June 25 – July 3, 2016

Independence Day Weekend Climbing Trip:  Northern Pickets

West Challenger Peak aka Challenger 4 (7696′)
Crooked Thumb Peak (8120′)
Phantom Peak (8045′)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Northwestern Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: Hannegan Trailhead (Ruth Creek Road)

Way Points: Ruth Creek & Hannegan Pass & Copper Creek & Chilliwack River Cablecar & Brush Creek & Tapto Creek & Whatcom Pass & Whatcom Arm & Whatcom Glacier & Perfect Pass & Challenger Glacier & West Challenger Notch & Crooked Thumb Glacier moraine; return via Solar Pass & Whatcom Camp & Boundary Camp (hike & snow climb)

Campsites: Copper Creek Camp & Whatcom Arm & Crooked Thumb Glacier moraine & Whatcom Camp & Boundary Camp

Bivouac Site: North Ridge of Crooked Thumb Peak

Summit: West Challenger Peak  (solo climb via Southwest Dike—West Ridge)

Summit: Crooked Thumb Peak  (climb via Northwest Couloir—North Ridge—West Face—South Ridge; bivouac on North Ridge)

Sidetrip: Phantom Glacier & Phantom Arm (snow climb)

Summit: Phantom Peak  (climb via Southwest Glacier—South Couloir—Southwest Ridge)

Approximate Total Stats:  54 miles traveled;  18,600 feet gained and lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Over the last part of June and first part of July, I joined Fay and Eileen on their trip into the Northern Picket Range.  Our main goals were to climb Crooked Thumb Peak and Phantom Peak—and live to tell about it.  These two summits have proven to be particularly elusive to us as a group; this was Fay’s fifth attempt, Eileen’s fourth attempt, and my second attempt.  Mathematically speaking, I believe that constitutes a record of disappointment to the 8th power.  We started our 2016 trip with cautious optimism and a bomber weather forecast, but neither held up for long.

Day 1 – Hannegan Trailhead to Copper Creek Camp:

We left home at 10:30am on Saturday in preparation for an early afternoon arrival at the Hannegan Trailhead.  However, due to heavy traffic congestion in Mount Vernon, Bellingham, and the Deming Subway Shop, we didn’t reach the trailhead until 4:00pm.  Group gear was divided up, and heavy backpacks were hauled over Hannegan Pass to Copper Creek Camp.  The late afternoon and early evening were pleasantly cool for hiking.  We marched into the comfortable forest camp shortly before dark (5.3 hours; 2000 feet gained).

Day 2 – Copper Creek Camp to Whatcom Pass:

The morning was warm and sunny.  Before leaving camp, we left a hang-bag with some food for our return trip later in the week.

The upper Chilliwack River Trail was in good condition except for a half-dozen annoying logs to cross, and a large section of “Fay-high” brush (with stinging nettles) near U.S. Cabin Camp.

Thick Brush On Chilliwack Trail

We reached the venerable cablecar at midday (2.6 hours) and crossed the river, feeling pretty good about our overall progress.  However, the next 1.5 miles of trail had been turned into an obstacle course due to dozens of large fallen tree trunks and limbs.  It took us almost 2 more hours to reach the Brush Creek Bridge, and we arrived with low spirits about what lay ahead.

Crossing Chilliwack River In Cablecar On Day 2

Fortunately, the Brush Creek Trail was in much better condition; there were only a half-dozen or so fallen trees and a few small patches of overhanging vegetation.  The rugged alpine hulk of Whatcom Peak came into view as we gained elevation

Whatcom Peak From Brush Creek Trail

The entire trail was bare and dry except for the last 200 feet below Whatcom Pass, and the two branches of Tapto Creek were easily crossed by rock-hopping.  We arrived at Whatcom Pass in late evening (10.6 hours; 3000 feet gained) and immediately hiked up a snowy knoll closely to the south.

Having not seen another person for the past day and a half, it was a surprise to find two people (an alpine guide from Seattle and a client from England) already camped on the knoll.  They had hiked up Little Beaver Creek from Ross Lake and reported frustratingly slow trail conditions due to fallen trees and thick brush.

Day 3 – Whatcom Pass to Crooked Thumb Glacier:

From our camp on the snowy knoll, we enjoyed a splendid view of Mt. Challenger.  The expansive Challenger Glacier looked pristinely white in the morning sun.

Mt Challenger From Whatcom Knoll Camp

Our first task of the day involved traversing around Whatcom Peak to reach Perfect Pass.  We were relieved to see that the Whatcom Glacier offered a continuous snow route across the peak’s northeastern flank.  The guide and client had headed out shortly ahead of us, so we followed their tracks for the first hour.  After catching up to them, we spent the next several hours exchanging leads and all arrived at Perfect Pass around the same time (4.5 hours; 1750 feet gained).

Traversing Whatcom Glacier

Perfect Pass offered us running water and a perfectly wonderful lunch spot on granite slabs.  It was hard to leave.

Perfect Pass From Traverse Route

From the low point of the pass, we ascended firm snow up to some rock outcrops, then traversed steep slopes over to the western edge of the Challenger Glacier.

Whatcom Peak Above Perfect Pass
Whatcom Peak From Challenger Glacier

At a convenient snow saddle, Fay and Eileen and I roped up in preparation for an ascent of the glacier.  The guide and client also roped up, but they were planning to make a low traverse of the glacier in order to reach Challenger Arm.  Our two groups said farewell and headed off in different directions.Views to the north increased steadily as we worked our way up the glacier.  Bear Mountain, Mt. Redoubt, and the other peaks of the American Chilliwacks were especially impressive.

Bear Mountain and Mt Redoubt From Challenger Glacier

Above 7000 feet, we encountered soft, ankle-deep snow resulting from the previous week’s storms.  Thankfully, the fresh snow was adequately stable for travel.

Eileen and Fay Crossing Upper Challenger Glacier

Upon reaching the high bench of the glacier (8.1 hours; 3000 feet gained), Fay proceeded up to the West Challenger Notch in hopes of finding an easy route down to the Crooked Thumb Glacier.  It was agreed that she would leave a rappel rope at the notch if this route went OK.

Meanwhile, Eileen and I headed in the opposite direction and crossed over the “Far West Challenger Notch” located several hundred yards to the west.  One of my secondary goals for this trip was to climb West Challenger Peak, which Eileen and Fay had climbed during a previous trip.

We worked around to the peak’s southwestern flank, then booted up a steep but short snow finger that ran along the right side of a wide eroded dike.  The snow terminated in a horribly loose slot-gully, which we climbed via stemming maneuvers.  Eileen coached me across the crux section—a narrow, crumbly ledge—and then waited below while I scrambled up blocky Class 3-4 rock to the summit.

Eroded Dike From West Challenger Peak

West Challenger Peak provides a nice vantage point for the other summits of the Northern Pickets, including the main and middle Challenger peaks…

Mt Challenger Summit From West Challenger Peak

…and Crooked Thumb Peak and Phantom Peak.

Crooked Thumb Peak and Phantom Peak From West Challanger Peak

After a short summit stay, I carefully climbed back down to the slot-gully and booted down the snow finger.  The eroded dike on this route is an interesting geological feature.  It appears to consist of low-grade volcanic rock (andesite-rhyolite) that has vertically intruded the plutonic country rock.  When climbing up or down the slot-gully, you will find yourself with one hand and foot comfortably locked onto solid granite while the other hand and foot desperately grope for purchase on rotten lava.

Eroded Dike Route On West Challenger Peak

Eileen and I crossed back over to the Challenger Glacier and climbed up to the West Challenger Notch.  Fay’s rappel rope was still hanging in the left-hand gap.  We made one awkward rappel down the rock- and ice-choked gully, then quickly descended soft snow to the Crooked Thumb Glacier.  We found Fay setting up camp on a narrow lateral moraine at the glacier’s southern edge (11.1 hours; 3700 feet gained).  This moraine, with its marvelous view of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, would become our home for the next several days.

Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan From Crooked Thumb Moraine Camp

Day 4 – Crooked Thumb Peak Ascent:

Being camped almost directly beneath the towering west face of Crooked Thumb Peak, we sensed no particular urgency in getting out of camp on Day 4.  The weather was mild and sunny, and the summer solstice days were long, so why hurry?  I think it was around 9:00am when we headed up the Crooked Thumb Glacier.

Climbing Crooked Thumb Glacier On Day 4

We came up to a snow saddle just north of the peak and then traversed over to the obvious northwest couloir.

Approaching Crooked Thumb Peak

We roped up at the bottom of the couloir and simul-climbed using four snow flukes for protection.  Snow conditions in the couloir were excellent, which took the edge off the 40- to 45-degree gradient.

For all snow, rock, and glacier climbing on this trip, we used two of Fay’s ultralight 6.9mm alpine ropes—one 40 meters long and the other 30 meters long. In the couloir, this gave us nearly 70 meters of rope to stretch out.

Climbing Crooked Thumb Snow Finger

Near the top, the couloir necked down to a narrow snow-and-rock gully.  We used a few slings to protect the gully, which ended at a small notch in the peak’s north ridge (3.5 hours).

Climbing Snow Chute On Crooked Thumb Peak

Getting out of the north ridge notch required an exposed traverse around a series of pinnacles on loose Class 4-5 ledges.  None of us was fond of this pitch.  Along the way, we passed a small horn draped with several rappel slings.  This horn would come in handy later.

Traversing Around First Pinnacle On North Ridge

Once past the pinnacles, the terrain eased to Class 2-3, and we moved more quickly across the blocky slopes.  Eventually, we encountered “the land of giant boulders,” which presented some tricky snow-to-rock transitions and bouldering moves.  Fay and Eileen recalled passing through a distinctive “cannon hole chockstone” at this location during a previous climbing attempt, but the hole was now plugged with snow.

Climbing Thru Giant Boulders On West Face

On the other side of the giant boulders, we abruptly encountered a steep headwall that extended from the ridge crest down to a lower cliff band.  This headwall created a near-impasse for us.  We evaluated four possible crossing locations: at the ridge crest, at a high catwalk ledge, at a 10-foot-high vertical crack, and at the bottom nose.

Encountering Cliff On West Face

Trying to pass the headwall at the ridge crest was quickly eliminated as an option.  It would be necessary to traverse out on the sheer east face for several hundred feet.  The summit “thumb” was clearly visible beyond an intervening pinnacle, but there was no feasible way to reach it directly.

Summit Fin From Upper North Notch

After making several exploratory probes across the upper ledge and around the bottom nose, we were finally able to surmount the headwall via the vertical crack.  I would rate the crack at either Class 5.8+ or 5.2/A1.  Not seeing any style judges nearby, we went with the latter option.

Beyond the headwall, the terrain once again eased back to a series of moderately inclined rock and snow ledges.  However, the ledges were very exposed and completely covered with sand and pebbles, all of which made for extremely insecure and unpleasant scrambling.

Traversing Upper West Face To South Notch

Eventually, we were able to scramble up along a moat to a tiny notch closely south of the summit.  From there, a solid Class 4-5 rock ridge led toward the summit.

Climbing Up South Summit Ridge

We topped out after 10.1 hours of climbing from camp.  Beckey describes the summit as a “thumb” of rock, but it is really more of a thin “fin.“  Just imagine a 5-foot-high potato chip composed of white granite.

Jim On Crooked Thumb Summit

Fay and Eileen posed for their summit photo “au chaval.”  After multiple unsuccessful attempts on this peak, they were giddy with delight!

Fay and Eileen On Crooked Thumb Summit

The summit register indicated that we were the first party to sign in since Franklin Bradshaw’s group in 2012.  It is probably safe to say that this peak is in no danger of getting overrun by climbers.

Crooked Thumb Summit Register

Our good summit cheer was dampened only by the sudden realization that it was now 7:30pm and we had many hours of tedious descending ahead of us.  Clearly, we were not going to make it back to camp tonight.  Our immediate goal now was to descend as far as possible before nightfall.

We carefully down-climbed the summit ridge and the horribly loose, exposed ledges, using running belays and rock protection.  At the top of the headwall, we made one single-rope rappel down the vertical crack.  More running belays took us through the land of giant boulders and back across the Class 2-3 ledges.  Darkness caught us just before we reached the north ridge rappel horn (2.1 hours from summit).

In the last few minutes of dusk, we found a small, stair-stepped ledge overlooking the precipitous east face.  It had few comforts but would suffice as a bivouac ledge.  We donned all the clothing we’d brought, pulled out sitting pads, stuffed our feet in rucksacks, and settled in for the night.

Night 4 – Crooked Thumb Peak Bivouac:

Nights are relatively short during the summer solstice—except when you are sitting on a rock ledge at 7800 feet.  Time ticked by very slowly.  Our weather was also graciously mild on this night, but we still spent far more time shivering than sleeping.  I tried to pass the hours by chewing on one Good & Plenty candy pellet every minute.  At least my jaw was staying warm.  Occasionally, bits of conversation would break the silence, and we pondered a variety of philosophical questions.

Because it was a moon-less night, the Milky Way seemed remarkably bright.  Around 4:00am, a hint of light appeared in the northeastern sky.  One long, cold hour later, the sun cracked the horizon near Hozomeen Mountain…

Crack Of Dawn From Crooked Thumb Bivouac

…and painted the sky with streaks of red and gold.

Dawnbreak Over Hozomeen Peaks

Day 5:  Crooked Thumb Peak Descent & Recovery:

Even after the sun rose at 5:00am, we spent another 3 hours on our bivouac ledge trying to soak in enough warmth and sleep to allow for a continued descent.  Our brains were simply too fuzzy to make critical decisions—such as how to tie two rappel ropes together.

Fay, Jim, and Eileen At Crooked Thumb Bivouac

At 8:00am, we scrambled over to the rappel horn and got set up for a descent into the northwest couloir.  It took one long rappel and another short rappel on our doubled ropes to reach an exit ledge.  From there, we down-climbed the couloir using snow flukes for protection.

Eileen Rappelling To Snow Finger On Day 5

Shortly past noon, we stumbled into our camp on the moraine (4.3 hours from bivouac ledge).  The remainder of the day was spent eating, dozing, and sorting gear.  None of us felt motivated to head off to Phantom Peak the next day.

Day 6 – Phantom Peak Ascent:

Eileen and I woke early this morning because the snow platform beneath our floorless tent had melted into a concave surface, and we kept sliding out the bottom.  Despite being greeted by low overcast skies, cold fog, and poor visibility, we announced to Fay that we wanted to head off for Phantom Peak.  More than anything, we just wanted to get off this uncomfortable moraine.

We started our climb with a 1000-foot descending traverse over to Phantom Peak’s big southwest buttress.  The foggy morning light had a mystical and ethereal quality.

Heading To Phantom Peak On Day 6 (photo by Eileen)

We passed underneath Phantom Peak’s huge western face, which is criss-crossed with white dikes.  Because of these distinctive dikes, this face has always fascinated me more than any other in the Picket Range.

Northwest Face Of Phantom Peak

After dropping to an elevation of 5800 feet, we climbed up a snowfield and scrambled easy rocks to a 6100-foot saddle in the buttress.

Eileen and Fay Climbing Over Phantom Peak Buttress

Continuing southward beyond the buttress, we soon came underneath a pocket glacier nestled between tall cliffs on the peak’s southwestern side.  We donned crampons and started climbing.

Heading Toward Pocket Glacier On Phantom Peak

The top of the pocket glacier split into two snow fingers.  We roped up and took the left snow finger.

Climbing Toward Bergschrund On Phantom Peak

Our first obstacle was a bergschrund that cut across the entire base of the snow finger.  Luckily, it was wide but not deep;  we were able to crampon up slabby rock and then crawl over the uphill wall.

Climbing Over Bergschrund On Phantom Peak

Above the bergschrund, we began zig-zagging up the moderately steep snow finger.  Our four snow flukes provided much-needed security here.

Climbing Snow Finger High On Phantom Peak

Incredibly sheer walls of rock rose high above the snow.  The banded textures in these walls looked oddly out of place in the Cascades;  such layering would be much more common in the sedimentary cliffs of the Rockies.

Sheer Cliff High On Phantom Peak

Halfway up the snow finger, we angled left onto a broken rock slope.  Class 2-3 scrambling led up to a slight dip in the summit ridge.  We then began a long upward traverse along the ridge crest.

Scrambling Up SW Ridge Of Phantom Peak

The crest consisted of solid granitic rock with thrilling exposure on both sides.  This was the highlight of the climb for all three of us.

Fay and Jim Scrambling Upper Summit Ridge Of Phantom Peak

All morning long, fog wafted in and out of the surrounding spires and pinnacles.  This phantasmal atmospheric effect gave credence to Phantom Peak’s name.

Mount Fury Above Phantom Peak Ridgeline

Several hundred feet up the crest, we came upon a small false summit.  The true summit was an exposed rope-length away.  We set up a hand line between the false and true summits for security.

Eileen and Fay On Phantom Peak False Summit

Using the hand line, we carefully crossed over to the true summit.

Climbing Over False Summit Of Phantom Peak

We all topped out in the early afternoon (6.9 hours from camp).

Fay Approaching Summit Of Phantom Peak

The summit register dated back to 1958, having been placed by Phil Sharpe, Vic Josendal, and Warren Spickard.  They had made the second ascent—a full 18 years after the first ascent by Fred and Helmy Beckey in 1940.  Joe and Joan Firey signed in for the third ascent a year later.  Initially, we thought the register was a Beckey original, but then we realized that their names had been retro-signed by the Sharpe party.  The misspelling of their name (“Becky”) was a pretty good clue.

Phantom Peak Summit Register Page 1

We descended by reversing our up-route along the summit ridge, rock slope, and snow finger.  For convenience, we’d left our snow flukes in place above the bergschrund, so we merely clipped the rope in as we booted down.  I think that makes it a “pink-point” descent.

Phantom Peak was a much faster climb than Crooked Thumb Peak, but it wasn’t until 7:00pm when we marched back into camp (5.7 hours).  Eileen and I spent an hour before dinner moving rocks on the moraine to create a reasonably flat tent platform.  Sleeping on the snow had completely lost its charm.

Day 7 – Crooked Thumb Glacier to Whatcom Pass:

The morning weather was variable, with partially overcast skies, rain showers, and sunbreaks.  Just when conditions seemed to be heading one way, they quickly changed.  We packed up our camp and headed up the Crooked Thumb Glacier.  Rather than climbing back up to the West Challenger Notch, we traversed around the western arm of Mt. Challenger and crossed through the “Far West Challenger Notch.”  This involved some dicey Class 3-4 scrambling with heavy packs to gain an upper snowfield, but it went well overall.

Starting down the Challenger Glacier, we had decent visibility and our old tracks to follow.  However, this did not last long;  very quickly, a dense fog rolled in, and our tracks disappeared.  We slowly worked our way down to Perfect Pass using GPS and gut instinct.

Descending Into Fog On Challenger Glacier On Day 7

Once beyond the pass, the visibility improved for our traverse around Whatcom Peak.  We crossed over Whatcom Pass in late evening (10.0 hours) after retrieving a hang-bag from a nearby tree, then dropped a few hundred feet down to Whatcom Camp.  Our campsite there had flat, dry ground, convenient running water, and a sweeping valley view; compared to our meager campsite on the Crooked Thumb moraine, this felt like a Hilton Hotel!

Day 8 – Whatcom Pass to Boundary Camp:

Today involved all on-trail travel, but we dreaded the awful blow-down trees along the Chilliwack River Trail.  We broke camp and headed down the Brush Creek Trail.  Several hours later, just before reaching the Brush Creek footbridge, we were surprised to encounter Abigail, a park ranger from Glacier.  She was passing through on a solo trail reconnaissance that would take her over Whatcom Pass and down Big Beaver Creek.  We gave her a report about trail conditions heading up Brush Creek, and she mentioned that she had done a tiny bit of limb-cutting while coming down the Chilliwack River Trail.  We soon discovered that while her cutting was small in comparison to the total amount of blow-down timber, she had effectively removed nearly all of the most annoying branches on the logs.  We greatly appreciated her efforts!

We crossed over the Chilliwack River on the cablecar and proceeded up to Copper Creek Camp.  I retrieved our hang-bag from the forest and struck up a conversation with a young camper from Delaware.  He and nine other youths were just beginning a 31-day N.O.L.S. trek through the North Cascades.  I assured him that he would soon discover that he was most definitely not in Delaware anymore.

We finished the day by grinding out the 1200-foot gain up to Boundary Camp (10.7 hours).  We arrived sufficiently late to get aced out of all decent campsites.  Our only option was a muddy site with little patches of snow.  No matter; we weren’t staying long.

Day 9 – Boundary Camp to Hannegan Trailhead:

Rainfall started around 3:00am and lasted until we popped out of our tents at 6:00am.  It was immediately apparent that the rain had ridden in on a cold front;  the morning was chilly and blustery.  Hiking out the final 6 miles in this weather seemed like an ideal way to end our adventure.


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