Picket Pass Traverse 2008, Days 1-3, Into the Pickets
Picket Pass Traverse, via Little Beaver Trail, Whatcom Pass, Whatcom Peak, Challenger Col, Phantom Arm, Pickell Pass, Swiss Peak, Picket Pass, McMillan Cirque, Elephant Butte Bypass, Stetattle Ridge, Sourdough Trail.
Dates: July 19-27, 2008
Party: Matt Burton, Mike Torok, Billie Butterfield, Paul Bakke
I'm finally catching up on this report on my big trip from last summer.
This report covers the first three days of the trip. Other days will follow in separate reports.
Our Picket Pass traverse was challenging and rewarding in equally intense proportions -- strenuously demanding in its travel, provocatively magnificent in its terrain, and personally satisfying in its accomplishment -- overall an outstanding mountaineering experience for me.
“Above the wilderness between the Skagit River and Mt. Baker rise the jagged, ice-carved peaks of the Picket Range, wearing such stirring names as Fury, Phantom, Terror, and Challenger. The jumble is roughly organized in the southern, or Terror, group and the northern, or Fury, group – two fortresses by cliffs and jungle”. (Fred Beckey, Challenge of the North Cascades)
Just as Beckey describes, the Pickets form two distinct serrated walls of rock, each arching east-west -- the northern group centered on Fury, and the southern group centered on Terror.
In between, the groups are connected at only one place, a single narrow steep rib of rock stretched thin and tight between the high ranges north and south, with the deep divides of McMillan Creek and Goodell Creek leaving only chasms of empty space to the east and west.
Physically, Picket Pass is a bridge of steeply carved rock,
. . . standing suspended in exaggerated relief between the heights of Fury and Terror.
Spiritually, Picket Pass is a passage of intensely focused experience,
. . . traveling suspended between the raging majesty of the place and the fearful challenge of its terrain.
I got my first view of Picket Pass in July 2001, when I climbed West McMillan Spire. It was, and still is, the wildest piece of terrain I have seen in the Cascades.
East side of Picket Pass, viewed from West McMillan (2001)
West side of Picket Pass, viewed from Mystery Ridge (2002)
Ever since that first view, I was smitten by the compelling topography of the place -- such a profoundly exciting, committing passage amid an ecstatic frenzy of sky-piercing heights and earth-plunging depths.
I wanted to someday make a traverse that would take me all way from one end of the range to the other, with the crossing of Picket Pass as the culminating heart of the journey.
But it wouldn’t be easy, or soon.
Because of the rugged terrain, the Picket Range has remained the wildest and most unexplored region in the North Cascades. It is not an area for the wilderness novice; its isolated brushy valleys and jagged ridges are a test for the most seasoned mountaineers. The length of climbs, combined with steep mixed terrain and variable conditions, demands all-around competence and fitness. When traversing ridges and glaciers, one is likely to be dismayed at the deep gorges, serrate crests, and crevassed icefalls, often very difficult for backpacking. (Fred Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide, Volume 3)
It took another seven years to get together all the conditions necessary for accomplishing the traverse – dependable companions, compatible schedules, adequate conditioning, stable weather, and a sufficient snowpack.
Our traverse crossed the Pickets from northwest to southeast – entering via Little Beaver Creek to Whatcom Pass, traversing Whatcom & crossing Challenger, traversing the south side of the northern Pickets, crossing Pickell & Picket Passes, traversing the north side of the southern Pickets, crossing the East McMillan-Elephant Butte ridge, and exiting via Stetattle Ridge to the Sourdough Trail.
(Note to peakbaggers: This trip includes very few summits. Our primary goal was to complete the traverse itself. Due to weather problems and some route errors, we only climbed a few summits en route.)
Day 1: Little Beaver Trailhead to Little Beaver Camp
On Saturday, we started with a partial-day hike so we wouldn’t get too worn out from the heavy packs. We took the boat up Ross Lake and hiked up the Little Beaver trail.
Redoubt Creek had shifted its course and left the crossing log hanging in mid-air over mid-stream. The guys used their manly strength to drag new logs to the stream. By the time we got there, Billie had already discreetly forded across in her underwear and was waiting on the far side. Mike engineered a bridge that got him across on a loosely secured log counterbalanced by leaning back on a tree limb. Paul and I followed Billie’s safer method.
Officially we were to camp at Stilwell Camp, but because the bridge has been moved, it’s a mile-long side trip to the camp. Unofficially, we might have hiked along the creek and found a comfortable sand bar camp.
Day 1 Stats: 10.5 miles, 800 net gain, 1500 cumulative gain, 6 hours. TH 1600, camp 2450.
Day 2: Little Beaver Camp to Whatcom Pass to Whatcom Camp
Sunday morning’s hike started late after extensive blister repairs. The valley bottom was deep cedar forest with patches of bunchberry flowers. Farther up the valley we could see waterfalls pouring off the sides of Wiley Ridge. An avalanche had left a log pile across one piece of trail, but flagging showed a route through the maze. At the head of the valley, Challenger came into view. Then came the steep grind up to Whatcom Pass, with an unplanned stop in the middle when a backcountry ranger checked our permit.
We hiked up the ridge toward Whatcom Peak until we could find a place to camp on snow and rocks.
The sunset threw Whatcom’s pointy shadow across the Challenger Glacier. Challenger’s terminal icefall periodically sent ice avalanches crashing down the cliffs below.
Day 3: Whatcom Peak, Perfect Pass, Middle-West Challenger Col, South Challenger Camp
Monday morning we traversed around the east side Whatcom Peak to Perfect Pass. The traverse went very smoothly with good snow cover all the way, with just a bit of brush at the start and a few crevasses open on the glacier. We traversed south circa 5500 feet, with a great view back down the Little Beaver valley that we’d spent the past two days hiking up.
We dropped to 5300 to round the corner, then turned west and ascended back up to 6600 to meet the ridge above Perfect Pass.
Whatcom Peak 7574
We dropped our heavy packs and finally got a few hours of hiking with only summit packs. Whatcom’s summit ridge was a surprisingly narrow rock crest.
Views stretched far and wide.
Panoramic view from Whatcom summit. (The three photos form one continuous 360 degree pan.)
Perfect Pass 6270
The passes we crossed in the Pickets shared a remarkable similarity of topography -- each one a curving north-south rib between steep peaks, with marginally passable slopes on the west, and sheer cliffs barricading the east. Perfect Pass was the first of these classic passes, followed later by Pickell and Picket passes.
We descended from Whatcom to Perfect Pass, hiked across the corniced remnant snow, and then kicked steps steeply up the far side to the Challenger Glacier.
Earlier, on Whatcom, we had noticed two rope teams of climbers on Challenger. We speculated that they must be Mountaineers, since there were eight of them. But they were traveling widely separated. Were they spacing out their summit climb, or did they just dislike each other?
Later the two rope teams diverged further. The first team headed for the Middle-South Challenger col, where we also planned to cross the peak. The second team headed back toward Perfect Pass, intersecting our course at a flat rocky area on the west edge of the glacier, where we stopped to rope up.
Surprise! The rope team was Dicey & Yana’s group! And the other rope team, we learned, was Mario’s group, also planning to traverse Picket Pass! (These are the groups Dicey designated as Group Exane and Group Insane in her Challenger trip report.)
Middle-South Challenger Col 7620
Then it was onward up the glacier to the 7620-foot col between Challenger’s Middle and South summits. A moderate snow aręte bridged between the summits. Below the col, a steep notch framed a view northward to Triumph & Despair.
From the narrow notch, we rappelled to the glacier below.
Over the Edge, Into Unknown Territory:
It was somehow an especially appropriate transition -- going over the edge – as we embarked on a passage through the least traveled terrain of the Pickets, the core cirques between the northern and southern spread of peaks. For me this would all be virgin territory, traversing the Picket Creek cirque to Pickell Pass, then the Goodell Creek cirque to Picket Pass, and finally the McMillan cirque to the far side.
South Challenger Camp 6800
We set up camp by a rock island at the far end of the glacier flats. The spires of Challenger stood sentinel across the sky behind us, with the wall of Crooked Thumb rising up to our east, and the depths of Picket creek falling away to our west. After dinner, I went wandering to look at the route ahead, and discovered a surprise. A couple hundred feet below us were Mario’s group’s tents. We yelled a few greetings back and forth, but none of us had the energy to climb up or down for a visit.
South Challenger Sunset
The setting sun made the sky glow between the expanding clouds above and the ranked peaks below.
Day 3 Stats:
Whatcom Camp 5450 to Perfect Pass 6270, 2.7 miles, net gain 800, cumulative gain 1700.
Whatcom Peak 7574, 1200 gain, 1.4 miles round trip.
Perfect Pass to Challenger Col 7620 to South Challenger Camp 6800, 2.2 miles, 1400 gain
Day 3 total 6.3 miles, 4300 gain
Joined: 31 Aug 2006 Posts: 1155 | TRs | Pics Location: Tacoma Washington
Mon Nov 17, 2008 1:41 pm
Man, when I look at those photos and read the story, my memories of my trips to the pickets flare up and I can't get rid of them. One picture of yours on the challenger glacier, looking through a notch, is one of the most vivid recollections I have of skiing there. I just wanted to keep going, to go explore. Looking through it again reminded me of that urge to get back there one day. Until then, I can't wait for more of your TR!!!
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