July 11-18, 2015

Early Summer Climbing Trip:  Northern Pickets

Crooked Thumb Peak attempt (8120′)
Mount Challenger aka Challenger 1 (8236′)
Challenger Pinnacle aka Challenger 2 (8080’+)
Wiley Peak (7374′)

——————– 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 & Luna Camp & Beaver Pass & Wiley Ridge shoulder & East Wiley Basin & Eiley Lake & Wiley Lake & Challenger Glacier Moraine; return via Wiley Peak summit (hike & climb)

Campsites: Luna Camp & East Wiley Basin & Challenger Glacier Moraine & East Wiley Basin & Luna Camp

Sidetrip: Challenger Arm & Challenger Glacier & Challenger Notch & Crooked Thumb Glacier; return via Solar Pass (climb)

Summit Attempt: Crooked Thumb Peak (climb to base of West Gully)

Sidetrip: Challenger Arm & Challenger Glacier (climb)

Summit: Mt. Challenger (climb via Northeast Face)

Summit: Challenger Pinnacle / Challenger 2 (climb via Northwest Ridge)

Summit: Wiley Peak (hike & climb via South Slope)

Approximate Total Stats:  45 miles traveled;  17,200 feet gained and lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Last week, Fay, Eileen, Kevin K, Tony D, and I spent 8 days on a Northern Pickets adventure trip.  The Pickets have a knack for serving up unexpected events, and this week was no exception.  For starters, we had just gotten accustomed to sunny days in the 80s and 90s, but mountain temps last week dipped into the 40s and 50s, with clouds, fog, and even a little rain.  It was a tough transition for us, both mentally and logistically.  We were fortunate to have a good “ground man” in the form of Jim A, who kept us apprised of weather swings via Fay’s In-Reach satellite device.  This didn’t make the days any drier or the nights any warmer, but at least we could head out with a tad more confidence each day.  Another key advantage for our group was the fact that Fay and Eileen had been into the Northern Pickets twice over the past three years, which helped greatly with respect to route-finding and camp planning.  Nonetheless, there were plenty of “Wow, I sure don’t remember this!” moments along the way.

Day 1 – Trailhead to Luna Camp:

We took a 1:30pm water taxi to Big Beaver Landing, then humped way-too-heavy packs 9.5 miles up the valley trail to Luna Camp (5.7 hours from landing).  Intermittent rain showers wetted the bushes, which in turn soaked our lower legs.  Wet socks and boots would be an incessant feature of our summer trip.

Day 2 – Luna Camp to East Wiley Basin:

After stashing return meals and clothes in a hang-bag, we continued up the wet, brushy trail almost to Beaver Pass.  We then left the trail, crossed several branches of Big Beaver Creek (now not so big), and headed westward up Wiley Ridge.  The going was mostly steep duff in old-growth forest, with a few brushy patched tossed in.  At 5200 feet, we popped out of the brush and entered pleasant heathery terrain.  A few more hours of ascending and traversing ended in a 6100-foot basin (“East Wiley Basin” – 10.4 hours from Luna Camp) on the ridge’s south side.  From here, the Northern Pickets barely scrunched underneath the low cloud ceiling.

Traversing Toward Northern Pickets On Day 3
Storm Clouds Over Luna Cirque
Luna Peak From Camp 2 On Wiley Ridge

Day 3 – East Wiley Basin to Challenger Glacier Moraine:

We left another stash of food in a hang-bag, then set off on a high westerly traverse along Wiley Ridge.  Most of the ridge was melted out, but there were a few remaining snowfields and an adequate number of water sources.  We passed Eiley Lake and Wiley Lake on their southern sides.  The weather remained cool and cloudy, with a few rain showers.

Traversing High Along Wiley Ridge On Day 3
Descending Into Wiley Lake Bowl

By mid-afternoon, we had rounded Point 7374 on the northern side and descended a horribly loose moraine slope to reach the base of Challenger Arm.  Threatening weather and waning enthusiasm prompted us to seek a campsite on the rock cleaver at 6800 feet (“Challenger Camp”  – 7.1 hours from Wiley Camp).  We found two established tent sites on the cleaver;  an hour of excavating and boulder-moving resulted in a third tent site.  Heavy rains moved in shortly after we finished setting up camp.

Day 4 – Crooked Thumb Peak Attempt:

Nighttime rains passed through and left us with wonderfully blue skies in the morning.  Kevin was feeling ill, so he stayed in camp today while Tony, Fay, Eileen, and I packed up for a long day.  Our goal was to climb Crooked Thumb Peak on the opposite side of Mt. Challenger.  We easily ascended the Challenger Glacier to “Challenger Notch” between the middle and west peaks.

Sunrise On Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, and Whatcom Peak
Sunrise Warms Mount Challenger On Day 4
Climbing Mt Challenger Arm On Day 4

At Challenger Notch, we got our first view of Crooked Thumb Peak—along with the severely crevassed “Crooked Thumb Glacier.”  It was not inspiring;  conditions looked more like early October than mid July.  Fay and Eileen immediately sensed that we would have problems.

Crooked Thumb and Phantom Peak From Challenger Notch

To reach the snowfields and glacier below, we fixed a rope at the notch and then made one full-length, single-strand rappel down a steep dihedral.  The fixed rope would facilitate our return trip later in the day, but to an alpine climber there is something inherently unsettling about leaving a rope hanging from a mountain.  This is not part of our standard repertoire.

Starting Rappel From Challenger Notch

We descended into the large snow bowl below, then climbed ever-steepening snow slopes toward Crooked Thumb.  The inclination, snow firmness, and dangerous runout was enough to justify running belays with flukes and pickets.  On the negative side, this cost us a lot of valuable time.

Climbing Glacier Below Crooked Thumb

Once we wrapped around the face of Crooked Thumb and climbed up the key snowfinger (7.0 hours from camp), our spirits sank at the sight of large moats and a bad breach.  Clearly, this year’s low snowpack had taken the climb out of condition—for us, anyway.  We turned around and headed back to camp.

Looking Up Crooked Thumb Gully

For the sake of efficiency and exploration, we decided to split our team on the return trip.  Fay and Tony climbed back up to Challenger Notch, using prusik slings on the fixed line for protection.  They encountered very enjoyable Class 5 climbing on firm, clean, gritty rock.  Eileen and I took a non-technical traverse around the western flank of Mt. Challenger, then crossed onto the upper edge of Challenger Glacier.  We found this to be a scenic and easy route—probably preferable to the notch route when carrying heavy backpacks.  Tony and Fay were waiting in camp with Kevin when we arrived.

Sunset On Wiley Ridge and Hozomeen Mountain

Day 5 – Mt. Challenger & Challenger Pinnacle Climb:

We awoke to sunny, blue skies, but a dense cloud cap soon moved over the Pickets.  Our goal for today was a climb of Mt. Challenger and any other nearby summits that we could tuck in.

Mt Challenger From Camp On Day 5

Kevin was feeling better today, so he joined the rest of us on a romp back up Challenger Arm.  We navigated through dense fog to climb a steep snow headwall and arete ending at the summit block.  Since Tony had traveled the farthest to make this trip (from Portland), we gave him the honor of leading the classic rock pitch.  Having spent most of his climbing career on chossy Olympics rock, he was nearly giddy on the solid granite here.

Tony On Foggy Mt Challenger Summit

While on the summit, we could see an impressive rock pinnacle immediately to our west.  We initially thought this was “Middle Challenger,” but I now think it’s just an intermediate pinnacle (rightfully designated as “Challenger Pinnacle” or “Challenger 2”).

Challenger Pinnacle From Main Challenger

After rappelling off the summit block, Tony and Kevin returned to camp.  Meanwhile, Fay, Eileen, and I traversed over to the pinnacle and climbed it via a short, steep snowfinger and some Class 2-3 rock.  There wasn’t much to see in the fog, but we enjoyed this new summit.

Eileen and Fay On Challenger Pinnacle Summit

Day 6 – Challenger Glacier Moraine to East Wiley Basin:

The weather was cloudy and unsettled as we packed up camp and headed back along Wiley Ridge.  We stopped at “Camp Fay,” which Fay has declared to be her favorite campsite in the whole world and the future site of her funerary ashes.  See how she is already roping us into yet another trip up Wiley Ridge??!!

Mt Challenger From West End Of Wiley Ridge

The day grew steadily warmer and clearer as we worked our way back to “Wiley Camp.”  Luna Peak and all of the Northern Pickets finally came into full view.

Hiking Back Along Wiley Ridge On Day 6

Day 7 – East Wiley Basin to Luna Camp:

From East Wiley Basin, we headed back over the ridge shoulder and down to Beaver Pass.  Thanks to Eileen’s memory, Kevin’s nose, and Fay’s GPS, we managed to descend a nearly brush-free forest most of the way.  Luna Camp was filled up with student trail-maintenance workers when we arrived at 6:00pm, but the resident ranger kindly allowed us to crash in the horse tie-up area.  It made for an odoriferous night.

Day 8 – Luna Camp to Trailhead:

We pounded out the 9.5 miles down to Big Beaver Landing and enjoyed 80-degree temps on the dock while waiting for our water taxi.  With the past week’s suffering starting to fade a bit from memory, plans for next year’s Picket adventure were already beginning to form.

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