August 14-17, 2003

Mid-Summer Climbing Trip No. 1:  Northern Pickets

Luna Peak (8311′)
Mount Fury: East Peak aka East Fury Peak (8288′)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Northwestern Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: Ross Dam Trailhead (Highway 20)

Way Points: Ross Lake Landing (hike);  Ross Lake & Big Beaver Landing (boat ride); Big Beaver Creek & Access Creek & Access Creek Basin & Access Col & Luna Pass (hike & climb)

Campsites: Access Creek Basin & Luna Pass

Summit: Luna Peak (climb via South Slope—Southeast Ridge)

Summit: Mt. Fury: east peak (climb via Northeast Ridge—Southeast Glacier)

Approximate Stats: 42 miles traveled; 13,000 feet gained & lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

For our first annual Mid-Summer Climbing Trip, I joined Eric, Jon, Ryan, Chris, and Noah on a four-day adventure into the Picket Range.  Eric started planning this trip way back in the wintertime and did a nice job of handling the logistics.  Our ultimate goal was to climb the east peak of Mt. Fury via the Northeast Ridge & Southeast Glacier route.  We regarded Luna Peak as either a bonus summit or consolation summit, depending on how things went.

For several of us, Mt. Fury represented a tantalizing alpine fruit, and we knew it would be hard won.  For the others, Mt. Fury was nothing more than an evocative name, and they probably had no idea what travails lay ahead!  Although my partners had only modest to moderate levels of mountaineering experience, they all compensated for this with excellent fitness, contagious enthusiasm, and a high tolerance for discomfort—required attributes on any Picket trip.

Day 1 – Ross Dam Trailhead to Big Beaver Landing to Access Creek Basin:

We left the Ross Dam TH at 8:00am and hiked a long mile down the water taxi dock at Ross Lake.  One hour and 50 dollars later, we were reassembled on the Big Beaver Landing dock.  The sky was cloudless, the lake smooth, and the air warm.  And, of course, the packs were alarmingly heavy.  We saddled up for an 11.5-mile march up the Big Beaver Creek Trail, which was dry and well maintained.  Our free-flowing conversation, dominated by the recent Tour de France, made the miles go surprisingly fast.

We passed Luna Camp after 4.7 hours and continued another mile while keeping a sharp eye for some indication of a cut-off to the reportedly easy log-crossing of Big Beaver Creek.  Exactly 29 minutes beyond Luna Camp (5.1 hours from the trailhead), Eric spotted a tiny arrow etched into a slab of wood, which was in turn jammed into a split log.  We turned our course perpendicularly from the trail and, after 10 minutes of dodging devil’s club, came upon a 15-inch-diameter log over the creek.  Once across, we prepared for our much-dreaded bushwhack up Access Creek.  (Note: Although the name “Access” has been applied to this officially unnamed creek by guidebooks, John Roper maintains that the intended name is “Axes,” in a word-play on the “Pickets” theme.)

Nelson & Potterfield state that bushwhacking up Access Creek is “unsavory” but “reasonable.”  Nonetheless, I chose to don battle gear:  gaiters, leather gloves, clear safety glasses, and a helmet (the overall effect was quite amusing), while the others wore various combinations thereof.  After an initial wade through more valley-bottom devil’s club, we crossed to the north side of Access Creek and climbed directly upslope through moderately dense huckleberry bushes.  It wasn’t pleasant but certainly…reasonable.

Eventually, the slope angle eased and we spent several hours crashing through heavy forest with plentiful deadfall and brushy undercover.  The lack of air movement through the forest and brush made the late-afternoon heat downright oppressive.  And no bushwhack would be complete without mosquitoes and biting flies, both of which we had in healthy quantities.  Along the way, Chris got stung five times by hornets or wasps.  We all sat down for a brief rest shortly after this incident but then found it terribly difficult to re-shoulder our packs and push onward.  As a group, we had bottomed out motivationally.

An hour later found us barely ½ mile farther upstream, pushing through alternating bands of forest, devil’s club, and slide alder.  Our progress was steadily decreasing and we were getting tired, frustrated, and hungry.  The bushwhacking was starting to swing too far towards the “unsavory” side.  Around elevation 3800 feet, we thrashed down to the creek to get water.  Very heavy brush seemed to close in around us, but a bit of daylight was visible toward the left, so we crossed over to the south side of the creek.  After 20 yards of aggravating slide alder, we popped onto a large talus field.  The remaining ½ mile to Access Creek Basin was gloriously brush free.  (From above, it could be seen that our creek crossing threaded the exact spot where heavy brush on both sides pinches out between a tongue of forest on the north side and a tongue of talus on the south side.)  We strolled into the 4300-foot basin at 7:00pm (9.1 hours from Big Beaver Landing).

Camp In Access Basin

During dinner, we assessed our battle wounds and discussed our schedule for the coming three days.  We planned to reach Luna Pass by noon the next day, then climb Luna Peak that afternoon.  On Day 3, we planned to climb East Fury Peak, return to Luna Pass, and then descend back to Access Creek Basin.  Items not needed for our climbs (such as bushwhacking garb, extra fuel, and garbage) would be stashed in the basin.  This plan seemed downright…reasonable.  However, if not for the loud roar of our campstoves, we might have heard Mt. Fury snickering at us right then.

Day 2 (AM) – Access Creek Basin to Luna Pass:

We woke to warm air and blue skies.  After a leisurely breakfast, we began huffing up a steep scree chute that led to the 6100-foot Access Col southwest of the basin.  This chute appeared easily passable from camp but turned out to be long, steep, and grungy.  Furthermore, the mid-morning sun was already scorching, and we hugged the chute’s edges to find shade.

Ascending To Access Col

Upon reaching Access Col at the ridge crest, we were rewarded with fabulous views of the Southern Pickets, as well as a look ahead at our traverse route to Luna Pass.

Southern Pickets From Access Col

We had read about the notoriously steep heather slopes along the traverse (some people reportedly wear crampons for traction), and we found that it lived up to its reputation.  We didn’t need to don crampons, but we all decided to employ ice axes in case we needed to arrest a slide.  Fortunately, the very steep portion of heather is fairly short; most of the traverse to Luna Pass involves only moderately steep heather and talus slopes.

Traversing Below Luna Peak

We arrived at the pass in time for lunch (4.6 hours from Access Creek Basin).  The Northern Pickets, including both peaks of Mt. Fury, provided a stupendous backdrop for our meal.

Group At Luna Pass
East & West Fury Peaks From Luna Pass

Day 2 (PM) – Luna Peak Climb:

After lunch, Eric, Jon, Noah, and I scrambled easily to the false summit of Luna Peak.  The views in all directions were breathtaking, and I told the others that Luna Peak is often regarded as the finest viewpoint in Washington.  None of us could dispute that claim on this glorious day.

Eric & Jon Heading Up Luna Peak
Jim On Luna Peak

While on Luna’s false summit, I scoped out possible routes to the true summit, which sits about 100 yards away along a gruesome-looking ridge.  Although Beckey recommends a low traverse on the western side of this crest, I spied a higher and more direct (but more exposed) traverse on the eastern side.  I persuaded Eric to try it with me, whereas Jon and Noah opted to wait on the false summit and take pictures of us.  The traverse route turned out to be rather enjoyable, with a lot of moderately exposed Class 2-3 ledges in somewhat loose rock, and culminating in a very exposed Class 3 summit block of good rock.  We signed the film-can register, took photos, posed for photos, and then traversed back over to the false summit.

Eric Scrambling Up Face Of Luna Peak
Climbers On Summit Of Luna Peak

Once back, I offered to take Jon and Noah over to the true summit via the same traverse route but with the safety benefits of a 25-meter rope and a half-dozen runners.  They hesitated for a few seconds, then simultaneously agreed.  This not only turned out to be the highlight of their day but also gave them valuable practice in doing “running belays,” with which neither was familiar.

Southern Pickets From Luna Peak
Northern Pickets From Luna Peak

Our climbing activities ended up consuming the entire afternoon, and it was dinnertime when we rejoined Ryan and Chris back at Luna Pass.  As the sun set behind Mt. Challenger, we dined in beach attire on the warm, glacially polished slabs around camp.  Dinner conversation turned toward tomorrow’s climbing logistics for our attempt on the east peak of Mt. Fury.  We would set a 4:30am alarm and try to be moving by 5:30am.  Chris elected to stay in camp while the rest of us headed out along Mt. Fury’s Northeast Ridge.  We hoped to return by 5:00pm, which would give us just enough time to break camp and return to Access Creek Basin for the night.

The sky had remained cloudless all day and the weather appeared to be remaining stable for at least a few more days, making us feel optimistic about our upcoming attempt on the enigmatic Mt. Fury.  The equally enigmatic Planet Mars beamed brightly above the eastern horizon as I burrowed into my bivouac sack later that evening.  Several times during the night, I opened my eyes and was surprised by the intensity of the gibbous moon and the billions of stars overhead.

Day 3 – East Fury Peak Climb:

Voices awoke me at 4:30am and I was instantly dismayed to see that our camp was engulfed in low, rolling clouds.  The air had a frigid bite.  How could this be?  Through the pre-dawn darkness, I heard Jon sardonically quip, “So, Fury is playing his ace!”  I stared at the ominous peak, which was barely visible through swirling clouds, and groggily retorted “Oh, Fury is just trying to scare us…and it’s working!”  Moments later, the clouds thickened and completely obscured everything beyond our campsite.

Breakfast talk was restrained and somber.  I felt that we truly had little chance of climbing East Fury in these conditions, and the others no doubt felt the same.  Nonetheless, we prepared our summit packs, which included two 25-meter ropes, a small rock rack (for a Class 5.0 step in the ridge), crampons, and two snow flukes (in case the glacier got steep).  As we left camp, Chris poked his head out of his bivouac sack and wished us good luck.  It seemed likely that we would be seeing him again much sooner than planned.  I rationalized our effort as being a reconnaissance trip; we’d get as far along the ridge as the weather allowed, then turn around.

Traversing Out Of Luna Pass

The Northeast Ridge’s challenges begin scant minutes beyond Luna Pass.  The route appears to be blocked by a menacing rock knob, which towers 100 feet over the pass and drops off steeply to each side.  Almost miraculously, however, a broad ledge cuts across the northwestern (right) face and allows easy access to the unexpectedly gentle ridge crest (I had scoped this out the night before).  Soon, we were wandering along the crest, which gained a mystical quality in the wafting fog.

Traversing Crest Of Fury Ridge

Several ups and downs brought us to the brink of a vertical drop-off, with no immediately obvious descent route.  After some scouting, however, I found a steep and narrow ramp that leads down the left side (Nelson & Potterfield incorrectly say to descend the right side).  Continuing down this ramp and then down a lower scree gully, we came onto a snow saddle.

Scrambling Up Fury Ridge

The unrelenting fog made it impossible to assess our route ahead, but we kept scrambling up a terraced rock nose southwest of the saddle.  The only significant obstacle was a 25-foot-high step of sound rock, which had a nice crack running vertically through it.  Without hesitation, Ryan climbed up the crack and announced that it was no problem to do unroped.  Jon and Noah followed quickly.  Going next, Eric found that his ice axe was catching on the rock and hindering his progress, so he asked those above to hoist his backpack up.  Noah attempted to help by hooking his own ice axe on Eric’s pack, but the pack slipped off in mid-hoist and landed on Eric’s head!  He and I managed to catch it between us before it rolled a thousand feet down to the Fury Glacier.  Jon and Ryan then successfully snagged the pack with an axe and pulled it up.  These hijinks brought much-needed comic relief to our somewhat glum morning.

Scrambling Up Fury Ridge

After the short step, we scrambled easier terrain to the top of the nose, then began descending the other side.  It slowly dawned on me that we had unwittingly surmounted the “Class 5.0” step in “Class 3” fashion.  Things were gradually looking more optimistic!  Our next task was to find a suitable descent route off the ridge crest to reach easy talus slopes on the southeastern flank.  We soon came upon a steep, narrow heather chute, which appeared to terminate in a talus basin—but the low cloud ceiling still prevented a distant view of the terrain.

Gambling on the heather chute, we dropped down one by one and carefully descended about 500 feet (to about 6500 feet) and then contoured southwestward along talus, heather, and polished slabs. This easy terrain ended rather abruptly at a large rocky rib.  The only apparent route across the rib was an unappealing, exposed ledge slightly above us.  I was elected to reconnoiter the ledge while the others waited and watched pessimistically.  Our group confidence had hit bottom at this point, so I dearly hoped that the ledge would turn out to offer a safe, easy traverse.  It didn’t.  Instead, I found myself clinging to a loose, vertical wall while carefully edging along a rotten, down-sloping, pebble-strewn catwalk.  I crossed nervously and encountered a steep scree slope on the other side of the rib.  After clawing up the slope, I squinted through the fog and thought I could see…snow!  Could this be the Southeast Glacier?

Fog Enshrouding East Fury Peak

I dropped my pack and hurried back to a position from where I could see across the rocky rib.  There was a lower ledge that looked wider and safer than the one I had crossed.  I hollered at my waiting partners and instructed them to descend 40 feet to the lower ledge.  Unfortunately, their descent involved exposed scrambling on wet, mossy rock steps and steep heather, which gave them and me white knuckles.  Ryan was the first to reach the ledge, and the others painstakingly followed.  (This rock rib crossing was unanimously voted to be the diciest and least popular part of our climb so far.)  We ascended the scree slope to where I had seen snow—and possibly our glacier route.  It was about 10:00am (4.5 hours from camp).

Scrambling Below Fury Ridge

Fog still shrouded all but the lowest 100 feet of the snow slope, keeping us uncertain about our position.  But ascending the snow seemed to be our only viable option, so crampons and ropes came out.  A momentary thinning of the clouds gave us a glimpse of a roughly S-shaped snowfield, which matched a photo that Eric had brought.  Yes, this is it, we thought!  Soon, we were zig-zaggng our way upward in hopes of stumbling across something that looked like the summit snowpatch.  Crevasses appeared through the fog, confirming that we were indeed on a glacier.  Occasionally, I glanced back at our rope team but could discern only the next two climbers.  Slope angles ranged from about 30 to 40 degrees, so care was necessary.

Climbing Fury Glacier

My altimeter read 7900 feet when I encountered a large bergshrund that angled slightly downward and leftward from a cliff.  This could be the distinctive schrund cutting across Fury’s glacier, I figured, but it was difficult to know how and where we might cross it.  I continued leading our rope team to the left in hopes of finding a cross-over point.  While waiting impatiently, we collectively tried willing the cloud and fog to dissipate—at least for a fleeting moment.  Jon even pulled out his digital camera and began reviewing electronic photos of Mt. Fury that he’d taken from Luna Peak.  The rest of us peered over his shoulder, as though we were NFL referees reviewing an instant-replay screen.  (We all chuckled at this collision between technology and nature.)  His close-ups roughly matched up with some of the nearby terrain features.  Or perhaps we merely thought that they did.

Once again, fortune turned our way rather quickly in the form of another cloud thinning.  We could see a large snowfield looming above a short scree slope in front of us.  Cheers rang out:  “The summit snowpatch!”  We cramponed up the scree and paused at the base of the snowpatch.  For the first time, we realized how steep the snowpatch really is:  40 degrees near the bottom, grading to nearly 50 degrees at the top.  A slide here would land a rope team either on rocks or in the schrund.  I pulled out the two small flukes I had carried with me “just in case” and wished that we’d brought a couple more.

High On Fury Glacier

Still roped together as a five-man team, we climbed directly upward.  The snow was quite firm—too firm for much foot purchase, but good for front-pointing.  I placed both flukes along the way for peace of mind, if not for actual protection.  At about mid-slope (150 feet up), the clouds suddenly parted and gave way to crisp, blue sky!  Another 150 of climbing brought me to a narrow snow arête that spanned two rocky points.  I crawled over the top and belayed my partners up.  One by one, they popped over the arête, looked from side to side, and exhibited total disbelief.

Summit Boulders On East Fury Peak

We log-walked the arête to the seemingly higher and (thank goodness) more accessible southwestern rock point.  A brass register tube tucked into the rocks confirmed that we had, indeed, somehow managed to reconnoiter our way to the top of East Fury Peak!

Jim On East Fury Peak Summit

The time was about 1:30pm (8.1 hours from camp).  We took turns with summit photos and signing the register, which dates back to the 1980s and is nearly full.  Two other parties had signed in this year, including a trio who planned to ski the northeast face.  We were amazed that anyone would have the gumption to haul skis up, let alone to ski down!

View From East Fury Peak Summit

Before we knew it, an hour had passed and it was time to start back.  Even then, it would be necessary to shave several hours off our up-time if we hoped to reach Luna Pass before nightfall.  For the initial steep downclimb from the snow arête, we collectively decided that I would go first, on belay, and install the flukes; Ryan would go last, thereby taking the sharp end of the rope.

Jon & Noah & Eric & Ryan On Fury Glacier

We completed this slowly and methodically, then were able to hurry down the middle portion of the glacier.  Farther down, where the gradient increased, the sight of a bad runout prompted us to again slow down and install flukes as running belays.  This was a conservative method but gave us a bit more comfort under the bothersome crampon-balling conditions.

Giant Bergschrund On Fury Glacier

Once off the glacier, we retraced our steps back across the rock rib and through the talus basin.  This time, however, we angled up a bit sooner to gain the ridge crest via better terrain, also shaving off some time.  Our entire retreat along the long, winding crest went well, including a short rappel over the 25-foot step.  Alpenglow illuminated the ridge and surroundings as we neared Luna Pass.  Although darkness was coming quickly, we couldn’t help but stop frequently to gaze at East Fury and the other golden peaks.

Evening Sun On Luna Peak
Clouds On East Fury Peak

With camp finally in view, we heard shouts from Chris, who had been waiting anxiously throughout the day for our return.  He greeted us with smiles, handshakes, hugs, and congratulations as we marched into camp five-abreast (6.2 hours from the summit).  Joy, relief, and tiredness washed over us at once.  Darkness came minutes later, and we ate dinner under a brilliantly starlit sky that night.  I don’t remember when a freeze-dried meal ever tasted so good.

Southern Pickets From Fury Ridge

Day 4 – Luna Pass to Big Beaver Landing to Ross Dam Trailhead:

Much as we all wanted to sleep in and lounge around camp our last morning, we knew our schedule dictated a 4:30am wake-up time…again.  The sky was still cloudless and the air was cold when the alarm sounded.  We quietly and reluctantly slid out of our bivouac sacks and began packing.  Hot cocoa took some of the chill off.  By 6:00am, we were ready to begin the long and convoluted trek back to Ross Lake, but gorgeous alpenglow on Mt. Fury demanded one last round of photos before we left.

The traverse over to Access Col was uneventful and even pleasant in the cool morning, whereas the 1800-foot plunge to Access Creek Basin itself seemed excessively long and tedious.  We stopped to retrieve our stashed gear and fill water bottles before heading into the brush.  The reverse bushwhack was every bit as unpleasant as it had been on Day 1.  Noah, who apparently has unlimited energy, took charge for the first 2 miles.  He wielded his ice axe like a machete (Jon later described Noah’s technique as the most inefficient use of human energy ever witnessed) and talked incessantly!  I and the others marveled at his vocal stamina, but we truly appreciated the levity that he added to our frustrating task.  During the subsequent mile-long plunge to Big Beaver Creek, Chris took the lead and went on a rampage straight down the brushy hillside.  The rest of us simply stumbled along in his wake.  We reached the Big Beaver Creek at high noon (5.8 hours from Luna Pass) and quickly found the log crossing.

Because we had a 6:00pm pick-up time by the water taxi and we wanted a little extra time to swim, our 11.5-mile hike down the Big Beaver Creek Trail took on the flavor of a Tour de France stage race.  It featured a fast tempo, break-aways, chases, drops, run-downs, and reel-ins.   I got dropped by the peloton right at the start and didn’t catch up until they stopped for water near Milepost 8.  Others had been dropped by the leaders’ fast pace along the way.  In a desperate attempt to regain some dignity, I attempted a brash break-away while everyone was still drinking.  Ryan, Jon, and Chris soon reeled me in, and the peloton completely regrouped near Milepost 3.  We all hobbled onto the dock at Big Beaver Landing a few minutes after 5:00pm (10.9 hours from Luna Pass).

Quickly, we doffed packs and boots and other unnecessary clothing, then dove into the wonderfully refreshing waters of Ross Lake.  Pure heaven!  After swimming, we lounged on the dock, nursing our throbbing feet, checking out new blisters and scratches, and recounting our thoughts during the trip.  We all felt transformed by our incredible alpine adventure.


——————– Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) ——————–