approach, southern pickets, picket range, skagit, pnw, alpinism, moutaineering, east ridge

The Picket Range

I hardly know how to begin this post. Maybe we should go way back to the beginning of my climbing career, when I started noticing the name Fred Beckey pretty much everywhere I looked for climbing information. Somewhere along the way, I’d picked up a copy of one of Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guides and read this about the Picket Range:

Because of the rugged terrain, the Picket Range has remained the wildest and most unexplored region in the North Cascades. It is not an area for the wilderness novice; its isolated bushy valleys and jagged ridges are a test for the most seasoned mountaineers. The length of climbs, combined with steep mixed terrain and variable conditions demands all-around competence and fitness.

Fast forward through five years of rock climbing around Mount Erie and Squamish, that evolved into alpine climbing at Washington Pass and Leavenworth, that became mountaineering in the North Cascades and eventually guiding, all the way up to two months ago when Tim and I were talking about what to do after he quit his job. I wanted to go to the Bugaboos because I have always dreamt of going there, but hadn’t previously felt strong or ready enough. This season I was (and am.) Tim wasn’t so keen on that idea and threw out the possibility of going to the Pickets. I remember gasping and forgetting all about the Bugaboos, because yes, it was finally time to go to the Pickets. I’m so glad we did.

With Beckey’s stern sentiment at the forefront of my mind, I went into this trip with a great deal of reserve and some mild anxiety about how serious it was. On the approach day one, the climbing everyday and traveling from one campsite to the next, I was acutely aware of how far we were from outside help and how something simple like a sprained ankle or a broken handhold could become a much more severe issue than it might elsewhere. It’s easy to post lighthearted photos and captions to the internet, but now I have the opportunity to avoid glossing over the fact that my every move was calculated. I will add that the commitment factor, after all things were said and done, makes the trip that much richer to savor in my mind.

Tim and I relied heavily on Steph Abegg’s treasure trove of beta about the Picket Range. Thank you, Steph. You really hooked it up for us, yet again. In addition to Steph’s beta (that we referred to as “Abeggta” on our trip,) we also took photos of the Beckey bible and ultimately ended up slightly deviating from our intended plans to include the Chopping Block on our exit day since we figured, We’re all the way out here, why not? So worth it.

The Approach: Terror Creek Basin

We drove into Upper Goodell Creek (after we pulled off too soon into Lower Goodell Creek campground and realized our mistake,) and left the car at a nondescript brown sign just outside of the campground. The path from the trailhead is pretty clear, so I didn’t start recording on my watch until we branched off uphill to climb into Terror Creek Basin.

I didn’t take any photos of the approach, but I can tell you that it was steep and that we got rained on. We climbed roughly 4,000 feet to eventually arrive at our campsite 9 or so miles out from the car. I slept well that night.

Pickets, Terror Creek, Camp, REI, tent, Southern Pickets
Camp at Terror Creek Basin in the Southern Picket Range. Photo by Tim Black.

Day Two: Inspiration Peak – East Ridge

I found Inspiration Peak the first day I owned my own copy of a Beckey Bible. I have wanted to climb Inspiration ever since. In the photo above, you can see Inspiration Peak cloud-capped on the left beside a fingered rocky ridgeline.

Inspiration is distinctive and memorable. When we reached the summit, I had a similar feeling to the first time I crested the summit of Mount Baker. It was a major milestone in my climbing career; a significant summit. It’s one that I won’t soon forget.

approach, southern pickets, picket range, skagit, pnw, alpinism, moutaineering, east ridge
Tim Black approaching the East Ridge of Inspiration Peak.
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Tim Black on the 5.8 lieback pitch on Inspiration’s East Ridge in the southern Picket Range.

On the whole, I found the climbing on Inspiration to be excellent. Tim rope-gunned me through the lower, chossier pitches but saved me the crux 5.9 pitch up a clean, beautiful granite face. It was striking to encounter such a clean pitch so high and so remote.

For the record, we brought two #3 cams and two #2 cams. I found this to be plenty comfortable with a few bumps per cam. Even if 3’s are literally your jam, it didn’t seem overkill to have two of each of these pieces. But I’m also not one to massively run things out. (I can say with absolute certainty that you do not need a #4 cam.)

Mallorie Estenson on Inspiration's East Ridge in the southern Picket Range.
Me very much enjoying the climbing on Inspiration’s East Ridge. Photo by Tim Black.
Mallorie Estenson leading Inspiration Peak's crux pitch in the Southern Picket Range. Climbing, mountaineering, alpinism, skagit, gneiss, rock climbing, trad climbing, mountaineering, inspiration peak, southern pickets, beta
Me on the #3’s wide, money pitch on Inspiration Peak’s East Ridge in the southern Picket Range. Sent it! Photo by Tim Black.

No sandbagging: that is an awesome climb that I would absolutely recommend to my friends. If you find yourself in the Pickets, make a point to climb it. It’s worth the extra weight of carrying a few extra cams and some rock shoes. I gotta get back though so that I can climb the West Ridge.

I will add that navigating through the slabs was more challenging than I expected. Getting there was OK, but getting back off the glacier, across the slab and back to camp was a little rambly. (See bottom of this post for my GPX tracks on Gaia.) Since the glacier was fairly broken in mid-August, we had to be calculated about our approach. We ended up swinging wide left to access a low-angle snow ramp onto the glacier and ended up doing a bit of ‘glacier bouldering’ (i.e. borrowing each other’s axes for tiny pitches of solo ice climbing.)

tim black, alpine, glacier, alpinism, ice tools, ice climbing, southern pickets, picket range, mountaineering, climbing, skagit
Tim Black ‘glacier bouldering’ on the approach to Inspiration Peak in the southern Pickets.

The descent was pretty straightforward. There was plenty of tat to rap off of on the west side of the peak. I think we made 6 full-length rappels with 60m twin ropes.

Day Three: The Barrier Crossing, Degenhardt, Pyramid

Here’s the link to my Gaia track. We could see from Terror Creek Basin camp that getting off the snow and through the rocky Barrier was going to be challenging. We’d also read on Steph Abegg’s blog that the Barrier Crossing had shut many parties down. (Grimace emoji.)

Getting onto the glacier was pretty simple, but we crossed a series of sagging snow bridges that were droopy enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Also, I need to call myself out on something for this particular segment of our trip: I packed my backpack like I was guiding the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker. Aka, my fat ass backpack was torturous for the longer and more challenging traversing-climbing parts of our trip. (Unnecessary items: down booties with goretex covers, big ol’ battery/charging block for phone, a few too many layer options, one pair of socks too many, too many locking carabiners. Shame.) I hope to avoid making this mistake again, but time will tell. I very clearly remember telling myself: I used to pride myself on how much I can carry, but from now on, I’ll pride myself on how little I can carry.

When we reached the upper barrier crossing, we chose the path of least resistance which deviated slightly from Steph Abegg’s beta photo. I had to down climb some steep snow into the moat and clamber up a few rocky steps to eventually reach a joyous belly-crawl. (By joyous, I mean nervously laughing over serious exposure and skooching my way to safety.) And then there was the steep choss. And then, miraculously, we were on top of the Barrier! We dropped our packs and made our way over to Degenhardt.

Picket Range, barrier crossing, Tim Black, Inspiration Peak
Tim Black skooches through the upper Barrier Crossing with Inspiration Peak’s West Ridge looming in the background. The photo doesn’t do the exposure justice. That was spooky.
Tim Black Degenhardt Southern Pickets Picket Range Skagit PNW
Tim descending from the top of Degenhardt.

 

It only took us 30 minutes to get to the top of Degenhardt from where we dropped packs on the Barrier. When we looked over at Pyramid, we figured, why not go for it? If we had to turn around, we would. So we made our way across the ridge and discovered some more 3rd and 4th class scrambling. I remember a few moves of low 5th to leave the ridge and begin climbing Pyramid.

Tim atop Pyramid Peak with Degenhardt in the background in the southern Picket Range.
Tim atop Pyramid Peak with Degenhardt in the background in the southern Picket Range. We crested the upper Barrier Crossing, climbed Degenhardt and then made our way to Pyramid that day. (And damn, he makes a nose guard look good!)

We descended some steep, loose choss down to Crescent Creek camp where we camped in the shadow of Mount Terror.

Day Four: Mount Terror

Up until day four, we’d sent everything we’d attempted. There was one slight mistake where we climbed to the wrong notch on Inspiration’s East Ridge, but it was a minor mistake early in the day easily fixed by a quick downclimb and re-climb. It almost felt too good to be true; I felt like I was using up all of my alpine luck in one go.

We climbed Mount Terror’s West Ridge that morning relatively quickly. It started off as a steep, chossy couloir that eventually became a pitch of 5.chill climbing and a class 3/4 scramble to the top.

Me approaching Mount Terror from Crescent Creek to climb the West Ridge. The climb begins in the deep dark gully on the left and eventually climbs to the crest of the ridge with class 3 and 4 scrambling to the top. Photo by Tim Black.
Me approaching Mount Terror from Crescent Creek to climb the West Ridge. The climb begins in the deep dark gully on the left and eventually climbs to the crest of the ridge with class 3 and 4 scrambling to the top. Photo by Tim Black.
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Tim amongst the choss after climbing Terror’s West Ridge.
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Tim at the summit of Mount Terror after climbing the West Ridge.

After descending some of the steepest choss that I’ve climbed up an down in my lifetime, we made our way back to camp and flopped into the tent to escape the sun for a while. My watch temperature reading in the tent was 104 degrees, but I think my watch was being a little dramatic. It was hot.

Once things cooled off a bit, we packed up camp and made our way toward Pinnacle Peak, which is also called The Chopping Block. I much prefer the second name, so I’ll call it that from here on out. Before, when I said we’d sent pretty much everything leading up to this day; this is where we didn’t send.

We’d used one of Steph Abegg’s traverse maps which lead us to believe that the approach to the ridge was fairly close to the Chopping Block. But what we came up on was much to steep to climb with full packs and no ropes. We waffled for a long time and eventually turned back to climb some steep scree to access the ridgeline.

On the way over, I had been thinking to myself: I cannot believe how smoothly this is going! This is insane! It’s not supposed to be this easy! Something has to go wrong.

Well, it kinda did. But not catastrophically. Ultimately, we only had to backtrack a half mile or so. And then there was a sketchy moment where I thought the weight of my backpack was going to drag me back down from two-thirds the way up to the ridge… But I came out on top with a little backpack assist from Tim.

This seems like a great place to plug the fact that Tim is a huge part of the reason why this trip was so successful. He encouraged me when I needed encouraging, he mocked me when I made my life hard by bringing too much shit in my backpack (I needed that,) he coached me through a few challenging moves (the Barrier crossing and solo top-out on Degenhardt come to mind,) and was just generally an incredibly solid person to travel through the mountains with. We had several good route-finding conversations and had a teamwork dynamic like never before. I think the remote nature of this trip really brought out the best in both of us. I loved it and I love climbing with Tim.

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One of the better campsites I’ve ever stayed at. Photo by Tim Black.

That night was the first time in a long time that I felt myself slow down. This summer has been a full season of choss chasing, scrambling from one trip to the next, guiding, squeezing in a few rock pitches when I could… Easily the best summer climbing season of my life, but there hasn’t been much time to pause, appreciate and reflect. On that ridge, I had no cell service, nothing to plan, nothing to pack. Just the end of the contents of my flask, a sky full of stars to look at and a great partner to share it with. It was perfect.

Day Five: The Chopping Block and Exit

On our fifth and final day, I woke up feeling better than I’d expected, given all the elevation and mileage. We made a quick breakfast and inventoried our food. Turns out, we’d done pretty good with the planning. We had just enough to comfortably see us through the end of the trip.

The night before, we’d been treated to clear skies and expansive views. That morning, we were greeted with lazy clouds pouring over the ridge we’d camped on, from one side to the next. The Chopping Block came in and out of view.

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Tim Black approaches the Northeast Ridge of The Chopping Block in the southern Pickets.
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Best climbing trip of my life @ southern Pickets.

The Northeast Ridge of the Chopping Block was a rambly climb that comes in ‘far from notable’ in my book. But topping out the Chopping Block was a worthy objective in my mind, especially after photographing it numerous times and it was absolutely attainable on our exit day. Had we played it right, we could have summited to a view of the complete North & South Picket Range, but cloud cover ruled that out for us this time around.

As we began walking out, I thought that we had it in the bag! Downhill is the easy part, right? Wrong. It was not. Turns out, it was almost more strenuous than the uphill because it was so damn steep coming down from the Chopping Block ridge. Steep and sustained.

We climbed several peaks by relatively easy scrambly means. If I were to go back and do it again, I think I would shoot for the Stoddard Buttress on Terror. (Although, referencing the info available to us in the summit register on Terror, it seems like a lot of parties do the West Ridge first and then come back for a more technical route.) I’d also like to do the West Ridge of Inspiration when I get back. No rush on that trip though, one Pickets trip is enough for me for one season! Maybe next year… That was burly!

Some Useful Info for Those Interested

Steph Abegg’s Ultra Handy Pickets Beta Page (Thanks again for being the patron saint of beta in the Cascades!… And elsewhere, too. Currently sourcing your beta for a trip to Banff.)

Gaia Track: Approach to Terror Creek Basin

Gaia Track: Barrier Crossing & Degenhardt & Pyramid

Gaia Track: Exit from Chopping Block Ridge

Flickr: Tim’s Photos of the Southern Pickets

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