed the outlet of the icy lake, and slowly did a rising traverse toward the northwest edge of the cirque and a good campsite.
     With seracs above and cliffs below, there is only one reasonable way up and out of the huge glacial-carved bowl. And since I hadn't been there since 1992, the route info would become useful when skiing it in 2013. 
     That night it did not rain, and the tent began to dry out. I had hoped the traverse would not have required all eight days of food we carried, but waiting on the Mustard Glacier had eaten up time and supplies. Although an ascent of Challenger would have been fun on day seven, we passed it up as the peak winked in and out of low clouds.
     The Eiley/Wiley High Route to Beaver Pass was tricky and a lot steeper than I remembered from as solo trip in 1991. Morning dew covering incredibly steep heather and hellabore slopes, called for the use of ice axes (piolet turf is my favorite term for such terrain). Once off the traverse we descended brush between cliffs to reach the pass. One more long day on easy trail, got us to Ross Dam and the end.

     I really got psyched about trying to ski the Pickets Traverse when I skied the Ptarmigan Traverse with Carl Skoog in 2002. I asked him questions about his 1985 May traverse with brother Lowell and Jens Kieler (the first time the range had been skied). With the summer traverse under my belt, it was a matter of getting in shape, and finding a willing partner.
     Kyle Breakey took the Mountaineers Basic Climbing course several years ago, and was already a hot skier.  He joined me on a Bear Mountain climb in 2012, and was keen to do more in the alpine. In the early part of 2013 the weather was not cooperating for extended periods. Then finally in late March it looked as though we were going to get six days of clear skies; and there would be sufficient snowpack in the bottom of McMillan Cirque (the lowest point on the traverse).
     The plan was to hike up Sourdough Mountain from Diablo, then ski out Stetattle Ridge west, drop into McMillan Cirque, up and around Luna Peak, Luna Cirque, Challenger Glacier, Easy Ridge, Mineral Mountain, Chilliwack Pass, and Hannegan Pass. I packed food for six days; it weighed eight and a half pounds, and was barely enough. Taking a tarp and leaving the tent saved two pounds, but made for grim living on two nights.

Ski Traverse from Diablo to Hannegan Pass
     On March 30th we started up Sourdough Mountain with packs loaded and skis strapped on. Still a good 1500 feet below the ridgecrest, we encountered Steph Abegg, Mike Torok, Matt Burton and Carla Schauble on snowshoes. They were out for two days and a climb of Sourpatch, just northwest of Sourdough. Forn straight up work snowshoes are good, and with lighter packs they outdistanced us easily. That first evening Kyle and I skied a couple miles west on then ridge and pitched our tarp between some Mountain Hemlocks. It was then first of two times we used it.

First night's tarp camp on Stetattle Ridge



     For most of the trip we built snow forts to cut the wind, and it enabled quicker starts in the morning not having to stuff frozen fabric, and fiddle with knots.

Cornices on Stetattle Ridge


     We made some miles on day two, dropped in and out of the big dip east of Elephant Butte, and quit early just SW of the butte when mushy slopes threatened to slide. It was a perfect evening in the high mountains as we cooked dinner inside snug snow walls. I was a bit alarmed at how much fuel we had used on the previous night, and vowed to preheat the Whisperlite with starter paste, and melt snow with black bags whenever possible.  

Kyle in snow fort below Elephant Butte

     A warm dawn light washed over Peak 7200 on April 1st as we sipped coffee, and contemplated the day's efforts. Getting in and out of McMillan Cirque was potentially one of the trip's cruxes.

Moon at dawn, Peak 7200
    Spirits were high, and just to be near the Pickets only ten days after the official "end" of winter was exhilarating in itself.
     Just ten years ago Dana and I had trudged up out of Stetattle Creek with the icy walls of 7200 for a backdrop; just another nameless peak in a range of 1100 summits.  
     Time to get packed up: dried out items like insoles and sox come off our warm chests and into boot liners, the stove and precious fuel is packed away as if it were a multi-million dollar satellite heading for Mars, check the taped feet, roll the 3/4 therma rest as tight as possible, cram small items deeply in pack leaving no empty spaces, scrape nighttime ice off skis, one last sip of coffee, into boots and reef down buckles, stomp into bindings, pack on and tighten waistbelt.

Breaking camp at dawn, Stetattle Ridge

     We're finally moving! On across the long smooth slopes we slid towards East McMillan Spire in the distance, its jagged tooth of Skagit Gneiss frosted with March snow. At then 6300 foot saddle east of McMillan, finally a look into the forebidding cirque with the same name. After a quick snack and drink, we plunge over the side, at first just booting, then below don skis again. Soon we're carving through a half foot of powder on a descent into the giant arena.

Kyle begins the descent into McMillan Cirque
      But the fun doesn't last, and soon it is not obvious how to reach the bottom easily. A traverse westward keeps us above cliffs, and to avoid one nasty chasm we must climb even higher, attach ski crampons, get out our axes, and gingerly shuffle across an ice avalanche gutter. We should have stopped and put on the real crampons, but we got hasty. That was followed by bad snow, and rollovers that prevented a straight shot at the bottom.
      Kyle took one spill and stopped, then below we had to boot down s short bit to gain gentle slopes in the bottom.
     A needed lunch break was in order, then find a way to cross McMillan Creek, which appeared to have snow bridges.
Making turns below McMillan, inspiration and Terror

     The creek was spanned by what looked to be thick snow in places, and with Kyle a bit out of view, I tried gliding across one. In the heat of midday it gave way, dumping my headfirst toward the creek. I was upside down, one ski buried deep and my boot attached, the other dangling from the safety strap. Lucky for me there was a boulder just above the water's surface, and I was able to step down, and then spend ten minutes extricating my buried ski. Nothing injured, no damage to skis. Stupid and lucky.

Our route out of McMillan Cirque and over to Luna
    From  the debacle in the creek we skinned up a rubble-filled chasm toward the southeast side of Fury. this was the most nerve-wracking place of all as there was plenty of recent avalanche debris in it. But there appeared no other way up out of the cirque.
     About two thirds of the way up it, I suggested we climb up onto a rock ledge twenty feet above the gutter and take a break. While drying out boot liners, we figured a way to climb up to the east, and avoid getting flushed in the chute.

     The canyon fell into shadow as we ascended to a headwall, and our campsite for the night.

Kyle at dinner below Mt. Fury

We were happy to at least ben out of the bottom of McMillan Cirque, but to completely escape it we still had to climb 1100 feet of steep hart snow in the morning. Just before dinner a big slide creamed our ascent route. We needed a cold night, and an early start to make it up the broad gully before the sun hit it.

Kyle nears the big gully
     With the aid of belays, slings around small trees, and a few Stoppers in the rock, we cramponed carefully up to safe slopes on the southeast side of Mt. Fury. Already the sun was hitting the East Face of Outrigger Peak to the southwest, causing slides.
     My eight-point steel crampons bit into the hard snow, and I was glad my pack was no heavier than it was now that my skis were strapped on. It was a tense bit of work, not knowing for sure if sun-warmed slopes above us would cut loose.
     At the last trees and into the sun, we unroped, took a break, and skinned up. A rocky spur up and to the east, looked like a good spot for a longer break, and some black bag snow melting.
    Because of the warm weather our traverse was a juxtaposition of joy and anxiety: the joy of being in spectacular surroundings, and the anxiety of constantly monitoring snow conditions, and aspects.
     We didn't smile much at dinner time now. The slope below Luna Peak was about halfway, and at 2 in the afternoon it was roaring with one avalanche after another. To go on, to wait, or to exit the traverse down and out Access Creek to Big Beaver were our options.

     We discussed the situation thoroughly and decided to wait for four hours, and see if the slope up to luna Pass would freeze once it fell into shadow. Our black bags were melting more snow as another element of anxiety entered our world; changing weather, with moisture clouds coalescing over the Southern Pickets.

Approaching storm over Southern Pickets

     The slope above did freeze, and we skinned, booted, and cramponed up over the pass at 10:30 pm.

Luna Pass at night
     The runnels from slides were frozen hard and steep. Crampons were essential on the hard crust that sometimes collapsed, giving way to knee-deep mush beneath.    
     Five hundred feet below the pass and into Luna Cirque, we finally stopped and built our fourth snow fort. Fury shown bright and clear in the morning, as we munched pop tarts and drank coffee.
     Tired feet went slowly into stiff cold boots, and I handed Kyle back the foam from inside his pack; it had been under my feet as I had brought a partial Therma Rest. My square of pack foam was snatched away by the wind two days before.

The peaks of Luna Cirque
     Kyle had the right idea about dropping down to Luna Lake, and I picked the harder way cause I couldn't see the bottom of his route. Later, looking back, we could see it went. But there have been many times in the mountains in summer and winter, I've had to climb back up out of wrong turns.
     Alpinists have also made fatal mistakes by not retracing their wrong turn, and attempting to force a way down where its too difficult. Several days later at Chilliwack Pass, it was his turn to call me out, and insist on the longer, safer way.

     Luna Cirque provided the best corn run of the trip, as we zoomed past Luna Lake in a long crispy glide.

Kyle pauses below Mt. Fury
     The day was cooler, and the avalanche activity much reduced. A scant 30 minutes was spent in the bottom, before deciding it was safe to get up and out of there.
     From the northwest edge of Luna Cirque our route lay across the gentle Challenger Glacier; our destination Perfect Pass. As we started across roped up, the sky was clear, but a cloud bank lingered low on the west edge of the ice field.
     The pass winked in and out of the clouds, and then as we neared it, became completely obscured by fog. We groped upwards beneath a giant cornice that loomed eerily through the mist.
     Kyle reached what he thought might be the pass, but there was no way to tell for sure. We were tired, it was late, the wind had picked up, and it started snowing. We dug a half cave, and pulled ourselves in, like overgrown Hermit Crabs trying to fit in shell too small.
     But it gave us some protection from the damp wind, and especially a place to put the stove and cook. It was the last night we still had food for a dinner. I hoped that the fuel would hold out for making hot drinks, and of course melting snow.

Kyle at Perfect Pass on the morning of day 6

     Our sleep was fitful not knowing what hazards and routefinding difficulties still lay ahead. Next morning our skis were rimed up, everything was soaked, and boots were snowy.

Boot shells at Perfect Pass

     The fog was beginning to thin, and we were optimistic we'd have enough viz to find our way down off the pass. Kyle scoped a steep gully that led to easier slopes below, and from there we hiked downward and toward Imperfect Pass.

Carrying skis down toward Imperfect Pass
     The plan was to try and stay high, and cross the tricky chasm known as Imperfect Pass. Clear skies and hot sun caused snow to slide off the rocks above, and the chute was scoured every five minutes with slushy slides. And although Kyle did his best to place some gear, and find a way across, it was the wrong place to be.

Kyle tries some mixed moves at Imperfect Pass
     We pulled back, studied the map, and found a circuitous but much safer way down to the south. It was the same route I'd climbed up in 1973 when I first attempted the traverse.
     Once down off the steep terrain, we took a long break, and dried out our wet gear; no sense packing all that water weight. The black bags were working hard to melt snow for drinking water, and we retaped feet.
     It was day six, and the end was still a long ways off. We'd have to climb over Mineral Mountain in the dark, to make up for the time lost at Imperfect Pass.

Kyle gliding toward Mineral Mountain at sunset

     Kyle led off northwesterly along Easy Ridge. Just before sunset, we had beautiful corn skiing above a small lake just east of Mineral. With headlamp on he did a great job finding the way up the smooth firm slopes on Mineral's east side. We reached the summit at 10:30 at night, too tired to even shoot a flash photo of our only summit.
     Several hundred feet below the top on the west side, we stopped in the lee of a boulder and dug a snow fort. Dinner for me consisted of a packet of Miso soup. It was the night of April 4th; the night we were supposed to be back. We were still a full day from finishing, and maybe more.
     Day seven did not go according to plan. My idea of dropping down to Chilliwack Pass, was thwarted by steep unstable slopes. The incoming storm had warmed the air a lot, and slopes that were firm, turned to mush. We dropped off the ridge to the north, wound down through thick woods, and crossed the Chilliwack River where it was shallow.

Kyle after crossing the Chilliwack
     From the other side there was no way to identify the Chilliwack River Trail under all the snow. And on the southern slope below Copper Ridge deep ravines sliced the terrain. Our best bet was to skin straight up to the ridge, then follow it westward toward Hannegan Pass.
     We did, it was hard, and we were functioning on limited rations. Snow mixed with rain and wind, came out of the sky as we gained the ridgecrest at dark. A snow fort in amongst the hemlocks provided walls for our tarp, which we needed badly.
     Kyle was beginning to get cold, so I told him to crawl inside, and I'd finish tying out the guy lines. Dinner was two mugs each of hot tea with milk and sugar, and then to bed. Wet sox, damp boot liners, and gloves all went inside our bags.
     It was day eight and we HAD to get out. Coffee for breakfast, and cram wet stuff into packs. Running on a piece of chocolate, and a Cliff Shot fueled me on out the ridge, over Hannegan Pass and toward the road.
     Just as we started skiing the road a snow machine zoomed up (Kyle was out of sight ahead of me), and asked me if I was one of the overdue skiers. I said "yes" and the guy said; "do you want a ride?" and I replied; "Did my friend accept a ride? he said "yes."

Avalanche debris in Ruth Creek on day 8
          It was nice to know that our friends and relatives did care about us. I had no second thoughts about getting some help, the first time in forty one years of climbing and skiing in the Cascades.
     I have always hoped that my enthusiasm for the mountains will sometimes rub off on others, to perhaps inspire them to go out there. Or that my teaching climbing will pass on the many tricks, and techniques for being safe and having fun in the alpine.
     The knowledge I've gained from those who went before enabled Kyle and I to complete the fourth complete traverse of the Pickets on skis.

End of trip leftovers

     And contrary to what people might have thought; we were not completely out of food. There was even a half cup of fuel in the stove. Maybe not enough to power a rover on the surface of Mars, but it could have kept me going on into day nine.