July 28-31, 2011

Mid-Summer Climbing Trip No. 9:  Northern Pickets Area

Whatcom Peak Loop:  Easy Ridge to Perfect Pass to Whatcom Pass

Easy Peak (6613’)
Whatcom Peak (7574’)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Northwestern Cascades

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

Way Points: Ruth Creek & Hannegan Pass & Chilliwack River & Easy Saddle & Easy Peak summit & Imperfect Impasse & Perfect Pass & Whatcom Glacier & Whatcom Arm & Whatcom Pass & Chilliwack River Cablecar & U.S. Cabin Camp & Hannegan Pass & Ruth Creek (hike & climb)

Campsites: Easy Saddle & Perfect Pass & U.S. Cabin Camp

Summit: Easy Peak (climb via South Ridge; descent via North Ridge)

Summit: Whatcom Peak (climb via South Snowfield—West Ridge)

Approximate Stats: 37 miles traveled; 13,700 feet gained & lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

This was Year 9 for the Mid-Summer Climbing Trip that I’ve been doing with a group of guys comprising a mixture of usual and unusual suspects. Eagerly signing on for a loop around Whatcom Peak in the Picket Range were Eric, Jon, Ryan, Todd, Adam, and Craig. Overall, we had excellent conditions for alpine travel, very few mosquitoes, and weather that was very good when we most needed it to be. Group camaraderie and hijinks were running as high as the creeks.

Day 1 – Trailhead to Easy Saddle:

We left the Hannegan Trailhead in sunny weather and backpacked over Hannegan Pass and down to the Chilliwack River (5.5 hours from car). After passing numerous full-flowing streams along the way, it was a pleasant surprise to find the river at a typical mid-summer level. We forded the thigh-deep water, quickly located the abandoned trail on the opposite shore, and then ground out the final 2600 feet to a broad saddle on Easy Ridge (8.6 hours from car).

Chilliwack River Ford

By early evening, we had established a comfortable campsite at a cluster of bare spots on the snowy crest.

Based on ranger information, we knew that a party of three climbers bound for Phantom Peak was one day ahead of us, and although we never spotted them, we occasionally saw evidence (footsteps, a bandana, a hanging food bag, etc.) of their passage.  Naturally, they became known as the “phantom climbers.”

Day 2 – Easy Saddle to Perfect Pass + Whatcom Peak:

The day started out with a low cloud ceiling, and we found ourselves ascending into fog as we traversed over 6613-foot Easy Peak. This summit has remnants of an old radio antenna, which seems to be frequently mistaken for the old Easy Ridge Lookout (the lookout was located 3 miles to the north).  The antenna now provides an excellent barstool.

Easy Ridge Crest

After continuing along the crest for another ¾ mile, we began a descending traverse just as the weather cleared up. The solid snow cover made for easy travel, and we reached the “imperfect impasse” at 5200 feet by lunchtime (4.5 hours from saddle).

Studying The Imperfect Impasse

This notorious geomorphic feature lived up to its intimidating reputation: the deep moats on each side and the down-sloping slabs on the far side were more than we wanted to tangle with, so we quickly decided to drop below it–as many other parties have done.

Looking Up The Imperfect Impasse

Our descent to 4400 feet was rapid and pleasant, but our re-ascent through the far cliff band was slowed by patchy brush and a sketchy Class 4 rock face.

Climbing Steep Cliff To Perfect Pass

We eventually surmounted this face with the aid of a belay rope and then continued upward to 6200-foot Perfect Pass (8.4 hours from saddle).  The phantom climbers were camped on a rock knoll immediately south of the pass, and we learned that their Phantom Peak bid had been thwarted by the morning fog and drizzle. As such, they were headed out the next morning. Our group made camp on a rock knoll north of the pass, which put us closer to our objective: Whatcom Peak. We threw together summit packs and headed up in the late afternoon.

Whatcom Peak From Perfect Pass

The ascent featured a long, straightforward snowfield that ended with a very exposed but enjoyable Class 3 scramble along the south ridge crest to a foggy summit (0.9 hours from camp).

Summit Ridge On Whatcom Peak
Scrambling South Ridge Of Whatcom Peak
Summit Party On Whatcom Peak

The weather was in a tumultuous transition, as indicated by the racing and nosediving of surrounding clouds. Sure enough, by dinnertime the sky had completely cleared to reveal the vast whiteness of Mt. Challenger across the alpine dale. Perfect Pass was living up to its name!

Descending To Perfect Pass
Camp At Perfect Pass

Day 3 – Perfect Pass to Whatcom Pass to U.S. Cabin Camp:

We awoke to cloudless skies, mild temperatures, and beautiful alpenglow on the Challenger Glacier.

Sunrise On Mt Challenger
Sunrise On Perfect Pass

The phantom climbers passed through our camp as we ate breakfast, and their leader (Mario) indicated that they had decided to exit via Whatcom Pass rather than retrace their route down and around the impasse. We departed about 2 hours later (nobody pulls off a “country-club start” like we do!) and benefitted from their footsteps in our traverse around Whatcom Peak.

Bear Mountain and Mt Redoubt From Whatcom Glacier
Mt Challenger From Whatcom Glacier Traverse

The climbing books consistently warn of treacherous conditions on this traverse after mid-summer, but as it turned out, the Whatcom Glacier was in splendid condition and required very little monkey business to negotiate. We reached Whatcom Pass by lunchtime (3.2 hours from camp).

Mt Challenger From Whatcom Pass

We were soon heading down-trail toward the Chilliwack River. Although the trail has received virtually no maintenance this year, we had little trouble following it down to the river.The cable car provided a delightful break in an otherwise routine hike, and a subsequent bear sighting added to the adventure.

Chilliwack River Cablecar

There were also two areas where the trail has been obliterated by avalanche debris that is completely coated with fir needles—very odd—as well as an impressive example of beaver engineering.

Beaver Tree On Chilliwack Trail

We pulled into U.S. Cabin Camp in early evening (8.8 hours from previous camp) and splashed off trail grime in the frigid Chilliwack River before a campfire dinner.

Day 4 – U.S. Cabin Camp to Trailhead:

After two days of summery weather, I was dismayed to be awaken by raindrops on my face at 2:45am. Where did THIS come from? Fortunately, the rain never amounted to more than occasional showers all day, and the cool overcast weather was actually quite welcome during our hike back over Hannegan Pass.

We passed a trio of park rangers who had been on trail patrol and light brush-clearing duty. They told us that the Chilliwack Trail probably won’t see much maintenance this year, due to the late-melting snowpack. Thus far, this has been a year better suited to alpine climbing than backpacking. Our excellent alpine-and-trail trip was perfectly capped off with dinner at Milano’s in Glacier.

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