It was the biggest project in the Cascades we could dream up: a climb of both the Southern and Northern Picket Ranges in a single push, alpine style. We would carry everything for the seven-day approach, climbing and exit.
On Saturday, July 6, 2013, Jens Holsten and I met up in Newhalem, Wash., just off of the North Cascades Highway, and drove both cars up to the Ross Lake parking lot, which was the exit out of the Northern Pickets via the Big Beaver Valley. We both parked at the end of the lot and began to sort through our gear and put together the rack and calorie bags. We were going to have to go lighter than ever before to pull this adventure together as planned.
I had gone shopping for two days to locate and procure the foods with the highest calorie-to-weight ratios I could find: gluten-free granola, powdered coconut milk, Sesame Snaps, Shot Bloks, Justin’s Nut Butter, Carbo Pro powder, three rice noodle packets, trail mix and Starbucks Via packets. I calculated that I had 3,600 calories per day and Jens had 3,000. We brought a 1-liter Reactor Stove and three fuel canisters. We would hike with snow in our water bottles and find drips and pools where possible to save fuel. We each brought a 1-liter Nalgene and a ½ liter Nalgene water container.
As for sleeping gear and clothing, I purchased a 15-ounce Vario down bag from Feathered Friends for the journey. We decided we couldn’t afford to bring a sleeping pad, and would make due sleeping on our packs and the rope. For clothing I wore a silk-weight tee and long lightweight climbing pants. I brought a long-sleeve silk-weight shirt, sunglasses, headlamp, extra batteries, a wind shirt, a light synthetic OR puffy jacket and a pair of leather gloves for rappelling, climbing and bushwhacking. Jens went a bit lighter on food, but brought the equivalent weight in extra clothing.
Our first-aid kit was a roll of athletic tape and some Morphine and Oxycodone. Yes we each brought a very short toothbrush due to the duration of the adventure. Yes, it is dentist recommended with all of the sweet food we were carrying.
We sorted out the rack of climbing gear: A double set of cams from 0 TCU up to Number 1 Camalots and one Number 2. We took 15 stoppers and one #3 Knife blade piton. There were six shoulder-length slings with single carabineers, four shoulder-lengths with two carabineers for draws, stoppers and pitons and two double-length slings for personal anchors, etc. We also brought 60 feet of 5-milimeter chord for rappels. Finally we decided on one 80-meter 8.9 single-strength rope. We took strap-on Neve crampons and the lightest aluminum 60-centimeter axes we had. Our approach shoes were the green Boulder X high tops with sticky rubber. Each one of us brought a point-and-shoot camera to record the adventure.
The electronic scale came out to weight and measure our allotted portions of food, gear and clothing so we could make last-minute decisions on what else we could possibly leave behind. I had 13 pounds of food for 7-9 days and Jens had 11.5 pounds. I had two pounds of clothing. The climbing rack, SilNyl tarp, stove and two fuel canisters weighed as much as the 9.5-pound rope. The top lid of my pack was left behind. When we had everything squeezed into our 30-liter packs they both weighed in at 35 pounds, 1 ounce. We determined that if we left anything else behind we would not succeed. The weather forecast was looking good for the next seven days with low supposed to be in the high 30s at night and highs in the low 60s Fahrenheit.
We left my truck at the Ross Lake Dam parking lot and drove down to the trailhead to spend the evening and get started at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, June 7. I threw down in the dirt with a sleeping pad and different sleeping bag. We were packed and ready to roll after the last good meal at the car. However, the bugs were out, so Jens and I ended up setting up a tent so we could sleep the five hours we had left.
The alarm sounded at 2 a.m. and we popped out of our tent like toast out of a toaster. I ate a nice meal of quinoa and some tofu and pounded down a liter of fresh juice. I knew I was drinking too much when I felt my stomach expand. Twenty seconds after I finished, everything came back up. Damn it, I needed those calories! I ate a banana again and we hit the Goodell Creek trail at 3:30 a.m.
The going was easy at first because the trail is mostly flat and follows an old logging road. There were plenty of creeks, so we drank water as we came across it and did not carry any on our packs. Then at mile four we turned up the Terror Creek drainage and the climbers’ trail ascended steeply. We topped out of the trees after 3,500 feet and climbed on snow through and down a col to a good campsite about a mile from the base of the McMillan Spires. We took our first real break here for a half hour after walking for five hours. After some nourishment and water, we headed up toward the first climbing objectives.
We found a drip on some rocks near the base of Little Mac and stopped to fill our bottles and drink more. The south side of Little Mac looked like low fifth class, so we soloed up a few pitches until things got more interesting and then busted out the rope and rock rack. Jens is a very accomplished rock climber, so he would be dragging the rope on this adventure. We simulclimbed up to 5.7 and soon reached the first summit. We snapped a quick photo and traversed over to a horn and made a rappel into a gully below East McMillan Spire. On the rappel I found an old 2 stopper anchor and removed it along with the old tat to add to our rock gear. The tat I used to sling on my camera.
Soon we had climbed to the summit of East McMillan spire. We traversed and scrambled down to the 5.7 route on the west side to the col. Jens and I found a drip and were able to drink some bonus water along the way. When Dylan Johnson and I had tried the Southern Pickets Traverse in 2008, we had to climb around the col on the north side, which was kind of sketchy in strap-on crampons at the time. This time, Jens found a way through the rock that was fun and fast. We scrambled the first part of the East Face of West McMillan Spire. When the climbing required a rope, we simulclimbed again to reach the summit. Then we downclimbed and made our way down the west side of the peak.
Last year when Sol Werkin, Blake Harrington and Jens made the second traverse of the Southern Pickets, they had made a small bivouac site. We were able to locate the site and build some walls to protect us from the wind and potential rain from the oncoming marine-layer clouds. We connected our SilNyl tarp with cams and slings to the surrounding terrain and soon had a fantastic shelter two feet high off the dirt. We had approached and climbed for 12.5 hours that day and decided since the next good bivy was a couple peaks away, that we would call it early the first day. We brewed up a 900-calorie meal each and passed out soon thereafter. I had worked 350 hours in the past four weeks doing construction and Jens had been processing 8,000 pounds of Cherries a day to make wine for the prior couple weeks as well. That day alone, I believe we climbed more than 9,000 vertical feet. We needed a good night’s rest for sure.
Our morning began with a quick ½ Nalgene of Via chased by some granola and coconut milk. Then we were off toward a section of the ridge that was a series of three gendarmes. There was not a peak named for this section, but we both knew from prior experience that these gendarmes could suck up a whole day if not passed with care. We traversed to the south side and climbed roped to within 75 feet of the top of the gendarmes. The final gendarme was cruxy, to be sure. Jens tried high then backtracked low and around a blank corner. I knew the climbing was getting difficult when I heard him begin to swear and call out for more slack. The rope drag made things even more difficult with an 80-meter rope. Finally Jens called “off belay,” and I followed the rope, plucking out the gear every 40 to 50 feet. Soon I arrived at a steep bulge and a section of terrain that went at 5.10 for about 20 feet. I had to bear down for the section and haul my ass and my 35-pound pack through the first real crux of the route so far. We had crossed the gendarmes in just about 3.5 hours, which was good. Now we were at the base of the East Ridge of Inspiration Peak looking up at the classic 5.9+ hand crack above. We encountered the only other climbing party that day. Lucky for us, they were off route and we were able to cruise through without slowing down. We summited the three peaks of Inspiration and made our way down the opposite west side, slowing only when we saw drips of water.
The next Peak was Pyramid, and as the climbing was low fifth class, we opted to solo quickly until we needed to break the rope out. Making good time, we climbed over the ridge to Degenhardt and dropped our packs. We soloed up to the summit via the Northeast Ridge and then downclimbed back to our packs. We had put in a 10-hour climbing day and began to look for a suitable bivy site. After about an hour we settled on the flat top of a huge talus boulder. We moved some rocks and began to melt snow for water and dinner. Our friend Tom Sjoseth showed up and offered us a much-welcome gift of some tobacco and an updated weather report. We hung out for an hour and watched the sun set behind Mount Terror and the Rake, tomorrow’s objectives. Meeting up with fellow climbers in the mountains often is just what you need to raise your stoke level. Jens and I said our farewells to Tom, ate our dinner and laid down on the rope-covered stone.
At 5 a.m. Jens and I were up and stuffing our sleeping bags and packs. The weather was supposed to hold until Wednesday, when some precipitation was supposed to arrive. Temperatures were supposed to get much colder for the second half of the week, but no rain was expected, which was welcome news. Jens and I felt like we were using up too much fuel and decided we would not melt snow for water to conserve. We were also running a little behind our schedule and wanted to make it past the Himmelhorn on day three. We started out of camp at 6:30 a.m. and made our way to the base of the highest peak in the Southern Pickets, Mount Terror, 8,151 feet. The climbing began at 5.8, so I flaked out the rope and got ready to belay. Jens got set, but could not find his chalk bag. He had to go back all the way to below the summit block of Degenhardt before he was able to find it under a boulder. Jens was so pissed that we’d blown our early start by 45 minutes that he took off like a rocket. I just tried to feed out enough slack fast enough before he felt any tug. Soon we were on top of Terror and making our way down to the rappel station for a rappel into the col. The start of The Rake was a 5.9 R traverse that was tricky and difficult. We found 2 more stoppers and a couple of biners and slings that Blake and Sol had left the year before. The Rake had a lot of loose rock, so we took extra care not to trundle ourselves or chop the rope inadvertently. There was some great climbing on the route and we were having fun despite the pressure to climb five peaks including the technical crux that day. On the way from The Rake over to the Twin Needles we found a drip and decided to take a 15-minute break and rehydrate. The sun was still shining and we enjoyed the few moments to stand and enjoy the position we were in.
The East Needle was good rock quality, but loose with a 5.10 finish on the final pitch and managed to eat our #0 micro cam and our .5 Camalot. We were lightening up alright, but not without expense. The West Needle was considerably easier, but the rock quality was much worse. We soloed almost the entire peak with a short section of simul climbing. Our technique evolved to doubling up the 80 meter rope.
At dusk we arrived at the base of the crux 5.10+R pitch of the Himmelgeisterhorn, German for “Horn of the Sky Spirit.” Jens punched it up the pitch with his pack on and managed to find a belay 75 meters up. The sun had set when I began to follow. We swapped gear and Jens belayed me up to the summit. We donned our headlamps and belayed one another down to the beginning of the rappels. Three or four rappels later we arrived, short two more cams, four stoppers, three carabineers, a shoulder-length sling and some 5-mm cord.
It was now 1 a.m. and we had been moving for 17.5 hours. We began to jettison our equipment all over the leeward side of the col between the Himmelhorn and the Ottohorn. What we didn’t notice or expect was the pack rats eating our gear. My hat, rock shoes and Jens’s pack were hit on the first attack. We were both unhappy about the latest development, so I went to sleep on all my equipment with the food strung up six inches above my face. I wrapped up in the tarp like a taco, hoping to stay a few degrees warmer. There was only enough space for two single bivy sites. I passed out cold, but Jens was tormented all night by the pack rats.
In the morning the clouds looked dark and the winds were strong, especially in the col. We debated about climbing the Ottohorn and the Frenzel Spitz. We were pressed for time and weather with the entire Northern Pickets section still ahead. The Ottohorn was an easy climb from the col, and I wanted to tag the summit, but the traverse along the ridge from the Ottohorn to the ridge below the Frenzel Spitz was a complicated affair and would take most if not all of the day and a chunk of our rack and rappel chord. As tired as we already were, we made the decision to drop down the col on the north side and make haste to Picket Pass and find some much-needed water—we were both super dehydrated from the huge effort the day and night before. The col looked like the last place for water unless it started to rain. Morale was at a low point that morning, and we knew that we were sacrificing part of our pure pursuit by skipping those two peaks.
We made the first rappel down the steep frozen snow, then pulled our ropes and soloed over to the ridge just below the Frenzel Spitz. The uphill was slow going as our legs were now feeling the 40 hours of climbing from the first three days. We stopped and drank two liters from the first water pool we found, then another liter at the next pool we found. We downclimbed a couple steep sections and then stopped and ate breakfast. By the time we crossed Picket Pass, we had consumed four liters and had another on our pack. We soloed up to the summit of Outrigger Peak and ran into Tom and his buddy Matt on top. We talked for a while and they were full of moral support and encouragement we sorely needed.
The four of us continued down Outrigger and up to the summit of East Fury in a total whiteout. We thought we summited East Fury three times by the time we really arrived. Having never climbed any of the next six peaks, Jens and I were grateful to Tom for pointing us in the right direction on the descent. We made good time and arrived at the summit of West Fury 2.5 hours later. We stacked rocks and built a talus platform with 2-foot high rock walls on a ledge just below the summit. Lastly we strung up our tarp over the walls and made a solid shelter tethered to the rock wall with slings and cams. It was a good thing we did, too.
The weather changed and got super windy with gusts over 45 mph with 40 mph sustained winds. The cold marine air froze to everything at the 8,200-foot elevation. When we rose with the sun, we could not get out of our shelter for more than a few minutes without suffering hypothermia. I did not have enough clothing to withstand this type of weather and was concerned about dying of exposure in the Northern Pickets. The situation provoked a serious discussion between Jens and I.
I wanted to wait a few more hours—maximum five hours—to see if the weather would improve. Jens was tempted to make a run back to East Fury, our last feasible chance of an “easy” escape. With the rocks covered in rime ice, I wanted to stay put. I felt that the weather would blow through and the marine layer would subside and give us better weather as per Tom’s forecast. We knew we were walking the knife’s edge with no margin for error. I did not have enough clothing to withstand below freezing temperatures and 40-mph wind chill on top of it all. We waited, hunkered in our wet bags and hoping for the best.
The sun poked through and we could tell we were at the very top of the cloud layer. This was the make-it-or-break-it moment. I voted to go on and see if we could make it down the West Ridge towards Swiss Peak. After an hour and a half we made it to a rappel station down the southwest face of the ridge, though the clouds prevented us from seeing the base of the wall. I suggested we rappel the face and believed we could make it to the snow in the col in two raps. Jens disagreed and we had the final discussion on what to do. We both knew that after this rappel we were committed to the rest of the Northern Pickets traverse. We decided wholeheartedly that the way lay down the face below and along the seemingly endless ridge ahead. An old Doors song surfaced in my brain: we would “ride the snake, to the lake. She’s old and her skin is cold.” On the first rappel we slung a large horn and pulled our rope successfully. The second anchor took our knife-blade piton and a number 2 stopper, bomber! We made it into the moat below and I managed to pull the rope and retrieve the stuck end without too much of a hassle.
We were able to walk over to the base of a sub peak on snow and climbed onto good-quality dry rock. The next traverse over the gendarme was enjoyable and we simulclimbed most of the traverse. When we made it to Swiss Peak we just followed the route the mountain showed us on the south side and soon were on top. The downclimb went quickly and we took a break for water along the snow on the way to Specter Peak. The summit of Specter Peak was fairly easy, but the descent was another matter entirely. We tried four ways down and had to downclimb as we could not find any rock solid enough for an anchor. Midway down we hit a vertical impasse and I decided a rappel was mandatory. Jens found a suitable crack of decent rock and we placed two good stoppers for the anchor. Everything held and we continued to downclimb and traverse solo. I have to mention that the entire climb from the Southern Pickets throughout the Northern, we were in a solo mentality whether or not we were roped up—this was no place for a fall, and with loose holds on one or two appendages at a time, each movement took care and mindfulness. The alpine talus sharks were waiting and hungry, far, far below.
By early evening we had climbed over onto the shoulder of Phantom Peak and the clouds had enveloped us once again. If you stopped moving even for a brief spell, the wind and lack of sun would suck the heat from your body and you would be inspired to begin moving out of necessity.
By the time we were near the summit of Phantom, we began looking for a bivy site. We didn’t know when we would see another, and the weather prevented us from looking more than 50 meters ahead. Jens and I decided to call it a day—if we could find a place to sit down. Fortunately we found a dirt bench wide enough for two people. We leveled the dirt and built our rock wall and strung up the tarp. Thankfully this had been one of the easiest ledges to set up and there was even a small water puddle nearby. Gratefully we brewed up. I was long since out of noodles for dinner and had some hot Nuun tea and some trail mix and banana chips for sustenance. Jens choked down another freeze dried meal that at least smelled good and we called it a day. Another 10-hour day of climbing was behind us. The weather had just barely held together so far. This was hard for our friends in Seattle to believe, as they were enjoying 75- and 80-degree days in the full sun.
The dirt floor was a welcome relief to our hips bruised from sleeping without pads on the talus and boulder slabs. We knew that the next morning we would have to wake up at first light and try to complete the technical difficulties to the end of Challenger before the weather caught us again. The last crux of the night was to fend off the pack rats that came to gnaw on our cams and slings.
The next morning we were up at 5 a.m. and moving by 5:30 a.m. We summited the Phantom, downclimbing and rappelling to the Notch. We followed a series of gendarmes until we were 10 meters below the summit of Ghost Peak. It was hard to tell the peak from many of the Gendarmes, except it was a bit taller. About this time we noticed the Sun Dog circling the sun. We knew that within 12 hours the weather would break for the worse. We decided not to go the last 50 feet to truly summit Ghost Peak in favor of progress along the crest.
Next we came to Crooked Thumb, which we summited. The traverses on the south and then the north of the next peak and gendarme were due to the way. We were just reading the rock and following the path as it unfolded before us one handhold and foothold at a time. We simulclimbed when it got thin and the climbing got harder than 5.7 or 5.8. The pressure to get off the ridge was building to a crescendo. Hundreds of thousands of moves were behind us and we were pulled along by sheer determination. Food, water and bodily fatigue were all secondary to survival at this point. We were running on fumes and remnants of long-since spent calories.
The Southeast Ridge of Challenger became engulfed in clouds. We kept climbing until we hit an impasse. We made another rappel into a small col where I pulled the rope, coiled it and fastened it to my pack as fast as I could. Then up, across left, traverse right through a gap, traverse down, etc. Finally a large ridge of continuous rock loomed ahead through the misty clouds. We believed we must have been on the final pitches of Challenger. I broke out the rope and Jens pulled it up as he climbed out of sight. I just followed the rope as it moved, careful not to be fooled into just going where the rope went. Sometimes the route was much more circuitous and would involve much more climbing than the shorter distance the rope ran.
Finally the weather broke on us and it began to rain. We climbed on, hoping the sun would reappear or that at least the rock would remain mostly dry. Wet lichen-covered rock in the alpine can become as slippery as ice. I heard Jens call out “on belay,” and I hoped he was on the summit. I covered the final moves to the belay stance, where Jens asked me if it was the summit of Challenger. I had climbed it twice, but the last time was 15 years before, and somehow it looked different. I told him I thought it was.
I climbed down off of the summit and onto the large talus below. Jens asked me if I thought I could find my way through the glacier in the whiteout. I believed I could, so we doubled the rope up and continued onto the snow. We stopped and put our crampons on and got out our axes. For an hour we crossed crevasses and climbed down in the dark by headlamp. Finally on a steep snow slope with a yawning bergshrund below, I realized we were in dire jeopardy. If either one of us slipped, it was “game over.” I called out to Jens to go back up, and we regrouped at the top of the slope. I apologized that I could not get it done that night.
We made our way back up to below the summit in the huge wet talus. We searched hard for shelter from the freezing rain and driving winds. Ha, I found a cave in the talus. We burrowed into the talus to confirm that we could endure the night inside and quickly set up the tarp over the opening. Inside I set to building a semi level surface that we could sit and cook on. The key here was not to stand up too quickly or you would need stitches in your head. Jens almost made it back with snow when he took a digger on the verglass-covered rocks. Luckily he was alright and the stove could be knocked back into workable shape. Long after dark as we were nestled in our hole we got another visit from the pack rats. These rodents were so aggressive that even what you were sitting on was vulnerable. The rats taste tested everything and prevented us from nodding off even for ten minutes.
Needless to say we got the earliest start of the trip. By 4:45 a.m. we were out of the cave, as soon as we could see. The clouds had settled just enough below the shoulder of Challenger that we could see the Challenger Glacier clearly to navigate. I set out and we made good time while enjoying the picturesque sunrise. The meadows we had dreamt of reaching the night before were a good place to break and eat breakfast. We were very fulfilled looking back at the profile of the Northern Picket Range from the North. Wow, we really had done a fantastic climb. We hadn’t completed the enchainment in the pure style we had set out to do, but we had done damn well! We had climbed 20 peaks in six days, one of which we didn’t truly summit, and we had skipped the Ottohorn and the Frenzel Spitz. But all in all, it was the proudest climb I have done in the Cascades, and one of the all-time adventures in both of our lives.
We continued across Wiley Ridge and began to descend. One of the keys was to find the faint trail and not lose it. If the trail ran out, we would search until we were certain we found it again. That was very key beta. Jens had climbed up Wiley Ridge a number of years before with his father, and so with his recollections we made it through the bushwhack section without an incident to mention. After seven hours of travel cross country that morning, we made it to the Big Beaver trail a third of a mile below Big Beaver Pass. We plodded down the trail, filling up our bottles and drinking six liters of water along the 15 miles of trail.
By evening we crossed a large bridge, knackered. We went a bit further before the trail began to switchback uphill. It was only then that we realized that we had passed our campsite at the Boat Camp and had to turn around and go back a half mile to find a campsite. We got the last site in the camp and were grateful. We still had a full canister of fuel so we brewed up a hot water bottle and “feasted” on the remains of our food rations. I ate the final handful of banana chips, trail mix and sesame snacks washed down with a bottle of Nuun-flavored Carbo Pro powder mix. We threw our rope down and spread or bags down in the dirt and lay down. Although I had not slept the night before, I had a hard time getting a restful sleep. I felt like I was too tired to sleep in a weird way.
The next morning—on our eighth day—we hiked the final seven miles out to the parking lot and my truck. We had just completed our seven-day climbing mission and we now had to go back to civilization. I threw in the Metallica “Kill Em All” album and we rocked our way back to the Goodell Creek trailhead to pick up Jens’s Subaru battle wagon.
The end always seems so anticlimactic. We sorted our gear—or what was left of it, hanged our clothes and made plans to climb again soon. The brotherhood of the rope had been forged strong on this trip and we looked forward to another. It’s difficult to find an alpine climb that takes seven days to complete. This is our story, which I thought was worth writing down. May others take inspiration from our effort and improve on what we have done.