The Picket Range – August 6 – 13, 2004
The mountains in the Picket Range got good names. Luna. Fury. Phantom. Terror. Challenger. Everybody that writes about them seems to start out by commenting on that. The Picket that they’re named after was Captain George Pickett – a distant relative of mine who became famous for Pickett’s charge at the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. (At least that’s what Beckey said in 1961 – by 1981 he’d started talking about picket fences.) Beckey’s Challenge of the North Cascades has two chapters about climbing in the Pickets and some of the most memorable lines in the book come from those chapters. “Stock in our venture soared” he says when they top out on Crooked Thumb. The tangles of Luna Creek elicited “Helmy … had visions of cooking bear flesh in Assyrian fashion … but I pictured meeting a mother bear with cubs.” You get glimpses of the range from the North Cascades Highway – look up Goodell Creek as you drive into Newhalem and you see the Chopping Block; look back while driving the grade up from Thunder Arm and you see the Northern Pickets.
The participants on this trip were:
|JH||Leader, graduate of The Mountaineers intermediate climbing course, former climb leader for The Mountaineers, completed Bulgers highest hundred list, climbed Denali, worked as a climbing ranger in the high sierras and in Mt. Rainier national park (in the 1970s). Did six or eight climbs during the summer, including family trips, mostly day trips with little technical climbing but including strenuous approaches, complicated route finding and at least one roped climb (Granite Peak in the Wind River Range). Approximate age – 51|
|AF||Graduate of The Mountaineers intermediate climbing course, current climb leader and mentor for The Mountaineers basic climbing course. Did twelve or fifteen trips during the summer including several technical climbs and strenuous approaches. Approximate age – 48|
|DG||College friend of JH, experienced backpacker, previously summitted many peaks in New England, climbed Mt. Rainier with RMI earlier in the season and did several day trips with JH. Approximate age – 50|
|Jerry Scott||Graduate of The Mountaineers intermediate climbing course, current climb leader for The Mountaineers. Did six or eight trips during the summer including family trips, mostly day trips with little technical climbing but including two trips with JH. Age – 50|
|CR||Graduate of the Mountaineers intermediate climbing course, former climb leader for The Mountaineers, veteran of treks in the Himalayas and climbs of Aconcagua and Denali. Level of activity during the summer unknown (but at least one strenuous trip with JH). Approximate age – 50|
|JR||Graduate of The Mountaineers basic climbing course. Visiting from Costa Rica, little or no activity during the summer. Approximate age – 50.|
During the summer of 2003 JH began talking about a week-long climbing trip in the Picket Range. He was disappointed in that the people he approached had already formulated plans and weren’t able to arrange schedules to accommodate his availability. JH began recruiting participants for a 2004 trip in January of that year. After suggesting the first week of August and getting commitments at least from AF, CR and me he encountered conflicts with family plans and had to reschedule the trip for the following week. JH invested significant energy in planning the trip. He called and emailed each of the other participants several times to confirm continuing commitment. He attempted to arrange hikes or climbs with each of them to assess their conditioning. He discussed his plans with several notable climbers who were very familiar with the range including Silas Wild and John Roper. He studied maps and guides before deciding on a route up Wiley ridge from Beaver Pass, a traverse of Luna Cirque to Luna Col, and an exit via Access Creek. He wanted to climb both peaks of Fury since there is evidently some debate about which is higher. Roper told him not to worry, just to get the East one. AF pointed out that even Beckey said it was eight hours from the East to the West peak. At a party at AF’s house several weeks before the trip CR asked my opinion and then said not to worry – we’d get realistic when we got into the mountains. I told him that I was worried about being able to keep up on something as strenuous as doing both peaks of Fury in the same day. But, I said, it’s like running from a bear – all I have to do is move faster than JR so that I won’t be the one holding things up. CR laughed and indicated he shared my sentiments. In the end JH settled on a trip that he envisioned as requiring nine days with seven days of travel and two days without moving camp. He called the other participants to explain his plan and we each accepted it. He said he thought we ought to bring ten days food. We all concurred. As the date of the trip neared he began broaching the idea of leaving Friday afternoon instead of Saturday morning.
A couple of weeks before the trip JH called the Ross Lake Resort boat service to reserve a water taxi to the Big Beaver landing. He determined that the service wasn’t available after 8:00 PM and contacted the other participants to organize leaving Seattle by 3:00 Friday afternoon. Since CR, AF and JR were not working this did not pose a problem for half of the group. On the Monday prior to leaving JH held a meeting at his house (a day after returning from a family trip to Wyoming.) The evening of the meeting JR called with a family emergency so the group that met included only five of us. Plans were reviewed and reconfirmed. JH, DG and I arranged to meet at 3:00 at the Greenlake park & ride; the rest of the group would leave an hour or two earlier, obtain a permit in Marblemount, and rendezvous at the Ross Lake Resort landing. An equipment list prepared by JR was discussed (and critiqued) and assignments for group gear were made. JH and DG would share JH’s big old tent, CR and AF would share a new single walled tent AF had recently purchased, and JR and I would each carry a bivy sack. JH tried his best to sell everyone on the benefits of aquasox. DG was volunteered to carry the first aid kit and was provided with a harness and helmet belonging to JH’s wife. I wanted to make sure we didn’t all bring water filters. JH said that he planned to use iodine pills and the others agreed that pills were the lowest-weight alternative.
During the next several days phone calls and emails were exchanged with last minute adjustments to accommodate JR’s decision not to participate. At 2:00 on a rainy Friday afternoon I left work in Kent, filled the gas tank of the car, and drove approximately 30 miles north to the Greenlake park & ride. DG arrived at 3:00 and loaded his gear; JH was a little late and had not packed his gear. He loaded loose gear, muffins and doughnut holes into the car and the three of us departed Seattle at about 3:15. JH reported that the weather was supposed to get better the next day and that he had spoken to the resort personnel to see if it was feasible to either take a boat in the morning or to rent a room for Friday evening. The answer in each case was no, and he was also informed that the boat would not leave after 7:00. He did learn, however, that Silas Wild stored his snow cat in the barn of the guy at the resort. I asked about JR, and JH said that he didn’t know much. He said that JR had told him earlier that he didn’t want to push too hard which he interpreted as meaning that JR had second thoughts about the strenuousness of the trip.
Although traffic was very heavy the carpool lanes continued to move until somewhere south of Everett where the entire road became clogged because of heavy rain squalls with thunder and lightening. JH became agitated but he was distracted when I challenged his assertion that the route through Darrington was shorter and resorted to adding mileage figures on the map to prove his point. I ate some of his doughnut holes. JH kept urging me to pass slower cars although he was careful to hedge it by saying that he knew it wasn’t the way I liked to drive. Later, on Highway 20, I twice passed long strings of cars (probably more than six in each instance.) JH believed that the construction east of Newhalem on Highway 20 stopped at 6:00 so he was distressed when traffic came to a stop. He was more distressed when it became obvious that cars were being moved in alternating convoys and that the eastbound group had just departed. JH pointed out that he and I were still in work attire and indicated that it was time to change clothes. The car immediately behind us had been the head of a long string passed just before entering Newhalem and the occupants appeared relieved when we stopped short of completely disrobing. I retrieved my sandwich from the cargo area and was eating dinner when the convoy began to move. I drove to the Ross Dam trailhead in my hiking boots. It was still raining lightly at the trailhead and JH directed DG to run for the landing and summon the boat while JH packed his gear. I cut strap holes in a garbage bag to use as a pack cover. It was at this point that I determined that I had not received the emails circulated after JR’s withdrawal and that I had been expected to bring a picket in addition to the ice screws I was carrying. I had packed a water filter, though, and a bottle of white gas. I had a 9mm rope, three ice screws, three hexes, crampons and a harness with half a dozen carabineers and slings. I had ten freeze drys, ten oatmeal packets and a couple of cliff bars and five ounces of trail mix for each of ten days. I also had five Toblerone chocolate bars instead of my usual Mars bars because of unfortunate melting tendencies discovered in the Mars (“Snickers with Almonds”) bars while on a recent family trip. My pack felt about the same as it had leaving for seven days in the Goat Rocks.
JH and I hiked to the landing together and met DG, CR and AF there. The others reported that they had called the resort and were told that a boat would be dispatched when the entire party had arrived. Money was pooled and a few minutes later at almost exactly 7:00, an aluminum power boat dashed across to the landing and we loaded it with packs and poles. Will, the boat driver, lectured us about the deadline for departing and was emphatic that someone in the group had wrongly insisted over the phone that they had been told they could arrive as late as 8:00. JH did not identify himself as the culprit. Will drove the boat very fast and did not slow down when negotiating a small gap in the log boom. The trip to Big Beaver landing took perhaps ten minutes. AF paid Will and arranged for a pick-up at 7:00 the following Friday. JH explained that he and AF had discussed getting out as early as Friday night instead of Sunday if the weather did not necessitate any layover days. He explained that he wanted to reserve a spot on the boat for the earliest possible return and that he planned to call the resort from a summit to adjust plans as we got further into the trip. Will said that cell phones would only work from the west slopes and only above 7,000 feet.
We hiked through the boat camp at the landing, around the inlet at the mouth of Big Beaver Creek, over the bridge and up the hill to Pumpkin Hill camp. We inspected a campsite near the water before settling on a larger spot on high ground in trees. As we hung food JH expressed concern that my food bags were too small and wondered if I was going to be hungry. It was hard to distinguish between drips from the trees and rain during the night but the new day dawned dry.
Breakfast was quick – JH shared his muffins. We started up the Big Beaver trail looking for a convenient place to stash some extra gear. AF and DG were carrying ropes. The first stop was about a mile up the trail where a big tree marked the first glimpse of the stream. A tarp, a pack cover and the muffin container were concealed behind the tree. JH talked to DG as they walked in front. I hung back and AF and CR brought up the rear. The next stop was just after 10 mile camp, followed by a stop at the side trail to the Luna Creek horse camp. JH was carrying several pounds of individually wrapped candies and cookies and was happy to share them. During the Luna Creek stop JH and AF consulted the route descriptions concerning the exit from Access Creek. AF reported that the ranger in Marblemount said that there was a social trail leading to Big Beaver Creek about a mile after the Luna Creek camp and that it was possible to cross on a log. We resolved to look for the way but nothing was seen that resembled a trail. There was another stop at the creek crossing with a view up to Luna at the beginning of the switchbacks. I pumped at the creek and offered the filter to DG who pumped for himself and JH. I had begun to experience rubbing on my heels where new repairs to my boots were contacting soft tissue. I also noticed that the soft insoles covering my orthotics were working off to the side, something I hadn’t experienced previously even on steep trails with a heavy pack. When I applied athletic tape and moleskin I found that a chocolate bar had melted in the top pocket of my pack covering my moleskin and other personal gear with brown goo. After another stop at a creek crossing the Beaver Pass shelter appeared. I had dropped my bandana and had to hike a quarter of a mile back down the trail to retrieve it. We concluded that there were likely mice in the shelter and continued a few hundred yards to the camp. There we selected the largest of several campsites and erected our tents. I changed from boots to tevas and broke the rubber ring holding the dead velcro together. JH strung his food-bag cord across the middle of the campsite and filled it with wet laundry. I attempted to wipe the chocolate out of the top of my pack. AF organized a game of hearts and then JH wanted to play bridge – which meant that he had to teach it to me. DG napped in his tent.
After about an hour in camp another climber appeared who indicated that he and his partner were camping at the shelter. He was hiking to the actual pass looking for a faint trail to the east which he believed led to a repeater site and the easiest route to the ridge. JH told him that he had been warned against going all the way to the pass. The climber from the shelter explained that they planned to camp at Eiley lake the next evening and to climb Challenger and hike back out to the pass the next day. JH expressed disbelief that they could get out that quickly. At dinner JH announced that all his freeze drys were the 40 oz variety so that when he opened a bag he had two open pouches to deal with. He expected DG to eat one of his pouches and to let him eat one of DG’s the next night. I noticed that CR was eating freeze dry repackaged in a seal-a-meal bag. CR also announced that his helmet was missing, apparently lost from his pack on the hike in. As we were eating another group of three climbers appeared, greeted us and inquired for JR with whom they had been corresponding. They were planning to climb Challenger and the North Buttress route on Fury and to exit via Goodell Creek. They had not seen the missing helmet. JH amused them with descriptions of the rude surprise awaiting the pair camped at the shelter.
In the morning breakfast was quick. CR announced that he was heading back and I gave him my bivy sack and rope bag to carry out. JH worked hard to convince him to continue. AF took his GPS and DG his stove. AF was carrying the whole tent plus a stove, a big bottle of fuel and a rope but rather than rearrange loads we agreed that he and I would trade off on the rope. DG had the other rope. We worked our way east from camp through light wet brush until we reached the steep slope of the ridge. We climbed straight up in thicker brush and cedar thickets. JH lost his balance while walking a large log and fell into devil’s club. It took considerable time to find tweezers and to pick the spines out of his hands. I took the opportunity to refresh the athletic tape on my feet. JH eventually taped his fingers and we continued. JH indicated that he believed that this would be the hardest day of the trip. I thought about the various hike books which suggested climbing this slope for the views into Luna Cirque. Just below a steep rocky step we heard frantic loud screams below us. We gathered that someone was getting stung by bees and it seemed like the screaming continued for a long time. Before we cleared the step the three climbers we met at the camp caught up to us. The leader of their group, climbing second, had been stung half a dozen times. The three, who we now dubbed the three amigos, were moving quickly and seemed to have survived the bees. We rested above the step. They continued up the slope and we passed them again a little later while they were having lunch at a spot looking into Luna Cirque. They, in turn, passed us while we were stopped for lunch a little later.
We continued up the ridge with spectacular views of Redoubt and Spickard and the Mox peaks. In the middle of the afternoon we descended several hundred feet to a small pond where we pumped water. Despite his preference for iodine JH was happy when DG pumped him a bottle that didn’t require a ten minute wait. We then climbed boulders almost back to the ridge crest and continued along the ridge looking for Eiley lake. We eventually came to a mezzanine cirque that separated us from a bowl (at about our level) which we assumed contained the lake. We heard voices below us and chose to descend intending to traverse below the cliffs rather than try to find a route above them. After descending several hundred feet we decided to make sure that we could get around the cliffs without going all the way to the cirque floor another five hundred feet below us. AF scouted the route and we eventually concluded that we needed to climb back up. Somewhere in the process AF asked me to take the rope for the first time that day. As we neared the ridge crest we saw another party although we couldn’t tell where they went. We found a large cairn and assumed that it marked the gully for the descent to the lake. As we inspected a steep dirty gully we heard the three amigos shouting to us that we needed to go higher. We knocked down the cairn, continued up past another bump and descended a dirty loose slot that took us to the lake.
We climbed out of the hole with the lake and contoured around on big boulders. It was late afternoon before we got to a still-frozen Wiley Lake. We still needed to climb and descend a ridge before arriving at Challenger Arm, the standard camp for climbing Challenger. We roped because the next slope was glaciated with bare ice at least at the bottom. AF and I were ready first and headed out tied in short with coils on our packs. It was getting late when we came to the crest of the ridge. The view was breathtaking – we looked across at Challenger and the wall of Luna Cirque. We were over 7,000 feet, higher than Luna Lake. The ridge seemed to drop a sheer thousand feet to the Challenger Glacier. We determined that there was no descent from our spot and AF pointed out that we evidently needed to climb another three hundred feet around a red bump and then descend on terrain of unknown difficulty before setting up camp. It was about 8:00 leaving us an hour of daylight. AF and I believed that if we continued we were likely to end up camping somewhere worse than where we were. JH arrived at our location after fifteen minutes and he did not want to hear our logic but wanted to push on. We argued for a while until DG indicated that he was exhausted and wanted to stop. JH acquiesced at that point and went to locate a tent site. The first order of business was to melt snow for water. AF got a stove going and I said I’d tend it. JH and DG set up CR’s stove but the seals on the fuel bottle were bad and when it was pressurized it sprayed gas all over the heather and a small fire ensued. I finished melting four liters of water then moved the stove to the burned patch. We ended up crowded into the narrow space between JH’s tent and a boulder where JH and DG were preparing to eat. AF had set up the tent and I moved my gear over to it. It was cold enough that the chocolate solidified and I was able to brush it out of the top pocket of my pack. We ate by headlight. AF installed a new o-ring in CR’s stove but when pressurized it sprayed again. JH carried on about the irresponsibility of not testing gear before leaving home. DG was chilled and moved into the tent. He said it was the wildest spot he had ever camped in. There were, in fact, a lot of stars out that night.
We were up at first light and left after a leisurely breakfast. It had not frozen during the night so the snow was soft and we did not use crampons. We roped for the climb to the notch and then descended unroped on slabs and snow to the right. We saw two rope teams climbing as we descended the ridge. We eventually came to the col at the base of Challenger Arm and found both flat tent spots and water. DG indicated that he did not want to climb so he and JH selected a tent site and JH scattered gear around. He instructed DG on how he wanted the camp arranged. I pumped water and left the filter with DG. I flaked out the rope and AF and I tied in and waited until JH got ready to go. AF led with JH in the middle of the rope. There were some spots where the snow was very hard but for most of the distance the slope was gradual, the snow was soft, and the scenery was incomparable. We passed some large crevasses and as we were approaching a steep slope below the upper section of the glacier we met the two guys from the shelter on their way down. They indicated that they had camped on the arm and that they intended to hike out to the pass that day. They seemed strong enough to pull it off. JH privately took back all of the things he said about them. They told us that they had found the bees’ nest on the way up the ridge from the pass and that they marked it with surveyors tape. The three amigos evidently saw the tape and hiked to it and got stung. We thought about the cairn marking the gully not to take above Eiley Lake. We continued toward the summit and stopped at the base of a steep knife-edged hogback to let the three amigos clear the slope. They indicated that they intended to descend into the cirque that afternoon. We climbed straight up the hogback and then balanced delicately on the edge as we walked over to the rock. The move down into the moat got my attention. There wasn’t much room at the base of the rock. I found a horn to hang my pack on and I belayed AF as he climbed to the summit. It looked to me like about three moves and AF made them look easy going around a bulge to the right and then up a chimney. When it was my turn I couldn’t see the sequence on the right so I found a hold and went over the bulge. It was really only one move. I climbed past AF to the other end of the summit rock so that there would be room for JH. We sunned ourselves for quite a while and AF called his wife for a weather report. I discovered that the antenna was broken off of my phone. We rappelled back into the moat and tied back in. I led the way back across the sharp edge and then down the hogback. I continued to lead the entire descent. Near the bottom I wanted to walk close enough to the rocks of the arm to see where the three amigos had camped and to see if there were better tent sites than the ones we had claimed. JH wanted to walk a more direct line and pulled on the rope and wouldn’t follow. We walked back to camp almost side by side dragging the rope sideways between us.
It must have been about 3:00 when we arrived at the camp. JH greeted DG by shouting “now that you’ve got camp set up we need to tear it down and get going.” I was astounded because I expected to spend the night on the arm and to move camp the next day. I challenged JH and we argued for half an hour about the futility of moving that day and about death marches. I reminded JH how late we’d gone the evening before and said that there was no way I wanted a repeat. I suggested that it was a safety issue if we pushed too hard. JH countered by saying that he wanted to climb past Luna Lake early in the morning before the sun hit the ice above it. I told him to look at the aspect of the slope – the only way we were going to get by the glaciers before the sun hit them would be to do it at midnight. AF said that he favored moving so I shut up. I was not physically tired. The climb of Challenger had been relatively easy. I was mystified by the need to move since it would not enable us to summit anything else earlier and since we had extra days. We had planned a day at Challenger Arm without moving camp and I hadn’t heard any reason to change. I felt like I had been left out when plans were changed.
Once the decision was made, though, I packed my gear quickly and pumped some water. I applied new athletic tape to my heels and used duct tape to secure the spenco to the orthotics. I used a couple of ice axes to lay out a rope in quarters, tied butterfly knots at the tie-in points, and then waited for JH to get organized and pack his gear. Rather than clip the butterfly JH had AF tie him in with a bowline. We hiked across the glacier, around a corner, over the rim of the cirque and then left the snow. We unroped and I put the rope in my pack. We started a long traverse on slabs and loose rock eventually descending into the upper fringes of brush and cedar. We weren’t sure where to head down but we knew that we would end up in cliffs if we turned too early so we kept traversing. JH kept asking what elevation we were at and repeatedly asked AF to get out the GPS and check elevation and position. Eventually AF and I realized that he simply didn’t know how to reset his altimeter and it must have been way off. As the sun went behind the cirque wall we were debating whether to climb up above a small set of cliffs or to pass below them. We climbed back up and then contoured around into a gully where we crossed a big stream at the base of a major waterfall. Descending on the other side of the falls JH slipped on loose rock and fell heavily. We rested a while in the gathering dusk and then picked our way down rocky stream beds between fingers of brush. The terrain was typical glacial moraine with piles of loose rock and rubble interspersed with slide alder. DG headed down a gully, the rest of us continued traversing in search of a more open route. AF eventually descended on a brushy rib. JH took the big gully and I took a smaller gully to his left. Eventually our gullies merged and I had to dodge his rocks so I moved over to the left again. Shortly after moving to the new gully I had to climb up to the bank to get around a drop off and I lost my footing and fell on my back. My pack hung into the gully with about ten feet of nothingness under it. I had grabbed an alder and found myself like an upended turtle, head down and without leverage to roll over. I finally swung my feet around and slid down into the gully landing right side up. My gully ended at the toe of the glacier and AF was there when I emerged. We walked down the snow noticing the rocks that had recently fallen on top of it. DG called to us saying that he had a tent site. We had been aiming for the trees beyond the moraine, but none of us really wanted to go any further than we had to. JH and DG kicked out a smooth spot in the larger flat area. AF and I did the same next door to them. We anchored the tent with large stones. DG walked half a mile to the stream and filled two water bags. I hung them on a big rock with a piece of webbing. We started the stove and JH put on his aquasox and walked to the stream to bathe. Once again we ate by headlight with AH and DG sharing one of the big pouches. I pumped water bottles from CR’s pot filled with water from the bag. All night long we listened to rock and ice-fall from the cirque walls.
Even though the sun did not penetrate to the floor of the cirque we woke early, had breakfast, packed and set out. We hiked to the trees and then up a raw moraine until we found a way to descend to the glacier. We hiked across the glacier on bare ice with a dusting of large and small rocks. As we got closer to the far side of the cirque it became impossible to stay out of boulders and we eventually found ourselves picking our way across the steep loose moraine above Lousy Lake. Underneath the rock was ice. The view of the snout of the glacier was fascinating. We put on helmets before climbing straight up the side moraine. I warned DG against following in my line, and then evidently almost clobbered him with a rock. The going was easier once we reached the ramp leading to the lake. We were in hot sun by the time we turned the corner of the ramp – the only spot with exposure to to the hanging ice. We rested at the lake and washed feet and heads. I applied new athletic tape to my heels. My feet were doing well even though we were going uphill again. I attributed it to the lighter pack – even though I was carrying the rope. We pumped water with DG once again pumping for JH. Leaving the lake for Luna Col we took a small rightward slanting ramp and then cut left up a narrow slot. This slot got steeper and headed in a waterfall, at which point AF bailed out to the right rather than lead up through the falling water. The heather he climbed next to the gully was steep enough that he rigged a hand line. I think we could have avoided it by continuing a little further on the ramp.
We reached the col about 3:00. JH suggested climbing Luna that afternoon. I told him that he didn’t know when to quit. He and DG claimed the primary tent site at the col – a sandy spot on which a floor of flat rocks had been placed as protection from a wet sandy puddle bottom. AF and I dropped our gear on slabs. I pointed out another spot to JH – a niche in the rock with just enough room for a tent and a floor similar to the site he’d claimed (only drier.) He said it was crappy. Between our tent sites there was a cleft in the rocks which contained a tarn with ice at one end and water at the other but JH scouted around the nearby snowbanks and found a spot where he could dig a hole and have a drip of water. He mobilized DG with a cup to fill the waterbags. We explored the col and relaxed before starting the stove and preparing dinner. We could see smoke from a fire to the east of us and discussed whether or not it was one of the fires near Chelan. It didn’t seem to be far enough away for that. We amused ourselves identifying peaks. I decided that I needed a day away from JH and announced that I wasn’t going to climb Fury. AF and JH didn’t try to talk me into joining them. We ate and JH broke out a one-pound bag of chocolate chip cookies that had been reduced to crumbs. AF and DG helped him finish them. After dinner AF and I pooled all of the climbing gear – runners, carabineers, ice screws, pickets, etc. AF was anticipating the steep snow and was worried about only having two pickets. He asked if he could take my ice axe as well. We decided that DG and I would climb Luna while AF and JH climbed Fury. I kept a rope, a couple of runners and a few carabineers. AF took the rest. As the sun was setting we reclined on the slabs by the tent and noticed a small rodent scurrying around. We decided that even in the absence of trees we needed to hang our food. AF secured one end of a parachute cord in the slab near our tent I strung the other end over the tarn and tied it to a rock on the other side. We clove-hitched a carabineer over the ice and hung all of the bags. The cord was right in the walkway but otherwise it was a good set up. In the dark we could see the glow of the forest fire.
I got up with AF and JH in the morning and had breakfast. AF was ready to go before JH got his stuff packed and JH went looking for something he thought was in DG’s pack. JH got impatient and pulled everything out of the pack and left it laying on the ground. He and AF hiked to a ledge on the knob next to our camp and then disappeared. Before they left I reminded them that we were way out in the woods and that DG and I didn’t have enough gear to come after them if they got into trouble. DG got up shortly after they left and had breakfast. He reassembled his pack and said that he’d been around JH before when he had summit fever, but never for a week straight. We hung out for a little while and then hiked off toward Luna. I carried the rope in my combination stuff-sack / summit-pack. The climb up Luna from the col is easy and we talked all the way up. I told my life story which I haven’t done in years. DG reciprocated (but showed a lot more restraint than I did.) We knew that we needed to drop to the west side of the peak a couple hundred feet below the summit but when we got to that point we were boxed in by a wall so we climbed on up to the false summit which we reached at about 9:00 in the morning. The views were glorious and we rested and looked for a while. Eventually we dropped perhaps 500 feet below a buttress and contoured around the peak on the west. We crossed a succession of ridges and gullies before we found a broad gray gully that led to the other end of the summit ridge. We climbed up the gully (which was loose and dirty) until it got seriously steep. At that point, maybe a hundred feet below the top, I headed for a ledge off to the left that looked like it would take me out of the gully and onto an arrete. Although the ledge was wide it was exposed and I asked DG if he was comfortable on it. He hesitated a little so I pulled out the rope and told him that I thought it would be best if we tied in. I did not ask for a belay but trailed the rope and protected the ledge against a pendulum with a couple of slings hung on horns. I belayed DG across and then assessed the pitch to the summit. I chose to climb straight up on a small face but quickly realized that I needed to be belayed to go that way. I backed off and we walked in coils up a ramp slanting steeply to the right which put us back in the original gully maybe a fifty feet below the summit. The final pitch to the top was a fun scramble with a couple of harder moves – mainly inside a chimney which felt very secure. I trailed the rope and belayed DG up after me. We were on top by noon, ate lunch, and admired the scenery. The smoke from the forest fire had been contained in the valleys in the morning but now it looked like a mushroom cloud. We were blown away by the view of the southern pickets and all of the cascade pass peaks. There was a big snow covered peak between us and Mt. Shuksan which I decided must be Bacon. We couldn’t see Ross Lake but we could see our descent route and the ponds in valley of Big Beaver Creek.
I decided that we would be better off rappelling from the summit so I rigged an anchor and threw the rope. I checked out DG’s carabineer brake rig and sent him down first. I followed and pulled the rope. Then I rigged another anchor and we repeated the process. We came off the second rappel a ways below the ledge we had used to exit the gully. We down climbed from there trying not to kick rocks on each other. We were back to camp by mid afternoon.
We hung out in camp, lazing in the sun, for the rest of the afternoon. AF had left his CD player but I didn’t feel like listening to music. I had the words to a Grateful Dead song stuck in my head:
“Standing on the moon
With nothing else to do
A lovely view of heaven
But I’d rather be with you.”
I re-read Tabor & Crowder. I toyed with the idea of dropping down to the red fin above the lake where they said there were good quartz crystals. I re-rigged the food bag cord so that it wasn’t in the middle of the walkway. I walked up to the ledge that AF & JH had taken. I poked around a little looking at the way we would head out the next day. I got my thermorest out of the tent and took a nap in the alcove that JH thought was crappy. I pumped water from the tarn under the foodbags. The afternoon went slow. Beckey says Fury should take 10 – 12 hours and AF & JH left about 6:00 so I figured that the earliest they could get back was 5:00. I started keeping an eye on the ridge line about then. I began to understand the anxiety Odette says she feels when I’m due back from a climb. At 6:30 DG and I decided that we ought to fire up the stove and have dinner so that we would have ours out of the way when AF & AH returned. We guessed that they’d return at about 8:00 and right on the button they appeared on the ledge and fifteen minutes later they were back in camp. They said that their climb was uneventful – they avoided the steep snow entirely. They said they’d seen the three amigos descending really steep snow on the other side of Fury. JH bathed himself in the tarn under our foodbags as the sun set.
The next morning wasn’t quite as early but after breakfast I pointed out the base of the buttress on Luna that we had rounded and described the gray gully to the top. AF and JH were up and back by 10:30. They reported that they had called the resort and confirmed that we wanted a boat ride from Big Beaver Landing at 7:00 the next evening. AF said that his wife was thrilled that he was going to get home early and that she wanted to spend the unexpected weekend backpacking. We packed our stuff and headed down and across the slabs below the col. The going was easy getting over to the ridge leading down from Luna. At a shoulder on that ridge we needed to traverse around the top of a cirque to the divide between Access and Luna creeks and that was not as easy. I felt light and sure-footed on the steep huckleberry and got quite a ways out in front. We headed down the other ridge to a saddle at the head of our descent gully. I got there first and could see that there were two branches. The upper (nearer) one looked like it would be easy to hike down but I couldn’t see the bottom of it so I couldn’t tell if it cliffed out. The other branch looked steeper and dirtier but I could see the whole thing. We headed to the second one and regrouped there. On closer inspection the gully was, in fact, steep and dirty. We talked about a handline but JH didn’t think it was necessary and took off down the slope. He reported that it was softer than it looked but he let loose with a shower of dirt and gravel with each step. We tied the two ropes together and tossed them using a tree as an anchor. AF went first with a prussic, followed first by DG and then by me. As we descended it was obvious that the other branch of the gully would have been the better choice and that the better route for descending our branch would have been the switchbacking track on the other side.
JH had sheltered behind some rocks while he waited for us. We regrouped again and then had to work our way across a huge scree-filled bowl trying not to kick rocks on each other. As long as we moved in parallel it worked but JH seemed determined to cut across underneath us heading for the upper end of the band of trees at the far side of the bowl. AF was convinced that there were big cliffs there and warned JH not to head that way. We eventually all took a climbers trail that descended the fall line to the gully draining the bowl which we hoped would take us to the valley bottom. It did although we had to move one at a time most of the way down the gully. We cut right at the bottom of the trees to find a trickle of a stream where we could rest and pump water.
When we finally got to the valley flats we rested some more. AF wanted to camp there since it was a nice site and the Nelson book described camping at that elevation. JH felt it was way too early to stop and guessed that we could make Luna camp. I suggested we move down the valley at least a little way and stop when we found something we liked. I also said that I didn’t want another evening where we walked until dark. We kept to the boulder fields on the right side of the valley at first but soon found ourselves squeezed into brush. There seemed to be scattered cairns. After returning to the creek from high in the boulders JH thought he was being attacked by bees and started yelling. DG tried to run and fell in the rocks hitting his chin. He gashed his chin pretty badly and bled all over, but because of his beard all we could do was apply direct pressure until the bleeding stopped. We crossed the creek and continued in the brush until we got to the trees. The going got much more difficult as we lost all semblance of trail and found ourselves in thick alder and devil’s club. We beat the brush for a long time and finally at about 5:00 we were in a dreary clearing way above the creek with devil’s club all around us and a small silty seep of water. I got out the filter and AF pumped water for himself and DG. He suggested that we ought to camp there because of the water. When I tried to pump for myself the filter clogged and I got less than a cup. JH didn’t realize that and asked if I’d pump some for him. I told him he’d have to use iodine because the pump was broken. JH didn’t want to camp there and kept pushing to continue. I told him I’d go on if we set a firm stopping time. He agreed that we’d stop at 6:30 unless we found something we liked before then. AF really wanted to stop where we were but he was gracious.
We continued in thick brush and eventually the flat valley bottom began to drop steeply which we knew would take us down to Beaver Creek and the trail. At 6:30 JH said “okay, I don’t want anyone to think I don’t keep my word, we’ll stop here.” We were in a totally inappropriate spot with no clearing for tents and no water. We looked at him and kept going. I realized that I was humming a Frank Zappa song about assholes. A hour later we were below the steep drop and cut back over to the water. Just after we rejoined the creek we saw what we thought was a sandbar on the other side. JH suggested that we go on to Luna Camp but we ignored him and found a log to cross on. It was twilight in the thick brush. The sandbar turned out to be an expanse of river cobbles, but there was a small sandy bank under big trees with room for the tents after we broke off some branches. We erected tents under the tree boughs and hung sweaty shirts up to air out. I flushed out the filter and pumped water for myself. I washed my feet and realized that they were doing pretty well – downhill travel and the lighter pack agreed with me. AF got the stove going and cleared away the devil’s club from a log. I gathered flat rocks for food and seating. We ate by headlamp with JH and DG sharing one of AH’s big freeze drys. There were tons of bats swooping around us. There were clouds of mosquitoes, too. I hung the foodbags from a small limber tree – they were touching the ground by morning.
In the morning we were up early, ate and packed. We left the creek in some of the biggest devil’s club known to man, bearing more or less due East in the belief that we would have the shortest route through the brush that way. DG and I had the ropes. In a very short way we came to a river which we deduced was Big Beaver Creek. JH was out ahead and he walked a log jam to an island and then, before the rest of us caught up, put on his aquasox, waded through swift water and disappeared into the brush. AF, DG and I retreated back across the log jam and decided to wade upstream from the island where riffles suggested the water was shallower. I put on my Tevas and used duct tape to secure the loose strap. AF and DG used duct tape to bind their flip flops to their feet. The water didn’t go much above our knees. On the other side we bashed through the brush, fanning out as we each picked our own line. As we climbed away from the stream the forest became more open and in a quarter of a mile we were back on the trail.
We headed for the lake with JH in the lead. He talked to DG, I came third and AF with his CD player brought up the rear. We stopped and regrouped at Luna camp. I took the second position for the next stretch. After some conversation about kids and families JH confided to me that his ex-wife was enforcing the letter of their parenting agreement and that if he wasn’t home by noon on Saturday he had to let his son spend the weekend with her. I wondered who her lawyer was. We stopped again just before10 mile camp and I pumped water. I suggested that if we got to the Lake before 3:00 JH ought to hike to the resort and get us a boat. He declined. We spread out after that stop and eventually we started meeting other people on their way up the trail, including a crowd of boy scouts with fishing rods. I stopped at the cache tree and washed my face and hair. We were all at the landing before 4:00. We dropped our packs and went swimming amongst the kayaks. Then we hung out for three hours. A helicopter did laps back and forth over us. DG and AF and I pumped water. At about 6:00 AF fired up the stove and he and DG ate one of their extra freeze drys. I decided to hold out for good food. (I brought back three freeze drys, half the Toblerone, a bunch of trail mix and half a dozen cliff bars.) JH was still working on his candies. The boy scouts returned and swam before their leaders called them away for dinner. At 7:00 sharp Will appeared with the boat and we trooped on board.
Will told us that the helicopter was re-supplying a trail crew further up the lake. He explained that the fire we had seen from Luna Col was near the highway east of Ruby Arm. He said that it had exploded on Wednesday but that it was still relatively small and was now contained. AF asked if he knew a mutual friend and he did. The rest of the ride back was quite friendly and revolved around old cabins, upcoming trips and where to eat in Marblemount. He threaded the needle in the log boom at high speed on the way back, too.
We disembarked and hiked the three-quarters of a mile uphill to the parking lot. I found a stuffed animal in the door handle and a fundamentalist christian tract under the windshield wiper. I attributed the former to CR. We had taken off our boots and changed shirts when suddenly one of the three amigos appeared asking if we had jumper cables. They had successfully exited down Goodell creek, found the car they’d left there and driven back to the Ross Dam trailhead only to encounter a dead battery. I dug under the pile of packs to get my jumpers and then refrained from giving advice while they hooked it up differently than I would have. In the end they got their car started but only after a shower of sparks. We loaded up and headed for Marblemount, congratulating ourselves on being prepared even if we carried too much crap and were slower in our advanced age.
Good Food was still open when we got there at about 8:00 and we ordered burgers. The three amigos showed up and we compared notes while eating. We were in the car and on our way to Seattle by about 9:00. At some point before Darrington we got a cell phone signal and I called Odette on AF’s phone. She told me that on Monday while we were climbing Challenger our house had been burglarized and our computers and iPods stolen. Will was upset because she wouldn’t let him buy a new computer until she talked to me. It wasn’t clear what I could do about it from Darrington As we approached Seattle at 10:30 JH started calculating the most efficient sequence for dropping people off. I was tired and not very polite when I told him that I really wanted to get home and didn’t feel like driving all over town at midnight. He agreed to call his wife. She met us at the Greenlake park & ride and took DG and JH home.
As Becky observed in Challenge of the North Cascades, “loveliness is paid for partly in the currency of suffering.” He didn’t say that the suffering had to be physical. Here are some images of the loveliness, here is a booklist.