It was another banner snow year in the Cascades, with excellent snow cover even down to lower elevations well into July. Despite doing my best to take advantage of summer skiing, most of July for me and Ida was occupied with wedding planning, wedding, and post-wedding entertainment of family from out of town. The wedding constituted a wondrous series of weeks, but when it was all over, we needed some down time in the mountains. This report is on a quick, but spectacular 3-day trip to West McMillan Spire in the southern Picket Range of the North Cascades.
After a backpacking exploration of the Northern Pickets a few years ago (https://plus.google.com/photos/117848514420252876440/albums/5493105136333934049?banner=pwa), we were dying to get into the Southern Pickets, one of the few places in the North Cascades that we hadn’t been to yet. We decided to climb the spectacular West McMillan Spire, a non-technical summit, widely heralded as the easiest climb in the legendary Picket Range.
We began our trip at a casual mid-morning hour on July 28th, hiking up the overgrown logging road which is the Goodell Creek Trail (which runs north up Goodell Creek from the North Cascades Highway just east of Marblemount). After 3 or 4 miles, the Terror Basin climber’s trail leaves the Goodell Creek trail on the right. North Cascades climber’s trails were scouted and cut (and subsequently beaten down by years of climber’s feet) by some of the pioneering climbers in the range (Fred Beckey, Jim Nelson, etc.), and are “unofficial” and usually unmarked paths that are described mainly in climbing guides. The Terror Basin climber’s path is similar to most climber’s paths in the area: steep, unrelenting, improbable in places, overgrown in places, but providing direct access into some of the most rugged, remote, and inaccessible places in the lower 48.
After some 3000 ft. of climbing, we broke out of the old-growth forest and got our first views of the range. The spires of the eastern half of the Southern Pickets were spread out before us, forming a formidable wall with the giant chasm of Terror Creek between us and them. Even West McMillan Spire looked surprisingly intimidating. Across the valley to the west, Mt. Triumph loomed large, with hanging snowfields clinging to smooth rock, threatening to crumble and slide at any moment, especially with the first warm weather of the summer.
Now out of the trees at about 5200 ft., the climber’s trail was covered with snow. Our goal was to make a gradual rising traverse towards a notch about a mile across the hillside, that would lead down into Terror Basin. Working with route descriptions, an altimeter, and a topo map, we navigated up gullies and streambeds, across snow fields, and over ribs, occasionally bushwhacking through islands of trees, backtracking on occasion, until we had traversed the sideslope to within sight of the notch. Approaching the notch, now 5000 ft. above the valley floor, daylight was dwindling and flat spots for campsites were few and far between. The only course of action was to push over the notch. Arriving at the notch we were met with what proved to be the crux of the whole trip. A near vertical wall of snow, about 30 ft. high, formed by blowing winter winds, that would need to be carefully downclimbed.
Given the icy nature of the snow at this time of day, we broke out the rope and lowered packs onto the snowfield below. I belayed Ida down while she kicked toe holds into the snow with her crampons. Finally, I followed down, off belay, using Ida’s steps. Relieved to have this crux accomplished, we continued by headlamp down the rest of the snowfield into Terror Basin, which provided a remarkably flat camp on glacial outwash plains at the foot of the Southern Pickets. Low on blood sugar, and now cold, we fumbled around in the dark, setting up camp and making dinner under bright stars. Later, a large moon rose, illuminating the crags and spires in a ghostly light. Certainly one of the most spectacular camps in the Cascades.
On Day 2 we awoke to a marine layer pushing up all the low valleys. This is a familiar phenomenon in western Washington, and it is commonly seen in the North Cascades. If you are above the clouds, you are fine, but if you are below, you are in for a cold, drizzly experience. Sometimes the layer rises to envelope you. Other times it stays low and pushes over the eastern ridges, cascading down the other side in a waterfall-like fashion. Still other times, it rises and dissipates into wisps. It ended up being the latter for us, at least on this particular day. Still, before the fog rose and dissipated, we were able to take some incredible early morning pictures of an unbroken sea of clouds punctuated by some of the craggiest peaks in the Cascades. Whenever above a fog layer such as this, I enjoy imagining that it is not fog, but the surface of a valley glacier, envisioning how these valleys would have looked when full of ice some 14,000 years ago.
As the sun rose, the clouds began to dissipate, swirling up around the peaks in wisps, as convection currents blew them away. At this point, we were picking our way in and out of gullies, across the snowfields, rock slabs, and a small glacier at the foot of the climb. Finally, we arrived at the steep snow ramp to the col between West McMillan Spire and Inspiration Peak. The snow was in perfect condition and we made quick work to the notch, where we stashed crampons among boulders that were precariously perched on ball-bearing like gravel–recently melted out from under retreating permanent ice. This marked the beginning of the scramble up the broad, loose, 3rd class ridge leading to the summit. As we headed up the airy ridge, the col below us seemed to get smaller and smaller, while behind us the impressive east face of Mt. Terror and the spire-like crags of Inspiration all came into view. Framed between these two spectacular summits was Mt. Baker in the distance, with Mt. Shuksan just to the right.
The final 30 ft. to the summit provided some real exposure down to McMillan Creek and Terror Basin, which, although still 3rd class climbing, began to feel like 4th class. Some concentration on handholds and footholds became necessary, but within a few minutes, we were on the summit, basking in the sunshine and eating lunch. And what a spectacular summit it was! Perched among the crags of the Pickets on a clear early-summer day, and knowing that we had another night at basecamp, we were able to savor the incredible views from this truly inspiring location. Across the valley to the north was the gentle curve of Luna Peak, and beyond that was Eiley-Wiley Ridge, with several of our campsites visible along a route we came to know well on our backpack into the Northern Pickets several years ago. To the south, Eldorado and the Klawatti-Inspiration Ice Fields brought back more fond memories of another recent backpacking trip: (https://plus.google.com/photos/117848514420252876440/albums/5495774599329591665?banner=pwa).
Reluctantly, we began to think about descending to the col, a process that took at least as long as going up. Handholds and footholds that were obvious going up now seemed few and far between, as we attempted to look and feel for them on the downclimb. Carefully, we made it back to the col to re-don crampons for the steep snow chute down to the lower snowfields. Once at the lower snowfields, crampons came off and we glissaded another 1500 ft. on a blissful descent that felt like we were just flying over and into the Terror Creek drainage. Careful not to descend too far, we began the traverse back to camp, where the warm sun had heated the rocks, making for a perfect pre-dinner nap.
Day 3 dawned with fog in the valley again, which quickly rose and enveloped us and the peaks. This thick layer would never burn off for the rest of the day, (although it made for pleasant hiking temperatures on the hike out). How lucky we were to have the weather we did on our climbing day!